Pain, Rigor and Clarity (or How a Pain in the Foot Can Be a Pain in the Neck)

Frank Jackson is a distinguished philosopher who teaches in Australia. He does “analytic” philosophy, the kind most academic philosophers in the U.S. and U.K. do. Analytic philosophers tend to take science seriously, try to offer logical arguments for their positions and often analyze the meanings of common linguistic expressions. They also generally aim for both clarity and rigor in their written work.

Being interested in the philosophy of perception, I’ve been reading Perception: A Representative Theory, one of Professor Jackson’s books. It deals with traditional philosophical questions like this: “Since science tells us that physical objects like apples and oranges aren’t really colored – they only look colored when we perceive them – and there aren’t any colors inside our brain cells – neurons don’t have tiny red and orange pictures inside them – where exactly are the colors we see?”

In a chapter called “The Existence of Mental Objects”, Jackson spends several pages discussing bodily pain, in particular, whether pains have locations in the same way that things like fruit and furniture do. For various reasons, some philosophers have denied that pains have spatial locations. So a pain in my foot, for example, isn’t literally “in my foot”.

All of which I’ve mentioned so far, simply as a preliminary to sharing the following sentence from Jackson’s book (page 84):

It is certainly not the case that “I had a pain in my foot” entails that if I had not known that the cause of my pain was not in my foot, then I would have believed that the cause was in my foot; for one way of not knowing that the cause is not in my foot is having no opinion on whether the cause is or is not in my foot, so it might well have been the case that if I had not known the cause was not in my foot, I would neither have believed that it was or that it was not in my foot.

Having read this sentence quite a few times, it is my contention that, in this case, Professor Jackson chose rigor over clarity.

Why Hell Was Invented (Starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore)

Why was the idea of hell invented? Wouldn’t the promise of eternal happiness up in heaven be enough to get people to walk the straight and narrow? No, probably not.

As evidence, here’s a scene from Bedazzled, a terrific movie from 1967 that starred the English comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (sorry, couldn’t find a video). 

Both temporarily dressed as London traffic cops, Lucifer (Cook) is explaining to Stanley (Moore) why he got thrown out of heaven and is now stuck making trouble on Earth:

It was pride that got me into this. I used to be an angel, up in heaven.

Oh yeah, you used to be God’s favorite, didn’t you?

That’s right. “I Love Lucifer” it was in those days.

What was it like up in heaven?

Very nice, really. We used to sit around all day and adore him. Believe me, he was adorable, just about the most adorable thing you ever did see. 

Well, what went wrong then?

I’ll show you. (Approaches mail box.) Here we are. Give me a leg up, would you?

(Sitting on mailbox, legs crossed.)  I’m God. This is my throne, see? All around me are the cherubim, seraphim, continually crying “Holy, holy, holy.” The angels, archangels, that sort of thing. Now you be me, Lucifer, the loveliest angel of them all. 

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What do I do? 

Well, sort of dance around praising me really. 

What sort of things do I say? 

Anything that comes into your head that’s nice. How beautiful I am, how wise, how handsome, that sort of thing. Come on, start dancing! 

(Singing and dancing) You’re wise, you’re beautiful, you’re handsome. 

Thank you very much. 

The universe, what a wonderful idea, take my hat off to you. 

Thank you. 

Trees, terrific! Water, another good one. 

That was a good one. Yes.  

Sex, top marks! 

Now make it more personal. A bit more fulsome, please. Come on! 

Immortal, invisible. You’re handsome, you’re, uh, you’re glorious. 

Thank you. More!

You’re the most beautiful person in the world!

(Stops dancing) Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places? 

That’s exactly how I felt. I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!

I had no idea. It’s a very sad story. 

I suppose he had his reasons…. He moves in very mysterious ways, you know. 

I mean, apart from the way he moves, what’s God like, really? 

He’s all colors of the rainbow — many-hued. 

But he is English, isn’t he? 

Oh yes, very upper-class.

Peter Cook, who wrote the script, wasn’t the first to suggest that heaven would be boring. It’s hard to even imagine how it could be interesting for more than a while. How could bliss last forever? Would God be so wonderful that being nearby would be eternally pleasurable? It doesn’t seem all that appealing  to me. For one thing, we don’t even know what God is supposed to be like, so it’s hard to imagine why being in the divine presence would be so wonderful. It certainly doesn’t seem that singing God’s praises would be a good way to spend eternity.

