There is broad agreement among researchers that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in the human fetus by 24 weeks gestation [1, for review]. However, some argue that the fetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain can be enabled by subcortical brain structures [2,3,4,5]. Other researchers argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage of gestation because the fetus is sustained in a state of unconsciousness [6]. Finally, others argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage because the fetus lacks the conceptual postnatal development necessary for pain [7,8,9]. If a behavioral and neural reaction to a noxious stimulus is considered sufficient for pain then pain is possible from 24 weeks and probably much earlier. If a conceptual subjectivity is considered necessary for pain, however, then pain is not possible at any gestational age. According to [1], much of the disagreement concerning fetal pain rests on the understanding of key terms such as ‘wakefulness’, ‘conscious’ and ‘pain’.

A motivation for thinking conceptual subjectivity is necessary for pain is the idea that subjective experiences such as pain cannot be reduced to or identified with the objective features of the brain [7,8,9]. All pains are personal experiences and therefore entirely subjective; all brain states are physical events and therefore entirely objective. There is a fundamental divergence between pain and the brain. Thus, pain cannot be in the brain. The basic argument:

1. Pain experiences are subjective.

2. Brain events are objective.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. Pain experiences are not identical to brain events.

Is this a good argument? Let’s examine its first premise – ‘pain experiences are subjective.’ On a reasonable interpretation of its meaning, to state that ‘pain experiences are subjective’ is to state that pain experiences are knowable by introspection. However, since brain events are not knowable by introspection, pain experiences cannot be identical to brain events. Here is the argument:

1. Pain experiences are knowable to me by introspection.

2. Brain events are not knowable to me by introspection.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. My pain experiences are not identical to any of my brain events.

Once the argument is represented in this form, it is clear that it is fallacious. This can be clearly observed if we compare the argument with the following example:

1. Ibuprofen is known to me to relieve pain.

2. Iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid is not known by me to relieve pain.

Therefore, since ibuprofen and iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid fundamentally diverge,

3. Ibuprofen cannot be identical to iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid.

The premises in the example are true, but the conclusion is known to be false. The argument is fallacious because the core idea of the argument – ‘fundamental divergence’ – makes an erroneous assumption; namely, it assumes that a thing must be known by somebody. But the property ‘being known by somebody’ is not a necessary feature of any thing, much less a property that might establish its identity or non-identity with some thing otherwise known. The truth of the premises may be due to nothing else but my ignorance of what turns out to be identical with what. These considerations challenge the assumed epistemology in the conceptual subjectivity view of pain.

They also challenge the related claim made by proponents of conceptual subjectivity that any description of a pain given in objective scientific terms will necessarily always exclude the personal experience of that pain [7,8,9]. The argument made here is by now familiar: since descriptions of pain in personal subjective terms are different from scientific descriptions of pain, it follows that a pain and its private subjectivity cannot be identical with a brain event and its public objectivity. Only persons can feel pain – brain cells and protein channels can’t. Clearly, the argument begs the issue in question: whether or not the subjective features of a pain I personally experience are identical with some objective features of my brain that might be discovered by neuroscience is precisely the question at issue [10,11].

Besides, in order to understand a scientific explanation of pain, neuroscience does not require of a person that he both understands the explanation and feels pain as a condition of understanding. Neuroscience aims to explain pain, that is its main purpose. Too much is demanded of neuroscience if, in addition to formulating an explanation of pain, it is meant to re-create pain in somebody as a requirement of understanding [10,11]. This expectation is therefore much too strong.


[1] Derbyshire SWG, Raja A. (2011). On the development of painful experience.Journal of Consciousness Studies18, 9–10.

[2] Anand KJ, Hickey PR. (1987). Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine, 317(21), 1321–1329.

[3] Anand KJ. (2007). Consciousness, cortical function, and pain perception in nonverbal humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences30(1), 82–83.

[4] Lowery CL, Hardman MP, Manning N, Clancy B, Whit Hall R, Anand KJS. (2007). Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain. In Seminars in perinatology, 31(5), 275–282.

[5] Merker B. (2007). Consciousness without a cerebral cortex, a challenge
for neuroscience and medicine. Target article with peer commentary and author’s response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 63–134.

[6] Mellor DJ, Diesch TJ, Gunn AJ, Bennet L. (2005). The importance of ‘awareness’ for understanding fetal pain. Brain research reviews49(3), 455-471.

[7] Derbyshire SWG. (2012). Fetal analgesia: where are we now? Future Neurology7(4), 367-369.

[8] Derbyshire SWG. (2006). Controversy: Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ: British Medical Journal332(7546), 909.

[9] Szawarski Z. (1996). Do fetuses feel pain? Probably no pain in the absence of “self”. BMJ: British Medical Journal313(7060), 796–797. 

[10] Churchland PS. (2002). Brain-wise: V: Studies in Neurophilosophy. MIT press.

[11] van Rysewyk S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. PhD Dissertation, University of Tasmania.