Problem of Animal Suffering: Debate Review

Thursday night’s debate on the Problem of Animal Suffering (PAS) is in the history books. Overall, it went very well. It was challenging, perhaps the most ambitious debate I’ve ever done, biting off a quite a lot to chew. I’m still chewing on it right now too.

At the University of Texas, Arlington Campus, I faced off against Phil Halper, aka “Skydivephil”, a self-taught science guy and skeptic who’s established an online presence with his videos on Cosmology and the Multiverse theory. He’s also waded into the subject of animal suffering leveling a heavy critique against William Lane Craig and against Michael Murray, author of the landmark text on the Problem of Animal Suffering, Nature: Red in Tooth and Claw.

***Click Here for the Debate Video ***

***Click Here for a Critique of Phil’s Opening Statement***

***Click Here for My Handout on: 30 Common Biblical Objects to God’s Goodness***

Phil proved to be an able opponent, a fast talker, and a sharp wit. He kept me on my toes and reminded me of the existential and persuasive challenge we theists are facing in the emotionally-charged PAS. But, hopefully, some of my arguments led him to reflect on his own views too and reevaluate the implications of his own position. The audience got a good sample of the richness and depth of this difficult problem. I’ll post the video of the debate as soon as it becomes available.

Overview: “So how did it go?”

The debate prompt was: “Does animal suffering justify rejecting the Christian God?” Phil went first, representing the “pro/positive” position, and I, representing the “con/negative” position, went second. We had 20 minutes each for our opening statements. Then came 10-minute rebuttals followed by 2 planned questions each, with 15 minutes for each question to discuss those questions. And the rest of the night was Q&A from the audience.

Phil’s Argument

Phil started by restating the problem of animal suffering: one should not believe in God because there are lots of cases of animal suffering which, he thinks, doesn’t fit well within typical Christian theodicies (i.e., “justifications of God”). Then he proceeded to give a series of examples to support his this argument.

He mentioned tar pits, skimmed through some theistic arguments (design arg., first-cause arg., moral arg.), and then mentioned cases of animal suffering in the slaughter of the Amalekites, the great flood, the animal sacrificial system, the exorcism of Legion, etc. He also addressed the inscrutability defense and skeptical theism (which are important features in the literature on the PAS).

But, a lot of his opening statement was spent discussing tangents about neo-cartesianism (which neither he nor I affirm), the pre-frontal cortex, conjectural theology about religious pluralism, and whether hypothetical alien races might be conducting astro-sociology experiments on us. I cannot remember all the material he brought up in his rebuttal, and question time though I do remember that he dabbled in the philosophy of mind, in evolutionary ethics, and metaethics. And he got some pushback from the audience about his views on naturalistic morality. But his overall strategy remained the same: presume that the PAS is sound and then give a long list of claims and interpretations which fit his views.

Overall, Phil had clearly done some research into the subject but it is evident that he is not a professional or formally trained philosopher or theologian as seen in his blurring between (1) well-established and heavily vetted theological systems versus (2) bald conjectures. He showed a general dismissiveness towards theology entire while showing no particular skill in handling subtle theological concepts nor philosophical distinctions. He seemed too rushed and abrupt to demonstrate that he has done his due diligence seriously considering the view he was attacking (Christian theism). While there were some provocative and important points he raised, and he touched on some key challenges to the Christian faith, nevertheless, I did not detect a singular, focused, or formally stated argument for his position. Instead, I had to devise an approximate sense of his overall argument and aim my responses at that. I tried to be charitable but rigorous. I welcome Phil’s response in the comment section below if he feels like I have misrepresented him in any way.

My Argument

After Phil gave his opening statement, came my case. I utilized five lines of argument to demonstrate reasonable doubt regarding Phil’s atheistic conclusion. My aim was simply to establish, for fair-minded rational audiences, that the PAS is inconclusive. I spent about 5-8 minutes framing the debate since I’ve found that audiences and even debating opponents, do not always understand the aims and operations of a formal debate. For example, I granted some preliminary concessions early – animal suffering is real, it constitutes a genuine ethical challenge to theism, and biblical Christianity has a lot of animal suffering to explain (I mentioned all the examples Phil did, except perhaps the exorcism of Legion). Furthermore, I clarified that both of us have a burden of proof but Phil needed to establish reasonable certainty (sufficient to justify “rejecting the Christian God”) whereas I only needed to establish reasonable doubt (demonstrating that the PAS is inconclusive).

