The only certainty is pain

Dawkins was asked if seeing God would cause him to believe, he replied, in effect, he’d presume he was hallucinating. You can hear him in his own words at about 12:30 in the following video:

Dawkins was articulate, charming and persuasive, but his way of thinking isn’t mine.

One atheist friend said to me, “it stinks being an atheist. Once you die that’s it. I wish I could believe.” I asked him if he saw a vision of God whether he’d believe, and he said, “I’d think I was hallucinating! I want science to show God exists.” So unlike Dawkins, he actually would like to believe, but the way he seeks evidence illustrates the fundamental problem. The problem is that at some point an element of faith in an unprovable assumption must exist for someone to accept God’s existence, even assuming God is real. I’ve often said, to formally prove God exists, you’d have to be omniscient, but if that were the case, you’d be God!

This raises an interesting problem of what can anyone have certainty in. I saw an apparition many years ago the night before my confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church while singing a hymn. I wasn’t looking for it nor was I in some sort of extreme emotional state. I eventually left the Roman Catholic Church and became a Reformed Presbyterian.

Charles Bonnet and other disorders show that human perception is not always reliable:

Sufferers, who are mentally healthy people with often significant vision loss, have vivid, complex recurrent visual hallucinations (fictive visual percepts). One characteristic of these hallucinations is that they usually are “lilliputian” (hallucinations in which the characters or objects are smaller than normal). The most common hallucination is of faces or cartoons.[4] Sufferers understand that the hallucinations are not real, and the hallucinations are only visual, that is, they do not occur in any other senses, e.g. hearing, smell or taste.

People suffering from CBS may experience a wide variety of hallucinations. Images of complex colored patterns and images of people are most common, followed by animals, plants or trees and inanimate objects. The hallucinations also often fit into the person’s surroundings.[2]

And then there was the cases of brilliant logicians and mathematicians and like John Nash, Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel. In this list 11 historical geniuses

One of the greatest scientists of all time is also the hardest genius to diagnose, but historians agree he had a lot going on. Newton suffered from huge ups and downs in his moods, indicating bipolar disorder, combined with psychotic tendencies. His inability to connect with people could place him on the autism spectrum. He also had a tendency to write letters filled with mad delusions, which some medical historians feel strongly indicates schizophrenia. Whether he suffered from one or a combination of these serious illnesses, they did not stop him from inventing calculus, explaining gravity, and building telescopes, among his other great scientific achievements.

Then there was the sad story of Claude Shannon as his brilliant mind eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s. So being more scientific and having a great logical mind does not guarantee one will have a better hold on ultimate reality than anyone else. The fundamental problem is the only thing we can be sure of is the existence of our own internal feelings. Beyond that, inferences about the would outside of our consciousness and sensory experience has greater and greater levels of uncertainty the farther we extrapolate our senses and memory to make inferences.

In discussions of what is real by philosophers, Zhuangzi’s quote often comes up:

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

One thing we know experientially is we feel sleepy before we sleep and the dream states happen when we sleep. When in the non sleepy (aka awake) states we have more constancy and consistency of what we deem “real”. In the awake states, we have some control over what happens in the dream states, hence for this and other reasons we rightly conclude we are not butterflies dreaming we are human. But it’s not quite so easy to make that inference, I had to think about it to describe the inference more rigorously. The proof I offered I think is generally correct, but probably not formally demonstrable.

And that leads to something I’ve said repeatedly, it doesn’t seem logical to argue there is a complete and formal proof of God’s existence, or for that matter any else’s existence. The only thing that seems an absolute truth at a personal level is the existence of pain. One might say, “feeling good” can also be a certainty. How do you know what “feeling good” is without knowing what it means to feel bad?

One might scientifically deny consciousness is real in the scientific sense since what it is can’t be so nicely defined, but at a personal level pain is real, whatever the cause.

Dawkins might, when confronted by God, conclude he is hallucinating, but if during that confrontation Dawkins feels some pain, that pain would be undeniable. In that sense, if God exists and Dawkins denies it, God administering some pain might be a means of persuasion, otherwise, it would seem, according to Dawkins, he’d think he was hallucinating.

Will God say to Dawkins, “I find your lack of faith disturbing”:

8 Replies to “The only certainty is pain”

  1. Mung Mung

    If the only certainty is pain, even pain is uncertain.

    If the only absolute truth is pain, then pain is not the only absolute truth.

  2. Elizabeth Elizabeth

    Sal wrote:

    One might scientifically deny consciousness is real in the scientific sense since what it is can’t be so nicely defined, but at a personal level pain is real, whatever the cause.

    Why would one do this? What would it even mean?

    Why would pain, or consciousness, or feeling good, not be real?

