Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bat Day #35

". . . objective facts par excellence — the kind that can be observed and understood from many points of view and by individuals with differing perceptual systems."
- Thomas Nagel said that in 'What is it like to be a bat?' - The Philosophical Review (1974).

We are looking at Thomas Nagel's take on the distinction, if any, between objective and subjective facts ... at least to the extent that he describes it above.  The Professor used lightning (and rainbows) as an example of this distinction. "Lightning," he said, "has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance [as we see it appearing to us]." In other words, the physical aspects of a bolt of lightning discharging from the clouds above are objective facts.

On the other hand, recall that subjective experience, for Professor Nagel, is an inner awareness or perception of the quality of an event ... which perhaps can be described to others in a reasonably full way, but which cannot actually be fully understood or experienced by others ... at least not in exactly the same way that the first person experienced it.

I realize the previous sentence is a mouthful. So take a moment. Please re-read it once or twice. And then compare it to the Nagel quotation which I used as my lead in to this post.

The character of objective facts, as described above by Nagel, is that they can be "observed and understood" by all of us, while the character of subjective facts is that they are based on our inner feelings, which cannot be directly observed except from the 'first person' point of view.  To use Bill Cosby's old stand-by as my example:  We all know what chocolate cake is, what its ingredients are, and how it is made. Those are the objective facts. But we cannot know exactly how it tastes in the mouth of our neighbor. That aspect is referencing a set of subjective facts.  Subjective facts require first person consciousness to even be aware of them.

Image Credits

- to be supplied shortly. The cake is from Wikipedia (yum!), but I have temporarily lost track of where I found the image of lightning striking the wind turbine. Happy Memorial Day, to all. And stay out of thunder storms!


Thursday, May 16, 2013

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone ...


I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way

- Johnny Nash sang those words in his hit song, 'I Can See Clearly Now' (1972).

Thomas Nagel did not write those words

- and Wile E. Coyote certainly did not listen to them.

But they still help focus our attention on the meaning of the word "objective".

Carrying over from our last post, Bat Day #12, we need desperately to distinguish the word "objective" from the word "subjective".

Why do we desperately need to distinguish objective from subjective?

To refresh our memory - - which happens to be subjective, I suppose, or, is it? - - we previously quoted Thomas Nagel as saying, "Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable." Consciousness, like memory, is something which connects directly to that part of my own innards which other people, who are not actually me, cannot access, and therefore cannot "know". It is this which Nagel referred to as "the subjective character of experience." For Nagel, there may be a permanent veil between the subjective, first person point of view, or inner experience, and the objective, outer, observational view of the world around us.

The difference may be something like these two views of the Sutro Tower in San Francisco; the first veiled in a fog; the second as clear as a bell ... or in this case, as clear as day:


When the veil lifts, hoo-wah, we can see what is really, positively and fur (sic) sure, actually there. If a table is 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, those are objective knock-on-wood, hard and true facts. Everyone in my family and everyone in your family who measures that table with a true yardstick will report back the same data: yup, 3 feet by 6 feet, that is what that table "is", no doubts about it.

But if the thing we are observing, like the Sutro Tower above, is shrouded in some kind of veil, then we cannot observe the thing, or the tower, objectively. Elements, like shape and height, are obscured or they are distorted. We are at a loss to report back the objective facts of that tower. We must make, at best, some guesses or estimates, but we can't all agree on the hard facts of the case about that tower.

This beautiful picture of the Golden Gate Bridge makes the same point, but in a slightly different way:


This image of the Bridge may model Nagel's idea about the subjectiveness of human consciousness, human inner thought processes, the obscurity of what it means to be YOU, better than the two views of the Sutro Tower, which we have already discussed. Why? ... Because here, with the Bridge picture, we can clearly and objectively observe various features of the Bridge, while at the very same time we cannot observe, or know, what the hidden features objectively "are". Only the Bridge can know what is hidden from view, and the Bridge ain't talking.

"Wait!" you say, "If we just wait, the fog will lift, and we will know fur (sic) sure what is hidden from view."

"Wrong!" says I, "because the deepest part of the foundation for the whole Bridge would still be hidden from view by an ocean load of water and piles of rock and mud. That part, down below, can only be known by the Bridge itself, and even if the Bridge tried to tell us what it was like to have its feet buried all the time in piles of rock and mud, we could not really know what that was like, because our feet are free to move around by themselves. Only the Bridge can know, for sure, what it is like to be standing in all that rock, mud and water."

