When Helen Keller Became Human

So I’ve been exploring this idea that suffering and joy are correlated to cognitive ability. Just yesterday, The OFloinn posted a fascinating excerpt describing Helen Keller’s subjective experience of “becoming human”. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here is one short quote:

On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken [earlier that day, in a tantrum]. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Apparently, Helen Keller’s anecdotal experience is quite similar to mine, and could be seen as support for my more general thesis. OFloinn makes some interesting connections to theology that I never thought of, as well.

Of course, neither Helen Keller nor I were recording our experiences in a theology-free context, so it’s possible that our contexts colored our memories. But these anecdotes suggest that it could be worthwhile to investigate using more reliable techniques.

Dawkins on Animal Suffering

A few days ago, Richard Dawkins realized that there might be a link between cognitive ability and suffering. I’d like to think that he was inspired by my earlier post on the topic, but probably not, since he got everything wrong.

I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don’t stub your toe again, don’t tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don’t pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth , I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

Dawkins’ thinking is hopelessly muddled here, but I will restrain myself to pointing out just one major flaw in his reasoning.

Simply, “pain” is not “suffering”. Not even close. Suffering is a cognitive phenomenon. And even with the simple “brain soup” type of pain that Dawkins is talking about, there is a massive cognitive impact, as Dan Ariely has shown.

Dawkins is sloppily conflating operant conditioning with cognitive learning, and nerve stimulation with suffering. That doesn’t work.

Spinoza on Miracles

We recently discussed the fact that autistic people are more likely to reject libertarian free will, with Baruch Spinoza being a key example.

Conceptually, ideas about free will and ideas about miracles are inextricably linked. And when it comes to miracles, Spinoza is again a key example:

In like manner miracles were called works of G-D, as being especially marvellous; though in reality, of course, all natural events are the works of G-D, and take place solely by His power.

According to Spinoza, it is incoherent to talk about miracles being “violations of the laws of nature”. It’s literally nonsense. About 100 years after Spinoza, Hume tried to explicitly equate these two contradictory things, and philosophers and theologians have been debating ever since. If only more of them had Asperger’s like Spinoza, we could stop wasting our time on this stupidity. Aspies are allergic to contradiction, and Spinoza pointed out that scriptures and reason are both non-contradictory on this matter:

Further, in order to ascertain, whether it could be concluded from Scripture, that the human understanding is naturally corrupt, I inquired whether the Universal Religion, the Divine Law revealed through the Prophets and Apostles to the whole human race, differs from that which is taught by the light of natural reason, whether miracles can take place in violation of the laws of Nature, and if so, whether they imply the existence of G-D more surely and clearly than events, which we understand plainly and distinctly through their immediate natural causes.

Now, as in the whole course of my investigation I found nothing taught expressly by Scripture, which does not agree with our understanding, or which is repugnant thereto, and as I saw that the prophets taught nothing, which is not very simple and easily to be grasped by all, and further, that they clothed their teaching in the style, and confirmed it with the reasons, which would most deeply move the mind of the masses to devotion towards G-D, I became thoroughly convinced, that the Bible leaves reason absolutely free…

Spinoza realized that he needed to bite the bullet and define “miracle” as something that was merely extraordinarily unusual that would point toward God, and charmingly observed:

As, then, unusual natural phenomena are called works of G-D, and trees of unusual size are called trees of God, we cannot wonder that very strong and tall men, though impious robbers and whore mongers, are in Genesis called sons of G-D. This reference of things wonderful to God was not peculiar to the Jews. Pharaoh, on hearing the interpretation of his dream, exclaimed that the mind of the gods was in Joseph.

Most theologians seem content to argue that Hume’s definition of “miracle” is wrong, and leave it at that. Few seem eager to bite the bullet and follow things through to the obvious conclusion. That’s what’s so fun about Aspies — they don’t mind stating the obvious. From the comments to the earlier article on Spinoza:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome (though self diagnosed). I absolutely do not believe people have free will, in any sense. After reading the wikipedia entry on compatibilism I feel that compatibilism is just saying “we don’t have free will but lets pretend anyway”.


Much energy is expended championing Hume’s question-begging and inherently contradictory definition of “miracle”, for obvious reasons. I think that’s a waste of time, and detracts from the more interesting question — if theists bite the bullet and toss out Hume’s incoherent definition, what are the implications for faith?