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Extraneous Bodily Sensations
(Work In Progress: output at 17/08/2017 09:07:56)
(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)
Could I feel a sensation to be located in someone else’s body?
- This question asks us to consider whether we really could feel a sensation that either appeared to be, or really was, located in another person’s body.
- To address the question, I need to discuss in turn a number of preliminary matters. Firstly, we need to consider the relevant senses in which “feeling”, “sensation” and “location” should be understood in the context of bodily sensation. Secondly, we need to analyse what we mean by the boundaries of our bodies. Next, we must discuss how we determine the location of a bodily sensation. Finally, we need to consider briefly different kinds of possibility. We will then be in a position to consider the various candidates for sensations located in another’s body arise. Broadly, these split into three divisions which will be explained in due course – the “grammatical”, the “technological” and the “natural”. These are summarised in the conclusion at the end of the essay, at which a final decision is reached.
- The essay is particularly indebted to
→ "Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - Bodily Sensations", "Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - The Blue and Brown Books - Preliminary Studies for the Philosophical Investigations", pp. 48-57, as well as to
→ "Armstrong (David) - Bodily Sensations", "Armstrong (David) - A Materialist Theory of the Mind", Chapter 14,
→ “The Intentionality of Bodily Sensation3”, "Crane (Tim) - Elements of Mind - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind": §24 and
→ Lecture & backup class material.
- First of all, we consider what it is to feel something in our bodies. We need to distinguish between what constitutes feeling and what causes feeling.
- Dealing with the latter question first, I will adopt a standard physicalist explanation. I will take it that the normal physiological way for bodily sensation to arise is by sense or pain receptors to be stimulated somewhere in our bodies or on its surface and for electrical impulses to be transmitted via the nerves to the brain. The brain then “somehow” interprets these impulses and generates the qualitative feeling of pain or other sensations.
- There are, of course, two kinds of pathological situation. The first is where sensation doesn’t arise because of anaesthesia or lesions somewhere along the chain of transmission. The second is where false signals are generated along the chain, leading the brain to make wrong deductions, as in the case of phantom-limb pain. According to this model, sensations are “in the head”, though they are felt to be located at the source, or in pathological cases, the imputed or “normal” source, of the impulses.
- We now turn to the second aspect of “feeling” – what constitutes it. Here we seem to be talking about something irreducibly subjective. The feeling is constituted by the feeling, and that’s all there is to it. There seems to be no way to explain the qualitative feeling of a sensation to someone who has never experienced it, other than by analogy with other sensations that he has experienced. Thankfully, is not necessary to make progress in this area in order to answer the question before us.
- Before going further, we should dispose of a red herring. Saying that “I feel your pain” is usually figurative and indicates empathy. While I’m superficially claiming to feel a pain that’s located in your body (or, more likely, in your mind – in the sense that I’m usually empathising with your mental anguish), it is a different pain to your pain, and is also in my body – or rather in my mind – not yours. An example is where I wince when you cut your finger on the paper of this essay. The empathetic pain, if I feel it to be located anywhere, will feel to me to be located in my finger (or maybe a general creepy feeling in my skin) and not in yours.
- We now need to define what we mean by bodily sensations. Armstrong splits what might prima facie be referred to as bodily sensations into two categories, though there are some boundary disputes. Firstly, we have bodily sensations properly so-called and secondly we have bodily feelings. He also distinguishes, when it comes to bodily sensations, between the transitive and the intransitive – but this need not detain us here.
- The distinction between sensations and feelings addresses the question whether it’s bodyparts or the body as a whole that’s the primary object of bodily awareness. It could seem to be one, the other or both, depending on the circumstances. Bodily sensations are those felt to be located in a particular body part – such as itches, tickles, toothache, and so on. Bodily feelings, such as general tiredness at the thought of writing an essay or following a mad dash for the train, do not seem to be located in any particular body part, but are attributed to the body as a whole.
- Armstrong’s sensations seem the more likely candidates for location in another’s body, except in severely pathological cases such as Siamese twins which will be discussed later. Since it can’t be assumed that the question follows Armstrong’s terminology, I’ll consider both Armstrong’s sensations and feelings in this paper.
- We might ask whether we can have illusory sensations. The answer is probably that, though what the sensation is interpreted as representing (namely, the intentionality of the sensation; eg. a broken toe) may be an illusion, the sensation itself cannot be illusory. We will have to wait to see whether all cases of sensations appearing to come from another’s body are illusory in the intentional sense.
