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This year half a century has passed since Thomas Nagel published his paper “What is It Like to Be a Bat?”, see here.

This is a seminal paper. It reaches out far beyond most discussions on the problem of consciousness - even in today’s context of philosophy of mind and of neuroscience.

One of the current experts in the scientific investigation of consciousness, notably of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), recalls in his book “Christof Koch: Consciousness" his initial lack of understanding. Lack of understanding when one of Koch’s colleagues pointed out that the results about NCC describe what happens, but they do not explain it.

In Nagel’s words: We want to know what it is like for an other person to have conscious perceptions. What it is like for him/her? The title of Nagel's work visualizes the gap between first-person experience and third-person level explanation - by substituting a bat for the other person.

Nagel uses the bat example to articulate his categorical doubt about the necessary capability of human cognition:

My realism about the subjective domain in all its forms implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts. […] But one might also believe that there are facts which could not ever be represented or comprehended by human beings, even if the species lasted forever – simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type. (p. 441)

Does it make sense, in other words, to ask what my experience are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me? (p. 448)

My questions:

  • During the last half century, which philosophers did follow Nagel and have elaborated on the principal boundaries of our cognitive capabilities?
  • On the opposite, which philosophers or neuroscientists have elaborated an argument that it is a meaningful and possible task to explain the subjective feeling of conscious perception? Which type of answer could be accepted as a solution?

Note: The present question is related to two previous questions on this platform here and here.

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  • Whatever the solution to explain the subjective feeling of conscious perception most of which may be illusionary, it must be still a likeness as set by your question title... Jan 18 at 7:35
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    You are quite right to mark the half-century since this question was asked. It was a major philosophical achievement. It's just a great pity that almost everyone who has written about it takes the question on it's own terms, without analysing why it succeeds in suggesting that it can be answered and ensuring that only answers that support a specific (and contested) philosophical idea are acceptable.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 18 at 9:23
  • @LudwigV I agree that most took Nagel's thoughts on their own terms. Therefore: How do you think about my two questions concerning Nagel's position.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 18 at 9:30
  • This sounds interesting. But I don't know what you are talking about. What are your two questions? (A link will do.)
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 18 at 9:37
  • @LudwigV My post includes a link to Nagel's paper. My own two questions are the two bullet points at the end of my post.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 18 at 9:43

3 Answers 3

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I view the bat problem in two stages: stage one is getting over the hump of explaining a single (purportedly shared) human qualia, yet that may be insurmountable. NCC’s are not enough for why mint tastes as it does.

Donald Hoffman claims there is no explanation of why the taste of mint feels as it does in science or philosophy. But he is not as pessimistic about future explanations as the next.

Tim Maudlin goes as far to say there will never be an explanation for why a toothache feels as it does.

The second stage is if a human can inquire into non-human qualia (eg batness), and it’s reasonable to think stage one is needed first for this. We can experience new qualia through changing our bodies, such as physical therapy for feeling a formerly “dead” shoulder or getting corrective vision surgery. We can go quite a bit further here, but not all the way to becoming a physical bat obviously. If stage one succeeds in a way that allows inquiry into batness without becoming a bat due to the physics of consciousness, we may best Nagel. But that seems remote and possibly never realizable. We’d have to surmount stage 1 and consciousness further be amenable to experiencing batness as non-bats, which to be fair may not be as bad as stage 1.

The two philosophers have very different backgrounds and trainings, but come together on this aspect of qualia. There is always Chomsky for a more general hard limit to cognitive abilities of humans (whereas Maudlin’s is specifically about qualia). There’s Dennett’s qualia being illusory too, and one response by Galen Strawson being Dennett has no argument for this other than qualia seem incompatible with physics. Said otherwise in response to Dennett, “we know the end product is there”, it’s how complex getting there is the challenge.

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    The whole notion of 'qualia' is designed so as to prevent any possible scientific explanation from showing how they're produced. It's even not clear how are they to be individuated.
    – user71009
    Jan 17 at 17:10
  • Disagree fully with the first, I don’t think I could find a reputable source that says that even with that a lot of time, never come across it, individuating is debatable sure. Not sure how that’s relevant, doesn’t change my answer at all.
    – J Kusin
    Jan 17 at 17:26
  • @J Kusin Sorry, I wanted to say that's what Dennett claims. I coincidentally agree, but I think it's important that Dennett recognizes this inherent trouble with the notion of a qualia and just with our current inability to explain their supposed presence.
    – user71009
    Jan 17 at 17:41
  • I think all the good philosophers and scientists see the current gap. Dennett holds that consciousness being illusory, as part of a wealth of physics, fills the gap. Others say physics has the potential to fill the gap yet not get rid of the end product. Thanks for the extra context
    – J Kusin
    Jan 17 at 17:49
  • @JKusin "explaining a single [...] human qualia" The singular of qualia is quale, pronounced /ˈkwɑːleɪ/. Jan 18 at 5:23
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Consciousness aside, I think with some imagination we can get to feel what it is like to be a bat.

Imagine, for example, that you are a soccer player on the field, and you are really into the game. You are "in the zone", maintaining full focus and situational awareness, you don't think, all you do is track and react to the ever changing playing field -- the movement of the ball, that of other players, and your own. Or, if you want a closer example, imagine you are a fighter pilot engaging in dogfight with several bandits. Again, you are 100% in the zone, in the flow. You don't have the luxury to think and contemplate, only react intuitively in the moment.

This, I think, is what it's like to be a bat or any animal. What takes a considerable effort for many of us, is the way of life for them. Always in the present, they just are, in their perpetual state of ego death (because they never had ego to begin with).1

Note also that this exercise is not altogether different from putting ourselves in the shoes of another person. We use the same metal toolkit to imagine how it is to be like them -- specifically, given that we share the same human nature, what circumstances would make us ourselves say what they said, act like they acted, and feel how they felt.

1 You might point out that their senses are different -- and they are, but not too much. A bat, for example, uses echolocation for situational awareness -- but then, to certain degree, so are we. When we hear a sound, we often know were it is coming from, from what direction and how far is the source -- the supercomputer in our subconsciousness performing all the nontrivial computations for us automatically, just like the supercomputer in the bat's brain.

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Very few people have followed Nagel in accepting that consciousness is an uncrackable problem. The Wikipedia article on the New Mysterians is actually a pretty good summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mysterianism#:~:text=New%20mysterianism%2C%20or%20commonly%20just,of%20subjective%2C%20conscious%20experience). the list of the notable Mysterians at the bottom of the article is -- pretty short.

Basically any one writing in Philosophy of Mind who proposes a solution, or even an approach to attempting understanding consciousness, has rejected mysterianism. This is the overwhelming number of writers and thinkers on consciousness.

Whether the explanation is that subjectivity is delusional. eliminatively reducible, epiphenomenal, identical with some material or algorithmic state, emergent for some material or algorithmic state, fundamental or whatever -- the advocates of ALL of these views are mutually rejecting mysterianism.

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