Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Pain and the Mystery of Physicalism

Posted by Dr Samuel Douglas on October 17, 2007

I’ve been following and participating in this discussion at Fides Quaerens Intellectum about the status of pain and how it creates problems for Classic Foundationalism (CF). More than the problems for CF, I’ve been interested in the assumptions involved in arguing about pain, and whether or not one can be mistaken about being in pain.

Repeatedly people have commented that it is possible that I could be in pain and not know it, or at least be possibly mistaken about being in pain.

Ian claimed that my C-Fibres could be firing but I might be distracted, so I could be mistaken about being in pain. This of course could only be true if the stimulated C-Fibres were actually identical to the experience of the pain. If the fibres could fire without me feeling it, does that not mean that they are not as identical as physicalists think?

Mike asserts that one could believe that they were in pain, without being in pain. Now I can see how I could believe that I was physically injured (and experience the associated pain) without it being the case that I was actually injured. I don’t think physicalists (or dualists for that matter) have any trouble with this scenario.

But what I can’t figure out is how physicalists (or indeed anyone) would explain mistakenly believing oneself to be in pain. What exactly is the physical process associated with experiencing illusionary pain? It can’t be the same process associated with so-called ‘real’ pain, otherwise you would be experiencing ‘real’ pain. So you would have to postulate a different physical process that is associated with the illusion of pain. If both of these processes produce indistinguishable qualia, then being able to say when one is in pain or not becomes a messy business. I can imagine having an MRI or CAT scan and a doctor telling me that I only have fake pain and to get over it. I’d say that it still hurts and then where would we be? If fake pain and real pain are indistinguishable, then maintaining that we can have an illusion of pain rests on divorcing “experiencing pain” and “really being in pain” at a profound level. But to say that I can experience pain without really being in pain seems contradictory to me as ‘pain’, first and foremost, refers to a particular subjective experience. If it’s not really pain, then it would not hurt. And if it does not hurt, then you know that you are not in pain, and hence could not be mistaken about it.

To make claims to the contrary entails:

The Physicalist assumption that the qualia of pain is identical to a given physical process.


The contradictory claim that the process can occur without producing the associated sensation, or that the subjective experience of pain can occur without the process taking place.

5 Responses to “Pain and the Mystery of Physicalism”

  1. Hi Sam,

    I don’t think that one has to be physicalist to consider that there is distinction between e.g. having pain in the finger, and illusion of having a pain in a finger.
    In same way as seeing rabbit and illusion of rabbit might be indistinguishable, in case of an illusion of seeing a rabbit there is a sense in which we can claim that we are not actually seeing a rabbit.

  2. Sam D said

    I agree with regard to being a physicalist, but I have a bit of trouble with the idea of an illusion of pain.

    A pain in the finger is not the same as seeing a rabbit. Why? Well say that it’s red rabbit. I can say that I have the illusion of seeing this rabbit. Say we allow that the collection of qualia that make up this illusion includes the qualia of ‘Redness’. Can I say that I’m having an illusion of having the inner subjective experience of redness? I don’t think I can, because even though the red rabbit is an illusion, I’m still having an experience of redness – there is still red qualia going on. The fact that the rabbit isn’t there (or is not really red) need not make it seem less red to the person experiencing the illusion.

    I think that for so called ‘fake’ pain the injury or perceived cause of the pain is like the rabbit, but the pain itself is like the ‘redness’ discussed above. Pain as subjective experience, like any other qualia, could be caused by an illusion/brain malfunction etc. But you can’t have ‘fake’ qualia, because they are defined by the quality of subjective experience they entail. The experience of ‘redness’ is defined by how red it seems to the person having it, not by the external causes of the qualia. Pain is defined by what it feels like, if it does not hurt, it’s not pain!

    All you need to do is admit that the causes of these subjective experiences are something that we can be wrong about.

  3. In the analogy with colors we can distinguish a thing being red, and thing appearing red. So it can’t be that we use “red” for the qualia itself (aside the issue if we need to assume qualia as entity or not). We don’t say that white ball under red light is red. We say that it is a white ball, and that we just have illusion of it being red. We speak of the “red qualia” only when we assume that the appearing same of those two (a red thing and white thing under red light is due to there being some “qualia” entities which are same in both cases).

    We also do such distinction for the rabbits, voices, and so on… We use the words simpliciter to refer to the things (and hence distinguish IS from APPEARS), and we use “qualia” for theoretical entities which we assume in order to explain sameness of experience.

    So, now the question is, why would we treat “pain” as a special case, and speak about pain and illusion of pain, and use “pain qualia” to talk about those theoretical entities which explain the sameness of the pain and the illusion of pain. Of course, the pain does look like somewhat a special case, in that, that in other cases it is easy for us to change the context somehow, in order to “break the illusion”. In the case of pain, we seem not to have such “appears” situation, but I don’t see why it would be impossible.

    One might also say that in case of pain, it affects us certain way (it hurts), so that is something that makes the qualia itself – the pain. But that isn’t anything special. We might be afraid of an illusionary lion, or we might find beautiful an illusionary color.

  4. Oops… it should be “why wouldn’t we treat “pain” in same way, and speak…”

  5. Kevin Nelson said

    It has actually happened to me on occasion that I thought I was in pain when I wasn’t. Usually this has happened right after something has occurred that normally would cause pain, e.g. my hand getting hit. After a few moments I have always realized that in fact I was not in pain, but the illusion was definitely there.

    The explanation I would give is that there is more than one brain process that normally takes place when we experience pain. When experiencing illusory pain, only a subset of those processes occur. That subset may still be enough to give you an unpleasant experience, even if it is not genuine pain. The qualia will be different, but similar enough that you will need to pay attention in order to distinguish them.

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