Pain Project Themes

Entitled in full, The Nature of Pain: Hedonic Tone, Motivation, and Non-Human Animals, our project seeks to answer a pair of fundamental questions: What is pain’s point? And in what sense is pain bad?

This requires addressing two of pain’s most obvious but least understood aspects: its unpleasantness and its motivational force -- how, that is, it drives us to injury-avoidance behaviour. Even if pain is dissociable from these features, as pain asymbolia might show, those features seem closely linked to each other. But what is their nature and relationship? And how tightly linked are they? Is it the case, for instance, that natural selection, or God, might have conferred on us -- and perhaps did confer on certain animals -- injury-avoidance systems which were just as effective as pain, but less unpleasant?

Addressing these core questions, our project has three strands. (1) How does pain relate to perception, whose role seems informational rather than motivational? (2) How does pain relate to emotional suffering, which is both implicated in and intriguingly parallels physical suffering? And (3) how is pain illuminated by comparisons and contrasts between human and non-human pain?

1. Unpleasantness, Motivation, and Perception

Many regard pain as a perceptual system—interoceptive, certainly, but playing a role not unlike exteroceptive senses like vision. But perceptual experiences are sometimes taken to be informative rather than motivational, and so this model can seem to neglect pain’s distinctive nature and role. One major research aim will be to see whether a perceptual model can address this criticism.

To this end, invoking desires, might we think of pains as a kind of perceptual experience we want to cease? Or might we instead capture pains’ motivational force by taking them to be experiences with imperative content, like commands? Another possibility is that the content of pain is action-specifying in the way that perception of a gap’s ‘jumpability’ is sometimes taken to be. Or perhaps pain is akin to a perceptual evaluation of bodily conditions. Moreover, we can ask about the bearing on these questions of the fact that other senses too have hedonic and motivational aspects, such as the awful experience of some smells or tastes, or the pleasures of ‘affective touch’ (hugging or caressing, for example).

Investigating the unpleasant, motivational character of pain—and its relationship to perceptual phenomena—will advance our central objective of understanding pain’s role and badness, and help us to see whether we might have been equipped with a pain system that motivated injury-avoiding behaviour via hedonically neutral perceptions.

2. Pain and Emotion

A second, related pathway to thinking about the badness and motivational role of pain is through pain’s connections with emotion. The amygdala is closely involved in both, for instance; and some aspects of the unpleasantness of pain are emotional, e.g. anxiety (which morphine reduces) about pain’s significance.

Emotion’s involvement in pain makes even more interesting the idea that emotional suffering is arguably an illuminating model for pain. As with pain, the relationship between emotions and perception is complex and controversial. As with pain, emotions exhibit a dual aspect: informative on the one hand, hedonic and motivational on the other. And as with pain, emotions arguably exhibit another duality: descriptive on the one hand; evaluative on the other.

This last point suggests that work on emotion might help answer questions about pain’s badness. If pains evaluate bodily conditions as bad, would this explain why pains are bad? Why should representing something as bad be itself bad? Well, emotions exhibit a similar structure: grief, for example, arguably represents a death as bad while also being itself bad (in certain ways). So philosophical research aimed at explaining the “valence” of emotional responses might also illuminate the badness of pain.

A further link with emotions concerns empathy, which is related to moral virtues and invoked by soul-making theodicies. What is the neural basis of empathy? What is to be made of recent results that empathy worsens the empathetic’s own pain? And what is the relationship between empathising and being in pain?

3. Pain and Animals

Our focus throughout the project will be on both human and non-human pain. Animals variously differ from us, and yet we share similar pain mechanisms and, so some evidence suggests, experience pain similarly. So what do the differences and similarities tell us about the nature of pain? If, in human pain, emotion or evaluation or anticipation is involved, are other animals capable of such things? If so, what form do they take? How does this bear on the role of pain in animals, and the ways in which it is bad for an animal to suffer? A guiding worry above was that we might have had effective pain systems that operated less unpleasantly. What do the various injury-avoidance systems of non-human animals tell us about this worry? In all these ways, then, animals will be a central case as we address our two fundamental questions: What is pain’s point? And in what sense is pain bad?

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