Maybe it would help if one’s nearness to God fluctuated. That would introduce anticipation and contrast: “Now I’m further away. If only I were closer! Yes, like that. Excellent!” That way, the whole eternal experience would be pleasurable, but not always equally so. Changing one’s perspective like that would seem to cause emotional ups and downs, however, which sounds rather unheavenly. Plus, cycling between higher and lower pleasures for eternity might still be less than blissful (been there, done that, forever).

In addition, some of the greatest pleasures we know presumably wouldn’t have much of a role in heaven. Being reunited with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, for example. How often could you have the pleasure of seeing someone again? Would you miss them in the meantime (negative emotion again)? Or winning a competition. Are there losers in heaven? For that matter, are there really good discussions in heaven? Do you have to watch what you say, the way you do in church? Can you be yourself in heaven? And how about sex? Are there orgasms in heaven? 

The more I think about heaven, the less heavenly it sounds. And also the less feasible. Hell, on the other hand, is far easier to imagine. Ever see that Star Trek episode with the two guys who are colored black and white, but on opposite sides? They hate each others guts. To the point that when the show ends, they’re sent out into space to wrestle with each other forever. At least that’s the way I remember it. The ending is unsettling. Trapped forever in a very small space fighting someone who wants to destroy you. It sounds terrible.

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So do the various tortures supposedly popular in hell. Sitting in a pool of lava for eternity. Or being eaten alive forever, like Prometheus on his rock. 

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But maybe if you were tortured forever, you’d get used to it. Eventually get bored with the whole thing. Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely. Serious pain doesn’t lose its unpleasantness as time goes by. You can “learn to live with it”, but it still hurts like hell (my point exactly). And it’s so easier to imagine being in constant pain than being in constant pleasure. In fact, the phrase “being in constant pain” is quite common. Have you ever heard of someone “being in constant pleasure”, or, more grammatically, “enjoying constant pleasure”? Outside of heaven anyway, and we know how implausible that is.

As usual, there is probably some evolutionary reason why pain is more intense than pleasure. In order to stay alive and have children, it’s important to avoid painful injuries. Pain is great at getting our attention. Pleasure isn’t really required in order to survive, although mild pleasure helps in various ways and serious pleasure encourages procreation (which, due to the house rules, probably isn’t on the agenda in heaven anyway). 

If you doubt whether physical pain is generally more intense than physical pleasure, consider the greatest pleasure you could have and decide whether you would want that if it required enduring the most intense pain you could have. Most of us would decline the pleasure in order to avoid the pain.

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So that’s probably why the idea of hell was invented. Promising heaven is a good way to control behavior, but threatening hell is probably better, since being rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven is less imaginable and less appealing than avoiding eternal agony in hell. Which, when you think about it, is a disheartening commentary on what we actually have to deal with, life itself.

Note: Why some individuals are willing to endure horrible pain in order to achieve some goal or other is one of life’s mysteries. Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned alive by the Catholic Church in 1600 after refusing to disavow his beliefs. When sentenced to death, he is said to have replied: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. He preferred agony and death over telling a few convincing lies about his beliefs. And, of course, some people (mostly men) march off to war and some people (always women) endure natural childbirth. Pain may be more intense than pleasure, but some things are more important to some people than pain. Go figure.

Happiness, Especially For the Demented

Not being a Dutch citizen, I’m not sure how much it will cost to live in this great-sounding village, but I’m moving in as soon as possible. I bet they encourage blogging for all the residents.

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If you want to join me at this “dementia-focused living center called De Hogeweyk, aka Dementia-Village”, you can read about it here.

It’s a very serious subject, of course. How to keep millions suffering from dementia safe and even reasonably happy, if possible. Although that raises the question: should we invest any resources in making the demented happier? 

Mari Ruti, a professor at the University of Toronto, argues that happiness is overrated. Or rather, the kind of well-balanced, anxiety-free happiness demanded by one’s corporate co-workers (“Smile!”) is overrated. The pursuit of that kind of happiness:

(1) Stifles the “idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often,” break through our bland social personas;
(2) Encourages emotional numbness;
(3) Serves the cultural, economic and political status quo;
(4) May be contrary to human nature (evolution didn’t design us to be happy); and
(5) May lead to lives that are ultimately less satisfying or productive than more anxious lives would be.

Professor Ruti’s conclusion:

There is something quite hollow about the ideal of a happy, balanced life—a life unruffled by anxiety. It’s why I think that underneath our quest for vibrant health lurks a tragic kind of discreet death: the demise of everything that is eccentric and messy about human life. Our society sells us the quick fix: If you get a cold, take some decongestants; if you get depressed, take some antidepressants; and if you get anxious, take those tranquilizers. But what are we supposed to take when we lose our character?

