Philosopher Nagel in the eye of the storm!

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2013

Do you understand the first sentence: Thomas Nagel has written a new book. This will lead many people to ask who Nagel is.

Nagel is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. According to today’s New York Times, he enjoys a reputation “as one of the most incisive and imaginative of contemporary philosophers.”

Just to whet your appetite, his new book is called Mind and Cosmos.

In this morning’s Times, Jennifer Schuessler reports on the very large controversy surrounding Nagel’s book. Here’s the question we often ask at such times:

Do you understand her first sentence? There’s a reason why we ask.

Here’s the way Schuessler’s news report starts. Do you understand that first sentence?
SCHUESSLER (2/7/13): In 1974 Thomas Nagel published “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a short essay arguing that the subjective experience of consciousness—what philosophers call the “qualia”—could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.

That essay framed a landmark challenge to the materialist view of the mind that was then prevailing and helped cement Mr. Nagel’s reputation as one of the most incisive and imaginative of contemporary philosophers.

But since the late October release of his latest book, “Mind and Cosmos,” reviewers have given Mr. Nagel ample cause to ponder another question: What is it like to be an eminent (and avowedly atheist) philosopher accused of giving aid and comfort to creationist enemies of science?
Nagel currently stands accused “of giving aid and comfort to creationist enemies of science.” That's relatively easy to follow. But never mind that for now:

Do you understand that first sentence? According to Schuessler, Nagel once argued that the subjective experience of consciousness could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.

Questions:

Do you have any idea what that means? Could you explain what that statement means? Would you know how to paraphrase it?

We wouldn’t—but for us, that’s nothing new. For at least twenty years, we’ve been playing a game with a certain type of material, especially with books which claim to “make Einstein easy.”

Instead of mouthing each word and turning each page, we've taken a different approach. We’ve tried to see how far we can get in such books before we have to admit that we can’t explain (paraphrase) the things which are being said.

Often, it doesn’t take long! So how about this morning’s report? Would you know how to paraphrase its first sentence?

We wouldn’t! Let’s look at that sentence again, stripped of various extras:

Thomas Nagel once argued that the subjective experience of consciousness could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.

Do you know what that means? Would you know how to paraphrase that? Here are a few of our problems:

Many people will feel they have a rough idea what “consciousness” is. We know that a person is conscious some of the time-and some of the time, he isn’t. We know that humans are generally said to possess consciousness, while rocks and trees generally aren’t.

That said, do you know what the “experience of consciousness” is? How about the “subjective experience of consciousness?” For ourselves, that first sentence is already getting hazy. And now, we have to explain what Nagel meant when he said that the subjective experience of consciousness (whatever that is) “could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.”

“Reduced to...” Do you understand that? How about fully reduced to?

This morning, we read this report at the bagel joint. As we did, we asked ourselves an incomparable question: How many people have any idea what that opening sentence means? How many people think they could paraphrase the claim attributed to Nagel?

Very few people, we would guess. And yet we keep reading!

Why is that?

18 comments:

  1. It is pretty dang fuzzy, but I would venture to guess that it means something like this: consciousness as perceived by something like a bat or a human being is not all because of the physical aspects of the brain....that doesn't sound very good and the more I sit here and think this through the harder this becomes to paraphrase. Something like the way consciousness of the world is perceived doesn't all have to do with our physical brains. ???

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  2. Does TDH have a problem with Scheussler's paraphrase?

    Are there any philosophers that TDH doesn't mock in this way? After twenty years, doesn't this ever get old?

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    1. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, constantly mocked and derided philosophers.

      NYT article on physicists vs. philosophers

      Richard Feynman, in his famous lectures on physics, complained that “philosophers are always with us, struggling in the periphery to try to tell us something, but they never really understand the subtleties and depths of the problem.”

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  3. Quaker in a BasementFebruary 7, 2013 at 9:37 PM

    Seems clear enough to me.

    We humans have an internal mental life. We perceive, we think, we search for meaning, and we have insights into our own condition and existence. We call this consciousness and it's highly subjective. Two humans in identical situations will have different internal experiences.

    Many aspects of consciousness can be correlated with the functioning of our physical brains. (TDH often references the hard-wiring in our brains that drives us to identify with our tribes and vilify the Other.)

    Nagel's thesis appears to be that the electrochemical functioning of the brain can't explain everything that we experience as consciousness.

    I don't see why it's so hard.

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    1. Quaker in the basement - I agree with you. You have paraphrased it well. I understand the sentence perfectly well. I don't understand why of all the possible things to be concerned about in the world, TDH focusses on this. The question is, why does he assume it is someone else's fault that he can't understand a perfectly clear sentence (albeit the issues involved are very complex and very interesting).

      AC/MA

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    2. ...why does he assume it is someone else's fault that he can't understand a perfectly clear sentence...

