Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pain - The Negative Motivator

The last blog entry dealt with pleasure as a positive motivator in keeping us alive and to reproducing. It also dealt with pleasure as one part of a two-pronged strategy some types DNA use to perpetuate themselves. This post deals with the second part of that strategy – pain, particularly its role as a negative motivator.  In this blog, pain is defined much more broad than the common every day sense. In this case it is defined as any unpleasant sensation, no matter how trivial, signaling to us that we are experiencing threatens our life or well-being (or will do so soon); whether physical or psychological, whether the threat is direct or indirect.  I will not address masochism because it is ultimately a form of pleasure, and therefore is more appropriately considered in terms of the previous post.

Pain is caused by pain receptors, a nervous system transmitting those signals to the brain, and pain generating regions of the brain itself. In some ways, their role is identical to the “pleasure receptors” – only in the opposite direction.  As mentioned in the last post, pain also motivates us to consume resources and reproduce. Furthermore, it signals to the organism that it is in a situation or environment that is not conducive to maintain its life, reproductive ability, or both.  This means any organism takes a potentially substantial risk when disregarding pain sensations generated by its nervous system.

Therefore, at the basic level and in normal circumstances, pain – especially excruciating pain - is to be avoided at all costs. This is particular true if we accept the following two statements as axiomatic:  “Pain in all forms is bad” and “Bad things are in some form painful”.  It is safe to accept both as axiomatic; for it is difficult to recall any occasion where even one single person did or would have disagreed with either of the two statements, it is safe to accept these two as axiomatic.

However, common everyday experience shows there are many exceptions to the above rule. Therefore, it’s better rewritten as “Pain – especially excruciating pain – is to be avoided at all costs unless the organism cannot gain a pleasurable thing (especially a vital one) without experiencing pain in the pursuit or maintenance of that pleasure.”  Hence, our brains allow us, to a degree, to overrule our pain receptors in order to produce substantive long-term gains. This brings us to the part of the motivation system

The motivational itself is dividable into two aspects, depending on the ultimate goal “sought” by the nervous system’s ultimate creator (DNA) and by the nervous system itself.[1] The goal sought by the nervous system itself is the avoidance of pointless and unbearable pain for its own sake.  If we assume our very consciousness and personhood is located within the nervous system, this ought to be sufficient justification for avoiding pointless and unbearable pain. However, when we remember that the nervous system is itself the product of DNA, plus that the nervous system’s role is to protect our physical bodies and psychological state, then it is difficult to see how the nervous system cannot be anything but a means to an end. The end is to grant a higher probability than otherwise that the DNA will make more copies of itself.

At this point, we have to ask whether it is more important for the DNA to make copies of itself or to avoid pain. If you prefer, you can also ask if it is more important to have a conscious, happy existence or to avoid pain. Either way, we can ask if it is right that the DNA uses the pain (especially the thread of pointless and unbearable pain) as a way to get us to reproduce, or even to keep open the possibility of future pleasurable experiences for the organism.  In other words, given that it is generally unethical to use pain in order to compel humans in particular to do something they otherwise would not think of doing (whether due to their conscious deliberate choice or to indifference about the matter), then how can we say it is right for the DNA to compel us to use pain to make us produce more copies of DNA? [2]

The answer depends in large part, if not wholly, on whether life itself is a long-term gain or loss.  Antinatalists happen to believe life is an objective long-term loss, for reasons given in a later post dealing with David Benatar’s asymmetry.  For now, it’s enough to say that antinatalist position is that because non-existent people can neither feel nor need pleasures, the inevitable pain suffered in life is gratuitous even for pleasurable lives. This does not begin to get into the consent issue (it is not possible to either ask the person before its birth if it wants to be born, nor is it possible for a pre-conceived person to request and/or grant permission to the prospective parents to birth them).  


 [1] As non-aware entities, DNA and individual nerves can’t be aware of anything.  Those objecting that consciousness cannot exist without a sensory nervous system may want to consider hereditary sensory neuropathy or congenital insensitivity to pain (i.e. congenital analgesia). Those with these conditions lack any ability to feel pain at all. Also, psychopaths placed under fMRI scans appear to have little or no emotional response to outside stimuli, no matter how pleasant or horrid the vast majority of people would find the stimuli.  Yet, there is no evidence for diminution of any other mental abilities, self-awareness or other possible forms of consciousness in people with any of the aforementioned conditions. For this reason, the blog takes the position that self-awareness and consciousness are based in the strictly cognitive/rational sections of the brain, or the emotional sections of the brain, or some combination of the two.

[2] Some may object that DNA cannot be evil because it is not a conscious entity and therefore cannot be held blameworthy for the mutation that causes it to create the blueprints for a nervous system, any more than we can blame oxygen for the formation of rust when it reacts with iron.  While this is true, this misses the point.  The DNA brought forth phenomena unique in all creation – consciousness, the survival instincts, and especially the ability to feel pain (physical or emotional). As argued above, pain being a bad thing is axiomatic despite the fact that it increase the odds we will “live to enjoy more pleasures another day”. Even then, pleasure is just the positive motivator that inspires the organism to stay alive.  However, this gets into the question of whether a life filled with pleasure serves any objective purpose (addressed briefly in the previous blog entry and further explicated upon in a later one) or if it is even necessary to bring into existence another organism that can feel pleasure even in copious amounts.

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