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Pains as Mental Objects
(Text as at 31/08/2017 19:35:02)
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Are there any good reasons to suppose that pains are mental objects?
- The question asks us what pains are, and suggests that they might be mental objects, a possibility we are asked to evaluate. The short answer to this question is “no”. In this essay, I closely follow Tim Crane’s “The Intentionality of Bodily Sensation3” in which he argues that pains are intentional states whose objects, real or illusory, are bodily locations. Other material in the essay derives from lecture and backup class material.
- What are Pains?
- What is the motivation for thinking that pains are mental objects or, equivalently, that there might be such things as pain-objects? To address the question, we need to determine what a pain is. Pains can be viewed from several aspects, but the most important two are the public and the private. From the private perspective, the most important for someone in pain, is of pain as a noxious and private experience that we wish would stop immediately! However, pain-behaviour (screaming, hopping up and down, etc) can be a very public affair. Hence, it would appear that while pains have a heavy mental component, there is sometimes a public component as well. We will need to consider what pains are for (ie. why they have evolved). Their interpretation as perceptions of bodily damage explains this two-fold nature, to inform the owner of that body that there is something wrong, and the owner’s conspecifics likewise, in the hope of receiving aid.
- The Individuation and Location of Pains
- A point in favour of pains being objects is that we can individuate pains – we can count, locate and distinguish them. If I have a pain in my right hand and another in my left foot, that makes two distinct pains, not one hand-foot pain amalgam. There may be limits to the amount of individuation possible. If one is unfortunate enough to suffer pains in too many locations, such as when one has had an unpleasant encounter with a swarm of bees or gone for a roll in the stinging nettles, the overwhelming sensation could be that the body as a whole is in pain. We’ve already introduced location. This is the felt location, which may be precise – the thumb I’ve just banged – or more generally located. The important thing is that the felt location is within the confines of the body (or, in exceptional circumstances, its former confines).
- When we say that we have a pain in the left foot, we are slightly ambivalent about what we mean by location. We are certain – though we can nevertheless be mistaken – that the foot is the cause of the trouble, and that there’s something wrong with it, and that the pain feels to be situated there. However, if we were thinking of pains as mental objects, we wouldn’t think of the mental object being in the foot. If mental objects are the sort of things that have locations, they would be in the brain. The idea would be something like the pain object being the brain’s interpretation of the sensory signals received from the pain receptors in the foot. Alternatively, in the case of phantom limb pain, the interpretation of signals arising somewhere along the nerve pathway from the former foot, so as to give the impression of pain located there.
- Alternatives to Pain-Objects
- What about alternative accounts, dispensing with the need for pain-objects? We can say that we count the feelings of pain, or the parts of the body that hurt (the bodily locations) and so have no need of mental pain-objects. As we have noted, there are other alternatives, such as pains as perceptions of bodily damage. Instead of pain-objects we might have the adverbial explanation – that sensations of pain are feelings “in a certain manner”.
- Should the existence of mental objects imply objectivity? Can things be objective to a single subject? Something is objective if it’s public, but pains are intrinsically private – “I feel your pain” is a figure of speech. But, this is muddling up objects and objectivity. The existence of mental objects and the lack of objectivity of mental events are quite consistent with one another. In any case, we have seen that some pains do have a public aspect.
- Are Pains Mental Objects?
- Crane accepts that there are objects of pain, but denies that these objects are mental. Following Crane, we can distinguish between the state of being in pain and the pain felt in that state. “x is in pain” is a one-place predicate giving a property of the subject, x. “x feels a y in z” is a 3-place predicate where y could be satisfied by other sensation-words and z is satisfied by a part of the body. Crane uses the terms pain-state for the one-place predicate of being in pain, and pain-object, for the object apparently related to the subject when he is conscious of a pain. This discussion is about what the status of the pain-object is, whether it is a mental object or something else.
- Given an analysis of pain-statements such as that above, it is natural to consider pains, and bodily sensations generally, as the intentional objects of the pain-states (or other states). In order for this to be the case, we need to identify the elements that go to make up intentional states in the case of pain-states.
