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Analysis of David Hume’s, Bertrand Russell’s and Thomas Nagel’s Arguments About One’s Own Experience of Pain

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Much has been written by philosophers over the past few centuries about the mind-body problem, which addresses the issue pertaining to the duality between one’s physical and mental entities. By pushing this problem further, one can explore rather interesting areas of philosophical thought. For example, when addressing this problem in terms of pain, one begins to explore the true distinctions between ascribing pain to others on the basis of one’s own experience of pain. This example in particular is rather alluring due to the fact that it also draws from philosophical skepticism, since it imposes skepticism’s doubt in regards to pain. The question, therefore, that will be debated throughout this paper is whether one can be philosophically justified in framing the hypothesis that one’s pain could be felt in the same way as someone else’s pain. Throughout this paper, by drawing on arguments from both philosophical skepticism, through David Hume’s arguments, and the mind-body problem, particularly Bertrand Russell and Thomas Nagel’s arguments, before delving into possible counterarguments, it will be argued that one’s personal sense of pain cannot and should not be ascribed to other individuals. 

By examining Hume’s argument of philosophical skepticism, it seems that one’s individual perception of pain cannot possibly be accurate in describing another individual’s pain. As described by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hume’s “fame and importance” is largely due to “his boldly skeptical approach to a range of philosophical subjects” (Fieser). In simple terms, Hume argues that one does not have any empirical reason for believing in one’s own reality, the reality supported by common sense, than other realities, such as those attributed to simulations or dreams, to name a few. The Humean predicament indicates that humans are trapped behind a “veil of perception,” as Descartes or Locke described it, wherein there is a logical gap between one’s impressions or ideas and one’s true reality (Rogers). Under this veil of perception, Hume seems to argue that there is no reason as to why humans should attribute certain intentional or sensational states of mind to the external world based on their own perceptions of the internal world, wherein intentional states of mind encompass one’s beliefs and desires, while sensational states of mind are feelings within oneself, such as pain itself. Because of this, it seems as if pain, a sensational state with direct ties to emotion, cannot be inferred unto another person. In other words, Hume’s argument seems to indicate that the logical gap that one would have to make in assuming another’s sensational state is not justified. This logical gap therefore does not justify any individual assumptions about others’ perceptions of pain. For this reason, it seems as if one cannot even frame the hypothesis of attempting to understand another’s pain, becomes these attempts would be futile. Philosophical skepticism, particularly Hume’s skepticism, subsequently refutes the statement that pain is a shared notion between individuals on the grounds of the a priori and a posteriori jumps that must be made to infer another’s sensational states. In principle, one cannot doubt the internal world that one experiences, particularly regarding pain. However, Hume’s argument seems to indicate that this should not be the case for doubt in the external world. 

Another example which will be presented to support the notion that one’s individual sense of pain cannot be attributed to other individuals stems from Bertrand Russell’s arguments regarding color. As noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, color has been on the foreground of philosophical exploration due to the fact that “color raises serious metaphysical issues, concerning the nature both of physical reality and of the mind” (Stanford). In this particular case the example of color will be particularly interesting in comparison to pain itself. This can be deduced by analyzing a passage from Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy, wherein he examines the apparent color of a table: “It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table — it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table.” As Russell argues, it appears as if color cannot serve as a blanket statement which encompasses all of the possible perceptions of color among individuals. The same could be argued about pain. It seems impossible to use pain as a generic term referring to an individual emotion due to the fact that pain fluctuates depending on multiple factors. Therefore, pain is not inherent to a human being the same way that “colour is not something which is inherent in the table.” Because of this, as supported by Russell’s arguments regarding color, it is not justified to assume what someone else’s pain may be only based on one’s individual perception of personal pain. 

The final argument which will be explored to support the notion that one cannot frame the hypothesis which attempts to understand another person’s pain on the basis of their own personal experience is Thomas Nagel’s arguments regarding the philosophy of mind. In one of Nagel’s most famous articles, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” Nagel argues for a normative approach towards understanding other types of consciousness, noting that humans cannot understand other types of consciousness, such as animal consciousness. One excerpt from the article highlights the argument particularly concisely: “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism” (Nagel, 436). When applied to pain, this argument has the similar effect as Russell’s color argument. It is impossible for humans to formulate a hypothesis about another individual’s sense of pain in the same way it is impossible for human beings to formulate such a hypothesis about others’ consciousness. To reformulate Nagel’s argument, “an organism can only appreciate another organism’s sense of pain if and only if there is something that it is like to be in pain – something it is like for the organism.” In other words, there must be a common framework which describes what pain is fundamentally and universally for all individuals. However, as deduced from Russell’s argument, this is not the case, seeing as pain has multiple different facts which affect how it is experienced by the individual, that pain is not inherent to the individual, the same way that color is not inherent to the table. For these reasons, it seems as if pain is therefore not analogous to an organism’s conscious mental state, seeing as there is not something that it is like to be in pain that is analogous to all human beings. Subsequently, one cannot assume to know another individual’s sense of pain and attempt to formulate a hypothesis which attempts to describe it. 

Although it may seem that individuals should not attempt to understand other’s sense of pain by formulating hypotheses to explain it, several counterarguments should first be presented and refuted to further validate the claim. It is almost ironic that the counterargument examined is proposed is by Bertrand Russell himself, wherein he vouches against Hume’s ideas regarding philosophical skepticism. As professor John Kekes notes, Bertrand Russell was once quoted as saying that “‘Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it,’” notably expressing that Russell “expressess the sentiments of many philosophers” (Kekes, 28). It therefore seems as if Russell may argue in favor of formulating a hypothesis to support another individual’s sense of pain, seeing as it would be “psychologically impossible” to do otherwise. However, as noted in the introduction of this paper, the question that the paper attempts to answer is whether it is philosophically justified to formulate such a hypothesis, not whether it is psychologically possible or not. It therefore seems as if, regardless of how accurate Russell’s claim may be, it seems to be irrelevant in terms of the exploration of this question. 

In conclusion, it appears as if it is not justified for one to even frame the hypothesis that another person might feel pain in the same sense in which one does oneself by drawing upon arguments from David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Thomas Nagel. It is therefore interesting that, in modern day societies, it appears that individuals attempt to impose their sense of pain onto others to create empathy in the listener. However, as hinted in Russell’s pledge against skepticism, it may be true that whether or not such types of hypotheses are justified or not are irrelevant when noting the psychological necessity in attempting to explain or understand individual pain. Instead, what may be of vital importance is the idea that such type of philosophical questioning may aid humans to nurture a personal sense of self-awareness, a personal sense of self-awareness which will enable them to better understand others and the world as a whole. 

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Analysis Of David Hume’s, Bertrand Russell’s And Thomas Nagel’s Arguments About One’s Own Experience Of Pain. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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