Hey Nagel–not done with you yet!

The more alert among you will have long ago noticed that the cyberkrunk blog is, at its core, an extended rumination on the mind-body problem in the guise of chatty posts about pop music, restaurants and movies, all expressed in the language of a writing style I invented some time ago called “Gonzo Prufrock”.

Since I mentioned Thomas Nagel last week, let’s take a quick look at his most famous paper, “What is it like to Be a Bat?” I’ll wait till you finish.

Ok, ready? Good. Of course, it is true in many ways that I cannot know “what it is like to be a bat”. Bats have an entirely different sensory system, and don’t use language. Even if it were possible to jack a bat’s consciousness into krunkbot’s brain, that would not be what it is like to “be” a bat, that would be what it’s like to be krunkbot watching a bat’s consciousness. Right? And if I were able to somehow shut off the krunkbot consciousness while I was inside the bat, krunkbot would have no way of bringing that information back into the krunkbot consciousness; the experience would be non-transportable and therefore lost.

Why is this a weak argument against a reductionist theory of consciousness? It’s because of the way Nagel frames the question. He doesn’t ask “what is it like to echolocate like a bat?” or “what is it like taste honey like a bear?” or “what is it like to strum a power chord like Pete Townshend?” No, it’s his “be” that’s in my bonnet. How can you expect to have a reductionist response when you are essentially asking “what is the bat’s non-reducible, total experience including all memory like”? It’s a nice thought experiment, but it really proves nothing.

2 Replies to “Hey Nagel–not done with you yet!”

  1. It seems like more fruitful work might be done on the nature, and relative qualities, of sympathy, empathy and understanding.

  2. Hume made a great start on the last one. And in a very powerful way, Darwin enabled a new way of looking at the first two. But to solipsistic creatures like us, the study of the nature of consciousness will always be compelling, no?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *