Can There Be An Illusion of Pain?

Over at Philosophy Hurts Your Head, Sam has a post about how one can’t be mistaken about being in pain.

Though I’m not a physicalist, and don’t equate the pain with c-fibers firing, or something like that, I’m believe that one can have illusion of pain (in the finger, head, or wherever).

I think it is unproblematic that there is difference between seeing a rabbit, and illusion of seeing a rabbit. While the two cases might be indistinguishable for the person in certain moment (and really, that is what makes it illusion), the claim that we are not actually seeing a rabbit when there is an illusion, has a clear sense.

Now, we might be inclined to say, that in cases of colors, the situation is different. But really when talking about colors we distinguish a thing being red, and thing appearing red. So it can’t be that we use “red” for the qualia itself (let’s put aside the issue if we need to assume qualia as entities or not). We don’t say that white ball under red light is red. We say that it is a white ball, and that we just have illusion of it being red. We speak of the “red qualia” only when we assume that the appearing same of those two (a red thing and white thing under red light) is due to there being some “qualia” entities which are same in both cases.

In this way, we make distinction between ‘is’ and ‘appears’ for rabbits, colors, voices, and so on. We use the words simpliciter to refer to the things, and we may use them combined with ‘qualia’ (e.g. ‘red qualia’, ‘rabbit qualia’ etc…) for theoretical entities which we assume in order to explain sameness of experience.

So, now the question is, why would ‘pain’ be special case? Why would we wouldn’t use the word for the thing itself (e.g. pain the finger), accept that there is possibilities of illusions of pain, and if we are inclined to certain theory, speak of ‘pain qualia’ as entities which explain our inability to distinguish the pain from illusion of pain.

One reason we might treat ‘pain’ as a special case is because in those other cases, we have witnessed situations where we are under such illusion, but it is pretty easy to change the context somehow and “break the illusion”. But in case of a pain, we seem not to encounter such “appearance” situations.

I think though that there are examples of such situations. Several times I have mistaken cold water for very hot one, and in that split second, I felt the pain in my finger. (I’m guessing here that me being mistaken that my finger is being hurt by very hot water is a mistake of there being pain in my finger). The other example is with the cases of phantom limbs, where patients with amputated limbs say that they still feel like they have the limb, and that they feel pains in them. Here we have a case of illusion of the limb along with the pain being “broken” by using mirror boxes. Now, I agree that those are not best examples, as in the first case one might argue that I didn’t really feel pain, but that somehow I expected there to be a pain. Of course, I’m not even saying that I felt the pain, I’m just saying that one can be mistaken that there is a pain in the finger, even for a split second. In the second example, it is not very clear what (if anything) is being mistaken for a pain. But, I think those examples at least help make sense of the claim that one can mistake something else for a pain. Probably there are other more clear examples, in which one can mistake some other sensation for a pain for a longer time.

The other argument one can give against distinguishing ‘pain’ from ‘illusion of a pain’, is that in both cases the person is affected the same way. There are two responses for this.

First, we are affected by other kind of illusions, same as we are affected by the real things. We might be afraid of an illusionary lion the same way we are afraid of lion.

Second, one can blame the common-sense that it doesn’t have a precise enough awareness of phenomena which we relate to pain. Namely,  in most cases the pain goes along with certain affecting of us, and because those other cases in which those two are ‘divorced’ are very rare, people don’t distinguish between those two, and is aware of them as one single phenomenon. So, the word ‘pain’ is used for this tightly related duo. However there are cases (e.g. pain asymbolia syndrome) where person feels the pain, but it doesn’t suffer from it. So, now, having better awareness of the phenomenon than common person, we can ask for more precise usage of the word ‘pain’. In relation to such distinction, and possibility to use ‘pain’ for the very sense as distinguished from our suffering, we can now say that argument that ‘it affects us same’, can’t have the same force.

One can point also that ‘being in pain’ is often used for this second part of the phenomenon (i.e. how it affects us). So, as long as we are clear what we mean by the term, one can I guess agree that one can be mistaken that there is a pain in the finger, while still being in pain. Said like this, it does even seem as not very problematical sentence.

Related posts:
Cyborgs Sharing Pain, Again
Does Pain Have To Hurt?
Couple More Thoughts on Pain