Pain Asymbolia and A Priori Defeasibility

I listened to the first lecture in David Chalmers’ Locke Lectures currently taking place at Oxford and I was intrigued by the argument he gave in defense of the claim that we can have a priori knowledge and do conceptual analysis even if we cannot give definitions of the concepts that we are analyzing. The argument appealed to the claim that any counter-example to a definition involved reasoning about possible cases and so we could give an account of the a priori in terms of our capacity to think about possible scenarios and our judgments about whether certain sentences are true in those scenarios.

I wanted to find the text of the talk to check on the details of the argument and in the lecure Dave mentioend that he was putting manuscripts up online and I went to his website to see if I could find them…sadly I couldn’t. But I did find this paper which if I am right is probably the text that the fourth lecture will center on. Anyways, I read the paper and now want to say something about it. 
As I read it the central point is very simple: one can accept Quinian arguments about conceptual revisibility and still have a robust a priori/a posteriori and analytic/synthetic distinction. One does this by simply stipulating that something is a priori if it is knowable independently of experience without conceptual change. That is given that we hold the conceptual meanings fixed is the statement knowable a priori? Much of the paper is spent fleshing out a suggestion made by Carnap updated with 2-d semantics and Bayesian probability theory aimed at giving an account of conceptual change.
So to put it overly simply one can say to Quine “sure, my concept may change and if so this wouldn’t be true but given that my concepts don’t change we can see that this would be the case.” So to take pain as an example. When we are reasoning a priori about what we would say about pain (can there be pain/pleasure inversion for instance) we can admit that if we change what we mean by pain this or that will be different. But as long as our concept of pain doesn’t change we can say this or that would be true in this or that scenario and therefore bypass the entire Quinian argument altogether. This would seem to give Dave a response to the type-q materialist who has been getting so much attention over at Philosophy Sucks! lately. This is because they seem to be saying that since our concept of pain might change we cannot know a priori whether zombies are conscious or not. Dave responds by saying that as long as we do not have to change our concept of pain we can see that zombies are not conscious. I think that this response to the Quinian argument is quite good but I would respond to it differently. 
I would argue that as of right now we do not know which scenarios are ideally conceivable because we have cases of disagreement about decisive scenarios.
To fill this in with a particular example that I have talked about before let us focus on the notion of pain and Pain Asymbolia. Now many philosophers hold that it is a priori that if something is a pain then it will be painful (and that conversely if something is painful then it will be a pain). Now suppose that one of these philosophers finds out about pain asymbolia and denies that these people are in pain. Now suppose that this person comes to change their mind and instead thinks that they are in pain but that pain and painfulness are (contrary to appearances) only contingently related. What are we to say? In the paper Dave says,

A fifth issue is the worry that subjects might change their mind about a possible case without a change of meaning. Here, one can respond by requiring, as above, that the specifications of a scenario are rich enough that judgments about the scenario are determined by its specification and by ideal reasoning. If so, then if the subject is given such a specification and is reasoning ideally throughout, then there will not be room for them to change their mind in this way. Changes of mind about a fully specified scenario will always involve either a failure of ideal reasoning or a change in meaning.

I can agree with this in principle but since I can clearly conceive pain and painfulness being only contingently related it cannot be the case that we are in a position to determine which concept of pain is the one which will be employed in ideal reasoning. We may have our favorite but there are arguments on both sides and it is not clear where the truth lies. So though we can know a priori that either pain is necessarily painful or that it is contingently painful but we cannot know which is true now. To know that we would have to settle the pain asymbolia case; but that case it hotly contested (pun sadly intended )

The upshot then is whether or not Dave has a response to Quinian worries about the a priori in principle he has not done enough to show that we are currently in a position to make use of this apparatus and so we are forbidden any of its fruits.


  1. I will begin with a complaint. So much of philosophy is inaccessible to the uniniatated. Was it always so? did the Greeks cast their insights into jargon? I don’t think so. Perhaps the modern analytic movement is subjected to gloomy cultural pressures that make plain speaking an avoidable mistake.

    It wasn’t possible for me to follow most of the above article as it seemed that key ideas were immediately made inaccessible. Technical terms can, unfortunately, condense a ragbag of ideas and their historical sources in one easily forgettable phrase. I don’t have time or effort to unravel the cultural and conceptual melds that give rise to such terms as “asymbolia” or “ideal” reasoning.

