Thoughts on “Reconsidering fetal pain” – by Stuart WG Derbyshire & John C Bockmann

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

“…we propose that the fetus experiences a pain that just is and it is because it is, there is no further comprehension of the experience, only an immediate apprehension.” – Reconsidering Fetal Pain (2019), by Stuart WG Derbyshire, John C Bockmann

I agree with this proposal.

Experiencing pain is being in an animal-like state. But, experiencing pain is not knowing that this is pain. I think experiencing pain becomes a state of knowing only if a person is a competent language user. 

A consequence of this idea is that pain experience is not always immediately transparent or lucid to the person experiencing it. Odd as it sounds, to be in pain is not to know pain. This challenges the Cartesian philosophy of mind.

Following Derbyshire and Brockman, the fetus or neonate experiences pain, but without understanding or recognition.

Emre Ihan asked me: “Do you think learning is a form of recognition? A lot of neonates pull their legs away when nurses and their parents touch their heels, after weeks of heel lancing (heel pricks for blood tests). Could this be an anticipation of pain, and thus recognition that pain is imminent…”

Compare the neonate’s behaviour with a dog walking beside a road with the flow of traffic. The behaviour of the dog conforms to our left-hand drive convention, but it does not do so because it understands that convention.

In the same way, a chicken that stretches its neck and wings as in the mating ritual of the wandering albatross is not stretching its neck because it understands, or has a conception of, this mating pattern.

Point 1. There is behaviour that conforms to a complex pattern.

Point 2. This behaviour is not explained through a conception or understanding of that pattern. The behaviour just accidentally realises part of a complex pattern. 

Point 3. The explanation for the behaviour is explained by its relation to the complex patterned whole.

A plausible explanation of the neonate’s behaviour is in terms of the survival value to groups of humans of this form of behavior. These behaviours are performed because they form part of a hard-wired evolutionary pattern, not because the neonate recognises or follows a set of cognitive rules that are an abstract description of the pattern.

Thus, the neonate, like the dog or chicken, does not engage in their patterned behaviour “on purpose.” The neonate does not intend to follow rules or apply social norms.

Developmentally, that skill emerges later when the neonate is a child and learns, if it is fortunate enough, the concept of pain.

Call for Abstracts: Meanings of Pain, Volume III

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

Volume III Topic: Meanings of pain in vulnerable or special patient groups

Series Editor: Dr Simon van Rysewyk
Publisher: Springer

The Meanings of Pain book series describes how the meaning of pain changes pain experience – and people – over time.

Pain in the moment is experienced as immediately distressing or unpleasant. If pain persists over time, more complex meanings about the long-term consequences, or burden of pain, can develop. These meanings can include existential meanings such as despair or loneliness that focus on the person with pain, rather than pain itself.

Meanings of Pain offers a vocabulary of language about pain and meaning. An objective of the series is to stimulate self-reflection on how to use information about meaning in clinical and non-clinical pain settings. The book series is intended for people with pain, family members or caregivers of people with pain, clinicians, researchers, advocates, and policy makers.

Although chronic pain can affect anyone, there are some groups of people for whom particular clinical support and understanding is urgently needed. This applies to “vulnerable” or “special” groups of people and to the question of what pain means to them.

Volume III focuses on describing the meanings of pain in groups of “vulnerable” or “special” people, such as:

  • Infants or children
  • Women
  • Older adults
  • People with a physical or intellectual disability
  • People with a brain injury
  • People diagnosed with a disease
  • Veterans
  • Athletes
  • Workers
  • Addicts
  • People with mental illness or mental disorders
  • Homeless people
  • People in rural or remote communities
  • People in multicultural communities
  • Indigenous peoples

Invited chapter types
The editor Dr Simon van Rysewyk invites contributions for Volume III on the meanings of pain in vulnerable or special patient groups. The following manuscript types will be considered:

  • Original Research (e.g., original clinical, translational, or theoretical research)
  • Reviews (e.g., Systematic Reviews, Meta-analytic reviews, Cochrane type reviews, Pragmatic Reviews)

Authors interested in submitting a chapter for publication in Volume III are invited to submit a 350-word Abstract, which includes the name and contact information of the corresponding author, to:

Dr Simon van Rysewyk
simon.vanrysewyk@utas.edu.au

Abstract Deadline: open

“It is my opinion that this … work will stand as the definitive reference work in this field. I believe it will enrich the professional and personal lives of health care providers, researchers and people who have persistent pain and their family members. The combination of framework chapters with chapters devoted to analysing the lived experience of pain conditions gives the requisite breadth and depth to the subject.” – Dr Marc A. Russo, MBBS DA(UK) FANZCA FFPMANZCA, Newcastle, Australia, from the Foreword in Volume II

Life’s ‘ratchet game’

How do we think about reality in a way that improves upon the old ways?

There is good news here: it is not entirely up to you to improve reality. Your children, and their children will do the job. So, sit back a little. Enjoy the ride!

Human beings have the unique capacity to play life’s ‘ratchet game’. Children learn the best society has to offer, and can improve upon it. And, your children’s children can start where your children left off. And so on.

My kids are already way ahead of me, since they started where I left off long, long ago, and also vastly ahead of cro-magnon humans. By contrast, chimpanzees start where their ancestors left off, and stay there. They don’t move from this place (chimps are still very cute, though).

Thus, humans can produce science and technology, and pass it on to their descendents. This gives human beings the chance to deploy science and AI tech to create increasingly accurate representations of ‘mind’, ‘DNA’, ‘autism’, ‘pain’, ‘happiness’, and so on. The ratchet game takes us beyond the familiar into exciting new territories.

(I wonder: Can academic philosophy play life’s ‘ratchet game’? It seems to me that philosophy is not terribly good at reaching out to other disciplines, and learning from them in the way that children naturally learn from parents.)