What is it like to be a bat?

Editor’s Preface: Mind versus Brain discussion and study of human consciousness may not only have bearing on our understanding of physiology and psychology of mind, but may also help us understand the concept of soul!

If physics be complete and materialism can explain everything that is out there, including our consciousness and thoughts then scientist may be able to deny free will and our soul.  So, this is a subject not only of interest to biologists and psychologists but also to theologians and basically every religious person.  Stakes are indeed high!  Is our world completely deterministic and are we only products of what has gone before or do we have free will and are responsible for our actions?  Is there a rational way to maintain our final accountability?

René Descartes  (1596 – 1650) after a dramatic dream, while he was in a battle, as a young soldier, proposed that there are two types of things, physical and mental.  Over the centuries scientists have had good success in deciphering physical things and now many claim that physical can also explain the mental, this is called physicalism or materialism.  Despite tall claims by many scientists, we continue to have little to no information or direct insight about consciousness of others, let alone of an animal and especially of a flying animal, who flies with the help of  what is equivalent of radar machines!

I will present a series of articles on human consciousness in the Muslim Times over coming weeks and months, to initiate a dialogue on these all important subjects.

Prof. Thomas Nagel, author of this article, (born July 4, 1937 in Belgrade, in present-day Serbia) is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is well known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970).  He concludes his essay with the following words:

… This question also lies at the heart of the problem of other minds, whose close connection with the mind-body problem is often overlooked. If one understood how subjective experience could have an objective nature, one would understand the existence of subjects other than oneself.

I have not defined the term ‘physical’. Obviously it does not apply just to what can be described by the concepts of contemporary physics, since we expect further developments. Some may think there is nothing to prevent mental phenomena from eventually being recognized as physical in their own right. But whatever else may be said of the physical, it has to be objective. 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.

Article By Prof. Thomas Nagel

Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable. Perhaps that is why current discussions of the problem give it little attention or get it obviously wrong. The recent wave of reductionist euphoria has produced several analyses of mental phenomena and mental concepts designed to explain the possibility of some variety of materialism, psychophysical identification, or reduction.

But the problems dealt with are those common to this type of reduction and other types, and what makes the mind-body problem unique, and unlike the water-H2O problem or the Turing machine-IBM machine problem or the lightning-electrical discharge problem or the gene-DNA problem or the oak tree-hydrocarbon problem, is ignored.

Every reductionist has his favorite analogy from modern science. It is most unlikely that any of these unrelated examples of successful reduction will shed light on the relation of mind to brain. But philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different. This has led to the acceptance of implausible accounts of the mental largely because they would permit familiar kinds of reduction. I shall try to explain why the usual examples do not help us to understand the relation between mind and body—why, indeed, we have at present no conception of what an explanation of the physical nature of a mental phenomenon would be. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless. The most important and characteristic feature of conscious mental phenomena is very poorly understood. Most reductionist theories do not even try to explain it. And careful examination will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to it. Perhaps a new theoretical form can be devised for the purpose, but such a solution, if it exists, lies in the distant intellectual future.

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But 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 to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

We may call this the subjective character of experience. It is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons. I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed. It is useless to base the defense of materialism on any analysis of mental phenomena that fails to deal explicitly with their subjective character. For there is no reason to suppose that a reduction which seems plausible when no attempt is made to account for consciousness can be extended to include consciousness. With out some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.

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