- As a third preliminary, we need to discuss what it is for a sensation to be located before we can judge whether it can be located in another’s body. Wittgenstein points out that we don’t really mean, by “location”, the 3-D Cartesian co-ordinates, as though we can say that the pain is such-and-such a distance from the wall.
- Another peculiarity about sensations being located is the ambiguity in saying that a pain has moved. A pain can move from one part of the body to another, in that referred pain from the back may move, say, from the buttock to the hamstring. However, we don’t usually say that a pain in a moving hand is moving. We need to explain this difference.
- To illustrate further, we can imagine Jonah feeling somewhat uncomfortable inside the whale. He is definitely feeling sensations, and he is definitely located inside the whale’s body, so he is feeling a sensation to be located in another’s body. However, this is like having a pain in your hand, and your hand in your pocket, and so a pain in your pocket. This seems to point out the issue raised above; that in talking about bodily sensations, we’re not giving co-ordinates. “In” seems to have a logical and not just spatial sense. Hence, there is a failure of transitivity.
Boundaries of my body
- What is it for a location to be a location within my body? We appear to have a body image. That is, we know by proprioception where our body starts and ends, and by kinesthesia which parts are moving, so that we can avoid banging bits of it or falling over. Why not, if this is the case, include prostheses as parts of our body? I might get used to wearing a wooden leg and treat it as part of my body and learn to have a proprioceptive sense of its whereabouts.
- Bodily sensations are usually felt to be inclusively within the boundaries of the skin. The sense of touch represents the normal geometrical outer-limit of our bodily sensations. So, prima facie everything within my skin is part of my body, and nothing else is.
- We can explore this in the case of Siamese twins, where there are shared body parts but only one skin. There are also body parts that are not shared; the arm on the right might “belong” to the head on the right, and so on. Why would we make such an attribution? The reason would presumably be because I can feel with the right hand, say, while my twin can feel with the left. Alternatively, it could relate to volitional movement, though life would get somewhat confusing if we could each voluntarily move the same body part.
- Wittgenstein considers such a case with a hand surgically attached simultaneously to the arms of two different people. The underlying cause of the claim to ownership would be one of neural wiring. If they could each feel with (or move) the hand, then they would be said to share it. If the hand remained joined to another’s body, but the neural connections were severed and the sensations re-routed to my body, then, in that case, the hand would still be “under his skin” and so part of his body, and yet part of mine.
Are the Locations of Bodily Sensations Learned or Deduced?
- Could we learn to feel pains in another’s body without any neural connections to it? Take the example of a whipping boy, caned for the laziness of a prince at his lessons. Does the prince learn to feel the pain of the whipping boy, so as to respond in the same way as if it had been his pain (in the normal sense)? It seems clear that no more than empathy could be involved, and that neural connections are the sine qua non for trans-body sensation.
- However, do we learn the location of sensation in our own bodies? Babies allegedly don’t know which way to move their limbs, or which limbs to move, in response to pains. Since we can’t ask them at the time, and when they can answer they can’t remember, this could be put down to a general lack of motor co-ordination. However, it could be, using Armstrong’s terminology introduced earlier between bodily sensations and bodily feelings, that babies start off with bodily feelings and then, as their sense of their bodies develops, resolve these into bodily sensations understood to be in a particular body part. As such, locating bodily sensations would be learned.
- Do we need the agreement or not of the various sensory modalities in locating a bodily sensation? Maybe from within, the sensation seems to be in my body, but could we deduce that it is really in another body from cues from the other ordinary sensory modalities? Wittgenstein considers scenarios whereby various cues tell us the sensation is coming from a certain place, but visually we rule this out because that place (eg. a table-leg) is not the sort of place a pain can be.
- But, when we feel a sensation, under normal circumstances, how do we locate it? It feels intuitively to be coming from some particular place or other, but we may not be quite sure where. So, we prod the suspected location to see if there are variations in the degree of pain; or we look to see whether someone is treading on our toe. Some locations cannot be prodded or otherwise investigated, but we are still sure the acid pain is coming from the stomach or the oesophagus. Maybe we don’t initially know where it’s coming from, other than inside – hence the frequent confusion of indigestion with heart trouble – though we may be reassured that the unpleasant pain is dyspeptic by the curative properties of our emergency supply of Rennies.
