Theistic Notebook

August 15, 2011

Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat? (in my own words)

Filed under: Summaries — David P @ 7:58 pm
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Current reductionist efforts to tackle the mind-body problem cannot succeed. Why? Consciousness. “[F]undamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism–something it is like for that organism.” Call this the subjective character of experience (SCE). Any successful analysis of the mental must capture this; and yet, reductionism leaves open the logical possibility of x having conscious states without having SCE.

Aside from operating with deficient concepts, the reductionist method itself is not apt to capture the real nature of consciousness. Physicalist reductions move from an observer relative point of view (eg., lightning as known by human perceptual apparatuses) to an observer independent point of view (physical descriptions of electrical discharge). But subjective phenomena are essentially connected with a single point of view (not a token but a type, perhaps species-dependent access to a single point of view). And this is precisely what an objective account is not. To illustrate: we cannot conceive of what it’s like to be a bat, though clearly there is such a fact. It seems that this fact could not be accessed by humans “simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type.” Consciousness, with SCE, is problematic for reductionism because it differs fundamentally from other phenomenon like lightning, clouds, and rainbows. Unlike these other features, we actually get further away from the real nature of consciousness as we move from a particular point of view to an objective, observer independent point of view. Every successful reduction of human-observable phenomena leaves behind an unexplained, subjective feature. Any successful theory must tackle these features, but current reductionist theories look hopelessly unable to do so at the conceptual level.

What we need is a conceptual framework to help us make sense of the physicalist identity crisis, and we simply do not have it. Perhaps we should develop concepts that don’t rely on our imaginations to describe SCE. “Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”


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