Pain Brian

Peter Sutton mentioned the following kind of case the other day, which I think is worthy of some consideration.

Zombie Brian is someone just like me who has no inner life. Some debate has ensued about whether Zombie Brian is a real possibility or not, much of that debate starting with the assumption that Zombie Brian can be clearly and distinctly conceived.

Pain Brian is someone just like me whose inner life consists of perpetual excruciating pain, on top of my normal feelings. If property dualism is correct, Pain Brian is a real, if immensely tragic, possibility.

But I don’t conceive of Pain Brian as easily as I conceive of Zombie Brian. I’m really not sure what it would be to be constantly in pain and acting just the way I act. I strongly suspect Pain Brian is a metaphysical impossibility.

Some I’m sure will have the intuition that Pain Brian is possible. Others will argue (not without reason) that even though Pain Brian is a real possibility, there are reasons to do with his ‘distance’ from real possibility that we could not conceive him. I just wanted to note that it is interesting that arguments from intuition like this don’t always point in the direction of dualism – sometimes they can point just as well towards physicalism.

12 Replies to “Pain Brian”

  1. Why can’t property dualists say that some pairs of mental properties (e.g., being elated and being depressed)are contraries, in the way that being bent and being straight are contrary
    physical properties? If there are mental contraries, it’s plausible to suppose at least one of your current mental properties is a contrary of at least one of the pain-involving properties that Pain Brian instantiates.

    By the way, I wonder how well the view that there are mental contraries fits with the intentionalist view that all mental properties have the form ‘___ bears intentional mode M to intentional content C’.

  2. How about Pained Brian: someone just like you whose inner life consists of feeling perpetual annoyance on top of your normal feelings?

  3. For what it’s worth, Pain Brian seems obviously possible to me, and also readily conceivable, just like Zombie Brian, though I think there will need to be microphysical differences from Actual Brian.

  4. I dunno. Seems to me that pain has got to be in some sense essentially bothersome. Are you imagine being a super-spartan who behaviorally masks the pain, or just that the pain is just there, having no further effects?

    Also, I think a lot of the conceivability depends on what we’re assuming about the supervenience of other states on your brain states &c. Do you notice your pain? Is your noticing caused by what you notice? Is your noticing “subvened” by a brain state? What causes that brain state? Etc.

  5. Perhaps this example is relevant.

    Imagine “Idiot Brian” who acts exactly how you act, but only has the intelligence of a monkey.

    That, to me, seems the clearest example of something impossible. From there, it seems like Pain Brain is also impossible (by analogy – one cannot change mental states and still be a philosophically convincing actor).

    From there, we might wonder about whether Zombie Brian is possible. I personally think probably not, but not necessarily not. The question of Zombie Brian is perpetrated by people who don’t think that minds arise inevitably from brains. They are appealing to the intuition that Zombie Brian is possible, but it’s actually the same intuition as they are trying to justify – that minds do not arise inevitably from brains.

    In this case I would argue that the thought experiment adds nothing.

  6. So I’m going to suppose you are asking whether ‘pain brian’ is a logical possibility. After all if we are assuming it has exactly the same brain state it cannot be a nomological possibility.

    Now I would suggest there are still really two questions on the table. First could there be a world exactly like this world in its physical properties but in addition to all the normal mental events there is also the disembodied experience of being in extreme pain, or even being brian in extreme pain. I am fully convinced that this is logically possible for the same reasons that Chalmers argues the mental does not supervene on the physical (i.e. we can keep the physical fixed and vary the mental any way we want short of logical contradiction which doesn’t seem to be at issue here).

    Seperatly there is the question of whether there can be a world where brian has all his normal experiences and that furthermore BRIAN is in a constant state of agony. Here my intuitions are not so clear but I am tempted to say this is impossible since the notion of self presuposes a certain self-consistancy of mental states and thus it can’t be brian experiencing the pain if the rest of his mental states are not altered.

  7. Idunno,
    The super-spartan route would be one way that Pain Brian wouldn’t act as we do when we are in pain. Alternatively, Pain Brian might have a greatly increased ability of attention, so that the pain wouldn’t distract him from his other activities.

    Idiot Brian also seems possible to me. He’s just on a very long lucky streak of looking intelligent. Or alternatively, he’s a zombie with some monkey-level phenomenology added.

  8. Chris, a lucky streak will not do to make Idiot Brian possible. He needs to act counterfactually as Brian would, as well as acting as Brian actually does, for him to count as Idiot Brian (similarly for the Zombie Brian and Pain Brian examples). To see why, imagine that Brian is really a mannequin rigged up with a tape player, and the fact he has seemed to be a rational, responsive being for however many years is only an extraordinary coincidence. (E.g. He would have said ‘yellow’ just then whether you had asked him the colour of bananas or not.) No-one but the most extreme behaviourist would think this mannequin setup was capable of pain or feeling. None of the people who the zombie thought experiments are targeted at would want to say this setup had feelings. So to cleave at the joints of the general physicalism debate, we need to be talking about Brians that act counterfactually as the real Brian would, not just as he actually does.

    As for the super-spartan and highly attentive Brians, who could supposedly carry on as Brian does whilst suffering agonising pain, these Brians would have to be only super-spartan and attentive along a particular (inert) dimension of feeling, as it were. Remember that Pain Brian’s behaviour can still be expressive of cowardice and inattentiveness, if Brian has those qualities. So this supposedly spartan, attentive character could be brought to tears by a pin-prick, or disturbed by a dripping tap three rooms away. In what sense can he then be said to be spartan or attentive at all?

  9. Rob,
    Hmm. You might be right that the lucky streak probably isn’t the best analogy—I’d need some sort of supervision by a guardian angel, or something like that, to get the counterfactuals. The zombie-plus model for Idiot Brian still seems right, though. On the super-spartan or super-attentive models for Pain Brian, I’d say we could think of his attention as expanded, but precisely used up by the additional pain. So a little bit more would tip the balance to make Pain Brian act in a way behaviorally-indistinguishable from Actual Brian. Even Spartans have their limits, and Pain Brian is poised at the boundary, or as near the boundary as is Actual Brian.

  10. The super-spartan and super-attentive zombies still seem inconceivable to me. Say Brian can’t keep a secret under duress—tickle him and he talks. This must also be true of pain-spartan-Brian, except that he won’t reveal that he’s been in pain all his life, even under intense torture. (If he did, there would be a behavioural difference.) This seems strange. What are pain-spartan Brian’s motives for keeping his pain a secret? He shows no signs of valuing this secret in the rest of his life, yet he will sacrifice anything rather than reveal it. Perhaps he is unaware of the pain, but in that case it’s not spartan of him to continue as he does. If he is aware of the pain, and values keeping it a secret, we have to wonder why he never behaves in a way that shows he values this secret. Can one be aware of something without it ever modifying your behaviour, including in hypothetical situations? I suspect that once you try to imagine the details of these imagined personages they start to become unintelligible.

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