I was reading The enigma of human consciousness in ANNALS of the New York Academy of Sciences and this came up:

think it’s very hard to define consciousness in terms of anything more basic than consciousness, just as it’s very hard to define time and space in terms of anything more basic than time and space. But there are things we can which at least I think are helpful. There’s a phrase due to Thomas Nagel, who was mentioned earlier, who wrote the article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” You might say that a system is conscious when there is something it’s like to be that system—so there is something it’s like to be me; there is something it’s like to be you. But importantly, assuming you’re not a panpsychist, you would say there’s nothing it’s like to be that [points to a cup on the table] cup. So, likewise, a mental state like seeing will be conscious if there’s something it’s like to be in that state; for example, there’s something it’s like for me to see you right now, but there’s nothing it’s like for me to do some computation in my cerebellum.

And I got confused what is the meaning of “there is something that it is like”? then, I started reading the paper of Nagel and found this:

no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism- something it is like for the organism. We may call this the subjective character of experience.

"What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (436)

So, Can anyone explain to me this part so I can understand it better?

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    You feel what it is like to be you, what it is like to see the red color, and what it is like to hear the music, don’t you? All of these “what it is like” are different and have unique phenomenal characteristics. On the other hand, although current computers and robots can be made to answer the questions of what they are, what the red color is, and what the music is, they don’t have the feelings of “what it is like” as you do. This is because they do not have specific circuits to make them have these feelings (because we, their creators, don’t know how too build such circuits yet).
    – user287279
    Jan 3, 2020 at 1:08
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    @user287279 I agree with what you say except for the bit .because they do not have specific circuits..., because you are making the assumption that consciousness is due to or arises from specific circuits. This may be the case but we don't know that yet. I think the key is in Nagle's own phrase the subjective character of experience. The "something it is like to be a bat" is to have a bat's subjective experience.
    – JohnRC
    Jan 3, 2020 at 14:47
  • @JohnRC I knew that some or even many philosophers won’t agree with me. But I’m in a neuroscientific filed and offered the comment from this view because, presently, overwhelming clinical and experimental evidence indicates that consciousness occurs, exists, changes, and disappears with the consciousness neural process. This is verified everyday in clinical and experimental settings (in a lot of patients and experiment participants). Some controversies exist in some phenomena such as near-death and out-of-body experiences, but those are exceptional cases and so-far unfounded.
    – user287279
    Jan 3, 2020 at 16:33
  • Also, if consciousness occurs in computers/robots without the function of physical circuits, then such consciousness won’t be able to have physical effects because computers/robots can function only from physical circuits. Their consciousness will be something else that is out of physical world and will not be like ours, which has physical effects. Consciousness in us has many physical effects such as making us talk, write books, have conferences, etc. about it. So, if we want computers/robots to have consciousness like ours (physically active), they need physical circuits for it.
    – user287279
    Jan 3, 2020 at 16:36
  • @JohnRC As an example of what user287279 is talking about consider blindsight. That's a bit more precise; subjects are able to respond to phenomenon, and either don't experience the percept per se or anything at all. So obviously something is necessary for visual percepts. From there, it's not so hard to believe generally that something (these same sorts of things) is necessary for "what it's like"'s.
    – H Walters
    Jan 4, 2020 at 14:47

1 Answer 1


An attempt at a historical reconstruction. ( What is below is a set of hypotheses that would require a discussion).

Since Christian Wolff , consciousness is defned in terms of opposition, of non-identity : subject S is aware/ conscious of X iff S distinguishes X from other things, Y, Z, etc., and distinguishes itself from X.

See Wolff , Psychologia rationalis, §10 " Quando anima rerum perceptarum sibi conscia est " : " Quae simul percepta a se invicem distinguit, eorum sibi conscia est". ( When is the soul aware of things perceived? When the soul distinguishes from one another those things that it perceives simultaneously, then is the soul aware of those things).

In the same way, according to Wolff, the soul is conscious of itself inasmuch as it distinguises itself from the things it perceives, and also from its own states and perceptions. This self consciousness is called " apperception".

This model of consciousness leads to an emphasis on the " subject / object distinction" : (1) mind/ soul is defined by consciousness (2) consciousness is defined via an oppositional structure ( S aware of X iff S perceives the non-identity of X and ot other things Y, Z, etc. , as well as the non-identity of S and of X) (3) the conscious being takes the place of the subject in this oppositional structure and the " that of which it is conscious" takes the place of object ( litterally: what is opposed to, what is before, in front of the mind).

But this model has a limit : S is aware of other things by distinguiseing these things from one another; S is conscious of its perceptions by distinguising its perceptions from itself; but can finally S be conscious of itself by distinguishing itself from itself?

It seems that the oppositional structure fails to explain self consciousness: the soul needs to have a prior " sense of itself" in order to distinguish itself from its own perceptions and from the things it perceives.

The traditional term for " the act of the mind by which it tends towards an object" was " intentio". The failure of the " subject/ object" model of consciousness is also the failure of the intentional model of consciousness.

What would be a non-intentional consciousness? Apart from representational cognition, man also has sensible cognition, sentiment, feeling. As says Pascal , " faith is God sensible to the heart" .

So, the " sense of oneself" must be a feeling of oneself. This option is taken by Malebranche: the soul has no idea ( representational knowledge) of oneself, self consciousness is a " sentiment intérieur". ( https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/#IdeVisGod)

With the idea of feeling is associated (1) non-conceptuality , non generality (2) qualitativeness ( since, arguably, only concepts allow comparisons) (3) ineffability.

This might explain why, when a philosopher such as Nagel wanted to point out the subjective aspect of consciousness ( irreducible to representations and operations on representions; irreducible to 3rd person perspective, to scientific conceptualization), the expression " something it is like" came out of his pen.

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