The Gastroscopy Paradox
Being a claustrophobic with a strong gag reflex, I must insist on medication to undergo gastroscopy. I thought at first that the drug was merely a powerful tranquilliser, which made me disinclined to care that I had a tube shoved down my throat. I subsequently came to understand, however, that the preparation also zapped my short-term memory. On the last occasion of my having gastroscopy, a friend was present, and told me that as the tranquilliser component wore off, I was visibly distressed. However, I myself remembered nothing about it. Which caused me to ask, “Where did that distress go”?
If I do not remember it, in what sense can we say that I experienced this or any other distress? Of course, this was the nearest I can come as a man to the arrangements that Nature has made for the perpetuation of the species, namely the purging of all memory of the miseries of childbirth. If women truly remembered their first parturition, we should quickly go extinct. As I understand it, there is no permanent memory of pain as a physical sensation; what we remember is actually our mental response to the sensation, the fear and horror. Although I was conscious, for the purposes of memory and thereby mental trauma it was as if I slept through this gastroscopy under general anaesthetic.
Ever since then, I have been asking myself in what way I can truly be said to have suffered, if I do not remember suffering anything. If we were subjected to half an hour of (non-mutilating) torture every day, accompanied by the same drug in larger doses, in what way would we truly have been tortured?
The second step is to ask whether pain can meaningfully be said to exist if the memory of it is afterwards removed, not by a drug but immediately by death. If a heretic is burned at the stake, as soon as the process is complete there is no memory of the physical pain or the mental fear and horror, because there is no subject to have this memory. Common sense tells us that there must be a point at which the victim is still alive and in hideous pain, and if we were to rescue him at that point, he would obviously be severely traumatised for the rest of his life. But this victim is not comparable with one who has died. Were we to pull a victim from the flames, interview him about his experiences, then put him back to die, then his experiences would henceforth exist solely in our own memories of what he has told us, which is by no means the same thing as a persistence of the victim’s suffering in his own memory. The fact that our empathetic experiences of his burning will last for the rest of our lives is the whole rationale for public executions, namely deterrence; the victim is no more and feels nothing, but we still get the shivers years later.
But pleasure and happiness must be subject to the same mechanism as pain. That is, as soon as you have gone, your good memories and all your positive experiences are also no more, because there is no one to have them. This would mean that there is even less point in our doing what Marcus Aurelius questioned, namely hanging on merely to have a few more paltry experiences; but unfortunately, it might also mean that there is actually no point in our doing anything at all, ever.
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion And Conceptual Muddle