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Qualia and Coincidence

November 26th, 2002 · No Comments

Why does pain feel bad? That might seem an incoherent thing to ask – isn’t that just part of what it means for something to be “painful?” As we typically use the word “pain,” that probably is right. What I mean to ask is how the specific sensory qualities of all the experiences we class together as “pain” are connected to the “badness,” that is, the sense that it’s an awful thing to be in pain, and the desire that it please end just as soon as possible. (Is the sense of “awfulness” really distinct from the desire that it end?) It should seem a sort of stunning coincidence if nature should be so arranged that the subjective aspect of certain neural firing patterns triggering aversion behavior should also be intrinsically unpleasant. After all, the same firing pattern would, one presumes, cause the same physical behaviors whatever its qualitative aspect were like. (I say “one presumes” here meaning, roughly: someone with a particular view about the relationship between mind and body quite a lot like mine would think.) It would require an evolutionary coincidence rivalling Leibniz’s “preestablished harmony” between body and soul.

I was thinking about this when I recalled an odd phenomenon I’d heard about in a class years ago. It seems there are persons who suffer a neurological condition that causes them to experience severe, terrible, shooting or stabbing pains all over their bodies. There is a strange sort of “cure” via brain surgery, such that afterwards the people report that they still “feel” the pains, and indeed, “the same” pains, but they “don’t mind them.” In one sense, they say, these feel precisely like they did before, but they’re not awful or agonizing. They aren’t “painful,” as we would typically say.

So the interesting implication here is that the badness of pain is only in some fairly contingent way linked to the rest of what it’s like to experience any one of a number of (when you think about it) rather different sorts of sensations we class together as “pain.” They might be switched, so that all the rest of the sensations of an orgasm, besides its feeling good, served in the role of pain, and all the other qualitative features of being burned, other than the aversion reaction, acted as pleasure. Maybe this is how the Buddhist notion that all suffering is the result of desire relates to the Zen Buddhist focus on “attention” and on experience in the moment. Maybe, just as Hume said that no amount of introspection had enabled him to locate a “self,” we would find, if we focused intently enough on the particular sensation of pain, refusing to react to it as we tend automatically to do, that there was nothing particularly painful about it. (If that’s right, it tells against a line of argument Derek Parfit made at one point in a manuscript of a forthcoming book — write this down now so I can claim to have seen it first if he keeps it in the final draft.)

Is all this as counterintuitive to others as it is to me? We tend to think that pain or, say, nausea are bad and avoidance-worthy because they feel the way they do. But on this account, they feel however they do and, also, as a matter of happenstance, they are “bad,” in that we try to avoid them or make them stop when we feel them. Odd. And one more nail in functionalism’s coffin, if you’re the sort who keeps track of that kind of thing.

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