My lines of argument were: (1) the Moral Argument for God’s existence, (2) the Natural Law/Nomic Regularity Defense, (3) the doctrine of the Imago Dei, (4) the Two Falls – Adamic and Angelic, and (5) Clay Jones’s theodicy which I call the “Eternal Perfection Theodicy.”

I did not have the time to address every libelous issue that could be launched at Christianity, so I focused my opening statement on establishing a broad framework where even a great amount of animal suffering could be expected in light of other outweighing goods. In the rebuttals and the Q&A I was able to speak about the slaughter of the Amalekites, the influence of fallen angels, Genesis 3 and the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the sacrificial system, and Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Please bear in mind, that I have 2-3 hour long presentations, and research length articles on these kinds of objections, so if my responses in the debate seemed rushed it’s because they were. Phil opened many cans of worms all at once, dumped all of them on the table, knowing that there’s no realistic way I could sort through all of them thoroughly in the time frame I had. But neither could I leave them entirely unaddressed since that would seem like evasion. My strategy then was to show those objections a measure of respect, admitting their rhetorical and logical force, but point out 1-2 ways that each of those might have outweighing goods tied into them.

General Comments

Phil and I were able to exchange opening statements in advance so we could plan our rebuttals in advance. I have a copy of his opening statement below, with my critiques interspersed. Those who attended the debate only got a small sample of that response, since it was impossible to give a thorough response to the dozens of issues he raised, without going over my time limit. It’s far easier to ask the question than to answer it, and it’s simpler to make a claim than to defend it. But first I’d like to offer a few of my own impressions on how the debate went.