"Well," you might say, "we can measure that Bridge with our yardsticks, we can determine the forces on it in every direction, we know it because we designed it from scratch, we built it, we have observed it for decades -- surely we can say that we know that Bridge. After all, the Bridge is not alive."

"Well said," is how I would have to respond. "Yes, you might come to know all the external, third party, observable, and therefore objective facts about that Bridge. But, if the Bridge were alive, you would still not know what it is like to be the Bridge, am I correct?"

So where is your bright ... bright ... Sun-Shiny day, now, Mr. Wile E. Coyote?


UPDATE: this post was moved from (5-07-13) along with any comments.

Image Credits

--- image credits will be added soon, from Wikipedia and Flickr --- soon ---


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Bat Day #12

". . . the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means . . . that there is something it is like to be that organism . . . something it is like for the organism . . . we may call this the subjective character of experience."
- Thomas Nagel said that in 'What is it like to be a bat?' - The Philosophical Review (1974).

The above quote is not the most famous quote from Thomas Nagel's 1974 article.

The title of the article itself is almost certainly the most famous quote:

"What is it like to be a bat?"

The second most famous quote, and perhaps of greater philosophical import than the title itself, is Nagel's opening sentence:
"Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable."
That's a pretty flashy statement, for philosophers anyway. A lot of them seem to think it's a real game-stopper, or show-stopper, if you prefer that expression.. I will explain why a bit later, or in a later post.
"BUT," I thought to myself, "really intractable problems are ... well ... really intractable. I mean, if that part is really true, then we might as well go play croquet with the Queen, or have tea a second time with the Mad Hatter.
- c emerson said that, right here, right now.

Intractable, I mean really, that would be . . . like being . . . well . . . poor Alice when she grew large again and got her leg stuck intractably up that
chimney --- (you did go back and read Alice's story, didn't you?) --- but this time without having even a tiny bit left of the shrinking part of that edible mushroom which that hookah-smoking caterpillar so huffily gave to her.

"WHO are YOU?" he had said to her, but then he saved her from her future predicament by telling her how to get hold of some of the very stuff needed to get her out of that future predicament. And you thought he was talking about smoking dope or popping pills! He was just talking about getting small.


So, while I didn't quote the flashiest part from Nagel's article, I, a little bit like the hookah-smoking caterpillar, quoted to you instead a different part that helps shrink at least part of our predicament back down to size. Or I think I did.

Let's repeat the entire quote and see why that is:
". . . the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means . . . that there is something it is like to be that organism . . . something it is like for the organism . . . we may call this the subjective character of experience."
Here are the four key words in that passage:

- conscious experience

- like to be

- is like for

- subjective

Ok, ok already! Four phrases; NINE words; cheez ... but good catch. Now then, let's look at those words all strung together:

... what the conscious experience, is like to be; for the subjective experience....

Like an anagram.
A clue to what's inside.

Okay, this is a blog and you are getting tired of my silly Rabbit games. What Nagel (and me, too - I, too?) is trying to get his readers to puzzle over is: what is it really like to get inside the head (brain / mind) of a BAT or some other living, thinking, conscious thing, like a living, breathing person.

The inside world, the actual inside experiences of a person, like YOU and like ME, is what Nagel means by the word "subjective."

You know what it feels like to be YOU. But how do you know what it feels like to be ME??

And the reverse of this, as well, is what he means to be asking: how can I know what it really means to be YOU, to know what your feelings are, and to know what you are in fact experiencing inside your own, subjective mind.

Nagel means: really, really "know" ... physically, materially, psychologically, actually know; and not merely to imagine, guess, or just empathize.

Nagel is going to try to answer that question, and so am I, when we move on to a discussion of what he discusses as the opposite of subjective, namely "objective."

But you already know this much: Nagel thinks the problem is, or may be, intractable. And that issue has had consequences -- in the worlds of philosophy, psychology, family relations, religion, social economics, politics, cultural development and world history ... if I am not understating the case.

So we must figure out what "objective" means if we are going to be able to compare the idea of subjective with the idea of objective.

Next time.


UPDATE: This post was moved from (4/28/13) along with any comments. Note that this post title and Blogspot URL will no longer match, but the title here is correct.

[Image Credits to be added very soon in an update]