Pain and perception – clarifying the concepts

Is it accurate to say that you have a pain in your left foot because you feel – perceive – the pain there? Is pain a perception?

Many publications in the scientific pain field say so; e.g.:

“Pain is a complex, multidimensional perception that varies in quality, strength, duration, location, and unpleasantness.”

“The role of the cortex in human pain perception remained controversial until the advent of non-invasive brain imaging technologies. Over the last fifteen years solid evidence was generated indicating that multiple cortical and subcortical structures are involved in human pain perception. The general assumption from the studies performed in healthy subjects and studying primarily pain after acute, experimental stimuli, is the notion that activation of a fixed set of brain structures evoke this percept…”

Pain is a perception, not a sensation – Mick Thacker – One Thing

The way the sky looks is blue. The colour blue, however, is not an experience. Rather, it is a property of material phenomena. In this case, a property of the sky.

Experiences can be of a blue object, or the colour blue; but to think that experiences can be blue is like thinking that the number two is blue, which is a category mistake.

To make the same point with different examples:
– The white rose I see is white, not my seeing of it.
– The tightness of my new shoes is not tight, the shoes are.
– The bang I hear is loud, not my hearing of it.

The same logic applied to pain experiences:
– The pain I feel is piercing, not my feeling it.
– The burning of my pain does not burn, the pain does.
– The pain I sense is intrusive, not my sensing of it.

I think the view of pain as a perception makes a category mistake: it confuses what is perceived (‘The sky looks blue’; ‘The pain burns’), with a perceiving of it (‘I see the blue sky’; ‘I feel a burning pain’).

The pain is what is painful, not the feeling of it. Therefore, pain is not a perception.

Pain is a material phenomenon of a living organism, a phenomenon characterised by a complex array of distinctive responses and reactions.

Historically, it is correct to deny that pain is a sensation in opposition to the traditional Specificity Theory of Pain. In clinical settings nowadays, it is more accurate to call pain an ‘experience’: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.”

Following Wittgenstein, I propose that to feel pain is to have pain – not to feel pain and, in addition, to perceive it. When I feel a pain, there are not two things involved: the pain, and my feeling the pain. Feeling pain is just being in pain.

Wittgenstein: using our world-view to criticise others?

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Fabrizio Cassetta (2017)

Imagine two communities. One community predicts the seasonal weather following the science of meteorology. Another community predicts the same through consulting the trusted indigenous oracle. The two communities could be members of the same society, but this is not relevant to the story.

Suppose it turns out that meteorology is far more accurate at forecasting the seasonal weather than the oracle. The community that uses meteorology to predict the weather cultivates a disdain for the oracle community, and criticises it as foolish and irrational.

Should the oracle community therefore abandon its customary oracle practice?

Even if we grant that the oracle community is irrational in adhering to its oracle practice, this does not mean that the community must discontinue the practice, since its adherence could be based on particular needs, priorities, or others factors.

For example, the oracle practice could be influenced by the previous generations’ observations and experimentation, which are highly valued. The oracle forecasts are derived from local experiences and communicated in local languages by the indigenous oracle, who is well-known and trusted in the community. The practice is simple, recognisable, and coherent to the community, compared with the complex and probabilistic nature of scientific forecasts.

In the Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology (Volume I), philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein invites the reader to imagine a tribe unfamiliar with the concept of simulated pain. They

… pity anyone who indicates that he is feeling pain. They are unfamiliar with the suspicious attitude toward expressions of pain. A traveller coming from our culture to theirs frequently thinks that a complaint is exaggerated, indeed, that its only purpose is to generate pity; the natives don’t seem to think that way.

A missionary teaches the people our language; in the process he also educates them and under his tutelage they learn to distinguish between a genuine and a pretended expression of pain … They learn our expression: “to feel pain”, and also “to simulate pain”, and the question is: were they taught a new concept of pain?

Had those people overlooked something, and did the teacher bring something to their attention?

And how could they remain unaware of the difference if sometimes they would complain when they were in pain, and sometimes when they were not? Am I to say that they always thought it was the same thing? – Certainly not. Or am I to say that they didn’t notice the difference? – But why not say: the difference wasn’t important to them? (Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I, 203-205)

In On Certainty (286), Wittgenstein discusses the possibility that a community could incorporate a different world view into its own practices. Thus, it is possible that the oracle community could use both oracle and meteorological information for weather forecasting. If we assume that agriculture in the community is rainfed and vulnerable to climate extremes and change, meteorological information could help farmers and pastoralists in the community cope with climate variability or adapt to climate change. Still, the community could regard the oracle as superior in relation to specific, important indicators, such as onset of rainfall, or amount of rainfall.

Further, if the oracle community is geographically remote, meteorological weather forecasts may not be downscaled or location-specific, thus less effective in addressing the local needs of community farmers and pastoralists. The forecasts could lack reliability, or capacity in the community to interpret them is limited. Here, the oracle practice would continue to have an essential, or predominant, role in the community.

Pain in the brain is like a melody in music

A flash of lightning produces a single sound. Pain in the brain is not like that. Neurons in the brain can excite or inhibit many other neurons, to which they are connected. Pain is not controlled by a single neuron.

A flash of lightning has no intended direction. But pain in the brain is not like that. The synaptic connections between neurons enable coordinated patterns of activation between millions of interconnected neurons. A type of pain is just a type of activation pattern.

Pain in the brain is not conducted like a symphony orchestra by a single individual. It is more like a free-jazz ensemble whose music is produced by loose and coordinated effort among the ensemble members.

‘Do you try to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves?’ Wittgenstein once said. The same can be said of pain in the brain.

The brain is a causal mechanism to convey pain as a sensation. Pain also conveys to us itself. Pain in the brain is like a melody in music. When we feel a pain, the pain doesn’t convey something else that compounds with the activation patterns in the brain. We get the feeling of a pain because pain just is an activation pattern.

In the absence of a general theory of pain or brain function, metaphor and philosophy serve useful placeholder roles.

It is not obvious that experiences of pain are identical to brain activation patterns. In reply, it is not obvious that an ensemble of human beings could produce exciting jazz music, either.

Computers will soon act like human beings – then what?

One day, artificial thought will be achieved.

An artificially intelligent computer will say, “that makes me happy.”

Will it feel happy? Assume it will not.

Still: it will act as if it did.  It will act like an intelligent human being. And then what?

My hunch is that adult human beings will view intelligent computers as simplified versions of  themselves (child-like). Human children will view them as peers; ‘friendships’ will form between children and intelligent computers.

Why? I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s remark: ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul’.

Look at this video of ASIMO.

How would you interact with ASIMO? What would your reactions be?

It is also remarkable that ASIMO does not possess any physiology.