  1. I honestly think I won the debate because I demonstrated reasonable doubt regarding the debate prompt. The phrasing of the debate prompt was carefully chosen, and agreed upon by both Phil and I. Phil did not seem to realize, or perhaps appreciate the implications of the debate prompt, so he seemed content to establish why it’s POSSIBLE that the Christian God doesn’t exist. But I conceded that in my opening statement. I was not arguing that the Christian God exists, I was arguing that the PAS doesn’t justify rejecting the Christian God. Phil’s position required more than a mere possibility, more than reasonable doubt about Christianity, more than merely rational coherence within his view. He needed to demonstrate that animal suffering justifies REJECTING the Christian God; that’s a knowledge claim. And typical skeptical/atheist posturing about “non-theism” and “no burden of proof” does not fit with the prompt of the debate.
  2. Phil failed to overturn any of my 5 lines of argument, but I established potentially outweighing goods for every one of his major objections. Phil dismissed about 4 out of 5 of my key arguments.  He made comments about all of them, but for lack of formal argumentation or a step-wise demonstration that his interpretations were superior to mine, he effectively dismissed at least 4 of the 5.The one argument I remember him seriously engaging was the moral argument for God’s existence. When I asked him a follow-up question about naturalistic ethics, whereby he might avoid the succumbing to the moral argument for god, he literally side-stepped the question, inserted a totally different question and then proceded to answer that different question. Bear in mind, this was during the planned question time between us debaters, so we had to answer each other’s questions. Only after he finished his scripted response did he look up and find me asking the same question again since he totally ducked the question the first time around. His efforts, however, were ineffectual since he was not able to establish that evolutionary naturalism has the ability to distinguish between morally good survival traits and morally evil survival traits. Nature does not filter for morality, but only for survival. Empathy, for example, happens to be useful for the survival of our species but it could be a morally neutral trait, or even amoral (wherein morality is devoid of meaning), and there is nothing in evolution or nature which dictates that humans SHOULD survive.Phil, even conceded that according to his view of ethics, evolution could have made us such that rape, killing the elderly, and eating our young are all “good.” Once he admitted this, he left evolutionary ethics tainted and unpersuasive. Plus, he had no solution for the circularity problem for moral knowledge: “My brain is a reliable moral judge, according to my brain.” Phil did attempt to speak to my key arguments, but if I’m remembering correctly, he largely just said that he disagreed and then steamrolled me with more of his own undefended/unsupported claims.Phil would have made a stronger case if he had successfully framed his lines of evidence in such a way that we are rationally compelled to favor his interpretation. He could have strengthened his overall case by restricting himself to fewer key points, and a deeper defense of those points. He could have achieved that with formal arguments. But whenever evidential lines are simply stated, without sufficient framing, they are always vulnerable to alternative interpretations.
  3. Phil’s strongest attribute in the debate was quantity. Phil had a plethora of examples to draw upon in emotionally and existentially swaying the audience towards his position. He did not hold back either. He seemed to use every example he could think of from Scripture. But neither did he sharpen his point either. Instead of restricting his fire to a few well-targeted shots, he employed a shot-gun blast method of argumentation, scatter shooting across a range of objections. He covered the whole map, citing every key example that he, apparently, could think of. There’s an informal fallacy operating here (Steam Rolling), but I don’t want to discard the fact that any one of those core examples he cited from Scripture were valid inclusions in the debate. It was perfectly fair for him to mention the Slaughter of the Amalekites, the Great Flood, and so on. But when he listed a bunch of different objections, without supporting those objections, the overall effect was somewhat shallow and presumptuous. To be fair, he did reach some measure of depth regarding the moral argument. But it was not clear to me that he understood what kind of demonstration was needed to disprove all the possible outweighing goods I addressed. He seemed too quick in reaching his conclusions and too reluctant to guide anyone else through the different rational steps needed to join him there. But that’s to be expected with scatter-shot arguments.
  4. A whole lot of steamrolling but not much digging. It is simply impossible to address every issue Phil raised. I think he knew that. So when he cited a laundry list of grievances, I have to believe he wasn’t interested in leaving a realistic opportunity for any fair and reasonable answer to his objections. Either he assumed there couldn’t possibly be a reasonable response, or he wasn’t interested in abiding by the conventional rules of formal debate. This tactic, by the way, is called the Steamrolling fallacy. It’s an informal fallacy where someone verbally overwhelms an opponent by presenting far more material than they can realistically address in the allotted time. Even after I called him out for steam-rolling, he used the same steam-rolling tactic in rebuttal and Q&A (perhaps because he stuck to a scripted rebuttal and answers). Astute audience members should have picked up on this fallacy, but I suspect that many in the audience there, or in the video audience later, might not recognize the poor sportsmanship involved in steamrolling. One of the side-effects of his steamrolling tactic was he did not, himself, engage in much digging. His case showed some rhetorical force but was lacking in philosophical depth. For example, he did not seem to understand the difference between the inscrutability defense and skeptical theism. He was casually dismissive and in some cases, unaware of, competing scholarly theories regarding (a) the difference between pain and suffering, (b) moral facts, (c) critiques of relativism, (d) critiques of  evolutionary ethics, (e) theories about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, (f) different kinds of justice, and so on.
  5. Phil didn’t seem to seriously engage with the different outweighing goods I brought up in my opening statement. His line of critique was surprisingly thin, despite the bounty of grievances he mentioned and the speed of his delivery. He seized upon the moral argument and made a serious effort to rebuff its advances. But he never seemed able to show that his conception of morality has any truth-value beyond the arbitrary whims of personal opinion, mindless instincts, and private psychology. Phil’s method seemed to be primarily offering counterpoints, without first discrediting my points. Yet, those counterpoints did not by themselves discredit my case they can instead point us toward a more complex moral landscape than we might normally think. In fact, that’s precisely my point. Moral rubrics that evaluate simply for pain and pleasure (hedonism) can easily discredit God’s existence, but since pain and pleasure are not the only morally weighted values at play, we have no great reason to ascribe to such a simplistic rubric. In my opening statement, I made that very point, acknowledging that the PAS does theists a great service by discrediting shallow idolatrous gods like “Buddy Jesus,” and “Santa God.” Those characters are easily disproven by the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Animal Suffering. Fortunately, those characters are not the biblical portrait of God. They are action figures and puppets, not the all-mighty God over creation.
  6. Phil was not a philosopher or theologian. Now I’ll be reviewing the video now that it has become available (18June2018) so Phil may have had a stronger grasp of my points than it seemed to me at the time, but at this point, my impression is that Phil’s case lacked the nuance one should expect from a philosopher or theologian. he seemed to struggle at seriously engaging with my points, perhaps for lack of philosophical and theological training (at the collegiate or graduate level). Now, I don’t mean this as an ad hominem attack. He was certainly sharp and witty, but if he has not practiced the craft of theology of the art of philosophy, he might not know how to construct a well-framed argument, or how to disassemble an opponents argument.Mostly, it seemed like he was saying, “Nuh uh! But what about this? Or that? Or this? Or that?” If his lack of formal training was merely an aesthetic or secondary matter I’d leave it aside. Great ideas can be stated by amateurs, newbies, or even by accident. So, Phil does not necessarily need to have any scholarly credentials to be a trustworthy or credible scholar. Nevertheless, his lack of formal training may have interfered such that I’m not sure he understood how to interact with the arguments beyond a surface level. Phil did have some strong lines of evidence but seemed unequipped to formulate these in terms of a sound argument. This meant he was left implicitly saying, “I interpret this evidence this way, and you should too.” Without situating his evidence within a formal argument, he failed to establish that his interpretation of the evidence was the only interpretation or even the best interpretation.
  7. He was stuck on a pain-pleasure metric for moral goods. He seemed to be calculating all his moral equations entirely in terms of animal pain and pleasure and did not seem willing, or perhaps able, to calculate for the range of other values that I defended in the opening statement (corporate justice, representative authority, perfection in heaven, nomic regularity, biodiversity, ecology, free will, etc.). This meant that his case was somewhat shallow, and did not apparently rebut several of my key claims.
  8. This was the most ambitious and hardest debate I’ve done. I’ve debated the problem of evil, God’s existence, and abortion before. The problem of animal suffering was a harder topic than all of these. And Phil was strong opponent. I would not say Phil was the most skilled opponent, but he has a talent for raising the energy level of the debate and maintaining a quick wit even into the third hour of the debate. I found that Charles Hermes and Sally Parker Ryan were the most scholarly and competent scholars I’ve debated. Matt Dillahunty was the most skilled rhetorically (with an “everyman” demeanor that is subtly persuasive and winsome). David Smalley and Zach Moore were challenging in their own ways. I learned a lot in all of these debates, but I think I had the most ground to cover and had to sharpen my theological and my philosophical tools to prepare for this debate with Phil Halper. Good show!

