Friday, December 21, 2007

Is pain bad because of its raw subjective feel?

I want to consider three arguments that pain is not bad because of its raw feel. If it is bad, it is because of something else associated with that raw feel. (This has at least one application. One way to "answer" the question of why God would allow non-human animals to feel pain is to deny that animals feel pain. A different strategy would be to argue that although they feel pain, their experience does not have in it the ingredient which makes human pain bad, or at least which makes it as bad as it is. If pain is not bad because of its raw feel, then the ingredient that makes pain bad is something else--perhaps something having to do with how we conceptualize the pain--and it might turn out that this is lacking in animals.)

1. The severity of pain is on a continuum, but very brief instances whose severity is near the bottom of the continuum are not bad at all. Pinch yourself. The feeling seems to be somewhere on the pain continuum, albeit very low down. But the feeling of pinching yourself is not at all a bad feeling to have. So pain is bad only when it has non-trivial severity. The main objection to this argument is to claim that the kinds of feelings that are not bad to have are no longer on the pain continuum--they are not pains at all. I am not sure how convincing I find this objection as it stands, but I do have a response. Take one of these items very low down on the pain continuum, allegedly below the level of pain, like the feeling of being pinched. Now if this feeling persisted unchanged for an hour, one would find it quite uncomfortable, it would be bad, and I think one would correctly consider it a low-level pain. However, if the raw feel is unchanged throughout the hour, it follows that it is not the raw feel that makes the experience bad, but something else, such as the duration of the raw feel or, perhaps better, the memory of the duration of the raw feel, and so we get to the conclusion I want. Moreover, it seems that if one feels continuous pain for an hour, one feels pain at every time, and so the raw feel of a pinch would still be a pain, since that is what one is feeling throughout the hour. The latter set of considerations show that there is another argument against the intrinsic badness of pain: a pain of low intensity is not going to be bad if it lasts for a short enough amount of time.

2. One can fail to notice one is having a pain. You wake up with an unfamiliar sensation. You think about it a little, perhaps shift around, and you realize that it's a shoulder pain. I suggest that at least until you realized that the sensation was painful or at least unpleasant, the feeling wasn't bad for you. So, not all pains are bad, it seems. Here, one can try the same kind of objection. Maybe it only starts to hurt once you realize what is going on. But if so, then what is that unfamiliar sensation you woke up with, if it's not a pain? Does that unfamiliar sensation really change into a pain when you realize what it is?

3. If you manage to get distracted from a pain and focus on something else, so that you don't mind the pain very much at all, it seems that the pain is less bad for you. So even if pain is bad for you, the degree to which it is bad is determined in large part by how focused you are on the pain and what attitude you take to it, rather than by the raw feel. Now one might think the raw feel changes in kind as you get distracted from the pain. But is that really how our perception works? If I focus my attention not on the red cube in my field of vision, but on the golden sphere, without shifting my eyes at all[note 1], is it the case that the appearance of the red cube changes, that it starts to look less red or be less cubical? It seems like the right way to describe what happens, instead, may wel be that one's attitude towards the appearance changes. If so, then when we are distracted from a pain, the pain's raw feel doesn't change, but how bad the pain is for us does. Now one might object as follows. There is some little bit of badness that the raw feel is responsible for, and other factors, such as focusing on the pain and/or minding it, are responsible for most of the badness of the pain. But I think this is mistaken. For if the raw feel gives rise to a small bit of badness, then no matter how little one focuses on a pain and how little one minds it, there is always going to be this little badness. In particular, the limit of badness as one's focus on the pain and one's minding of the pain goes to zero will be non-zero. But that seems wrong. As one's focus and minding of the pain goes to zero, the badness seems to go continuously to zero as well.

Final question: If it is not the raw feel that makes pain bad, then what makes pain bad? Is it that it distracts us from things? Is it our attitudes towards it, such as typically not wanting to have the pain (Mark Murphy thinks this)? I don't know exactly. I am attracted myself to the idea that there is such a thing as veridical pain and it is not intrinsically bad, but only bad extrinsically (e.g., because it distracts us), but I also find this idea hard to believe and harder to live.

7 comments:

Mike said...

So even if pain is bad for you, the degree to which it is bad is determined in large part by how focused you are on the pain and what attitude you take to it, rather than by the raw feel.

Doesn't the raw feel itself depend on the degree of focus? I actually do not experience the raw feel of the pain, if I am distracted in various ways. Smith is running for a touchdown or something, the crowd is screaming, and he does not feel the pain of his broken wrist. He misses the raw feel because of the failure to focus. But, if we can speak about increments/decrements of pain, then their distribution across time/persons does seem to matter ot their disvalue. The "repugnant conclusion" discussed in Parfit and others is just the view that, for instance, 1000 decrements in pain suffered by a single individual in a moment is no worse that 1000 decrements distributed over a year in a single person is no worse than 1000 decrements distributed over 1000 different people. Certainly that's mistaken.

Mike said...

If I focus my attention not on the red cube in my field of vision, but on the golden sphere, without shifting my eyes at all[note 1], is it the case that the appearance of the red cube changes, that it starts to look less red or be less cubical?

No, it looks like nothing at all. Simply because something is in your visual field does not entail that it is perceived in any way. I miss entirely (all of the time) what is no doubt in my visual field, since the visual field of others often largely overlaps mine and they see it. You might be moved to something like "unconscious perception" (whatever that might be), but there is no such thing as an unconscious raw feel.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I take the raw feel of pain to be analogous to the quale of red, say. But does the quale of red change due to attention? (Leaving aside the issue in my note 1.) I am inclined to say "No".

But your point is a good one--it shows how unclear it is what exactly is going on with pains. Can one completely fail to notice the "raw feel"? (Probably not.) Can one be in pain without noticing? (This is less clear. If yes, and if the answer to the previous is negative, then it seems to follow that there can be pains with no raw feel. That would be odd, but maybe that's how it is.) I don't know.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

In the cube thought experiment, I was not taking it to be the case that one becomes unaware of the cube. One just becomes less aware of it. It's there, and one sees that it is there, but it is not what one's attention is focused on.

Mike said...

But does the quale of red change due to attention? (Leaving aside the issue in my note 1.) I am inclined to say "No".

Alex, that depends entirely on your light sensitivity in peripheral vision. It is quite possible that red lights appear much lighter or non-existent in peripheral vision, given low sensitivity. Qualia does vary as light sensitivity does.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was talking of attentional focus, not where my eyes are pointing. It is possible for the two to be distinct. Indeed, it is a standard practice in amateur astronomy to point the eye slightly to the side of the faint object one's attention is focused on, because the eyes are more light sensitive off-center (or so goes amateur astronomy lore; even if this is false, the practice exists, and that's all I need).

Mike said...

I don't know. We decrease attentional focus when a perceived object is no longer our direct object of perception. When it comes to feeling pain, something else often becomes the direct object of our attention. So it is not obvious that the analogue of pain becoming decentered as the object of perception is not an object becoming decentered as the object of physical perception: i.e. an object on the periphery of our visual field. If that's so, then the qualia that objects are disposed to produce in us under normal conditions might well be quite different.
In any case, a priori arguments are somewhat beside the point. We should rather consider the empirical data concerning pain perception. If I had to bet, I'd wager that the feel of the pain is quite different under various conditions of distraction. But I'm not sufficiently familiar with the data.