- We can take this point further by considering an interesting analysis raised but rejected by Crane; namely, that the location of a sensation may not be felt at all, but only believed. If this analysis is correct, we can formally answer “no” to our questioner, because sensations are not felt to be located anywhere, but only believed to be located.
- The analysis Crane considers to be erroneous is that a felt location involves two things: a sensation, or quale, and a belief, that the sensation has a certain bodily location. Crane’s objection is that, while beliefs are revisable in the light of further evidence, we would continue to believe that the pain felt as though it was in our leg whatever the contrary evidence.
- Crane’s example is of a materialist arguing that the pain is really in one’s brain. Even if we were to believe that that’s where the pain “really” is, we would still feel it in (say) our leg.
- A counter-argument is, as we saw Wittgenstein noted above, that while we might just about stick to our guns if the toothache felt to be located in someone else’s head, we’d be troubled if it felt to be in the table. The response is that, even so, the pain would still feel to be in the table, even though we might believe that it couldn’t possibly be there. So, we can conclude that the felt bodily location of sensations has nothing to do with our beliefs, and we are left with locations of bodily sensation as an irreducible qualitative feeling.
Different Forms of Possibility
- The question asks us to consider whether we “could …”. It is important to stress the different forms of possibility that might be under consideration. There are many forms, but a three-fold distinction is usual, namely between practical, physical and logical possibilities. A state of affairs is practically possible if it can be achieved by fairly normal means. It is physically possible if it can be achieved without breaking the laws of physics. Finally, it is logically possible if it could be achieved, but maybe only if the laws of physics were different.
- In this essay we are considering practical and physical possibility. We’re not concerned with situations where the laws of physics differ from what we understand them to be, partly because such a question is too hard, but also because this is probably not what the question has in mind. I will, at least, make this assumption.
- When we say that we can’t feel pain located in another’s body, are we talking about a logical impossibility, a physical impossibility or a practical impossibility? As Wittgenstein points out, the grammar of the situation makes it logically impossible for someone to feel another person’s pain, but we’re considering whether our pain can be felt to be located in someone else’s body.
- If it is the case that any body part in which I can feel pain or other sensation is “mine”, then at first sight it might seem logically impossible to feel sensations in another’s body, since any body I can feel sensations in is my body. However, while the body is truly my body, it might still be another’s body as well, with two people feeling the sensation; even though it would not be numerically the same sensation.
- Wittgenstein points out that I can mean two things by saying that I can’t feel someone else’s toothache because it is in his mouth. I can mean that it is practically impossible, just as when I say I can’t see his gold tooth because it’s in his mouth and his mouth is shut. This is a contingent fact – his mouth might have been open. Similarly, being unable to feel pain in a tooth in someone else’s mouth may be a contingent fact; we might conceivably fix this by clever wiring.
- On the other hand, I might be making a logical distinction – his toothache is his toothache, wherever it is situated, and mine is mine, so that it is logically impossible for me to feel his toothache. So, I might stipulate that, as a matter of logic, I cannot feel sensations in someone else’s body, because anywhere I can feel sensation is part of my body.
- However, this stipulation doesn’t quite work. Even if I do stipulate that anywhere I can feel pain is part of my body, it must be the case that, if someone else can feel pain in the same location, or even if the body part is under his skin, that location must be part of his body as well. Hence, the possibility is left open that, despite the logical or grammatical stipulations, I can at least contingently feel pain in someone else’s body.
Three Arguments for Feeling Sensation in Another’s Body
- Having discussed the issues that form the boundaries of the question, we can now get down to the main argument. I will argue that it’s a contingent fact that we normally feel sensations only located in our own bodies, and that consequently, it is possible (physically, if not practically) to feel a sensation to be located in another’s body. As stated in the introduction, there appear to be three candidate situations, the “grammatical”, the “technological” and the “natural”.
- “Grammatical” Cases
- There are a number of “grammatical” senses in which we might say that a sensation is located in another’s body. We might feel a sensation in a phantom limb and the space where this limb would naturally have been, had it not been amputated, could well overlap with the location of another person’s body. So, in this sense, we could feel a sensation to be located in another’s body. But equally, the sensation could be located inside a table or other inanimate object not noted for being a source of feeling.