Clearly, if we define “happiness” as “a well-balanced state marked by a lack of anxiety and the presentation of a pleasant persona”, it sounds like a questionable goal, especially for the budding Beethovens and Van Goghs among us (although it sounds pretty good for those of us with dementia). I wouldn’t dismiss Professor Ruti’s critique, however, even if she seems to exaggerate the benefits of living on the edge. There are, after all, more important things in life than happiness. For example, the elimination of real suffering, both physical and psychological:

I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness (Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, 1895).

Hope I Die Before I Get Old

Well, so much for that plan.

Definitely still alive, I’ve spent the past 2 weeks reaping the benefits of modern medicine. The problem that put me in the hospital and the medical treatment I’ve received have added up to something approaching “advanced interrogation techniques” (I’ll tell you anything — make it stop!).  

I did have a lot of time to think, however, while lying in bed waiting for something good to happen. I reached some small conclusions and a big one.

One of my small conclusions:

A doctor who is “on call”, responsible for off-hours phone calls from patients, shouldn’t be unavailable for hours at a time. But if an “on call” doctor can’t take calls for some reason, there should be another doctor who serves as the first doctor’s backup. Then, after repeated failures to reach Doctor 1, the answering service can contact Doctor 2 instead.

Another small conclusion (with apologies to the nursing community and anyone offended by discussion of bodily fluids):

If you have fluid draining into a plastic bag, and the bag becomes rather heavy as it fills up, in such a way that the drainage mechanism may no longer function properly, reject your nurse’s advice to empty the bag “when it fills up”. Instead, empty the bag “before it fills up”.

And my big conclusion, with a little background first:

Some people are extremely careful about diet and exercise. Others eat whatever they want and avoid exercise whenever possible. Most of us occupy some middle ground. Personally, I eat too much food that isn’t good for me and don’t exercise very often. I’ve never seen the point of doing otherwise, since I’ve never been very concerned with the state of my body and never wanted to live an extraordinarily long time. I’ve been content to drift along, eating what tastes good and avoiding perspiration if possible.

Having been hospitalized twice in the past 12 months for kidney-related problems, however, I now understand that I’ve been missing something important about diet and exercise. I’ve always thought the point of eating well and working out was to achieve a positive, healthy state — to be one of those happy, early to bed, early to rise types who can be so annoying to the rest of us. But that’s not the point at all.

The point of eating well and working out is to avoid the incredible pain and discomfort of serious illness and the medical treatment that goes with it. It isn’t a matter of getting something good; it’s a matter of avoiding something bad.

You might say that, in this case anyway, getting something good and avoiding something bad are just two sides of the same health-related coin. You can’t have one without the other. There is certainly some truth to that, since there’s a single path leading to both goals. But in terms of motivation, there is a big difference between trying to achieve something really good and trying to avoid something really bad. In my case anyway, I’ve never been interested in achieving a wonderfully healthy state. Mediocrity has been fine with me. 

Having experienced the extremely unpleasant downside of a poor diet (and, to a lesser extent, limited exercise), I find it much more motivating to try to avoid this kind of downside in the future, if I possibly can, than to seek something positive. At this point, if I have any sense at all, I’m going to eat better and exercise more. Of course, there’s no guarantee that changing my habits will insure that I won’t have to go through this kind of crap again. We all know that life isn’t that predictable. On the other hand, if you want to avoid something really bad, you should do what you can, if the cost of doing so isn’t that great. That’s just being rational.

Hence, my big conclusion:

Not being motivated by the prospect of getting something good, I’m going to focus instead on what I’m desperate to avoid. Avoiding pain can sometimes be a much better motivator than achieving pleasure. If I don’t want to be tortured again, I need to try something different. 

Philosophical addendum:

It occurred to me while writing this that philosophers (Western philosophers anyway) have tended to discuss the pursuit of pleasure more often than the avoidance of pain. As you might expect, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article called “Happiness”, but none called “Unhappiness”. The article on happiness contains 397 uses of the word “happiness” and 6 uses of “unhappiness”. 

To be fair, however, Jeremy Bentham defined “happiness” as the predominance of pleasure over pain. He argued that: 

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think … 

Yet how can one serve two sovereign masters? Do pleasure and pain somehow work together, like the two ends of a seesaw, always giving coherent direction (“You, boy, go up now!”)? I don’t think so. Pain isn’t merely the opposite of pleasure. It’s its own phenomenon and deserves at least equal consideration, maybe more consideration, than pleasure gets. But we have a cultural prejudice that says it’s better to search for the good things in life than to avoid the bad. That isn’t always the case.