Sunday, February 22, 2004

Beings we ought not to torture

This weekend was the very awesome 8th Annual Brown Philosophy Graduate Conference. We heard a lot of great speakers, engaged in a lot of great conversation, and consumed a lot of greatly socially-stimulating consumables. It was pretty easily the most positive experience I've had in grad school thus far. Benjamin Whiting's paper, "Epistemic Rephrasal and the Hard Problem of Consciousness", made me recognize an interesting intuition in myself. Now, I will share it with you. Ben defended a pretty attractive hybrid theory of consciousness under which phenomenal states are identified with physical (brain) states, and psychological states are defined functionally. One example we discussed was pain -- there are two senses of "pain", which, according to Ben, we often conflate in ordinary English. (This isn't a big deal, because they always coincide in humans.) The two pains: Phenomenal pain: What it feels like to be in pain. Psychological pain: A disposition to say "ouch", writhe in agony, avoid the stimulus, etc. Ben's suggestion was that the psychological version of pain is the fundamental one (just as molecular motion is the 'real' heat, not the sensation). To (partially) motivate this, he introduced a Martian thought experiment: suppose there are Martians whose physical constitutions are very different than ours. Nevertheless, when we poke a Martian with a cattle prod, it screams, writhes, etc. The Martian certainly doesn't have a brain state corresponding to our 'pain' states, because he doesn't have a brain anything like ours, but we do want to say that he's in pain, and that it'd be morally wrong to torture him. But once we start talking about thought experiments and different kinds of beings and pains, I think about Hilary Putnam's Super-Spartans. I wondered how the intuitions would go in the other direction: imagine beings that are physically very like us, but who train themselves to never display the outward signs of pain. When we poke them with cattle prods, C-fiber firings in their brains occur, just like they do in our brains when we're in pain. But the Super-Spartans just sit calmly -- they never say "ouch", never writhe, etc. I still have a pretty strong intuition that these people feel pain when I poke them with a cattle prod, and that it's morally wrong to do so in just the same way it's wrong to torture the Martians. I'm not sure what this means. It's possible that I'm just associating psychological pain with phenomenological (physicalist) pain very tightly, and ought not to. But if my moral intuitions here are correct, then I think it suggests that pain, the concept (at least with respect to morality) is conceptually tied both to behavioral dispositions and to brain states. I admit, that's a weird consequence... I'm not sure how to sort all this out. I think I'll start with a blog post in which I lay out the issue.

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