- Wittgenstein also considers a case whereby we might feel pain to be where someone else’s limb is. The idea seems to be that I feel a pain in my left hand, but have forgotten where I’ve put my hand. I imagine the pain to be coming from where I see “my” left hand to be. However, when I poke with my right hand the hand that’s resting, supposedly in pain, on my left thigh, I find that it’s not my hand but someone else’s. This appears to be a similar case of feeling pain in someone else’s body in the “grammatical” sense.
- I find this case less plausible than the phantom-limb case because it’s uncertain whether I could, other than in “phantom limb” or “technological” cases, feel a pain extending beyond my body boundaries. As previously discussed, aren’t these felt locations learned? If I’d never had a body part extending thus far, how could I have learned to locate a sensation there? O’Shaughnessy, for example, finds it almost incomprehensible to think of pains other than in our own limbs, so we need a story to explain how we might come to the conclusion that they are located outside the boundaries of our body.
- Wittgenstein does provide such a story, but it seems to involve losing track of where a supposedly painful hand is located. Maybe we are to suppose that the limb had “gone to sleep”, and that we had lost sensory contact with it and also lost the proprioceptive feeling of where it is. However, when blood-supply returns and it “wakes up”, would we feel it to be where we’d previously erroneously thought it was? Our previous discussions have led us to conclude that our bodily feelings are irremediable. We can therefore presume that the pain feels as though it’s in our left hand. But, where does our left hand feel to be? If it doesn’t feel to be anywhere, then we’d have to go by belief, and so we might well believe that someone else’s hand is our hand. But, it seems unlikely that pain would return, but proprioceptive sense not.
- As a third example, we noted earlier in the “Jonah” case that there are situations where someone is inside another sentient being, so that their sensations are located inside that being’s body.
- However, all these cases are rather unsatisfying. In the grammatical sense, these sensations are located in another person’s body, but this doesn’t seem to be what our question is after.
- “Technological” Cases
- Wittgenstein and Armstrong point out that a radio-transmission device, or suitable wiring, might enable us to feel pains in another’s body. Similarly, we have Wittgenstein’s “shared hand” example. While these thought-experiments stretch the available technology, they would seem to be physical possibilities as defined above. There are, however, two sticking points.
- The first has to do with the definition of one’s body. However, as we have seen, even if we define the limits of one’s body to include anything one can feel sensation in, the body parts in question also belong to another person’s body, so our question receives a positive answer.
- The second sticking point is where the sensation would appear to come from. It might be, and this is a question for empirical research when the technology arrives, that the sensations would feel to be coming from wherever sensations normally come from in the chosen neurological pathway, much as in the phantom limb case. So, a pain in someone else’s leg might feel as though it was coming from one of our own legs, or our left ear, if the wiring was botched. However, if our earlier arguments about learning sensory locations are cogent, it might be possible to learn to feel sensations as coming from another’s body, especially if the wiring was done in such a way as not to become confused with our normal neural pathways.
- “Natural” Cases
- Finally, we have natural, albeit aberrant, cases. The case of Siamese twins is a natural variant of a person being “wired up” to another’s body. We say that there are two people sharing this composite body because there are two independent consciousnesses, with their own private sensations. However, there is one body because it is enclosed within one skin. The “anaesthetic boy” example of William James, quoted by Anscombe, shows that a body may be truly mine, yet I may not be able to feel pains in it. However, even if we implausible restrict body-part-ownership to those parts we have sensation in, it is likely that there will be shared body parts that both twins can feel sensation in (a nasty attack of angina in the shared heart, for instance). Since that heart is in my twin’s body, then I can feel a sensation in another’s body.
- An awkward point about the question is that it asks “could I feel …”. This particular example will fail depending on the reference of the indexical, since most people are not a Siamese twin.
- There are many senses in which a pain could be said to be located in someone else’s body, or even in inanimate objects, but many are due to peculiarities of grammar and equivocation concerning “location” as applied to sensation. Where, by cunning engineering, sensations arising from someone else’s body are relayed to my cognitive system, there are questions whether such a body-part would then count as being part of my body. I think that it would, though only after I’d got used to the situation and learned the location of the sensation. However, it would still count as being part of the other person’s body, and saying the pain is located in his body does seem plausible. At least it is more in the spirit of the question than the grammatical “phantom limb overlap” cases, the artificiality of which is shown by the “pain in the pocket” counter-examples. If I happened to be a Siamese twin, then the question has a straightforward positive answer.
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