- Intentionality – a Brief Summary
- There seem to be a number of different ways of presenting intentionality, but Crane’s way is to define the two essential features of intentionality as directedness and aspectual shape. Following the first paragraph of §8 of Elements of Mind4, a summary of what is involved in intentionality with respect to thoughts is as follows:
- Any intentional state is the presentation of something, the intentional object, to the mind.
- The thought is directed on this object, which is what the thought is about.
- For the state of mind to have aspectual shape is for it to present the intentional object in a certain way, which gives it intentional content, which is what is in the mind.
- Intentional states involve relations from intentional modes (eg. beliefs) to intentional contents (eg. propositions) which together give the nature of the intentional state. Every intentional state has an intentional object at which it is directed.
- The Intentionality of Pain-States
- Consequently, for sensations – and, in particular, pains – to be genuinely intentional, we must be able to distinguish three things – the intentional object, the mode and the content. Translating from the case of thoughts to that of pain-states, Crane analyses the example of a pain in one’s ankle. This is, in Crane’s terminology rather than Armstrong’s, a transitive form of awareness – an awareness of one’s ankle, which is the object of the state and which is presented to one in a certain way. In the case of thoughts, the answer to the question “what is your thought about?” gives the intentional object of your thought. Pains are not about things, Crane says, so instead of asking what your pain is about, we ask where it hurts, and the answer gives the intentional object of the pain. That there is a relational structure is shown by the distinction between the subject of the experience and the object, the region that hurts; and that there is an intentional object is shown by the mind being directed on that region. As with other intentional objects – such as beliefs about Father Christmas – there are cases where the object doesn’t exist; in the case of pain, phantom limbs.
- Searle and others had objected to the intentionality of pain-states in favour of an alternative presentation. In “X is conscious of Y”, Y is usually the intentional object of X’s consciousness, as when Y is an approaching bus or a knock on the door. Consequently, it is natural to think of “X is conscious of a pain” as an intentional relation between X and a pain-object. However, in the case of buses or knocks on doors, my conscious state is intentional because it makes reference to something outside itself, whereas in the case of a pain, say Searle and company, the pain is not intentional because it doesn’t represent anything beyond itself. There are two ways of defending against this criticism. One is to defend the “consciousness of pain-objects” thesis directly, but Crane’s preferred approach is to abandon pain-objects and present the intentionality of pain-states as given in previous paragraphs; namely, by attempting a better understanding of the locations of pains.
- Having a feeling of a bodily location is essential to normal sensations. Attending to a sensation is attending to the apparent part of the body where the sensation appears to be; not necessarily a precise location (for sensations such as nausea or exhaustion), but the point is that it must be felt somewhere in one’s body. This explains why making sense of a sensation of one’s own ten inches outside one’s left shoulder is so difficult. Phantom limbs are not counter-examples because in this case the body is felt to extend further than in fact it does, so the pain is still felt within the body insofar as the body feels to the sufferer.
- Crane continues to spell out what’s involved in his intentional interpretation of pain. The intentional object of one’s pain is not necessarily presented as it is anatomically. One may have a pain in one’s liver without knowing that the liver is where the pain is, or even that one has a liver, but merely that it’s “over here”. This is the aspectual shape of bodily sensations; their objects are presented in certain ways to the exclusion of others, so that two sensation-states could converge on the same object presented in different ways. The content of the sensation-state is how it presents the part of the body as being, so that the content of a phantom-limb pain “in” a leg can correctly be “my leg hurts”.
- The intentional mode is a mode of feeling. Crane draws an analogy between internal and external sensations; pain is a kind of feeling just as seeing is a kind of perceiving. The various ways of feeling one’s body are the intentional modes, which have parts of the body as their intentional objects.
- What are the Intentional Objects of Pain-States?
- So, Crane favours parts of the body over pain-objects as the intentional objects of pain states. Parts of the body are straightforward real things that can be individuated. Pain objects are obscure in that they would have to be partly like objects (as they can move and return) and partly like events (in that they have duration). What this means is that a pain that moves from the shoulder to the back, say, would be considered as the same object – a complete thing that’s moving about. An event – a flood being the classic example – isn’t a complete thing, but consists in changes occurring in other things.
