Pain is not suffering (and suffering is not good)

In his article for Scientia Salon, Dr Brian Key argues that fish have no consciousness, and thus feel no pain. This is a very informative article, but it is embedded with the author’s assumptions about what can be drawn from the research he reports, mainly that fish, incapable of what humans know as ‘consciousness,’ do not feel (what humans call) pain.

I feel this is entirely missing the point in terms of why we discuss pain, and what we describe as consciousness, certainly as we ascribe these to the behavior of other animals.

Be aware that this issue has to do with th ethics of how we deal with other animals.

I don’t know that we can avoid hurting or killing other animals. But that doesn’t mean that we should absolve ourselves of responsibility for doing so; it may simply be an inevitable experience, given that we are animals, in an animal reality.

We are doomed, really, to being a certain kind of animal in a reality where life feeds upon life. That doesn’t condemn us, but it doesn’t abso;ve us either. It is just that we cannot know what other entities feel, we can perhaps, barely, know ourselves.

We have come to deny, rightly, the anthropomorphic descriptions of what we can know about the behavior of other animals, still, in trying to decipher, whether other species “are conscious or feel pain,”feel pain,” we seem to be engaging in anthropocentric conceptualizations of what can be described.

All animal forms struggle to live. In that struggle, they engage in efforts to escape, attack, or contain threats or actual damage to their well-being. Does it matter whether they do this “consciously” or not? Does it matter whether what they are responding to can be called “pain?”

Certainly the well-being of an animal bodily damaged suffers, that is, reduces in measure and quality. Perhaps that’s the only definition we need of suffering.

Right now the arthritis in my knees is acting up. Meditation, distraction, and aspirin help reduce the claim it has on my attention; but the sensation is still there, and it still reduces my ability to walk, whether or not I cry “ouch!” when I attempt to do so.

In the Wiki article on “Pain in animals,” the caption under a diagram notes: “Reflex arc of a dog with a pin in her paw. Note there is no communication to the brain, but the paw is withdrawn by nervous impulses generated by the spinal cord. There is no conscious interpretation of the stimulus by the dog.” * So what is going on when my dog whines, whimpers, or howls? What is it signifying? How should I respond to it?

In some Eastern philosophies, sentience is not identified with (something like human) consciousness, but with the evident interaction between organism and environment in the organism’s struggle to survive. Impedance or cessation in the efforts of this struggle, is enough to define suffering.

When a fish is pegged to the dock with a knife, it’s squirming surely expresses some struggle to go on living. It may not feel pain, but it suffers nonetheless.

(Whether this is avoidable or not, is an entirely different question.)

But let’s look at this in other ways:

A man with arthritis (this is diagnosable) stands up, says, “I feel pain.” No one questions this.

He takes aspirin, sits down, listens to music, he doesn’t say anything about his pain. We ask him, “has the pain gone away?”

“There’s sensation in my knees; but this Mahler symphony carries me away.”

He doesn’t feel pain? This sensation in his knees, what is it? Or is it that he needs to keep reporting for our benefit? That seems asking too much. He lies to us? There isn’t sensation in his knees just because he no longer calls it pain?

“Pain requires nociceptors and attention.” Perfectly adequate report of neurological systems and cognition. It has what to do with the 5 year old girl crying because she lost her doll? Is that a kind of “pain,” as she reports (“my dolly lost, I hurt”), an emotional stress? Or is she deluded? She wants response. Should we distract her with discussion of nociceptors?

All living things engage in some sensate interaction to their environment. Plants lean toward the sun. We don’t want to claim ‘sensation’ in the primate understanding of the term, they are a different life form, a different system. Yet there is something there that motivates the bending of their forms to a catalyzing agent for nutrition.

There seems something wrong in reducing the problem of ‘suffering’ to anthropocentric conceptualizations. The wilting plant suffers something – it’s dying – one doesn’t need to evoke “pain” in this description.

“My dog caught her paw in a trap; she whined; I answered, and released her.” Was this wrong? What did the utterer ‘owe’ the dog in releasing it? Why was this felt necessary?”

Once I saw a doe that had broken its leg jumping a fence. It evidenced no “pain” behavior. It evidenced survival behavior.

“They shoot horses, don’t they?” – why do they do that? Does that justify suicide per Horace McCoy’s novel? That sounds like a category error, but perhaps not. Perhaps we are concerned about human suicide because we are also concerned with the suffering of other animals.

There seems to be a basic interest here that the question about the ‘consciousness’ of fish, or the ‘pain’ they might feel completely misses.

Scientists seem sometimes to want to find facts that support human presumptions about the world. “Go ahead, slaughter fish, fish don’t feel pain.” Very comforting. But that’s really not interesting. A fisherman who says, “I fish because I must feed my family” tells us more about the nature of humanly experienced reality.

Causing suffering – experiencing suffering – may well be in the nature of being human; perhaps in the nature of being alive. That doesn’t mean we need – or should – find excuses for it. Science is a description; that’s the best it can do. The rest is left to philosophy.

“Life is impermanent since (it is beset by) many misfortunes like a bubble of water caught by the wind; that one inhales after exhaling and awakens from sleep is wonderful.” – Nagarjuna


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