Pain as a Propositionless Attitude

The argument for a separate status for the mental extends ultimately to the claim that there is something it is like to hope, believe, or experience redly, and that this likeness is irreducible to any other form of explanation that depends only on third-person arguments. In one form, this can be seen in Frank Jackson’s argument about Mary the color scientist who has never experienced color first-hand.

For our purposes, we shall take Mary and put her in a slightly modified situation. Let us imagine that, rather than a color scientist, Mary is a princess, and that her parents have proclaimed that she is never to experience pain. (This can be referred to, with tongue firmly in cheek, as Miller’s “The Matter of Mary, the Pampered Princess” for further citation.) Now our Princess Mary has had maids constantly on the lookout for the slightest cause of pain, and they have been unusually successful. She never receives the slightest bump or bruise, even during the difficult process of learning to walk, because her surroundings are always perfectly padded and her falls are all safe because there are no sharp edges anywhere in the castle. Her meals are extremely regulated so as to prevent the pangs of hunger, and her exercise is moderated so as to keep her fit without ever experiencing the burn of lactic acid. Without exhaustively describing the measures these servants have used, let us assume that her life is free from suffering, as befits royalty.

However, it is also safe to assume that her parents’ indulgence would not stop at the mere prevention of pain, but also attempt as much as possible to please her. Inevitably, these prerogatives will come into conflict. One day Mary demands to know why she is never allowed to touch objects with corners, or play with her father’s sword. When gentle explanations fail to dissuade her inquiries, her royal parents decide that too much resistance might lead to fit of adolescent pique, which would be emotionally painful for Mary. They decide to send her on a chaperoned visit of the castle infirmary, where she meets and discusses pain with many learned nurses and healers. Her interest only whetted, Mary continues her researches by chatting up the sick and dying, and listens with rapt attention to their blow by blow accounts of their aches and ailments. Going a step further, she demands entrance to the castle dungeons, where she becomes fast friends with the palace torturer, and wiles away many an afternoon devising new and gruesome torments for the enemies of the state imprisoned there. Let us now assume that Mary comes to know everything there is to know about pain from a third-person perspective: the biological, the functional, the behavioral, the poetic, the descriptive, and the practical. So now the question: when the revolution comes, and the palace torturer is ordered to put his old friend through her paces, why is no one, least of all her, surprised?

It’s not just that this horribly spoiled princess deserves to reap what she has sown, and knows it, but also that we have gone beyond the bounds of possibility in the formulation of the example. Surely Mary would have thought to pinch herself at some point, just to get a general clue of what sort of thing pain is. But this sort of objection doesn’t really address the heart of the problem. My claim, then, is not that nothing new is learned from the first-person perspective of pain, but that pain is so constitutive of the human experience that it is literally impossible to imagine life without it. Pretend that it were possible to really prevent pain over an extended duration like childhood. Let’s say that, instead of all the elaborate techniques for avoiding injury, the King simply ordered his surgeons to install a neural shunt in his daughter’s cerebellum before she was born, preventing all pain messages from reaching her cortex. The agony of childbirth, the anxiety over her next meal, and the discomfort of a wet diaper would all fail to negatively stimulate her. They’d all be experienced purely functionally, without the aversive, attention-getting quality that makes pain unique. If our current suspicions on developmental psychology are correct, then Mary the child cyborg would never have a reason to cry. Because of that, she’d never have a reason to learn to articulate herself or make herself understood, and for all intents and purposes her father’s concern for her well-being would drive her into autism. She’d certainly never learn anything articulable about pain, let alone everything, and even here it’s possible that some lonely part of her brain would bypass the neural shunt and send her into emotional convulsions of agonizing despair.

Now witness that, even more so than the color scientist who never experienced color, the pain-free princess appears to be an impossible example under the common sense understanding of childhood development. Even after all the moves that Jackson and his subsequent interpreters make to ensure that the color scientist’s life is truly color-free, the improbability of the example still cannot shelter its critics from the deep suspicion that some important point has slipped us by. Somewhere in the basic claim that one can have a fully functional understanding of color, that is, know everything about it, without ever having experienced it, we feel that we have fallen for an equivocation or a trick. Everything, after all, is an awful lot. With the similar claim about pain, the mind simply balks. In what is ultimately a fairly telling conviction from a political perspective, the prospect of a pain-free world seems literally unimaginable. Proponents of the color scientist example might claim that this is why color serves as a less contentious phenomenon than pain, lacking as it does all the salacious and sensational descriptions of torture. They might complain that the example is set up to fail. Instead, let us consider the possibility that the example gives us access to an important insight: pain’s status is unique, and this uniqueness deserves to be analyzed.

