"Very little work has been done on the basic question . . . whether any sense can be made of experiences' having an objective character at all."- Thomas Nagel said that in 'What is it like to be a bat?' - The Philosophical Review (1974).
Please recall that Professor Nagel began his 1974 article by saying,
"Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable."This famous introductory sentence would lead you to think the article would focus specifically on consciousness. But after the fourth paragraph neither the word 'conscious' nor the word 'consciousness' appear again. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, as I point out in Bat Day #12, Nagel equates 'consciousness' with 'conscious experience', which he then equates with 'subjective character of experience', 'subjective experience', and even just 'experience' without any additional qualifiers.
The most common phrase Nagel uses, from the fourth paragraph to the end of the article is, 'subjective character of experience'. He uses that phrase, along with the phrase 'mental states', to describe what you and I would routinely think of as things happening inside our minds.
All of this is very important because what Nagel wants to do is to focus, not on consciousness directly, but instead to draw our attention to the differences between our conscious experiences, things happening inside our minds, and external events, things which we might witness as we are looking out our windows or while walking down the street. These differences are wrapped up in the definitions of objective versus subjective descriptions.
To describe an example: You may be sitting on a jury one day, and a video tape of a bank robbery is shown in which two robbers both point their guns at one of the guards, but the tape (in slow motion, if you prefer) clearly shows a muzzle flash from one gun, and not from the other. Other objective evidence gathered shows that only one bullet was fired during the robbery. Now imagine the same situation, but this time there is no video tape. Instead, six different witnesses, all of whom were at the scene, describe two entirely conflicting stories. Three claim they saw robber A fire the lone bullet, while the other three claim they saw robber B fire the lone bullet. After careful cross-examination, it appears that all six witnesses had clear views of both robbers, and none will change their testimony as to who they 'saw' pull the trigger.
The objective fact is that only one of two robbers pulled the trigger and shot the deputy, err ... the guard. Another objective fact is that six persons witnessed this event. It is also an objective fact that three of the witnesses have stated under oath robber A did it; and yet one further objective fact is that the other three witnesses stated under oath robber B did it. The subjective facts are that after six persons 'experienced' the identical external event, their six minds diverged into two different recollections or understandings of this one event. Or, as another possibility, one or more of these six persons are lying, or have something else going on inside their 'minds' that caused them to 'see' things differently.
My captioned quote from Nagel asks "whether any sense can be made of experiences' having an objective character at all." In a certain way, this is the essence of his article, as actually written. Nagel is challenging those who believe that mental states can be dissected and analyzed completely on physical grounds (like lightning). His point is: the subjective character of a mental experience cannot (yet) be described fully, if at all, in objective, video tape type terms, where all observers can 'see' the same exact things that are really going on inside another person's mental processes.
The professor does not argue that a purely physical theory of mental states is necessarily invalid. To the contrary, he says all this "should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method — an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination . . . 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."
But for Nagel, "it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective." In other words, the very nature of the subjective internal character of personal experiences stands as a major, if not permanent, barrier to showing how a person's mental states could be physically produced or reproduced. This is the sense in which consciousness, which is a mental state, perhaps becomes an intractable problem for determining what our own minds actually are.
In my next post I shall take an additional look at what 'conscious experience' suggests, in relation to "Self"; that is, in relation to our earlier questions of what, who, where and when.
- image, Mirror Baby, comes from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mirror_baby.jpg, posted by roseoftimothywoods at http://www.flickr.com/photos/madfox/29367611/ (CC-2, 2007).
- image, Banküberfall, comes from Wikipedia at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-12762,_Banküberfall.jpg (CC-3, 1931)
- image, U.S. Navy Tug of War, Annapolis, MD, comes from Wikipedia at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tug_of_war_2.jpg (Public Domain, 2005), by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Ryan Child; image cropped for height and width by c emerson