Complexity of Suffering and Pleasure


Even today we often hear that pain-pleasure
is either a continuum or that pleasure is merely the lack of pain or satisfaction of
a need. In the case of a continuum we can imagine
a scale that goes from the negatives to positives. Just as a numeric scale does. In this model pleasure and pain aren’t really
that different. They are very similar, but vary only in valence
(positive or negative) and magnitude (how much positive or negative they are). So each pleasure could only be “better”
in magnitude than another pleasure, but couldn’t be different in the kind or quality. Similarly, pain and pleasure of equal magnitude
would differ only in their valence – their sign, but not in quality or internal structure
of experience. You could, in principle, take a pleasure and
switch its sign to make it a pain, and vice versa. The second model defines pleasure negatively
– as elimination of pain or a satisfaction of desire. Pleasure is seen as the cessation of pain. Under this view also we wouldn’t expect
any differences in types of pleasure that satisfy a particular need. And here the elimination of pain should bring
us to a virtually the same state of neutrality or contentment. The naive understanding of motivation and
emotional landscape may lead to some strange conclusions. For example, some people say that what you
do is what you most desire to do at the moment. This means that people
– explicitly desire not to suffer (instead of being motivated to avoid pain), and
– they are motivated only positively to obtain pleasure, disregarding any rules, norms, traditions,
or any other forms of behavioral constraints. In effect, you can even say that a person
doing something means that this person believes that this activity best maximizes their pleasure. This, in principle, can be said in philosophy,
but as we shall see in a moment, sciences informs us that this is not how things work. This is important as morality most often than
not is derived from consequences of our actions. And because of that we better have a solid
and accurate understanding of what these consequences can entail. I view both of these proposals as incorrect
and outdated. We shall follow various lines of argumentation,
and try to support some of them with reference to modern science to paint a more complex
and accurate picture of pain and pleasure and of human motivation. The best place to start is the domain where
we already have a good understanding and a consensus – psychology. When we are trying to get something pleasurable
we are motivated by the approach system. This system recognizes and anticipates potential
rewards and directs our attention and behavior towards a goal. You see an attractive person smiling to you. Your pupils dilate, you become excited, you
focus your attention on this person. You approach them to start a conversation. On the other hand, when we are trying to evade
something aversive, we are motivated by the avoidance system. This system reacts to potential dangers and
activates specific feelings, behaviors, and other physiological changes. You are walking alone in the dark and you
hear a crackling sound. You suddenly stop, your pupils dilate even
more, you become tense, you focus your attention on scanning the surroundings – looking around,
listening for potential sounds. You are afraid. These two systems are motivating us to act. They control emotions and behaviors for anticipated
pleasure or danger. Neuroscience shows that there are also separate
neurological systems that process actual reward and actual punishment. The reward system is crucial to learning new
behaviors and habits that allow us to repeat actions which led to positive outcomes. A particular malfunction of this system leads
to addiction. The punishment system is essential for learning
what things to avoid or what behaviors to not do. A single attempt to eat a soup that’s too
hot is often enough to learn not to do that again. Apart from these two classes of systems, negative
states and positive states are underpinned by unique chemistry – neurotransmitters
and hormones. Various brain regions react differently to
different neurotransmitters – chemicals that enable signals to jump from one neuron
to another. Some brain structures are sensitive more to
particular neurotransmitters than to others. And various brain structures are associated
with experiences of and expression of different emotions. Fear, rage, pain, loneliness have their unique
chemical fingerprint in the brain. Oxytocin plays a major role is certain social
interactions, dopamine is involved in anticipation of a reward, and some hormones, such as testosterone
and estrogen, motivate sexual behavior. Cortisol takes part in memorizing acute emotional
moments, such as touching a hot stove, adrenaline increases the general arousal level in a fight-or-flight
situation. All of these hormones have many functions,
so to speak. The whole picture is quite complex and research
is still ongoing. The bottom line is that on the chemical level
we can differentiate between many positive states and between many negative states. When we step away from the organism itself
and look at the things that elicit emotional responses – the stimuli – we also can
see separate categories. The stimuli can be classified by looking at
them through the lenses of motivational and processing systems. Motivational systems classify stimuli as either
desirable or aversive. This is needed to initiate either approach
or avoidance behaviors, respectively. The systems that handle the effects of whatever
it is that caused a specific emotional response distinguish between reward and punishment. Because of this we learn to repeat behaviors
that lead to reward and to not do the things that lead to punishment. These were normal external causes or internal
impulses. But the different feelings can be evoked by
directly stimulating certain brain areas by electrical current. This procedure is common when patients with
drugs-resistant epilepsy undergo surgery to deactivate or isolate the parts of the brain
that the abnormal activity spreads from. This electrical brain stimulation may cause
the patient to experience many things: memories, seeing things, joy and laughter, sadness and
crying, fear, anger, etc. The point here is that it’s possible to
hack the brain to force even a positive experience without satisfying any particular active need,
want, or desire. Likewise it’s possible to bring about a
negative experience without depriving someone of any particular pleasure. Positive and negative experiences can be evoked
independently. And what’s more important, you have to stimulate
different regions of the brain to get different emotions. There is no single region for bad feelings
and no single region for good feelings. There are many regions associated with many
different emotions. Let’s step away from hacking the brain and
focus on the thing we are intimately involved in – our minds. We can say that some things are such that
we tend to move towards to and feel pleasure or satisfaction when we get them. Some things, on the other hand, we move away
from, and we are disturbed by them, they are painful or unpleasant, we actively want to
get out of such situations or states. These are very distinct, general qualities. We don’t just satisfy a need and go to a
neutral state or a general state of satisfaction. Our sensory modalities provide us with a wide
range of positive experiences. You’re hungry. You eat spaghetti with olives and dried tomatoes. When taking the bite you smell the delicate
garlic and basil in the sauce. The texture of the tomatoes becomes apparent. The taste of an olive springs to the foreground. It’s not merely hunger going out. The experience is pleasurable, yes. But it’s also rich and unique. We’re not merely moving from the “minus”
to the “plus” side on the experience scale. The space of experiences is multidimensional. The pains and pleasures are unique, distinct,
and the whole space of qualities is rich and complex. The complexity and richness of experience
(both negative and positive) made its way into language. Afraid, nervous, ache, loss, regret, joy,
relax, awe, content, ecstatic – words show that we do, in fact, recognize pain and pleasure
in all their complexity. We differentiate between various types of
suffering and between various forms of pleasure. We naturally communicate with each other using
all these words and we have no problems with understanding which exact experience someone
is talking about. In the end, there is a lot of complexity to
suffering, and there is a lot of richness in pleasure. The facts about experiences of sentient beings
shouldn’t be brushed off. They have to be recognized when constructing
a moral system that takes well-being into account.

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