Thursday, May 1, 2008

On Pain

I got into a discussion on SoapBoxxer this morning about whether or not one can have rape fantasies. I've actually gotten a lot of flack on this subject before, as I got into a similar argument during my Philosophy of Social Science course at Berkeley--I was (in both instances) one of the few who argued that you can't desire to be raped. For some reason, this seems to be kind of a hot button topic--I suppose that's rape for you, though.

In any case, the discussion on SB this morning got me thinking about something that (I think) is a bit more philosophically interesting--whether or not anyone can truly be said to "enjoy pain." My initial position was similar to that on "desiring rape"--that is, that it's a contradiction in terms. 'Pain,' it seems to me, refers to an unpleasant sensation; if someone is enjoying a particular sensation, that seems to necessarily imply that what he is experiencing is not pain, but something else. I've discussed this with a few people throughout the day today, and my System Idle Process has been working on it as well; a few people have given me some pretty compelling arguments that I think need to be addressed--I haven't changed my position, but I have added some more nuance.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, counterexample to the claim "no one can enjoy pain" is the masochist case. Some people (I haven't been able to find a reliable estimate as to how many; if anyone knows, please comment!) claim to "enjoy" pain in the context of sexual activity. The medical term for this is algolagnia. This can take a variety of forms and occur in a variety of severities ranging from liking spankings to being unable to get sexually aroused without a bed of nails to lie on. People who suffer (no pun intended) from this condition claim to legitimately "enjoy" the painful sensations in the context of sexuality. It seems to me that there's something deeply incorrect about that claim, but in order to see what it is, we need to define pain a bit more clearly, I think.

There's a temptation, I think, to define pain causally--e.g. "pain is the sort of sensation that happens when you hit your thumb with a hammer"--a temptation that needs to be resisted, it seems, if we're going to give a coherent account of what pain is. We know that different neurobiological structures can cause individuals to qualitatively experience the same stimulus differently: differences in the structure of the eyes and/or brain can cause one individual to have the same sensation when presented with grass and when presented with a ripe tomato, and I learned today that my own mother is unable to qualitatively tell the difference between sweet and sour tastes. Pain, it seems, works much the same way--differences in neurological structure can cause an individual to develop algolagnia and begin to "enjoy" stimuli that he previously regarded as painful. A causal definition, then, won't work--we can't name any one stimulus that will reliably produce any single sensation in all individuals.

Similarly, we can't define pain behaviorally (i.e. in terms of what actions or dispositions to action it is likely to elicit), for reasons best outlined in Hilary Putnam's discussion of "super-Spartans" in his article "Brains and Behavior." Briefly, the argument goes something like this. Let's suppose that pain is defined behaviorally--that is, a sensation counts as a pain if and only if it disposes the person experiencing it to say ouch, wince, try to get away, etc. Now, let's imagine a community of people who value stoicism above all else; they consider it a terrible display of character weakness to give any sign that one is in pain, even if one is in excruciating agony. Let's call them "super-Spartans." They've disciplined themselves to the point that, though they still experience pain normally, they no longer have even the impulse to act in any of the ways that we would generally consider "pain-behavior" when they feel pain, no matter how great it is. If you were to ask a super-Spartan how it feels to (say) have his arm chopped off with a rusty axe, he would readily admit that it feels absolutely awful, and that the pain is tremendous; however, he would do so with the same nonchalance that he would show when discussing the weather or the price of tomatoes. Behaviorism, it seems, would make this sort of society impossible, but we can clearly conceive of it as a real possibility; behaviorism thus seems to be false. This is a rather quick treatment of a very nuanced issue, so I encourage you to read Putnam's original article.

What's left, then? One obvious choice, I think, is to define pain both qualitatively and indexically (i.e. in the same way that words like 'mine' or 'above' are defined)--in other words, to define it in an observer relative and epistemically subjective way. On this sort of definition, what counts as causing pain (as well as how one behaves when subjected to pain) will vary from person to person (that's the indexical part), but the essential character of the experience remains unchanged. In short, while experience x might be painful to you and not me (and vice-versa with experience y), both experiences share a common (and unpleasant) qualitative character; it is that common qualitative character that we're really referring to when we say 'pain.'

So what does this mean for people who claim to enjoy pain? Why is it the case that my muscle pain after a satisfying workout has an element of pleasure, whereas the same muscle pain, unprecipitated by exercise, would be experienced as significantly more painful? Why can some people claim to enjoy being whipped during sex, while others find the thought horrifying? My view here is akin to my view on color perception--that is, the environment (broadly construed) counts for a lot more in determining the character of an experience than we give it credit for. Apropos, then, a color analogy:

Suppose you cannot stand the color blue, and that your favorite color is green. If I were to ask you "What is your favorite color?" you certainly wouldn't respond with "Well, I really hate blue unless you mix it with yellow, and then I really enjoy it; my favorite color, then, is blue when mixed with yellow." Instead, you'd say "My favorite color is green." When the pigments for blue and yellow (each of which causes a specific qualitative experience in you) are combined, the result is an entirely new substance, which causes an entirely new qualitative experience--that of green. I think something similar is going on in the case of "enjoyed pain."

Obviously the analogy is not perfect--instead of mixing pigments that react with the environment to produce particular sensations in various individuals, we're directly mixing sensations (e.g. pain and sexual arousal). Still, I think the analogy makes an important point: two different things can be less than enjoyable separately, but can be combined to produce a third product that is itself more enjoyable. While it's true that both the pain and the sexual pleasure may be present still in themselves, it seems likely to me that--given the fact that for many people pain is enjoyed only in certain contexts--they combine to produce a third "metaqualia"--or second order qualia--that is itself enjoyable.

So can pain be enjoyable? The simple answer is 'no,' but the complex answer is a bit longer: in certain environments ('environments,' again, construed broadly so as to include facts about individual neurobiology), pain can contribute to pleasurable sensations, but pain itself is still not pleasurable.


Chelsea said...

Yeah, that's what I was trying to say. :)

Anonymous said...

Pain hurts but you can enjoy it. That is different from saying that it's "pleasurable", which has other connotations.

People also sometimes require pain to have pleasures. They need the painful stimulation to orgasm, for instance. So pain is requisite to their pleasure, even if the pain in and of itself isn't pleasurable.

Neosapience said...

Hello RA - It seems I've made my way to your blog via the discussion on pain. Anyway, I think it would have been easier just to say that pain is defined by what we feel, not how we behave.

Jon said...

That's true, Neosapience, but I think it is a bit more complex than that statement implies. The fact that there's no way to objectively "get at" what any individual (other than you) is feeling, combined with the fact that the same stimulus seems to produce different feelings in different people seems to indicate a need for a bit more nuance.

Neosapience said...

Pain isn't any more complex than that, it's our reaction to pain that's complex.

Kristy said...

Hey. So you asked me a while ago to find out the prevalence. I did some searching today through some various articles I had on the topic and didn't come up with anything. There isn't a published prevalence for this.
Part of the reason for this is that there is such a variety of activities that can be lumped into this category. Is "spanking" the definable limit? The lack of definable "Yes, that's BDSM, No, that's not" makes it really hard to determine how many people actually find pleasure in what level of pain.
I did find one article that cited 25% of people enjoyed being bitten by a partner. I think that, as an indicator of your typical BDSM, that number is WAY high. But it's the only thing I could find.