  3. OMagain

    Elizabeth: Why would one do this? What would it even mean?

    It’s what they think we do. A straw-man. Materialists don’t think consciousness is real because to them consciousness only comes from god. And as there is no god, there is no consciousness.

    I suppose it’s just part of the painting of those outside your group as dangerously different.

  4. stcordova

    If we look at the nervous system like a circuit, we can measure pain levels. A neurologist stuck an electric probe in my face and electrocuted me and confirmed I had dead nerves during a bout of Bells Palsy. I recently had a root canal procedure killing nerves in a molar. I no longer feel pain there since the circuits are now gone.

    No question we can scientifically measure pain or neurological activity in that sense.

    I could build a system that says, “ouch” as I put more voltage in it’s probes in an analogous way to my nervous system experiencing pain. Somehow, no matter how sophisticated I made a sensory system in its ability to sense and even mimic directly observable physiological responses, I don’t think the machine will ever be consciously aware of the pain in the way a human soul experiences it.

    Why would pain, or consciousness, or feeling good, not be real?

    We can be quite certain of the pain we experience, even Phantom Pain.

    Phantom limb pain is the feeling of pain in an absent limb or a portion of a limb. The pain sensation varies from individual to individual.

    I didn’t say the pain not real, but how do you demonstrate formally a human experience of pain is or is not the same as a sophisticated robot. Science can measure to great extent the electrical/chemical impulses as pain is experienced in the nervous system. Can it say consciousness exists? I could, hypothetically build a sophisticated electrochemical sensing system, at what point do we declare it conscious? Or better yet, at what point does the system conclude, “I think therefore I am,” or “I hurt therefore I am.”

    We know through cognitive and perceptual science, the human sensory system, though good, can be fooled. When training as a pilot, it was hammered into us to doubt our sensory perception and let instruments have priority in certain circumstances over our senses. Dennett gave a talk on consciousness and really it was a talk on the inaccuracy of human perception, it does give not measurements on when consciousness exists or doesn’t exist.

    Dennett didn’t persuade me consciousness is of material origin (as in consciousness is a scaled up collection of robots).

    But all this is somewhat peripheral to the OP, what can you be certain of at a personal level? You can be sure you feel pain when you feel pain. If God appeared to Dawkins, Dawkins could believe he was hallucinating, he might wonder what is or is not real, but if he experienced pain along with that experience, he can’t deny he feels pain. The experience of pain is the one thing he could be assured of. It’s rather moot if the pain is from “real” or a phantom causes, he will be quite certain it exists even if he denies God exists.

    The only certainty at a human level is pain, the rest of our beliefs are via inference, not formal proof.

  5. Elizabeth Elizabeth

    stcordova: I didn’t say the pain not real, but how do you demonstrate formally a human experience of pain is or is not the same as a sophisticated robot.

    How do you know it isn’t? That was an a priori on your part:

    stcordova: I don’t think the machine will ever be consciously aware of the pain in the way a human soul experiences it.

    The issue is the same for comparing pain between individuals. How do you demonstrate that your experience of pain is or is not the same as mine?

    stcordova: The only certainty at a human level is pain, the rest of our beliefs are via inference, not formal proof.

    Of course. Science doesn’t deal in formal proofs anyway – that would be math.

    But my point is not even certain, in the sense that you appear to mean, to me that you experience pain. I know I do, that is all. So your argument is really an argument from solipsism: we can’t know whether anyone feels the same as we do so there is not formal way of rejecting the hypothesis that I am the only pain-aware being in the universe.

    Which isn’t really very interesting.

    What is much more interesting is the question as to why there should be any “feeler” at all to feel the pain. It’s easy enough to explain the usefulness of pain (it’s a “teaching signal” – teaches us what to avoid. But why does it have to hurt?

    I think there is a perfectly good answer to that. But the accusation leveled at we “materialists” (scare quotes deliberate), and echoed in your OP is that we “deny” that pain is felt, or that consciousness exists. No, we don’t. Or I don’t anyway.

    I don’t know if we will ever produce robots that are capable of feeling pain to a degree that should cause us ethical concern. If we do, I think we will have to use evolutionary algorithms in the process – in other words, I think it’s too complicated for mere human designers to do, we’d have to set up evolution to do it for us.

    But I think I could lay out the principles on which one would design the fitness constraints. I think we feel pain as pain, because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t do its job.

    I’ll try to unpack this sometime, if you are interested!