    But some things do immediately stand out for the hero of ordinary language that the technician of jargon may miss:

    What could be meant by the idea that the meaning of a word can “change”? Meanings don’t change, surely. I am a simple man, but I am also very clever. I can see that meanings don’t change. How, then, should I take an article and a whole philosophy that in its run of business casually affirms that meanings DO change?

    The assymetry of the accessibility of modern philosophical texts, expecially the analytic variety, is troubling. Readers dedicated to plain speaking must often feel like beggars facing a shut door. But sometimes we peak through the curtains and decide not to knock.

  2. John would you complain if a discussion among professional mathematicians or biochemists were hard to understand? Every specialized discipline develops its own terminology to make communication more succinct. On the other hand, I am sympathetic in that I think philosophers tend to go on a bit too long. In all the academic departments I visit the philosophers tend to take the longest to ask the simplest questions.

    Plus, this blog is weird. Sometimes things are written at a very conversational level. More often they require a bit of specialized knowledge, while sometimes they basically require a degree in philosophy to even understand the point being made.

    I’m sure Richard would be happy to answer specific questions about jargon, e.g., about the term ‘pain asymbolia’ (though note in one of his links he provides a description, so that should be sufficient: it isn’t a philosophy term (though it sounds like one), but is from neuropsychology).

  3. John:
    As for meaning of words changing, I’m not sure what you have against that. Consider the words ‘gay’, ‘energy’, and ‘planet’ for instance. Also, words as used by young children learning the language mean very different things than when used by adults (e.g., by ‘dog’ they will often mean any furry thing running around, so will apply the term to cats, squirrels, monkeys, etc).

    Words we attach to meanings are arbitrary for the most part, no reason to expect they will stay the same.

  4. Richard Brown

    I agree with pretty much everything that Eric says here…especially with the long-windedness of a lot of philosophers. Sometimes this is unavoidable (as when one needs to sketch an alternative perspective from which the questioner sees an objection) but often times it isn’t. Often times it is just laziness on the part of the question asker. They simply haven’t really thought about the way to ask the question….in our defense a lot of philosophers know this is a problem….

  5. I am of the opinion that, after Wittgenstein, anything that can be said can be said clearly and that means said in ordinary language – for any philosophical treatise. Ordinary language isn’t currently fashionable, of course, so it looks as though I am being unfair in picking out one particular text. It is unfair. The paper it was taken from was much clearer. However, the summary I expected to immediately understand. I have a skill in unravelling conceptual puzzles but a technical term can stop me dead, as it can anyone. And I have a reluctance to source the meaning of a technical term. Why is this?

    Technical terms have no pedigree of sense. Their construction follows no rules. Unravelling the particular historical and conceptual sources and preferences that become knotted in a technical sign might take years of research: one cannot predict what troubles lie in store for economical effort. As you point out yourself, the sign “pain asymbolia” is sourced in neuropsychology. How much work would have been required simply to find out HOW to find that source and to identify the parochial conceptual and cultural pressures that are condensed in it?

    Technical terms are a language apart. The language of chemistry is a language apart, but the philosophy of chemistry is not a language apart. Languages die out; or rather, the signs they employ die out but the concepts remain untouched as they issue from a natural base. If the conceptual system of neuropsychology should ever collapse from want of such a base then texts that employ its technical terms will fall in equal measure. I become suspicious when I see a technical term as it points to a supposed failure of common, public language and more alarmingly, to a supposed failure of the naturally-conceived concepts that have ordinary language as their home.

    Philosophical treatises ought to be expansive in their sense. As such, “research in philosophy” doesn’t seem possible. It isn’t possible. But philosophy isn’t currently expansive, and what passes for research is the activity of making non-philosophical associations, such as those derived from history and personage, to natural concepts. In this vast construction the natural concepts that are the life of philosophy become replaced with technical terms. These represent icons of cultural influence and have neither sense nor no sense. To pull sense out of such a vast body of aconceptual data the philosopher MUST, as his first duty and principle, acknowledge the existence of the aconceptual or integrated text by unknotting the natural concepts from the technical terms that give that text its durability. We should never, on that account, promote the technical term.

  6. First, there isn’t anything that “has” a meaning. Shapes and pixels are not repositories of a general form of meaning which morphs or changes to give different particular meanings.

    The “association” between a shape (or word, set of letters, pixels, etc) and a meaning may come and go, but neither the shape, the association, nor the meaning “change”.
    The association of a particular meaning and a shape vanishes and appears according to use. A particular meaning doesn’t morph or “change”, it gets replaced. And there are no rules for replacement that allow for a seamless transition and hence a mooted change.

Comments are closed.

Back to Top