Shall We Look for a Meaning of Pain? Or Shall We Not?

Pain as Reaction

If we start with the simplest meaning of pain, pain is only a sensation. The most elementary pain is bodily pain, and the most elementary bodily pain is located pain: a tooth can hurt you or your finger, or you have a stomach pain, and so forth. 

If you are a scientist dealing with someone else’s pain, you record what he says and try to find out the cause, namely what other fact you can associate with that pain. However, the job of a scientist does not have an absolutely established form: the fact leading to a particular pain, the latter’s remedy, what alleviates it, or, on the contrary, enhances it, are not known once and for all. 

In the past, the pain we consider today to be determined by one factor, was thought of as the result of another factor. We could skim through any history of medicine books to see how medical ideas evolved. Modern science, in general, brought with it a very keen sense of observation and experimentation, along with an increase in the number of observed cases.

Because modern civilization significantly increased the number of large human communities, it allowed physicians to observe many similar cases and more accurately isolate the connection between the causal poles of pain. It was a painstaking succession of trials and errors to see what worked and what did not. 

Modern science, in general, shows very clearly that the Humean view concerning the fact that we do not see any immediate continuity between the cause and its effect is true. The procedure based on trial and error that grounds the experimental view of modern science — a procedure that undoubtedly continues the pragmatic approach to experience that humans always had — highlights only the fact that a certain association of facts is very regular. 

In other words, when we put two independent phenomena closer to each other, the probability of repeatedly getting the same results is very high. But, of course, we cannot get identical results since we cannot create an absolutely isolated system consisting of those two poles of the causality relationship. The possible influence of the environment, i.e., the interference of other factors in the initial causal relationship, is why results can fluctuate.

Pain and the Human Psyche

Apart from this objective view of pain, another one is related to the last sentence. It is the psychological view that says that the feeling of pain is not necessarily something objective and therefore identical in all human beings (like the identical reaction of a ball hit by another one), but that there are different intensities of pain depending on the personality of the sufferer, and also on his activity or the way he looks at his own pain. In this regard, we must also consider that there is a more profound biological influence on the feeling of pain since recent studies show that women have a greater sensitivity to pain than men ( However, this is according to circumstances. What makes pain different?

Let’s take a few examples. First, pain tolerance is higher in a community where confronting pain is a significant value, as in the military. Second, the pain feeling depends on how absorbed we are in an activity. If we are completely immersed in it, we may not even notice the pain for a while. Then there is hypnosis, which can make you feel nothing from excruciating pain. And hypnosis is not at all based on the ingestion of any pain-killing substance! 

These examples show that the human psyche is an important factor in feeling the pain. Even if we think of its role as simply diverting attention from the phenomenon of pain, its role cannot be neglected. The human psyche has, in this sense, a causal influence on pain, diminishing or even eliminating it. 

The human psyche has thus an evident influence on our body or, expressed more philosophically, the mind can act on matter. Of course, such an impact is continuously experienced by us when we move our bodies following an intention, emotion, or reaction. However, pain shows an even broader correlation between mind and body.

Mythological Ingredients in the Scientific Explanation of Pain

Biologists claim pain has an essential role in the overall economy of the life of an organism, being a signal for that organism to avoid contact with certain stimuli. But they overlook the potentially mythical content of this utilitarian explanation. 

It is as if one says that organisms are created to feel pain, that pain has even a role in the universe to make feeling entities avoid certain paths and follow others. It is as if the universe does not accept one certain structure for its inhabitants but another. 

This explanation is not the usual scientific explanation based on the causal analysis of phenomena. It does not simply record the fact that a pain sensation follows a stimulus in the body, but it speaks of the necessity of that sensation for the organism to adapt to its environment. 

We might think that a specific DNA change made that organism react with pain to something in that environment, and that this reaction gave it an adaptive advantage over other organisms of the same species, which, because they lacked that signaling sensation, ultimately succumbed under the destructive influence of that stimulus. 

However, as we can see, it does not solve the question of pain; rather it simply attaches the subjective phenomenon of pain to a particular setting.

Are Things Better as They Are?

In antiquity, Socrates was deeply disappointed with the approach of Anaxagoras (as Plato describes it in his Phaedo dialogue), who, in a similar vein, according to Socrates, simply described organisms and how they just reacted to external stimuli without saying (as Socrates expected) why things are as they are, or, in other words, why is it better for them to be as they are and not otherwise. 

Socrates would have expected this, knowing that Anaxagoras stated that a universal Mind was creating everything. Socrates is, in this context, the representative of the opposite position to science, namely the philosophical — sometimes also called metaphysical — approach, which tries to understand why things are better being as they are and not otherwise.

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