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The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter
Ponder, Scribble, Ponder (Photo Erdotahi Aron)

Guest Nutter/Kindred Soul: Bill Bailey


Friday, 9 November 2007

A Poke in the Eye/The Pain of Prawns?

[Irony On] Another triumph of experimental science: living things respond to stimuli.

This is the truly staggering insight I glean from this report in New Scientist. The fact that living things respond to stimuli I find to be a substantial development on the basic ideas of cause and effect. [Irony Off]

(Just to be fair, the original paper - enticingly entitled "Nociception or pain in a decapod crustacean?" - might well be more intelligent... but I have my doubts.)

I quote...
Robert Elwood at Queen's University Belfast in the UK and his colleagues claim they have found convincing evidence that prawns do feel pain. When they dabbed an irritant - acetic acid - onto one of 144 prawns' two antennae, the creatures reacted by grooming and rubbing the affected antenna for up to 5 minutes. This focused reaction is similar to that seen in mammals exposed to a noxious stimulant...
(NB "one of 144 prawns' two antennae"? Poor prawns! How do they share them? Perhaps they meant "one of the two antennae of each of 144 prawns"?)

Anyway, according to New Scientist he (Elwood) then goes on to say:
The prolonged, specifically directed rubbing and grooming is consistent with an interpretation of pain experience.

Which is not, by any stretch of the imagination - and mine stretches quite a lot - "convincing evidence that prawns do feel pain".

By this reasoning I would have to conclude that some modern cars with "smart" wipers also feel pain as evidenced by the "prolonged, specifically directed" wiping the windscreen receives when it gets wet.

And now I think about it, I have personally observed mud washing down hills when it rains - clearly even hills must suffer mightily from the elements so "specifically" do they endeavour to rid themselves of all that water by sloughing their skin.

At least Lynne Sneddon (University of Liverpool) has some common-sense, "You could argue the shrimp is simply trying to clean the antenna rather than showing a pain response, " she is reported as saying.

However, in response to this - and other alternative explanations - "Elwood insists such comparisons are flawed":
Using the same analogy, one could argue crabs do not have vision because they lack the visual centres of humans.
which is such an aggravatingly stupid remark that I just had to write this damn posting to express the pain of my cognitive dissonance!

No, no, no, no no! Pain is an instance of the sort of thing that drives Philosophers and Artificial Intelligence workers round the bend - the problem of qualia. In a philosophical nutshell, what we sense and what we feel about our sensory experiences (what we perceive perhaps) are two different things. If we were to (correctly!) use the same meta-analogy one could argue perhaps that crabs don't recognise their friends - not that they don't see or respond to light.

If I poke you in the eye with a sharp stick you will probably say "Ow!", and I grant that you experience pain, though I could - philosophically - perfectly reasonably doubt it: I feel pain, you make strange noises when poked - how and why should I connect behaviour with feelings?

Rub a cat's fur the wrong way and it will groom it back into place; is the cat in pain, is it perhaps mildly irritated, is it vain? Even once we solve the problem with respect to other "people" it remains to be seen how we extend the concept of pain to other organisms.

And of course there is pain and there is suffering. If I experience brief - but possibly intense pain - it is, by definition all over quickly; if I know it is going to happen again I will anticipate - and suffer. If I endure prolonged pain I have long enough to wish it would end, and so suffer when it does not - particularly if I don't know when it might end (I might suppose it is going to go on forever).

Obviously if you avoid inflicting pain you avoid inflicting pain-related suffering; but what if pain can be inflicted without suffering?


Nuff said.