***This post was first published April 30th (2018). Phil posted his video of the debate over a month later. Some details and assessments may reflect my spotty memory more than they do the recording.***

***Click Here for a Critique of Phil’s Opening Statement***

***Click Here for My Handout on: 30 Common Biblical Objects to God’s Goodness***



4 thoughts on “Problem of Animal Suffering: Debate Review

  1. Hi John the video is now uploaded , you promised to post the link so here it is:

    I see you wrote a long response unfortunately I don’t have to time to go through it all. Perhaps you might pick your top three points and we can discuss them?
    As you blog post is shorter I will respond to what you have said there.
    Before I do I wnat to say I enjoyed meeting you and doing the debate. Our disagreements though clearly remain. On to your blog.
    Firstly you claim that neo Cartesianism (NC) is a tangent. For your readers, NC is the view that animals suffering is either nonexistent or not morally significant. It isn’t a tangent, it’s a key tactic used by theists to avoid the PAS. This debate was not about me versus you, I don’t think of the debate as a sport where I have to defeat you. I’m trying to educate the audience as to why the PAS is succesful and so it wrong to say that NC is tangential. You say you don’t affirm it but then you started to talk about tonic immobility implying some animals don’t have pain. Firstly tonic immobility isn’t evidence that animals don’t have pain. Its evidence that they are immobilised. Secondly if it is evidence that don’t have pain then you are using a NC defence so you have contradicted yourself. I would really like you to explain the relevance of tonic immobility if you are not defending the NC view.

    Comments like” He seemed too rushed and abrupt to demonstrate that he has done his due diligence seriously considering the view he was attacking (Christian theism).” Or that I “had clearly done some research into the subject but it is evident that he is not a professional or formally trained philosopher or theologian” seem like an ad hominen fallacy. You don’t in this passage point to any specific problem with my argument. You’re really arguing against the person here.

    You accused me on making a shotgun fallacy, making too many assertions for you to contend with. I reject this claim. My argument was really simple and can be boiled down to a few key points. Namely that animal suffering in nature isn’t explained by traditional theodicy’s and is not compatible with an all good God and animal suffering in the bible is more consistent with the thesis that the Bible is authored by humans of a more brutal time than our own rather than a perfectly moral being. Of course I gave example on this and elaborated, just as you did, just as any debater does, but the key point are not overwhelmingly large in number.

