Does Nagel's take on what it's like to be a bat dissolve the question of what causes consciousness?

As far as I know, he claims that we can't know what it's like to be a bat. Does that mean that the question "what causes consciousness" can only mean "what causes human consciousness"? That looks, to me, like a scientific question, neuroscientific and nothing else.

Does Nagel or any of his interpreters claim that?

  • 2
    No, it means that methods of neuroscience, or science as we know it in general, are pointless for answering questions about subjective consciousness, human or bat's, because they objectify:"So if our idea of the physical ever expands to include mental phenomena, it will have to assign them an objective character — whether or not this is done by analyzing them in terms of other phenomena already regarded as physical. It seems to me more likely, however, that mental-physical relations will eventually be expressed in a theory whose fundamental terms cannot be placed clearly in either category."
    – Conifold
    May 19 '17 at 9:09
  • @Conifold well, is the first claim correct, that we can only ask what causes human consciousness? we'd be trying to explain something we can't conceive of. i think it could follow that without anything but human brains the question becomes a lot more trivial. your "so if our idea" is not because we can't conceive of bat minds, so i'm not sure why you think it helpful?
    – user25714
    May 19 '17 at 9:22
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    Nagel would probably hold that "what causes consciousness?" is a meaningless question anyway since it applies objective category (cause) to something non-objective. But presumably "theory whose fundamental terms cannot be placed clearly in either category" would apply to non-human consciousness as well.
    – Conifold
    May 19 '17 at 9:23
  • For what it's worth, I find the idea that " a complex system is nothing more than the sum of its parts" to be misleading, and representing a misunderstanding of complex systems, which are difficult for the human mind to grasp. Complexity arises from simplicity, which is the root of combinatorics. It's not about the "things" that manifest in the system, but the rules of the system that allow new "things" to develop. It might be more useful to recognize that " a complex system is much more than the rules of the system."
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 18 '17 at 19:53
  • incidentally, the reason i thought it might, is that there may well be a neuroscientific explanation of human consciousness, without one for consciousness in general. that it's the latter term which is more mysterious...
    – user25714
    Jul 18 '17 at 19:59

Thanks to @Conifold I found the answer quite easily

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians7 would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately, its subjective character is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us. The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature. And to deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.

Bat consciousnesses is still part of reality, which suggests that "what causes consciousness" does not reduce to "what causes human consciousness".

The quotation is from Nagel's What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

Batman and Nagel


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