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What is it Like to be a Man?
Somerset, NJ. Thomas Nagel's article "What is it Like to Be a Bat?"1 is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of philosophical work completed in the last fifty years. Taking issue with what he calls a "recent wave of reductionist euphoria," Nagel insists that the phenomenon of conscious experience presents a far graver conceptual dilemma than such reductionist explanations account for. Famously defining consciousness, or subjective experience, as "what it is like to be" an organism, he reminds us that nothing about this experiential realm is revealed to us in the physical operations of the organism; one could possess perfect knowledge concerning the neurophysiology of a bat, and yet still have no idea what it is like to be a bat. This renders all reductionist physical accounts of consciousness fatally incomplete, as they are bound to omit the very thing they are purporting to explain:
We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction. In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation....Experience itself, however, does not seem to fit the pattern....If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity - that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint - does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.
The impossibility of deriving a sufficient account of conscious experience from the application of scientific methodology - which is to the modern mind the instrument, par excellance, for understanding the nature of objective reality - is a conceptual impossibility. We are not waiting for further research to provide us with the empirical data we lack in order to extricate ourselves from these perplexities. No such data could remedy the impossibility of understanding the subjective in terms of the objective.
What is remarkable, then, is that Nagel ends his article by defending physicalism, even though "we do not have the beginnings of a conception of how it might be true," and advocating a new sort of objective approach to conscious experience, an approach that seeks "a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right." To arrive at this conclusion, Nagel must stretch the resources of the language to an intolerable extent - suggesting the possibility of an "objective phenomenology" - and skirt dangerously near the absurd: "one might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see." And there remains an ambiguity in this conclusion as to whether or not Nagel believes that science could conceivably render an adequate account of conscious experience; his defense of physicalism would seem to suggest the affirmative, but not so his appeal to understanding the subjective in subjective terms ("understanding the mental in its own right").
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