Subjective Character Experience

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Analysis of Nagel's "subjective character experience' and scientific explanation of consciousness.

In "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?"[1], Thomas Nagel offers a challenge to reductionist accounts of mind by highlighting what he calls "the subjective character of experience". In this paper I will be describing what Nagel meant by the term "subjective character experience" as well as provide a breakdown of his famous example of "what it is like to be a bat?". I will also be focusing on the reasons why Nagel believes consciousness cannot be scientifically explained and reflect my point of view on Nagel's theory on subjective character experiences and consciousness. {MORE}

To begin with, Nagel argues that every creature that is capable of having experiences there is something it is like to be that creature. "An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism -- something it is like for the organism... We may call this the subjective character of experience."[621] To take a closer look at this passage, we need to briefly direct our attention to other theorists such as Smart. Smart's theories suggest that everything in this world could to be described with a scientific or mechanical explanation. Thus, consciousness could also be described scientifically, since our experience of things is just a brain state.[584] The problem with materialism or reductionism of Smart's view is that they ignore what is special about mind-body problem, they ignore subjective consciousness. They provide an explanation of how the mind works scientifically at the expense of excluding consciousness from the picture. Nagel challenges this supposition in order to show the special mental property that connects one's mind and body. "Consciousness makes the mind-body intractable."[620] It seems as consciousness doesn't belong anywhere in the concept of a universe of physical objects. Humans appear in that physical world, as do their brains, but consciousness doesn't seem to have a location or a substance. Therefore, in my opinion Nagel has the right idea to accept consciousness as a non physical thing and implying a different approach to evaluate consciousness.

Further, Nagel continues to demonstrate his point using the example of a bat's perceptions to explain subjective character. The bat is a useful example because it is biologically complex enough for us to imagine that it has complex experiences. Importantly, though, the bat is sufficiently different from us for us to suppose that its experiences are quite alien to our own. Since the bat’s primary mode of perception of external world is by sonar or echolocation , which is unlike human vision and hearing. Its conceivably presents the bat with an experiential world quite unlike the human world, thus there is no reason to suppose this is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.[622]

When we want to understand bat experience we want to know, not just how a bat works, but what it is like to be a bat, in other words we are trying to determine the true subjective character experience of a bat. Even if we knew how the bat’s high-frequency shrieks were projected, and their reflections and deflections translated into a cognitive or behavioral schema — even if we knew all the objective facts that there were to know about bat sonar and bat behavior — that would not bring us any closer to knowing what it is like to be a bat. The problem is that we can extrapolate from our own case only so far: imagining ourselves capable of flight, eating insects and using echolocation may tell us what it is like for us to behave like bats, but it will not describe what it is like for the bat to be a bat. As Nagel describe in his paper that we cannot even entertain the correct hypothesis about the subjective character of bat experience. Agreeing with Nagel's argument, we can try our best to imagine and understand what it is like to be a bat,...
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