Upon the Threat of Thought Experiments (#poem)

20190408203131_IMG_7548.JPGA philosopher of mind,
It doesn’t matter who,
But it was Daniel Dennett,
Made a point of describing
Disembodied consciousness,
Or dissociation,
To prove that animals might
React physically to pain
Without being conscious of it.

He illustrated this with the case of
Children who dissociate during
Sexual assaults. *

In a seminar, another prominent male
Philosopher turned to another and said,
“I dreamed I raped and murdered your wife.
Do I owe you an apology?”

A female philosopher left the room.

Thought experiments are expected to
Be free and provocative,
But haven’t we experimented enough
With thoughts of violence against
Women and girls to know where they lead?

*(Dennett said the child thinks, “’I’ am not undergoing this pain, “she” is.”)

Pain in the Membrane (frivolous essay on the brain)

They say the pain is all in your head, but where else could it be? I mean, some people do complain of pain in their hands or elbows or knees or whatever, but really the experience of the pain is in their heads as a matter of perception. That’s why some people can claim to have pains in hands or legs that don’t exist. Or exist separated from phrenologythe rest of the body. The pain is in the head, or really the mind, which is probably in the head.

At least we think of our thoughts as being in our heads. When someone does something crazy, we say, “What got into your head?” or something like that. And our thoughts really do seem to be in our heads, except when they are thoughts of the pain that is in our feet after a long day of standing—or maybe the pain of anxiety.

Or the head might not have that much to do with it. Maybe thoughts and pains are in the mind, but the mind is nowhere near the head. Stranger things have happened. I mean, no one doing brain surgery ever found a mind sitting in a skull. You just find brains and stuff in there. And fancy brain scans give colorful and delightful images of brain activity, but not too much info on where the mind is. Pretty interesting things brains are, maybe interesting enough to make minds, but who knows? Honestly, the question never crossed my mind before (this is an obvious lie).

As a young philosophy student, a professor asked if I thought the mind was in the brain. I answered affirmatively. He asked why I thought that, because that is what philosophy professors do. I’m embarrassed to say I answered in a way that seems typical of young men—with a violent example. I said that if you smashed someone’s skull with a steel bat you would witness significant degradation to that person’s state of mind.

Without relying on violent examples, you have to admit that it is often hard to see a mind capable of pure reason in a person whose brain is seriously damaged. Brains really seem important to this discussion, you know? So perhaps all pain is in the head because all pain is in the brain, but what of my arthritic hands? Surely something in my hands is related to the pain in my brain (or my mind for the people still holding out hope for that).

When someone says the pain is all in your head they mean it is in your head and does not correspond to any injury outside of your head (you know, like a stubbed toe or something). The pain is in your brain and nowhere else. Some doctors, of course, will think this fact is enough to justify denying your pain all together and, more importantly, denying you any treatment for your pain. Because of that, your pain gets no sympathy, no consideration, no attention, or anything.

And that creates a pain in your heart, and by that I mean an emotional pain. We say emotional pain is in the heart, partly because our chests often hurt when we feel emotional pain, but I think emotional pain is also in the brain or the mind, wherever it is. Pharmaceutical companies seem to agree; antidepressants aren’t heart medications, are they?

No matter where the pain is, it is most definitely real, even if we can’t be sure the mind is real. You know the pain is real because it is hurting you, and you can’t be wrong about whether you are hurting. Show me where the pain is in your body.

Impossible. The pain just is. The pain is part of the universal pain. The pain is in stardust. The pain is free-floating. The pain is in the neurons. The pain is in the gluons. You are hurting. I share your pain. We are real. Suffering is infinite, and it is all in the mind.



The ethics of eating talking plants

In a blog post on The Atlantic Wire, Sara Morrison writes,

“Just when moral vegetarians thought their meal of choice wasn’t sentient, it turns out that plants can totally talk to each other. Even weirder, they communicate through underground fungi. So mushrooms aren’t cool to eat, either. Sorry.”


Because that is how simple moral reasoning is. Morrison assumes, with no evidence, that moral vegetarians base their decisions on whether animals can communicate. This may be because others such as Descartes have denied that animals can have thought without language. Descartes further argued that without thought animals could no more experience suffering than a machine could. Perhaps to make a point, or not, he described some rather vivid scenes of vivisection.

But it is a mistake to think ethical vegetarians are motivated by Descartes’ thinking. We tend to think more along the lines of Jeremy Bentham, who famously said:

“Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”


In response to the ethical vegetarian’s focus on suffering, some philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have shown that it is at least possible that animals can experience pain without the attendant suffering that vegetarians assume. It is possible that animals are automata that respond to pain without being aware of it, just as we may roll over in our sleep when we become uncomfortable (Dennett’s example). We can feel the pain and respond to it with no awareness whatsoever. (Interestingly, Dennett seems pretty sure dogs, and no other animals, may experience suffering in an otherwise uniquely human way.)

So, ethical vegetarians are stuck between those who claim that plant communication implies suffering that make moral demands on them and people who deny that clear expressions of pain are conclusive evidence that any given creature actually experiences suffering. For me, I’m quite content to assume that plants are not suffering until they express their suffering in a less ambiguous manner (or someone manages to measure it in a more convincing manner). At the same time, I’m content to assume animals with a nervous system similar to mine and pain expressions similar to mine are experiencing some kind of suffering that is enough to motivate some moral concern on my part.

At any rate, I can’t imagine how an indifference to the appearance of suffering can be something to go around bragging about. (And one final note: I really don’t understand vegetarians who are inexplicably eager to explain that they have no concerns whatsoever about the suffering of sentient beings but are only trying to lose weight or something.)