The Problem of Pain

No offense to C. S. Lewis.

This morning, I had the pleasure of going down to a local dental practice and getting a little finishing work done on a recalcitrant tooth.[1] One of the assistants took some kind of *very* pointy scraper and started digging out old glue from below my gum line.

“Does that hurt?” Ha ha.

In Mormonism we tend to impute a lot of what we experience in the physical world to another world which we say exists somehow along side the physical: the spiritual world. [2] Even to describing shape, speech, vision, movement, etc. But I’ve never heard of spiritual pain in Mormonism, beyond a kind of metaphor. But if you’re willing to venture into the world of Orson and Parley Pratt, where “spirits” have organs of the sort we encounter in the human body (teeth?) and are actually built or formed or birthed out of “spirit element”[3] then you might think it’s more than that. But beware: honest deduction from unexamined assumption can lead you strange places.

So as I was sitting in the dentist’s chair today, I was wondering, if you go along with this very literal sort of copycatting, do spirits have nervous systems, and therefore can they perhaps experience pain? Brigham Young’s spirit grind-house where the truly recalcitrant spirits go to be recycled, ground up and put back in the “spirit element” background [4] must be replete with howling. Of course, maybe Dante is worse, eh?

We talk of nourishing the spirit. But of course, this is metaphorical, isn’t it? We mean, seeking after the holy rather than the worldly, etc. But I think our heritage from the Pratt’s and others in 19th century Mormonism always puts a kind of physical effect in the back of our minds. Something like a Dorian Gray painting. The spirit’s material “condition,” effected by mortal thought and action. The sinning woman’s spirit is weaker (uglier?, less “healthy”?) than the righteous woman’s? The Book of Mormon has passages that could support such a view? (2 Ne. 9)

But in the end, pain is perception. Breaking up with the girlfriend, losing a loved one, failing the bar exam, could be called pain. And you can be “hurt” without pain. Some are even afflicted with no pain perception from birth. A kind of “Eve state” where you simply do not put your hand on the stove because someone told you not to do it, not because you felt the burn previously. There is good biology in pain. It protects you. But sometimes, it goes too far.

Within the idea of pain, I think there is a seed that says we are more than material, either complex bio-systems OR the complex spirit-bio systems of the Pratts et al. More even than virtued fluid, whatever that is, Parley <grin>. More than that. Lewis, and his universe of free souls, was nearly right. Except for one big whopper.

[1] This particular tooth has been the subject of two root canals, root tip surgery and three crowns. While sitting in the dentist’s chair a few weeks back (I don’t know why they call it “his” chair, I’ve never seen him use it) he methodically drilled, twisted, ground and cemented the tooth, took a laser and cut the side of my gum down to the jawbone and used that Freddy Kruger drill to scrape the side of my tooth down to said bone.

[2] This is apparently not immaterial, but made up of some sort of matter.

[3] This is a curious term to me and does not come from the Pratts. I haven’t searched for it too carefully, but it seems to be an invention of Bruce McConkie’s [Mormon Doctrine], picked up at least for a while by some others like Marion Romney and Spencer Kimball.

[4] I believe a lot of this thinking can be laid at the feet of rural agricultural living. But that’s just my opinion.

4 Responses to The Problem of Pain

  1. BrianJ says:

    “Pain is perception.” That’s a key point. In biomedical research, there is a lot of debate over whether invertebrates can experience pain and therefore whether anesthesia is necessary when using them as model subjects. Clearly they can respond to noxious stimuli, but it is not clear whether their brains have the capacity to interpret it as suffering.

    So my questions are: Do spirits have the capacity to perceive pain? Do all spirits?

    • WVS says:

      I have this wish to separate human spirits from the rest in some way (I have a way, but I don’t want to say what it is). I don’t know if it’s legitimate. But of course your first question, is also one of mine. The second one may or may not be related, perhaps because of cosmological considerations. So yeah. No answers here.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Young talked of the “element” or “native element” of which spirits are composed. I think you may be right that it was McConkie that translated that to “spirit element,” though, like you, I am not certain.

    Seems to me that we need a solid study of Mormonism, materialism and analogical reasoning.

    …but to the questions of your post. Spirit physiology is one area where I tend to think that things devolve into a fury of absurdity.

    • WVS says:

      Materialism is both a solution and a problem. But it seems stop-gap to me. No doubt such a study could be useful. But casting the net wide enough could involve an awfully big think.

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