Six Persistent Enigmas about Consciousness

It seems obvious that consciousness is remarkable and mysterious, but we struggle to say just why it’s so special. In recent decades, however, several philosophers have managed to articulate some of the key features that make consciousness extraordinary. These new insights are intriguing, but they also make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur within a brain. In fact, some of them make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur at all, in any conceivable medium.

In the next few weeks I will explore some of these insights and conundrums. So here is the first of six persistent enigmas about consciousness:

In 1974 Thomas Nagel challenged behaviorism with an essay called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (Philosophical Review, October, 1984, pp. 435-50). According to behaviorists, if we want to learn about bats, we study the way bats behave. But what about knowing how it is to be the bat itself?

Nagel used bats as his example because they use an exotic navigation system called echolocation. They send out high-frequency shrieks and monitor the way these sounds are echoed back. Since we do not typically navigate in this way, we have a hard time guessing what it is like to have this sensory ability.

But Nagel wasn’t really talking about bats. He was using echolocation as a dramatic example. His real point is that for every conscious organism there is something it is like to be that organism. It is this what-it’s-like aspect of experience that is left out by behaviorism – and, some would say, by science itself.

If I knew everything that could possibly be known about you except what it’s like to be you, would my knowledge of you be complete?

Nagel drove home his point by writing that “to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat … one must take up the bat’s point of view” (p. 442). But if we can only understand an organism’s experience from its special vantage point, how can science ever understand consciousness? Science strives for objectivity, and Nagel declares that “any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it” (p. 445).

Nagel’s essay was only 15 pages long, but it has had an enormous impact. The phrase “what it’s like” now permeates consciousness literature. Some think this is an unfortunate development, and in my next entry I’ll consider the strengths and weaknesses of this revolutionary piece of scholarship.

Roger Christan Schriner

Advertisements