At stake is the appropriate ontology of the mental; whether, following Brentano, ‘intentionality’ is the singular mark of the mental, or if instead the mental should be reduced the spectatorial like-ness that preserves in the space of the mental only the phenomenal qualia described by David Chalmers. Yet this raises the question: what is at stake in questions of ontological status? Occam’s razor, which cautions us not to multiply entities beyond necessity, is the general rule of thumb in these matters, but a lot rests on the status of necessity. Instead let us apply a different formulation of the standard: ontological distinctions should be noted whenever they are “differences that make a difference.” Let us not prejudice ourselves as to which sorts of differences are worth noting and which are not. (For instance, a reductively functionalist approach.) Rather, let us seek distinctions where they suggest themselves and then ask after their productive quality. If this distinction makes that differentiation possible, then it is a valuable distinction, worthy of preservation.

As Searle has pointed out in his Mind, Language, and Society, the various forms of reductivism are just such prejudices: they are “nothing but” theories, committed to reducing conscious experience and propositional attitudes to other, supposedly more manageable forms. Minds might be “nothing but” bodies, qualia might be “nothing but” perceptions, intentions might be “nothing but” formulas for action, or sensations might be “nothing but” intentions. The problem, in all cases of reductivism, is that some important feature of experience is “boiled down” to some other characteristic or structure. In every case, the argument is made that reality can be described without this feature, yet the mere fact that the feature requires assistance to be explanatorily negated seems to suggest that some important difference is being effaced, and that the theory that results will be unable to account for effaced difference in some important set of situations. In the most popular example, the discovery of the biochemical bases for life eliminated “vitalism” but (thankfully!) did not successfully end debates over what makes life more valuable than non-life. The difference, life, makes a difference, value, while only the ground for that distinction changes.

In dealing with reductive approaches to qualia and intentionality, pain is instructive to the kinds of differences that one really ought to consider. For instance, Elaine Scarry has argued it should be considered as an intentional state without an object. For our purposes, this objectless intentional state will be called a propositionless attitude, since it does not correspond to the stucture of normal propositional attitudes like “I believe that S is P,” but rather indicates an ungrammatical “I hurt” or even simply “Ow!” or a non-linguistic /pain/. A third-person perspective might allow for us to analyze such an event, like a nearly fatal beating, as a series of statements where a particular kick creates an intention: “Jose feels pain in his right shoulder,” and the next kick, and the next, and the baseball bat wielded by a second assailant, all follow this form. Here, the proposition, “pain in his lower back” and its cousins serve an important descriptive purpose, but lose their last vestiges of relation to the phenomenon of a total sensorium of pain. To say that pain is a color that also has the function of aversiveness and attention-getting is to miss the tension between aversion and attention. The attention of a person in large amounts of pain is completely “gotten,” consumed fully and totally, in a way that delocalizes it, while the aversion with which she is completely occupied work on her. According to Scarry, “I have an excruciating pain in my lower abdomen” is a luxury unavailable to those who experience the most extreme forms of pain.

Now, it is important to note that Elaine Scarry is an English professor whose interest in pain is far from abstract. Her book The Body in Pain aims to show the way in which this structure, and only this structure, can account for our curiously abominable capacities to kill, maim, and torture each other. Not satisfied with the explanation that pain’s first person qualities make it simple to inflict on another, since one can ignore the effects, Scarry wonders how one could actually engage in careful, deliberate, and imaginative torture that was made famous in Chile, Brazil, Greece, the Philippines, and other locales during the seventies and eighties, usually by graduates of a US operation, the School of the Americas. Rather than ignoring the pain inflicted, a torturer must attentively monitor it, rejoice in a job well done, and perhaps even take pleasure in the suffering of another. The purpose and intention of the torturer, tied up as it so often is with interrogation, works to take away the victim’s capacity to think a thought like “I have a pain in my lower abdomen.”

Pain, Scarry claims, “is not of or for anything.” Instead, it entails a “shattering of language.” (5) Thus, Scarry’s theorization of pain involves several important distinctions that remain questions in the philosophy of mind: whether thought or language is prior, whether the mental can be better encapsulated by qualia or intentionality, and how the body impinges on the mental. Although we are focusing on the second distinction, maintaining the qualia/intention split while preserving them both in same ontological plane, her conclusions on the other points are certainly germane.

In her usage of the phenomenological conception of “world,” Scarry begins to unravel the thought/language distinction.

