Tuesday, July 17, 2007

God and Pain II

I noted yesterday an interesting argument in Sextus M 9.162-5 and wondered if the reference there to the 'peculiar pain of gout' in the context of an argument about acquiring knowledge of pain might point to an interesting idea about the first-personal introspective nature of pain in general. Does Sextus think that to 'know pain' is to know 'what it is like to be in pain' and that this latter can be acquired only by experiencing pain personally?

I think there are good reasons for thinking that Sextus’ conception of what it is to have knowledge of pain is not to be quickly assimilated to modern concerns about the acquisition of knowledge of qualia. Sextus does have concerns about the indirect acquisition of knowledge of pain, that is of acquiring knowledge of pain in any way which does not involve experiencing pain first-hand, but they seem not to be because he thinks that pain is such that it can only be known about through direct first-personal experience.

The grounds for this caution are to be found in some of Sextus’ supporting arguments. Even in such a compressed argument, Sextus finds time to address two counter-objections, both of which try to show that god might acquire knowledge of pain without having to experience it. The first of these counter-arguments is the most important, since this is the occasion on which he responds to a claim that knowledge of pain might be acquired by interviewing, as it were, people in pain
. (I might look at the second some other time.)

The first response is part of an a fortiori argument. Sextus wants us to think about how difficult it is for us, who have at least experienced some pain, to come to know the pain of gout. (He assumes, therefore, that his audience are not gouty-types themselves.) You might think that it is possible to know what it is to feel the pain of gout, for example, by talking to people who are experiencing or have experienced that pain and discovering what it is like. But, Sextus argues, it is not possible for us to acquire knowledge of the pain of gout in that way and, remember, unlike the hypothesised pain-free but knowing god, we at least have experienced some pain in our lives. If it is impossible for us to know the pain of gout, then a fortiori it is impossible for god to do so.

Sextus’ response to the proposal that such knowledge may be acquired indirectly is telling, since it offers another clue to his general presumptions about the nature of pain and the nature of the knowledge of pain. The problem he outlines is not, importantly, the most general point that some more modern philosophers might make, namely that pain cannot be known except by direct, first-personal, acquaintance. Rather, he says that it would be impossible to acquire knowledge of pain through these indirect means because even those people suffering from the same ailment – gout, for example – will describe their experience in wildly differing ways. Some say it is like a kind of twisting; some say it is like a kind of bending; others say is it like a kind of stabbing. We can recognise here a very common form of Pyrrhonist argument: he has outlined a general diaphōnia between gout-sufferers. This disagreement is, furthermore, impossible to resolve in favour of any one rather than the other proposed descriptions of what it is like to experience the pain of gout. The ‘twisting-gout sufferers’ are no more authoritative than the ‘stabbing-gout sufferers’, and so on. And since these descriptions are competitors, we cannot simply accept all of them as capturing some aspect of the phenomenon such that they can be simply combined.

Although Sextus does not make this claim explicit, the form of this reply suggests that he is at least prepared to imagine that it might be possible to acquire knowledge of pain in this fashion, if only there were not such an irresolvable difference between the various sufferers’ descriptions. In that case, the difficulty is not with the very principle of the procedure of asking for sufferers to describe their pain but with the problems faced in trying to get any reliable and useful single answer to the question being posed. It is not, in other words, that Sextus thinks it wrong-headed to try to understand what it is like to experience gout by asking a gouty person to describe it to you; it is rather that it is terribly difficult to get any clear and reliable answer to the question: what is it like to suffer from gout? If that is right, then Sextus’ objection to this method of acquiring knowledge of pain is not based on a conviction (even a conviction on the part of his opponent which Sextus is prepared to use dialectically) that pain can be understood only via direct first-personal experience.

1 comment:

bisquaesitus said...

This is perhaps one of those places where Sextus' medical background is relevant. We're all familiar with doctors today asking us to "describe the pain." For example, they want to know whether it's "sharp" or "dull." The sort of "knowledge" such questions target is difficult to pin down: from the patient's phenomenology they generally aim, not to further "know" the pain, but to diagnose, treat, and prognose the ailment. As an empiricist physician, Sextus himself would presumably say that even when patients do concur on the type of pain related to a particular ailment, this is useful, not for "knowing" that pain, but for determining the treatment.