Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 15: Other People's Pain

Continuing with my series on the nature of desire, I am currently commenting on Friedrich, Daniel (2017), “Desire, Mental Force, and Desirous Experience.” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

In my last posting, I objected to their thesis concerning of a feeling tone distinctive of desire. In this post, I address the claim that one can launch the same argument against a feeling tone distinctive of pain.

Specifically . . .

In the previous section, I argued against the idea that we can understand desire in terms of a "feeling tone distinctive of desire" because I cannot tell if you ever have a feeling tone distinctive of desire.

The same argument can show that pain is not related to a distinctive feeling either. After all, the only thing I see from you when you are in pain is your observable behavior. I have no access to what you are feeling. It is quite within my capacity to imagine that you feel nothing – that you are just going through the motions without any feeling of pain at all.

Indeed, this was the case in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries regarding animals. People believed that animals lacked the intellectual sophistication required to actually feel pain. Whimpering, whining, yelping, and attempts to avoid what, in human, would cause pain were merely examples of animals going through the motions of pain, but they did not suffer from any distress. For that, one needed a soul, or a particularly sophisticated type of consciousness.

This part is true: I can imagine an advanced race sending a "pod person" down to Earth with the intention of learning about us. I can imagine that this being has no "feelings". However, it learns how to fit in. It learns that certain types of behavior (I.e., leaking water out of its eye and displaying the mannerisms of somebody who is sad) it is possible to elicit sympathy. Other types of behavior, such as praise and condemnation, mold the behavior in others in such ways that they tend to repeat that for which they are praised and avoid doing that for which they are condemned. Consequently, it expresses anger or joy. It will behave submissively at times to protect itself from harm, and display dominance behavior as a way of getting others to do its bidding. Ultimately, it becomes indistinguishable from a human being in behavior. And, yet, it has no felt qualities of desire, of pain, of joy or sadness. It simply goes through the motions.

Not only can I imagine this, but people have assumed it with regard to animals and, sometimes, other people.

I can imagine it. But what does that tell us?

There is a large body of philosophical literature on this subject having to do with the problem of consciousness and the metaphysics of mind. This has to do with the possibility of p-zombies; creatures that behave exactly like humans to the point of being indistinguishable from humans, but lack consciousness. Hopefully, I can avoid that debate and all of its complications and implications. For my purposes, I am quite content to assume that we all are, in fact, philosophical zombies.

The relevant point for this discussion is that it does not matter morally whether you are a p-zombie or a regular person. Ex hypothesi, I cannot tell the difference by looking at your behavior or through any type of observation. That you have the same sensations I do when you appear to experience pain, and whether you experience a "feeling tone distinctive of desire" when you desire that something be the case, when it comes to explaining and predicting your behavior, if a "desire" or "is in pain" attribution is useful in one case, it is just as useful in the other.

I could be the only conscious person in a world filled with philosophical zombies. As I grow up, I hear them using the terms "desire" and "pain". In learning the language, I would learn to apply those terms to my own experiences. I will learn to say that I want to go camping and I would say that the burn on my hand is painful. I may notice that desires have a distinctive feeling tone (if, indeed, it does), and that there is a felt awfulness to pain. Yet, here, we have to ask whether this is a part of the actual meaning of the word. I learned the words "desire" and "pain" from beings who never experienced such a thing.
So, what does it matter whether other people have a "feeling tone distinctive of desire"?

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