From the writing-prompt-s tumblr:
You live in an alternate world where twins — fraternal and identical — can feel each other’s physical pain. You are an only child with no siblings. One day, suddenly, you feel a burning pain in your chest.
This prompt brings up a few problems. The first is of identity: what makes a pain yours? The next is an epistemic problem brought up by tumblr user askmissbernadette:
It’s called heartburn, learn to eat slower you hooligans
In a case where you may or may not have a long-lost twin, under what circumstances can you figure out whether or not you do? And if you can figure out that you do, how can you figure out that you can?
Let’s set aside your circumstances in the prompt and only consider the more usual case in this world of a pair of twins who feel each other’s physical pain. To feel someone else’s pain can take a variety of forms, particularly when the limitations of reality are lifted. Five levels are apparent:
- On the tamest end we have real-world recognition-based empathy. For example, if you see someone hurt, you recognize the hurt and are hurt in recognition of their pain.
- Next, also from the real-world, we have the sort of empathy where in response to seeing someone else having a feeling, you feel something mirroring that feeling. Of course, this is based on your perception of the feeling.
- A non-real level, when someone else feels a pain and it causes you to feel a pain through some mechanism. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s really weird laws of physics. Perhaps a device that records their pain, sends a radio signal to a device
- A further non-real level, most easily explained by example. Say Ally and Bella are twins in the WP world. Ally gets hit by a hammer in her stomach and feels a pain in her stomach. At the same time, Bella feels a pain with all of the same properties in her own stomach.
- On the farthest level, we have the same pain in Ally and Bella. That is, Bella doesn’t feel the pain in her stomach — she feels the pain in Ally’s stomach. Within this type, she may have her own experience of the pain or, somehow, there is only one experience, though they both experience it.
Whether there are actually two options in 5 is itself another question, though. Is there more to pain than just the experience? The options are either there is some abstract entity of pain that is instantiated in the experiences, and thus one pain can be experienced multiple times or by multiple people or else there is only the experience. Perhaps, though, experiences can be repeated, within or across people. If, however, every experience is unique, then one pain can only be instantiated in two experiences if it’s itself some separate thing.
Are experiences unique? I argue they are. Our experiences do not come in neat, discrete parts, but rather messy wholes. When I see the glass on my desk, I don’t just see the glass. I’m seeing a bunch of things while feeling and hearing and smelling other things. Even with regard to the glass itself, it has a certain focus in my vision at a certain distance, and, most fleetingly, at a certain time. Moreover, I recognize it as a glass because of a certain cultural context. Rather than just seeing a clear cylinder with some color in it, I recognize it as a thing to pick up and drink from if I’m thirsty. My experience of it right now is as something not to drink from at this moment, but probably in a few minutes. Likewise, each pain and every other experience comes with a complex context that cannot be repeated.
If there are abstract entities, perhaps pain is one of them. In this case, if Ally gets hit in the stomach, the stomach pain entity is called upon to spawn itself in Ally. The same stomach pain entity is also called upon to spawn itself in Bella.
If instead pain is just the experience, we get the odd case of Ally getting hit in the stomach and Bella feeling that same pain. Here the difference from 4 is most evident. If 4 is the case, then Bella would feel pain in her own stomach. If 5 is the case, then Bella feels pain in Ally‘s stomach since the experience is of a pain in Ally’s stomach.
Of course, the prompt has you feeling pain in your own chest, so if 5 is the identity involved, you have no reason to suspect you have a twin. If 4 is, then we have to ask how the properties transfer. The most evident property of pain is its ouchiness. That is, pain feels painful. But if Ally feels a pain in her chest that’s six inches from her right side but also in her heart, but Bella’ heart is eight inches from her right side, does she feel the pain six inches from her right side or in her heart?
Epistemology of Pain-Twins
Let’s assume the fourth level is the one involved here, and you feel a pain in your chest. Can you figure out if a twin explains the pain, and if not, can you figure out if you have a long-lost twin?
As askmissbernadette brings up, you might just have heartburn. Now, this assumes you have that kind of pain. Even if you’re not familiar with heartburn, you can probably imagine a difference between simple heartburn and being shot in the chest. Likewise, you can imagine a difference between heartburn and being poked in the chest. If the pain is heartburn-like, odds are probably better you have heartburn than you have a long-lost twin, especially if you haven’t noticed unexplained pains up until this point in your life. If not, maybe there’s something. If you happen to have access to doctors and medical tests, that can further your knowledge of the odds either way. If some known, not-super-rare explanation can explain the pain, it’s again probably more likely that than a mystery twin. If not, you might have some reason to be suspect, though the point remains if you’ve made it more than ten years without noticing anything off, you’re probably fine.
This epistemic point undermines the prompt a bit. Little kids get hurt a lot. Unless they’re living unusually safe lives, they run into things, fall, scrape their knees, and generally exploit how quickly they heal. But if you’re nine years old and start feeling a bleeding pain in your knee while sitting in class or feel like you just ran into a wall while watching television, that’s when you’re going to figure it out.
Say your twin and you both managed to avert this. Can you find each other given the pain sharing? If I were that curious, I’d stab myself with a pen in Morse code to send a message. What if my twin isn’t in a context to understand Morse code? Well, some form of rudimentary message sending might be possible. Making obvious intentional pains would draw attention, if there are such things. Doing something like bashing your arm into a tree would generally be unambiguous enough. Getting a responding pain would be a pretty solid clue, though the question would remain why nothing was noticeable earlier.
Perhaps they were in a very long coma (this is fiction, after all) and after over a decade (or more) have finally woken up. Chest pain may be the first pain they experience upon waking up. Unless they immediately back into a coma, though, they will experience more pains. So while the chest pain alone will not put you on good grounding to conclude you have a twin, the series of pains thereafter that do not match your activities will.