Consciousness 2: Going batty?

One of the reasons why consciousness is considered such a hard problem is because many of the methods that have served us well in other disciplines are counter-productive here. Consider objectivity and reduction-ism which are cornerstones of all modern science.

Objectivity means the phenomenon should be described in a way that doesn’t attach it to a person but can be universally understood by anyone without having to recourse to much empathy or imagination. Reductionism implies the whole as being nothing more as the sum of its parts. One of the most celebrated arguments about the limitations of these concepts (on which all mathematical descriptions of the mind rested) was made by Thomas Nagel in his 1974 paper, “What is it like to be a bat?


Thomas Nagel

Bats are mammals and most people would agree that they do possess some degree of consciousness. However, their sensory apparatus is very different from ours. For instance, although having notoriously poor eyesight, their brains are wired to correlate the echoes from their high frequency shrieks and use it to perceive, distance, depth and a angular resolution.

Now, for a bat to be conscious, it must be capable of experiencing something. A bat living the life of a bat must experience whatever it is that it is to be a bat. Let us see what that might be, what would it be like to be a bat? Let us assume there is webbing attached to our arms that allows us to fly. Let us further assume that we are blindfolded, eat bugs and spend the day hanging upside down in dark caves. Are we getting close to what it is to be a bat?

Unfortunately no. We are building an image of what it would be like for us to live the life of a bat. This may be nothing like how a bat itself experiences its life. In fact, with our imagination limited by personal experience, it is probable that we are fundamentally unequipped to understand how a creature so different from us experiences reality.

Let us say there was a way by which a person could in stages become a bat and return. There is still no way in which that person could apriori imagine how he would think in his metamorphosed state. Also, even if he could return to human form, it is unclear whether he would be able to comprehend his own actions and experiences. Even if he could, there would still be no way he could communicate this experience to anyone else given the limitations of the other person’s experience or language.

There are thus concepts which humans could never comprehend or represent because our structure prohibits us from dealing with them properly. This brings us to the problem with objectivity in consciousness.

Consider a Martian scientist who wants to study humans. The Martian is blind. He has heard of the rainbow and intellectually he understands how refraction in water droplets can result in such a phenomenon. To this extent, he understands the objective phenomenon of the rainbow. But he would never be able to understand the sense of wonder and delight a human may experience seeing a rainbow or understand the place rainbows, clouds or lightening occupy in our minds.

Whereas in understanding a phenomenon like lightening, we get a better understanding if we move away from a human viewpoint, it is not at all clear if this is the case for consciousness.

It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it.

Thomas Nagel

Reduction is a step towards greater objectivity. It reduces the dependence on a person or a species specific point of view. Thus for the sake of objectivity, we must describe phenomenon in terms and properties detectable by means other than human senses. The further we move from a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective our description becomes. But this is taking us further away from the real nature of the phenomenon as we are conscious of it. Consciousness is then an inherently subjective phenomenon.

Does it make sense, in other words, to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?

Thomas Nagel


Thus any attempt at reduction can destroy the very nature of the conscious experience of the phenomenon. Further, the same objective phenomenon may be experienced differently by different species, making a species independent viewpoint impossible. G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem, The Song of Quoodle where he pictured a dog explaining his sense of smell.

Even the smell of roses

Is not what they supposes . . .

And goodness only knowses

The Noselessness of Man.

G.K. Chesterton

On a light hearted note, philosophy role playing game King Under the Mountain took a novel approach to resolving Thomas Nagel’s conundrum.




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