      Don't assume that just because it's perfectly clear to you, that it's perfectly clear to everyone else.

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  4. I'd say that consciousness is the ability of each of us to think about our own thinking. We have one mode of thinking to solve problems, to interpret symbols, to remember events, and so on, but we also have another mode in which we can reflect on those first ways of thinking. Nagel "argues" that no matter how much neuroscience we discover by exerting the former mode of thinking, we'll never get an explanation of the second. TDH is correct that Nagel's language is clumsy. He is talking about layers of abstraction. But it's also true that if he expressed himself clearly, it would be apparent to his readers that he was doing no more than taking sides in the hoary mind/brain-dichotomy debate. And that's no way to remain considered “as one of the most incisive and imaginative of contemporary philosophers.”

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  5. The first sentence is indeed very poorly written. The fault is Schuessler's, not Nagel's. It would have been good had she sought outside help. For example, she could have called Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who works in much the same field and who knows how to write accurately in easy-to-understand American English. There is nothing very abstruse about this key takeaway from Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Controversial among philosophers, to be sure, but not abstruse.

    One more thing: Mr. Somerby suggests that Schuessler "attributed" the statement in question to Nagel. In fact, this statement is not one that Nagel has made or would ever make. Nor in fact does Schuessler attribute it to him. It's her unfortunate paraphrase of something he did claim in that 1974 article, and has reiterated in subsequent writings. Too bad she messed it up. But again, the mess is her doing, not Nagel's.

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  6. Is Somerby really that thick? Has he never thought about the difference between looking at his finger as an object in the world and feeling his finger subjectively? Has he never read any of the continuing arguments about Artificial Intelligence? Is he really not aware that "the hard problem of consciousness" is one of the longest standing conundrums of philosophy? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

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    1. Continuing with the questions... Does he think that when his computer reacts to a mouse click, it feels something? Conversely, does he think that when his cat starts purring in response to petting, the purring is "nothing but" the effect of some combination of electrical, chemical, and mechanical processes, and that the cat is not experiencing anything? (Yeah, I surrounded "nothing but" with quotes on purpose. It's a phrase associated with reductionism.)

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  7. Schuessler is saying that Nagel claims that there is a soul. Probably Nagel did not actually use the word "soul", so Schuessler has to frame the statement in euphemistic philospher-speak. Actually she write euphemistically anyway for whatever reasons - and because of this as well as the basic claim (there is a soul) I do not keep reading.

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    1. The word "soul" does not appear in Schuessler's article.

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  8. This is one occasion where I think the Howler's criticism is a little misplaced and/or overblown. I rread the opening sentence to say that the philosopher proposes that consciousness cannot be fully explained by the structure of the physical brain and the neurochemical reactions which are associated with brain activity, thus leaving open a spiritual or at least a non-physical explanation for consciousness. You may not agree with that thesis, but the meaning seems pretty clear. I can also already see why scientists and those with a materialistic point of ciew might be upset with such a suggestion.

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  9. It's the old "Ghost in the Machine" position.

    Q: How does an immaterial ghost exert control over a physical being?

    A: By magic.

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  10. SCHUESSLER RE-WRITTEN: In 1974 Thomas Nagel published “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a short essay arguing that one's personal experience of consciousness—what philosophers call the “qualia”—could not be fully explained by the physical composition of the brain.

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  11. I have to agree with the critics - the sentence at issue clearly refers to notion that there exist non-material factors that affect the human experience. It's not a concept that fits my model of the universe, I prefer to think that something either exists in the material world or else it doesn't exist (on the macro scale anyway). But it's not that hard to grasp the idea behind the alternative model, the one identified by that opening sentence.

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  12. I know exactly what's going on here. The opening sentence is in the same category as these two:

    1) Someone published “What Is the Color Red Like?,” a short essay arguing that the subjective experience of color could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.

    2) Someone published “What Is Free Will Like?,” a short essay arguing that the subjective experience of independent choice could not be fully reduced to the physical aspects of the brain.

    There are people who do not accept a reductionist, materialist world view (they also don't believe in Strong Artificial Intelligence) and Schuessler's opening line was expressing how they see things. For them, consciousness, "redness", and free will are real. But trying to find them somewhere amidst the atoms only turns up a brain state, which is unsatisfying to many. And so they posit that there is be something more to it. That's their problem of acceptance, not a statement about what must be.

    I think Somerby's mistake was spending time trying to determine what was meant by "consciousness". It's imprecise. Everybody has their own definition of what it is. There's no consensus, so why bother?

    A lot of "problems" like these can be traced to the Platonist dualism of mind and body that treats ideas as real. Don't fall for it!

    Quiddity

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    1. Well said. I would add: The word "consciousness" is almost as ill-defined as the word "liberal." Why Mr. Somerby presents himself as having great difficulty understanding the former, but not the latter, is a puzzle to me.

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