A worm in pain

This morning a blackbird made me laugh. It was tugging at a redworm, trying to pull it out of the earth. There was something very funny in the way he braced his legs against the slippery ground and in the twist of his head as he tried to tug at the worm and see it at the same time. At last the worm came out with an almost audible snap and the bird started portioning it skillfully for a squirming breakfast.

Later it struck me as awkward that throughout the whole episode I did not pay any attention to the feelings of the worm. The fear and pain of the poor creature must have been excruciating. The pain for sure. Fear is a complex feeling, so a worm's fear may be different from mine or yours.

But when it comes to pain, we all know what we talk about, don't we?

A worm has a flesh not unlike mine. It also has a nervous system with central ganglia (so I am told). So I assume that its pain is similar to the hideous feeling I know from my own experience.

Yet it is easier for me to identify with a happy blackbird than with a suffering worm. After all a blackbird has two legs and wings that resemble arms and two eyes and... Well, a worm has nothing close to that. A couple of ganglia do not count much because I have to think about what they are and once I start thinking, I am lost.

Neurologists insist that pain is just a matter of perception, a mere (!) impression inside a nervous system. Modify the functioning of the nervous system by an anesthetic and suddenly there is not a trace of the agony which was unbearable just a moment ago. Incredible as it may seem, pain is just an immaterial image 'projected' onto the screen of our self-consciousness.

If this is so, how can I ever know what self-consciousness does a worm have and what kind of impressions can form inside a pair of ganglia? When I pinch a worm, I don't even know which of its two heads perceives the pain or whether both of them do so! Worms are just too different.

Some incidents which stuck in my memory make me think, though, that plain similarity is not all there is to it. A long time ago, for example, at a seaside in Bulgaria, I have seen a couple of local lads who had caught a large crab. They happily broke off its legs and started crushing them and eating the crude meat, totally oblivious of the mutilated body quivering nearby in mute agony. At the sight of its eyes my stomach went queasy. I hated the boys and identified strongly with the crab - even though the similarity between a crab and me is not particularly pronounced.

At another time, during my military training, we were shown a film about the effects of a nerve gas (sarin, if I remember well) on a chimpanzee. After receiving a tiny drop of the stuff on his forearm, the chimp took four days to die in terrible pain. Years later I would still get sick whenever I recalled the creature's agonizing eyes. I still hate mankind for being capable of doing something as nauseating.

Not that Mother Nature is much better. Have you ever seen some of those documentaries in which the large cats like lions keep playing for hours with their badly mangled but fully conscious preys? I hate that!

But I don't want you to think that I am feeble-hearted or something. Not only am I not a vegetarian but, occasionally, I even eat crude, living creatures. Such as oysters, mussels and octopuses.

I learned to eat small, live octopuses during last summer holidays which we have spent at a small seaside location. One early morning I saw a young fisherman who just returned with his boat after a night at sea. He selected a live octopus from his catch, tore it in two with his teeth and chew it while tidying the boat. It took me by surprise, but then I wanted to try it.

On that particular morning, I thought it was a macho thing to do.

All this still leaves me wondering, though. Even if the existence of pain is one thing and identifying oneself with the sufferer is a different one, there must still be a border line, a kind of marker, beyond which the word cruelty assumes its sinister meaning and pain becomes an object of Ethics.

I think that I have identified the border mark. It's the eyes!

Inflict a suffering onto a living being while it looks at you and you are cruel!

That's why they put hoods over the heads of those who are going to be beheaded. To hide their eyes! It also explains why the worms in children's books either have eyes and get safely through all their adventures, or else they don't have them and get eaten.

There are border cases, too. Octopuses do have eyes but it is difficult to look into them (in any case, I never managed). Or take a single, decent size fish. It is impossible to eat it live without a glimpse of its eyes. Hence it's never done, except when somebody else first cuts off the head and converts the fish to souci. On the other hand, nobody can look into the eyes of a million of sardines, which makes it easy to can them alive.

My scientific intuition tells me that here I have got a good, working theory.

Eyes must have something special about them. Like they communicate directly with our subconscious or something of that sort.

I wonder whether we would still feel compassion if we had no memory of our own past sufferings. Or if there were no similarity between us and the suffering entity. There is quite a bit of egoism in this. If a kind of a tin box started shrieking in agony, what would our reaction be: a tear or a kick? And again there is this doubt of mine - why should a pain resemble our own agonies to be classified as an object of Ethics?

Can't there be other kinds of 'neural systems' with other kinds of pain, varieties with which we can't identify ourselves but which are just as real and meritable of sympathy? Whenever the subject has been brought up (ET, 3P0, C1, Number 5, ...), it has been covered by layers of antropic sugar-coating, thick enough to render the answers meaningless.

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