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.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:
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?
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.
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?