- However, Crane owes us more of an explanation of how his intentional objects remain the same over time. If pains can really move and be the same pain, what connects the pain in my back to the pain in my shoulder that it once was, especially if pains are individuated by location? He might try the analogy of a wave. At any particular instant, the wave is located in the water of which it is constituted. However, the wave moves – it is located in different stretches of water as it does so (individual water molecules simply bob up and down as the wave passes). So, a moving pain can be located in different parts of the body as it moves, and yet remain the same pain.
- More importantly, paradoxes appear to arise for pain-objects. Consider the argument:
- The pain is in my hand.
- My hand is in my pocket; therefore,
- The pain is in my pocket”.
- This is invalid, as Block has pointed out; but why, asks Crane, should it be invalid if pains are objects that occupy space and therefore occupy a space containing that space? As I’ve remarked above, I’m not convinced any self-respecting mental-object supporter would say that pain-objects occupy space. Block’s paradox is puzzling, since it only seems to depend on the transitivity of the relation “x is in y”. It is important for our purposes to understand this paradox, as otherwise it might be possible that some resolutions could resurrect pain-objects.
- There are various responses. Block’s own diagnosis is that the “in” is ambiguous, but Tye disagrees on the grounds that (1) is an intensional context5, and draws analogies with similar invalid inferences arising from intensional contexts containing psychological verbs. For example:
- I want to be in City Hall,
- City Hall is in a ghetto, therefore
- I want to be in a ghetto.
- Crane is not convinced by Tye, since he thinks the invalidity of (4)-(6) is obviously due to the fact that one can represent the object of one’s desire without revealing all the facts about it (ie. “provided it’s not located somewhere ghastly”). While Crane agrees that Tye is right that “in” is not ambiguous in this case, there’s no parallel to (1)-(3) where no object is being presented in multiple ways. I think I agree with Block, that when we’re saying the pain is in my hand, we’re not using “in” in the same sense as we’re using it in saying the hand is in my pocket, though Crane comes to discuss this shortly.
- Casati has shown that intensionality is not the explanation of the invalidity of (1)-(3) by the straightforwardly invalid example:
- The hole is in my trousers.
- My trousers are in the cupboard, therefore
- The hole is in the cupboard.
- This looks like the same sort of argument as (1)-(3) but with no intensional context. Casati’s explanation is that “in” is ambiguous in this case. In (7) it represents causal or ontological dependence of the hole on the trousers, while in (8) there is no such dependence.
- Crane asks whether this explanation would work for (1)-(3), ie. could the “in” in (1) represent the causal or ontological dependence of the pain on the hand, which, together with the fact that my hand is not dependent on my pocket explain the ambiguity of (1)-(3)? Crane thinks not, because a pain cannot be ontologically or causally dependent on a phantom limb, and a phantom limb patient could rehearse the argument (1)-(3).
- Crane thinks the right answer is that the pain-state, while not ontologically or causally dependent on the hand, is intentionally individuated by the hand. The pain-state requires an object to complete it, just as a thought does; my pain is individuated by my hand, which is part of what makes it the pain it is. But, just as we can think about a non-existent Pegasus, so I can have a pain in a non-existent hand. “In” expresses intentional individuation, when it comes to pain states, but not when it comes to hands in pockets. If this is the case, I can’t see why Crane objects to the ambiguity of “in”. Presumably it’s just the reason for the ambiguity he’s objecting to.
- Intentional individuation is not relational, since X can intentionally individuate Y even when X doesn’t exist. This contrasts with causal or ontological dependence. Crane says that Jackson is right that the phantom limb case shows that sensation statements don’t essentially relate persons to parts of their body, but wrong to bring in mental objects. The problem is not with the object (body-part versus pain-object) but with relational versus intentional individuation.
- Crane thinks that an advantage of his view is that it allows him to talk of pains being “in” parts of the body without talk of literal pain-objects. Crane is suspicious of pain-objects, not only because they are unnecessary, but because not all languages talk about pains as if they were objects, so talk of pain-objects may simply be an artefact of English idiom.
- While I’m not convinced that pains as mental objects fall prey to knock-down paradoxical arguments, they don’t seem to be ontologically necessary, and should fall prey to a swish of Occam’s razor.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Footnote 5: Ie. it fails to satisfy the common tests for extensionality, namely
- Substitutability of identicals (Leibniz’s Law) and
- Existential inference (“Father Christmas exists”).
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