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]


  1. bth84's comment moved (by ce) from (4-29-13):

    Liked it. Also like the Feedburner subscription option, but is it working? I signed up a few days back but did not get an email on this post. Thought you should know. Maybe a time delay?

    Focus on the subjective leads directly to either relativism, skepticism or idealism.

  2. c emerson's comment moved (by ce) from (4-29-13):

    Thanks, B. I 'm still struggling just to get the site up and running. Let me know more, too, about skepticism vs relativism vs idealism, as a result of our human condition of not being able to see into our neighbor's minds (even if we *can* peer into their windows).

  3. JohnB's comment moved (by ce) from (5-03-13):

    The world is problematic.

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