  6. stcordova

    But the accusation leveled at we “materialists” (scare quotes deliberate), and echoed in your OP is that we “deny” that pain is felt, or that consciousness exists

    I never used the word materialist here. I merely echoed a criticism that if something is not well-defined, it cannot be scientifically recognized. Consciousness is not well-defined. Something can be real, but not definable. We have undefined terms in every formal system (like points in geometry, or force in physics), but they are still indirectly defined by the totality of the conceptual system. But consciousness is not just an undefined, it is also not able to be indirectly defined (unlike force which can be indirectly defined by F=ma). It is like trying to define intelligence as “not chance, not law”. Doesn’t work so well. Some have denied ID because intelligence is not defined by IDists.

    I said one “might”, not that one “will” reject consciousness as real scientifically. The behaviorists like BF Skinner and company practically treated things that could not be observed in terms of behaviors as not real. It had nothing to do with Barry Arrington’s campaign against materialists, but rather a now discredited school of psychology where consciousness was practically dismissed.

    But we’re wandering away from the OP and the point I was trying to make. At a personal level the only thing we really know is when we hurt. One might believe one is hallucinating, but one is rather sure when he feels pain, he feels pain.

    One cannot formally prove, but accepts by faith there are other conscious beings in reality. One accepts by faith that if the Christian God exists, if God appeared as Dawkins suggested, that God is a conscious being. Dawkins said he would suppose he was hallucinating, but if God inflicted some pain during the visitation, Dawkins could be sure he is feeling pain. There is something about pain that is undeniable.

    FWIW, that is why I dismiss dream states as illusory and awake states as real. There is high correlation to events (like being poked with needle) in the waking states that cause pain. Similar events (like being poked with a needle) in the dream state that don’t cause pain. I once had a dream I was crawling through glass and bleeding, but I recall I was amazed I didn’t feel pain, then I woke up….

    Apparitions like those in Charles Bonnet syndrome don’t inflict physical pain. I presume the voices Nash heard didn’t either. However a God who inflicts pain after saying he is about to do so, one might judge to be real, because the most basic certainty at a personal level is pain. “I hurt therefore I am.”

    Predictive prophecies in Scripture are instances of specified complexity, and signal information inputted by God as part of his sovereign activity within creation.

    Bill Dembski

    When the Jesus prophesied

    And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.

    Whether Jesus was a mere man just making a lucky guess or God in flesh may be subject to debate, it may even be a subject of debate whether he even existed. But assuming people at he time of the siege of Jerusalem believed that there was a Jesus and that He did say those things, it stands to reason they believed even more fervently thereafter. The human suffering of that siege has a way of leaving a lasting impression because pain is a certainty.

    Darwin’s bulldog Huxley and others like Haeckel believed in universal unlimited progress, probably for humanity as well. It is not surprising they believed in Darwinian evolution because of Darwinian evolution’s implicit suggestion of constant improvement. This contrasts with Christ’s words that the world is passing away. It echoes what a pioneer of thermodynamics said:

    “Thus we have the sober scientific certainty that the heavens and earth shall ‘wax old as doth a garment,’ and that this slow progress must gradually, by natural agencies which we see going on under fixed laws, bring about circumstances in which ‘the elements shall melt with fervent heat.’ With such views forced upon us by the contemplation of dynamical energy and its laws of transformation of dead matter, dark indeed would be the prospects of the human race if unillumined by that light which reveals ‘new heavens and a new earth.'”

    Lord Kelvin

    I’ve lamented
    The apparently absent, non-interactive, invisible, silent, hidden, indifferent, concealed Designer
    . But I do fear He might be real because if real, He can inflict real pain. The ability to feel pain as a human experiences it seems to transcend scientific explanation. I certainly don’t see how a robot just mechanically saying “ouch” and going through the outward behaviors of feeling pain can experience pain in the way a conscious soul can.

    Though God doesn’t interact on a daily basis, I do believe He has interacted with humanity in the past albeit rarely. Some might presume the Bible are fables, I no longer believe that, and I do fear the pain of God’s judgment. I sometimes wish I could be a robot without the ability to feel pain. For these reasons, at a personal level, the Design Inference (Conjecture) is more than just an academic exercise.

  7. Neil Rickert

    stcordova: Some have denied ID because intelligence is not defined by IDists.

    Have they denied ID? Or have they merely denied that ID is science. Failure to adequately define a key term does seem a legitimate basis for questioning whether a claim is science.

    “Intelligence” is notoriously hard to define. If ID wants to be considered science, then it has to avoid using the word “intelligence” except in a very informal sense.

    The problem, from my perspective, is that I can see reasons for assuming the involvement of intelligence. But I also can see that evolutionary processes and biological processes, between them, provide all of the intelligence that is needed. The ID proponents arbitrarily rule that out and insist on a very narrow yet completely undefined understanding of “intelligence”. They deserve to be criticized for this.

  8. petrushka

    Elizabeth: Why would pain, or consciousness, or feeling good, not be real?

    To quote the Great Philosopher, just because it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I think and feel; therefore, I think and feel.

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