Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bats and vOICe

Chris Chatham at Developing Intelligence:

In his famous essay, Thomas Nagel suggested that science's reductionist methods can never provide a complete understanding of the "subjective qualities" of consciousness. To illustrate this problem, he wrote that there was "no reason to suppose that" we would ever be able to comprehend what it's like to be a bat - because we can't truly understand the subjective experience of, for example, echolocation.

Not quite. Nagel is not talking about "science's reductionist methods" but the reductionist accounts developed by philosophers of mind; extrapolation and models are not inherently reductionist. And what he actually says there is "no reason to suppose" is that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. The problem is that if we extrapolate from our own experience (such as analogizing it to our own senses), we get a genuine understanding of the phenomena but only a schematic one, and schematic understanding is incomplete and (Nagel would say, at least) doesn't involve the "specific subjective character" of the experiences.

Further, Nagel insists that it may be possible for us to develop a more objective way of handling subjective experiences than we currently have (he insists on it elsewhere, as well):

It may be possible to approach the gap between subjective and objective from another direction. Setting aside temporarily the relation between the mind and the brain, we can pursue a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right. At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination—without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method—an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.


Of course, Chatham's basic point remains: when supplemented with technology, there is considerable promise for holding that we can do more with extrapolation -- what Nagel here calls imagination and empathy -- than one might expect. How far this can actually go, of course, is a question that has to be left to discovery. Nagel's basic point, however -- which implies that this doesn't help those who don't experience the sensory substitution, thus requiring the development of an objective phenomenology -- also seems to remain.

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