what’s it still like to be a bat


Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Philosophy at NYU, now in his seventies, has made it part of his life’s work to keep us honest about a few small crucial distinctions, in particular to fight off reductionism: to fight off the oversimplifying tendency in scientific empiricism that would reduce our concept of mind to neurochemical phenomena alone. In mainstream science of mind, presently, reductionism rules. Everybody aims to discover “neural correlates of consciousness.” Everyone is watching MRI images in which brain-parts light up while subjects’ thoughts play. The ruling belief is that, when we have a “thought,” no part of it is an immaterial thing like a puffy dialogue-balloon over our heads; the thought has a physical, neural basis. The orthodox view is that the thought has a strictly physical basis. This is called the identity theory, that a “thought” and its nervous-system flicker are the same event. The identity theory, in the words of neuroscientist John Kihlstrom at Berkeley, explains the mind as nothing fancier than “sparks and drips at the synapses.” Thomas Nagel has been insisting that we must remain patiently agnostic in the face of this reductionist identification of mental with physical. In a famous essay from 1974, called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” he defended the sovereignty of subjective consciousness. Each of us conscious beings, when we experience a simple thing like yellowness or a handclasp or anger, enjoys a personal, non-fungible subjectivity, whose mystery will never be accessible to the measurers of sparks and drips.

more from Louis B. Jones and P. N. Furbank at Threepenny Review here.