Friday, October 23, 2015


I have a strong theoretical commitment to:

  1. To feel pain is to perceive something as if it were bad.
  2. Veridical perception is non-instrumentally good.
On the other hand, I also have the strong intuition that:
  1. Particularly intense physical pain is always non-instrumentally bad.
Thus, (1) and (2) commit me to veridical pains being non-instrumentally good. But (3) commits me to particularly intense physical pain, whether veridical or not, being non-instrumentally bad. This has always been very uncomfortable for me, though not as uncomfortable as intense physical pain is.

But today I realized that there is no real contradiction between (1), (2) and (3). Rather than deriving a contradiction from (1)-(3), what we should conclude is:

  1. No instance of particularly intense physical pain is veridical.
And I don't have a very strong intuition against (4). And here is a story supporting (4). We systematically underestimate spiritual goods and bads, while we systematically overestimate physical goods and bads. Arguably, the worst of the physical bads is death, and yet both Christianity and ancient philosophy emphasize that we overestimate the badness of death. It is not particularly surprising that our perceptions suffer from a similar overestimation, and in particular that they typically present physical bads as worse than they are. If so, then it could well be that no merely physical bad is so bad as to be accurately represented by a particularly intense physical pain.

One difficulty is that the plausibility of my position depends on how one understands "particularly intense". If one has a high enough standard for that, then (4) is plausible, but it also becomes plausible that pains that just fall short of the standard still are non-instrumentally bad. If one has a lower standard for "particularly intense", then (4) becomes less plausible. I am hoping that there is a sweet spot (well, actually, a miserable spot!) where the position works.


entirelyuseless said...

Why can't you just say that it is non-instrumentally good insofar as it is a true perception and non-instrumentally bad insofar as it is a perception of a pain?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Pain is not a perception of pain, but a perception of damage to the body or something like that. And there is nothing bad about perceiving damage to the body.

Heath White said...

I am sympathetic with the spirit of entirelyuseless's comment, in that the implied premise "nothing can be both intrinsically bad and intrinsically good" does not seem obvious to me. Why can't a single episode be intrinsically bad qua pain and intrinsically good qua knowledge?

Brian Cutter said...

Even if intense pains aren't veridical, it seems that that alone can't fully account for the intuitive fact that intense pains are non-instrumentally bad. After all, other forms of non-veridical perception, e.g. a visual experience of a Muller-Lyer illusion, or a case where a straight stick in water looks bent, don't seem to be non-instrumentally bad to the same degree. (Indeed, it's not clear whether it's non-instrumentally bad at all to undergo a visual illusion.) You might say that it's worse to misrepresent the *evaluative* properties of things than to misrepresent the *descriptive* properties of things. But there are still problems: first, it seems worse if a pain errs on the side of being too intense than if it errs on the side of being too mild. (Suppose I'm undergoing an operation, and I can take one of two pills. Pill A will make the relevant bodily damage feel less bad than it really is. Pill B will make the bodily damage feel more bad than it really is. Intuitively, it's better to take pill A.) Similarly, it seems that a non-veridical pain is worse than a non-veridical pleasure. (Suppose there is a third pill, pill C, which will make the bodily damage sustained in the operation feel good. Taking pill C seems preferable at least to pill B, and probably to pill A as well.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath and ee:
I do find it hard to see how correctly perceiving the bad can be non-instrumentally bad in any way. I wonder if behind your remarks there isn't the assumption (perhaps correct, but my thinking about pain has been centered on denying it) that there is something more to pain than perception of a bad.

This is a pretty powerful objection. Maybe, though, there is something particularly bad in perceiving the world as worse than it is. The world reflects the goodness of God, and in perceiving it as worse than it is we perceive less of the goodness of God reflected in the world.

Heath White said...

Yes I think there is more to pain than perceiving a bad. I can perceive bodily damage by, for example, seeing a bone sticking out of my leg. But there is nothing necessarily painful about that. And it is the extra sensory element which has the appearance of non-instrumental badness.

