Thursday, August 2, 2018

Physical and psychological pain

In English, we have a category “pain” which we subdivide into the “physical” and the “psychological”. But this taxonomy is misleading.

Consider the experiences of eating some intensely distasteful food—once as a kid I added chocolate chips to my tomato soup and it was awful—or of smelling a really nasty odor. These sensations are not pains. But, phenomenologically, the difference between these unpleasantness experiences and the physical pains does not seem greater than the difference between some of the psychological pains and the physical pains.

Reflection on the phenomenology does not, I think, reveal any good reason to classify physical pains and psychological pains in one natural category and the experiences of nasty taste or smell in another.

Nor does there seem to be any good reason to classify this way when one thinks of what the representational content of the experiences is. Physical pains seem to represent our body as damaged. Psychological pains seem to represent complex external states of affairs as bad, particularly in relation to ourselves. And bad taste seems to represent a food as bad for us. There is a common core in all these cases, and there does not seem to be a tighter common core to the physical and psychological pains taken as a unit.

Thus it seems to me that having a category of pain that includes physical and psychological pains but excludes the other unpleasant experiences I mentioned is like having a biological category of bovinoequines that comprises cows and horses but excludes donkeys. It’s just not a natural taxonomy, and unnatural taxonomies can mislead one in reflection.

I propose that the natural category here is the unpleasant, under which fall most physical pains, most psychological pains and a large host of other experiences. But there seem to be such things as pleasant or at least not unpleasant pains.)

One can have suffering without pain—I suffered when I had the soup with cholocate chips, but it didn’t hurt (except my pride in my culinary ideas). One can have pain without suffering. So the tie between pain and suffering is not very tight. But perhaps there is a tighter connection between suffering and the unpleasant. I now have two options that are worth exploring, both quite simple:

  • suffering is unpleasantness

  • suffering is significant unpleasantness.

We can talk of physical pains and psychological pains, but we need to be careful not to be misled by the repetition of the word “pain” into thinking there is a natural category that includes just these two subcategories of pains but excludes the others.

How do we divide up the unpleasant? One way is to base things on the representational content. Maybe all of the unpleasant represents a state of affairs as bad, but we can subdivide the bads. Here are some potentially natural subdivisions of bads:

  • to self vs. not to self (more precisely: qua to self vs. not qua to self)

  • non-instrumental vs. instrumental

  • intrinsic vs. relational

  • actual vs. potential

  • past vs. present vs. future

  • bodily vs. mental.

We get something a little bit like the English category of “pain” if we consider unpleasantness that represents non-instrumental intrinsic actual present bad to self. But not quite: many psychological pains are backward looking, and some are complex experiences that include components of representing bads to others.

1 comment:

Clifton said...

When I was a child, and perhaps for some time afterwards, I harbored a strong suspicion that cherry-flavored fruit snacks in tomato soup would be good. Never took the initiative to try it, though.