Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Philosophical Issues of Pain


The concept of pain has long been studied from various scientific perspectives. Fields of discipline, including psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy, have differing views regarding not only the definition of the term, but what important aspects are involved in researching and studying it as well. The philosophy of pain contrasts views such as the psychological and neuroscientific considerations, and raises several questions surrounding the nature of pain. Philosophers studying pain and its complex components have speculated about various types of pain, whether or not pain should be considered one of humans' basic senses, and the ethical issues that are associated with the condition.

Defining PainEdit

Despite the difficulty associated with precisely defining pain, many scientists and researchers concur that pain can be described as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience”.[1] In their article, Sytsma and Reuter discuss that several philosophers agree that pain’s existence is dependent upon the experience of an individual.[2] Pain perception is one aspect of the phenomenon that makes it difficult to analyze. Factors such as personality and emotional reactivity are key components that influence the perception that one would have to a certain level of pain.[3] The sensation of pain begins from a specific part of the body and activates the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, imposing differing reactions to the sensation that is felt depending upon the aforementioned factors.[3] These altering receptions, and the complications that go along with attempting to accurately describe what is being felt, make pain a complicated subject lacking a comprehensive definition.

Various Types of PainEdit

Pain can manifest in many different ways, specifically in mental and physical forms, which together have varying impacts on individual perception. Philip R. Appel discusses in his article the idea of the mind-body relationship as it relates to pain, the sensory experience that pain causes, and how this sensory experience can translate into an internal self-conflict.[4] Appel[4] suggests that pain that begins as a physical sensation can develop into a mental challenge in which an individual can be confronted with thoughts such as how vulnerable humans are, and a contemplation of mortality. The mental side of pain becomes prevalent when an individual is faced with an uncomfortable physical sensation, and this pain in turn causes emotional reactions such as sadness or anger. The relationship between physical pain and mental pain has been studied by philosophers, and many believe that pain is a conscious mental state that is achieved once experienced.[2] Based on this research, it is evident that there is a strong correlation between physical and mental pain, and often these sensations coincide to create an individual’s emotional response.

Should Pain be Considered a Sense?Edit

Many theories contribute to the debate regarding whether pain should be included in the list of a human’s basic senses, along with taste, sight, scent, sound, and touch. As of now, pain is considered to be among a human’s bodily sensations, which include itches and tickles, for example.[5] Because pain can be sensed in different ways, there are legitimate reasons for believing that pain is a physical condition that individuals perceive in areas of the body, as well as reasons for believing that it is not.[5] This controversy has gained particular interest from philosophers who attempt to give a more precise definition of the term, and studying these reasons is beneficial to discovering the most applicable view of pain. Theoretically, several individuals may believe that pain should not be considered as one of human’s basic senses, as its sensation holds a deeper complexity compared to the simple sensation of tasting a specific food item. In contrast, there are schools of thought which hold that pain is experienced similarly to the way that a taste, scent, sound, or touch is experienced, and therefore it should qualify as a basic sense. Regardless of the theories that currently exist for both the inclusion and exclusion of pain as a basic human sense, philosophers continue to study this phenomenon and provide additional reasoning to guide the public in determining whether or not pain should be considered as one of our basic senses.

Ethical Issues Surrounding PainEdit

Several ethical issues become prevalent when examining the nature of pain. Philosophers have dedicated time to investigating the different ways that individuals experience and describe pain and have attempted to comprise a definition that encompasses both a physician’s view of pain and a patient’s view of pain. This is to ensure the best possible communication between these individuals. The widely accepted definition of pain that it is an “unpleasant sensory and emotional experience”[1], has provided an acceptable baseline for both patients and clinicians on which to rely. Despite this agreement, there is often some miscommunications when individuals seek to describe their pain, whether physical or mental, to a healthcare provider. As a result of a physician being unable to physically experience the specific pain with which a patient is presenting, it becomes difficult to fully understand and treat the ailment. Often doctors will ask patients to rate their pain on a one to ten scale in an attempt to interpret the intensity and severity of the pain being endured. This assessment poses its own issues, as not every individual will necessarily feel pain the same way, and a low rating given by one patient may be equivalent to a higher rating provided by another patient. This demonstrates the complexity involved in defining pain among healthcare professionals and patients, and the miscommunications that may occur between physicians and patients that can lead to ethical issues. Physician-assisted suicide is a controversial topic that relates to pain and the ethical issues that are included in alleviating pain in end-of-life care.[6] A practitioner whose goal is to diagnose and relieve pain, is faced with the moral and ethical dilemma of helping patients who wish to end their lives as a result of intense or worsening pain. The arguments that are present regarding the ethical and non-ethical natures of physician-assisted suicide are discussions that have been frequently studied and analyzed. This extensive examination of physician-assisted suicide has provided the public with arguments for both the allowance of this practice, as well as reasons for why it should be against the law.

Additional Ethical Issues Associated with the Experience of PainEdit

Other ethical issues including unfair treatment as a result of age, gender, or income, for example, are frequently observed in the healthcare field when treating both mental and physical pain.[7] As studied by Powers and Faden, in certain parts of the world, females, dark skinned individuals, and low-income families do not receive the same level of care that additionally privileged individuals receive to manage pain.[8] These disparities have been prevalent for several years and continue to pose questions regarding the ethical issues that are associated with the treatment of pain in the healthcare field.


The philosophy of pain is a perspective that has been extensively studied and revised in an attempt to give an accurate disciplinary analysis of the concept. The complex nature of pain has encouraged scientists from a variety of fields to consider important aspects of pain, as well as determine helpful theoretical responses to inquiries concerning the topic. Examining scientific arguments including the numerous types of pain, whether or not pain should be considered a basic human sense, and the various ethical issues that are associated with the concept has created a stable foundation backed by successful research that can be further developed by philosophers in the future.


  1. a b International Association for the Study of Pain. (1994). IASP Terminology.
  2. a b Sytsma, J., & Reuter, K. (2017, August 28). Experimental Philosophy of Pain. Springer Link.
  3. a b Cosio, D. (2020). The perseverance loop: The psychology of pain and factors in pain perception. Practical Pain Management, 20(1), 19-22.
  4. a b Appel, P. R. (2020). A philosophical approach to the rehabilitation of the patient with persistent pain. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 62(4), 330-343.
  5. a b Aydede, M. (2019, March 4). Pain. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  6. Beloucif, S. (n.d.). Pain, Progress and the Suffering of End of Life: Ethical Dilemmas Facing Death.
  7. Sklar, D. P. (1996). Ethical issues associated with pain research in emergency medicine. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 27(4), 418-420.
  8. Powers, M., & Faden, R. (2002). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care: An Ethical Analysis of When and How They Matter. National Academy of Sciences.