What about this as an example. Suppose there is a characteristic phenomenology of blindness and this phenomenology counts as a veridical perception of being blind. (If blindness is just absence of visual phenomenology then consider the characteristic phenomenology of partial blindness.) Also assume that blindness is bad. Then wouldn’t the veridical perception of one’s blindness be non-instrumentally good (as knowledge) but non-instrumentally bad (as blindness)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think you're not seeing the damage qua bad when you see the bone sticking out of the leg if there are no unpleasant feelings associated with that. Compare two cases. You know that certain objects in your house are red. At night, when it is so dark that you have no color vision, you can "see" that there is something red in front of you by seeing the familiar shape of the red plastic kid's chair. But you're not really seeing the chair qua red. You need more light for that.

(Actually, I suspect that the real case is more complicated. At night, even if you have no color vision, your brain fills in colors. I remember hearing that some people "remember" the shower scene in the original Psycho being in color. I think a similar thing is likely to happen in the bone case: your brain will likely fill in the pain.)

entirelyuseless said...

It seems extremely likely that there is something more to pain than perception of a bad. You can perceive intellectually that your body is in a bad condition, and this is perceiving it qua bad, without this being painful.

So it is clear that there is something additional. You might say that this is just the fact that it is a physical perception rather than an intellectual one, but I suspect this is not correct.

There are situations where pain causes a state intermediate between ability and complete disability. For example, you don't have a bone sticking out of your leg, but you have just fallen from a great height, and you have a number of broken bones. It is consequently physically possible for you to move, but extremely difficult. You see that it will be necessary for you to move 100 yards in order to save your life. It will increase the physical damage, but it will save your life. If you find yourself unable to do this because of the pain, the pain is bad, and effectively is killing you.

You could say that this situation matches your argument. Either the pain is only instrumentally bad, by having a bad result, or the pain is not veridical, because it is perceived as so bad that you should not move, and this is false.

I suspect however that there is more to it. Any extremely intense pain forces you to pay attention to it, preventing you from paying attention to other factors, and this is very closely related to the situation described above. In fact, it might be the exact cause of the situation, since the pain forces you to give attention to relieving it instead of giving attention to getting where you need to get. If this is the case, you could simply say that extremely intense pain is not veridical because it is perceived as so bad that you should pay attention to it rather than to other things. But this doesn't seem a reasonable effect of perceiving something as bad, no matter how bad it is perceived as. So it seems to be an additional effect. It is instrumentally bad, because e.g. it stops you from going where you need to go, but it also seems non-instrumentally bad, insofar as it takes your attention by force.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am inclined to think that pain is to intellectually seeing something as bad as a visual perception of something as red is to intellectually seeing it as red.

I don't think taking attention by force makes a pain non-instrumentally bad. A sudden burst of heavenly music might also take one's attention by force.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

One of my co-workers is in the Marines. His motto: "Pain is weakness leaving the body."

I agree. :-)

Richard Davis said...
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Richard Davis said...
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Richard Davis said...


Is there also a premise at play something like this:

5. For any pain X, there is no numerical difference between X and feeling X.

If X and feeling X are two different things, then X and feeling X do not need to have all the same properties. So X can be bad while feeling X is good. In that case, it would be consistent with all four of your premises to hold the following view:

Pain is non-instrumentally bad, but veridically feeling pain is non-instrumentally good. It is non-instrumentally good to veridically represent something which is non-instrumentally bad.

It might be nicely to rephrase all that with 'feeling X as bad' instead of just 'feeling X.'

I'm skeptical of this conclusion because I think that for any pain X, if X is felt as bad, then X is a constituent of feeling X as bad. So I think that in many cases, on the whole, it would be best not to feel X as bad: it would best for neither X nor feeling X as bad to exist at all. But it might still be better to feel X as bad when X exists (and is in fact bad) than for X to exist (and in fact be bad) without X's subject feeling it as bad. So feeling X as bad might be good in the context where X is held as existing and being bad (whether or not it is felt as such).