Tomas Nagel and Being a Bat

While noting the scientific tendency to identify the real with the objective, philosopher Thomas Nagel (1937-) realized that consciousness is inherently from “a point of view.” Reflecting on this made him skeptical about physicalist accounts. Suppose we see subjective experiences as part of the physical universe; they’re just not objective. But how could physicalism deal with the subjectivity?

If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account. But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible. (Nagel 1974, p. 437)

The impossibility lies in how science abandons the point of view:

The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view. (Nagel 1974, p. 437)

Abandon the point of view in consciousness research, and what is left? Let’s look more closely at how Nagel reasons. He asks us to consider what it is like to be a bat. One might think that one could imagine what it would be like to hang upside down during the day and fly around in the night, navigating by sonar and catching insects.

But don’t imagine what it would be like for you. What’s it like for a live bat, not a “you” metamorphosed into a bat; the question is about being another conscious species.

To be a bat is like something, but what? Suppose you had studied bats all your life and knew their physiology, behavior, and all the rest. Would that help you understand what it is like? Not convincingly. You would have third-person knowledge— not about what it’s like from the “inside.” There doesn’t seem to be a way of getting closer to the experience of being a bat, other than being one. No amount of objective knowledge about bats gets us closer.

If no amount of objective knowledge gets us closer to understanding what it’s like to be a bat, then why should we expect that any form of conscious experience can be exhausted by objective accounts? After all, the problem is not with the “bat point of view” but with “point of view,” period. Nagel sees subjective experiences as utterly inexplicable in our current scientific world view. He argues that it’s insufficient to push current neuroscientific models, theories, and practices further to explain consciousness. We need a radical paradigm shift to explain consciousness. How could we get from biological processes to the point of view of conscious life? Science provides a view from nowhere, but conscious life is always experienced from somewhere.

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