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In his essay, Nagel argues that consciousness can not be reduced, which means that it can not be simplified or explained by the physical process. This is because consciousness is subjective (meaning that it depends entirely on the point of view of the individual to whom it belongs) while any reductionist explanation must be objective and can not depend on individualism or perspective. Therefore, consciousness prevents us from discovering a solution to the mind-body problem because it will not fit into the objective explanation of the mind-body relationship. We can objectively and scientifically explain the functions of the brain and the body because these two tangible parts of us have standardized functions that follow a certain scientific formula. The consciousness, however, varies in each person and we can’t study it the way we study brains and bodies because it is inaccessible to anyone one other than the individual who possesses it (we do not truly know exactly what it’s like to be another person or mammal because we don’t have the same experience as they do).
According to Nagel, consciousness is “…the subjective character of experience.” It is responsible for making every individual’s experience unique because it depends on the individual’s point of view. Consciousness is what it’s like to be a certain individual. It is subjective because it is impossible to entirely know what being someone else is like without actually becoming them. We can imagine what it is like to be them by objective means but this is incomplete because we will never be able to experience their consciousness and their unique perspective.
Reduction is the act of simplifying complex phenomena (such as consciousness) by explaining it within physical and material means. For example, reductionists seek to simplify consciousness by attributing it to functions of the brain. They also seek to fully explain
the relationship between the mind and the body (the mind-body problem) by proving that all mental and psychological action is tied to a scientific or physical explanation. Reductionism is an objective process since it completely excludes individual perspective and bias. In order to provide an all-inclusive objective analysis of consciousness and experience, it has to address the fact that both are entirely subjective and that there is no way to know the experience of another individual. In order to successfully reduce consciousness and solve the mind-body problem, reductionism must find a way to explain subjective concepts in an objective way. In order to accomplish this, it would need to find a means to convey the experience of one individual to another individual in such a way that the individuals would know exactly what it’s like to be each other in the subjective sense.
Nagel choses a bat for his analogy due to the fact that bats, like people, are mammals and therefore also have a conscious experience. He also chooses bats because they are different enough from us to make it difficult to understand what it’s like to be a bat. Instead of visual perception, they have bat sonar, which can only be understood by humans in an objective way, but not in a subjective way. This helps his analogy since the reader receives an example of how difficult it is to comprehend the experience of a being that is so dissimilar to them.
Nagel’s bat analogy conveys the point that consciousness and experience are subjective and are not able to be reduced in their entirety to objectivity. Humans can only imagine what it’s like to be like a bat given the objective facts we know about the physical nature of bats. We are not able to experience what a bat experiences without becoming a bat. The perspective of a bat is so fundamentally different from our own that the analogy makes the reader realize that some aspects of consciousness are beyond human comprehension and it is currently impossible for humans to describe the experience of others subjectively. This suggests that experience is unconventional and beyond the limits of human understanding. Experience is a phenomenon that can’t be analyzed or measured and does not follow any of the physical rules of nature. Nagel suggests that experience transcends most of the aspects of the world which we know. Most importantly, the analogy implies that experience is a primary characteristic of the self seeing as one could not exist without the other and because experience is a phenomenon that only the individual who owns can be certain of. In fact, we can never be completely sure that others have experiences. We are only assuming that other people and mammals are conscious.
Ultimately, Nagel concludes that physicalism is inadequate in the task of solving the mind-body problem and reducing consciousness. The goal of physicalism to analyze and simplify the mind and to attribute it to functions of the brain is undermined by the subjective nature of the mind. Thus, by attempting to objectify consciousness, physicalism can not reduce consciousness in its entirety as it leaves out an essential part of consciousness which is the point of view of the being whom the consciousness belongs to. The author does, however, admit that physicalism may not be impossible. It is only impossible at this time seeing as humans currently lack the capabilities to subjectively understand the experience and consciousness of others. He states that physicalism could work if humans (or some other life form) could develop a method of explaining point of view and the subjective aspects of experience in a way that would enable us to truly experience what it is like to be a bat without actually being the bat.
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