“It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe. Intense pain is also language-destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so the content of one’s language disintegrates; as the self disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its source and its subject.” (35)

In one sense, pain serves as an impossible limit to the mental: truly intense, constant pain seems to negate itself as a phenomenon, taking the experiencing subject with it. Scarry argues that this phenomenon is purely encapsulated by torture, where voice and language are always part of the object of the torture, insofar as interrogation is ostensibly the purpose, and even inarticulate cries can be elicited without conscious thought. The difference between an interrogation using torture and a corporeal punishment is that the torturer must, in order to be effective, achieve a level of mastery that is only gestured towards in punishment. Scarry writes, “It is crucial to see that the interrogation does not stand outside an episode of torture as its motive or justification: it is internal to the structure of torture, exists there because of its intimate connections to and interactions with the physical pain.” (29) When a prisoner confesses to a crime or reveals information under torture, the confession that has been elicited indicates the success of the torture, but when that confession is not true or the information will cause harm to others, we tend to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator. To act to end the pain by signing a confession to a crime one has not committed is, we feel, a moral failing equivalent to the actual crime. The status of confession as breaking under interrogation, rather than having one’s will broken, and as a betrayal (of oneself, one’s friends, one’s associates), rather than as an inevitable and expected portion of the torture process, demonstrates exactly what is at stake in an experience that should not be subsumed by third-person descriptive techniques. To ascribe breaking, rather than being broken, to the victim of torture is to take our assumptions of subjectivity and rational choice where they no longer belong. This is the only way we can understand a victim to have betrayed himself or others; that is, from the comfort of our own untrammeled first-person.

To resort to the syntax and logic of third-person descriptive techniques to describe phenomenal, first-person experience is to fall for exactly the same trick as reductive thinkers who are constantly trying to ignore the insistent first-person quality of their own lives. To say that mental events -must- have the status of propositional attitudes is to accept the status of the transcendental subject, before all the facts are in. The unspoken assumption behind intentionality is that there is an ethereal spectator, of some sort, who reviews intentions, affirming ‘I believe that the Third Reich will reign for a thousand years’ but refusing ‘I hope that the Allies win this war.’ Perhaps not until the Holocaust were there philosophers who were also victims of torture: the absence of a critical vocabulary of pain effectively obviates the speculation of those theorists of pain who have “only” experienced excruciating illness and near death. Those experiences lack the cruelty, the intentionality and intelligence that can maintain pain in ever increasing intensity, and the malevolent will to break a person.

Yet what is the consequence of dissolving or radicalizing the intentional syntax? Opposite to her conception of pain’s proposition-less attitude, Scarry conceives of an attitudeless proposition, or what she calls a “state that is wholly its objects.” She reserves this status for imagining, in which there is “no activity, no ‘state,’ no experienceable condition or felt-occurrence separate from the objects: the only evidence that one is imagining is that imaginary objects appear in the mind.” (162) Pain’s aversiveness is coupled with its world-shattering qualities to provide a model adequate to both a functional account of pain and a phenomenal one. At the same time, imagination combines the absence of immediate functionality with an overriding phenomenal aspect, and in so doing produces the function of making. World making and world shattering, the imagination and language take on a reciprocal relationship. When they work best, the imagination can complete the intentional state, providing an object for the objectless state of pain. This is why the vocabulary of pain inevitably involves what Scarry calls the ’language of agency,’ wherein a pain always takes on the characteristics of the visual agent of the pain, either it is ‘like’ a weapon that would cause such a sensation or ‘like’ the wound that would result. Hammering, drilling, burning, being torn open, flayed alive, stabbed, having one’s arm repeatedly broken; as Scarry writes, “pain only becomes an intentional state once it is brought into relation with the objectifying power of the imagination.” (164) Torture acts to destroy the victim’s capacity to use the language of agency, to find a means to articulate and ground her suffering.

“The failure to express pain–whether the failure to objectify its attributes or instead the failure, once those attributes are objectified, to refer them to their original site in the human body–will always work to allow its appropriation and conflation with debased forms of power: conversely, the successful expression of pain will always work to expose and make impossible that appropriation and conflation.” (14)

Unfortunately, the liberatory power of linguistic articulation is not often taken as one of the goals of a complete theory of the mental. My task here has been to argue that, in order for such a theory not to efface differences that make a difference, it is necessary to leave room for the sort of experiences that Scarry describes: the limit cases that make ordinary experiences possible. I believe this entails, at base, giving an account of the origins of intentionality precisely in the conjuction of the imagination and pain, both because it is our most fundamental concern and because doing so is politically liberating.

The two limit experiences appear as sorts of qualia, although with different valences: the qualia of pain are purely passive until they are brought together with the pure activity of imagination. Out of these building blocks, a more robust account of the mind becomes possible: one in which the mind’s unique capacity for making and artifice, precisely as a means of escaping pain, becomes intelligible as something more than a stochastic process of trial and error. This requires the coexistence of qualia and intention as conceptually separate entities. To say that qualia are the building blocks of intentions is simply to say that there always exists a possibility for the violent demolition of the fragile structure of intention that constitutes the human.

Second Opinions