Some philosophers worry that neuroscience will make painfulness disappear. Broadly, the objection is that if a science reduces a macro phenomenon to a micro phenomenon, then the macro phenomenon is not real or disappears (e.g., Searle, 1992). Using this conception of ‘reduction’, it is then reasoned that because it is observably obvious that a pain is real, it cannot be reduced to neuroscience. This misunderstanding trades on an idiosyncratic understanding of reduction, where it is expected that in science, reductions make macro phenomenon disappear. This expectation is confused.

Temperature was reduced to mean molecular kinetic energy, as recounted above, but no person expects that temperature therefore ceased to be real or became scientifically disrespectable or redundant. Visible light was reduced to electromagnetic radiation, but light did not disappear. Instead, scientists understand more about the real nature of light than they did before 1873. Light is real, no doubt; and so is temperature. Some expectations about the nature of temperature and light did change, and scientific progress does occasionally require rethinking what was believed about phenomenon. In certain instances, previously respectable properties and substances sometimes did prove to be unreal. The caloric theory of heat did not survive rigorous experimental testing; caloric fluid thus proved to be unreal. While no one expects that painfulness will cease to be real or become scientifically disrespectable if it is successfully explained by neuroscience, everyone believes that debilitating chronic pain will be controlled and eventually disappear as a result of scientific reduction. But this belief may turn out to be quite wrong. Simple prudence suggests that we wait and see.

Thus, the reduction of a macro phenomenon means only that there is an explanation of the phenomenon. Scientific explanations of phenomenon do not typically make them disappear. As neuroscience matures, the future of current conceptions of painfulness and sensory experience generally will rely on the empirical facts, and the enduring accuracy of current macro level theories (Churchland, 1993).

Churchland, P.M. (1993). Evaluating our self-conception. Mind and Language, 8, 211-222.
Searle, J.R. (1992). The Rediscovery of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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