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Life is a reification fallacy

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Some deep thoughts today, derived from a recent update to The 3 Basic Types of Pain

Reification” is treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing, making it more concrete. The ultimate example is probably money: a highly abstract thing, but as real to us as bricks and hamburgers.

We reify constantly, of course. Although reification is often defined as a “fallacy,” it’s more like a basic feature of thinking, like pattern recognition or generalization, which can be used or abused.

Now what does this have to do with pain?

As we have come to understand how pain is often surprisingly independent of tissue state — you can hurt without tissue problem and vice versa, to an amazing degree — some experts have started to object to statements like “my muscles are sore.” Because, technically, it’s your brain that hurts, not your muscles. Muscles can’t feel! That’s dirty reification!

“Reification fallacies” like this are pedantically asserted during shop talk on social media, often enough that it has started to get on my nerves. It’s technically true, but rarely relevant or important. We don’t need to have a discussion about mass delusion that is money every time we fork over a few bucks for a ham sandwich, and we don’t have to talk about what’s really going on every time we refer to pain.

Of course it is important to be able to deconstruct pain, but it’s not required, and much too clunky and technical for all but the most formal and delving discussions.

Literally everything that exists (not just what we sense) is a mental construct, a brain-made story. Life is a reification fallacy and refusing to tolerate reification is impractical. The entire point of perception is to treat abstractions as if they were real.

Example: This delicious muffin I’m eating does not technically possess deliciousness or any blueberry flavour — those qualities are all in my mind, not the muffin — like everything else. But “this blueberry muffin is delicious” is still a useful, meaningful statement.

And so is “my muscles are sore.”