    John, you think you won the debate. I think I won the debate. So we both think we won. Is that surprising? Not really. Check out the YouTube comments and see what the public think.
    John you say, all you needed to do was show reasonable doubt. Well I think I answered your doubt and showed they weren’t reasonable. Moreover you made the claim that I needed to show more than reasonable doubt. Why? You claim that Christianity is true; if I show reasonable doubt that it’s true and provides evidence that it’s not true, and then it seems I am justified in rejecting its claims. If you can’t reject something when you have reasonable doubt then it seems you will have to accept a lot of conflicting claims about the world.of course it depends on what you mean by justifiably rejecting something. I mean jsutifiabbly rejecting the claims of its truth. Not of its possible truth. Perhaps you are thinking of the latter. But honestly if that is so then it’s a rather lame objection. There are too many things that might be true. We surely are interested on what the evidence shows as to what is actually true. I also note in you other debates when you are on the other side of the question, such as Does God Exist ?debates, you don’t say that all you opponent has to do is show reasonable doubt. So I feel you are being inconsistent.

    In your judgment I failed to overturn your five lines of arguments. But yet you don’t provide any good reason why my responses fail. For example you claimed nomic regularity. My response was God does plenty of miracles to harm animals which effectively break nomic regularity. For example the ten plagues, the great flood, etc but it might take only one miracle to save them from the anthropocene slaughter and hundreds of millions of years of terrible suffering before humans. So the nomic regularity argument doesn’t work. Simply asserting that my response was a ‘dismissal” seems pretty weak to me.
    You raised the question of evolutionary ethics. But I think you failed to understand what I was arguing. I wasn’t arguing we get ethics from evolution. We get ethics from our minds and our ability to learn.We both agree that ethics coems from minds. But Im appealing to midns we have evidence exists and you are appealing to a mind we cant find any direct evidence of. Evolution gives us our minds and ability to learn but that isn’t the same as saying we get our ethics from evolution. Any more than we get our mathematics from evolution. We get big complex brains from evolution and they allow us to do mathematics and ethics. Your objection simply misses the point. Moreover you didn’t reponse to Swinbourne’s objection to the moral argument, nor did you respond to the key point. The moral argument is irrelevant to this debate because even if its valid it doesn’t establish the truth of Christianity. So we could hypothetically accept the mroal argument and accep there is a God and still reject Christianity. Maybe you didn’t notice that the debate was about the rejecting Christianity, not about accepting naturalistic explanations for morality.
    I did not cite every example of scripture I could think of to demonstrate the bibles cruelty to animals. There are many more. I gave a few examples, Joshua 11:6, First Samuel, the ten plagues, the great flood, Legion and animal sacrifice. But you don’t need 6 different responses to these. Presumably more than one of these can be answered with a single response. If each one needs a different response then that shows the ad hoc nature of the response. So I reject your claim of shotgun fallacy.
    You claim my response to your opening statement was surprisingly thin. Hhmm, you presented five responses and we had 10 mins to reply. That gives me on average of 2 mins to reply to each one of your arguments. How deep can I get in 2 minutes? John you are not being realistic about this.
    You accuse me of struggling to engage with your points. Actually I answered all of your points and you were the one to struggle. For example when I asked you about Bill Craig’s claim about animals being shielded from suffering you didn’t even understand the question. Go and watch the debate 90 mins in and you’ll see.

    You appeal to corporate justice seems utterly bizarre to me. I asked you several times whether you think its right to punish the children or grandchildren of Nazis for the crimes of the Nazis and you dodgeed the question. You appealed to reparations being just and this was totally irrelevant. The reason it’s irrelevant is this. Suppose we think black people have been subject to historical disadvantage. It might be argued that some form of action is needed to overcome this disadvantage. Maybe a tax on white people to even the effects of the disadvantage. But why would he have to tax white people if we thought this was just? Not because we think todays white people have done something wrong and need to be punished. Such a notion is ridiculous. No its because we have limited resources and the resources we might give to black people to compensate for past injustices and their current disadvantaged state has to come from somewhere. But God doesn’t have limited resources. So this argument has no relevance for God. Moreover John, you are totally ignoring the context of the problem. God commands the slaughter of all the animals. So who is being compensated by this? Nobody. So John your defense here is just one giant red herring. You also said the animals had to be killed because they are like rabid dogs. So again what this got to do with compensation? Nothing, so again your discussion of this issue is a red herring fallacy. Moreover even if the animals were dangerous like rabid dogs, Why couldn’t an all powerful God cure them of their rabies? It seems John you haven’t thought this through at all. You also said the animals couldn’t be kept by the Caananties because it might encourage war profiteering. Maybe you forgot the fact that the Caananties were supposed ot be killed to.
    I hope you readers will watch the video and make up their own minds as to who won the debate. From the comments on YouTube so far they are almost entirely critical of you John.

      1. no worries John, btw quite a fey typos in my reply. Is there any way to edit?

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