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What Is It Like To Be a Bat? - Thomas Nagel

A man is one of the most enigmatic live organisms in the universe. Being created as a likeness to each other, people are extremely different in their ways of thinking and manners of behavior. The ample philosophers of all times are trying to find out how it can be that physically identical bodies could represent such a variety of responses to life experience. The majority of scientists agree that the brain and human consciousness are the core reasons for this, but the way of mind-body interaction still remains the biggest philosophical puzzle. Thomas Nagel, one of the philosophers contributing to solving this issue, assumes that ignoring subjective character of experience is the central mistake of reductionist strategy obstructing the process of shedding light on the mind-body problem. His arguments presented in essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", sound rather reasonable, demonstrate the limits of reductionists' approaches, explain the complexity of the issue, and reveal the key role of taking subjectivism seriously to succeed in revealing the essence of consciousness.

Thomas Nagel starts his essay with appealing to the phenomenon of conscious and its implications on different levels of life. Arguing about evidence of presence of conscious in organisms existing in the universe, the author presents the readers with the starting point of his theory. He assumes that, "the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means that there is something it is like to be that organism" (Nagel 436). With this assumption, Nagel strives to emphasize that the conscious could not be investigated merely as a mental state, as it is used to be analyzed within physicalist theory. However, much broader concept implies the subjective character of any experience.


To present this idea and underline the importance of considering the subjectivism, Thomas Nagel uses an example of a bat and poses the question, "What is it like to be a bat?". The choice of these animals the author explains by their close relation to people if compared with other species and one fundamental difference from the humans. The author focuses on a bat's sensory apparatus known as sonar or echolocation, which is significantly different from that people's one. He claims that even if anybody could look or behave like a bat, her or his experience would be far from the true experience of being this animal. It means that even knowing the theoretical nuances of functioning of this animal's organism, people can have only "schematic conception of what it is like" (Nagel 439). The reason for this is hidden in peculiarities of functioning of conscious, namely the human beings can evaluate the things and processes only through the prism of their individual subjective experience.

The author widens his idea by applying it to the Martian-human interaction. He emphasizes the same effect by stating that any other creatures existing in the universe are not able to experience the state of being human, as people cannot grasp the true experience of being a bat. One can catch the thought about the actuality of this approach in the interpersonal dimension as well. Each person has individual experience, which is unique and far from being alike to any other. Nagel resumes that this individual or subjective experience is "the essence of the internal world" that provides the needed idea about mind-body interaction (445). The problem is that prevailing empirical researches do not pay decent attention to the individual experience by considering it just a personal stand, which is not significant in the context of objective theories. Indeed, Nagel's arguments brightly demonstrate that consciousness is inextricably linked to subjective experience, and by rejecting subjectivism, the scientists are doomed to failure in investigating this phenomenon.

Such idea is easy to verify just analyzing quite ordinary life aspects related to human perception of life in the context of physicalist approaches. Thus, one of the theories presented by Hobson and Friston (2016) claims that, "consciousness is not a phenomenon but a process of optimizing beliefs through life inference" (Havl?k et al. 5). If one perceives the conscious from this chosen point of view, they can assume that being in the same life situation as well as operating with the similar volume of information about something, people should produce alike conclusions and experience the same emotions. Indeed, the reality demonstrates that in fact, the emotional experience and their inferences differ significantly. One of bright confirmation can be found in the medical area when two persons need to get an injection with the same medicine. Both of them know that it is not dangerous as well as does not hurt and cause any side effects. Indeed, for one patient, this situation can be just ordinary, but for the other, it is a significant stress. Moreover, the internal emotional experience at this moment can result in a serious medical reaction even when physically, there are no medical contradictions. Moreover, there is a question on how the process of operating the identical data by the physically identical organism can result in diverse individual experience and individual tolerance. Most likely, even the patients would not be able to explain where the reason for their calmness or fear is. Moreover, they would not be able to understand the reaction of each other: what is the more valuable moment in the context of Thomas Nagel's arguments of subjectivism.

One can argue that any reaction of an organism is a result of the neural mechanism, but there is a question what the root cause is, namely physical process generates emotion or emotional subjective experience is the basis for neural changes. Even if the science knows what the fear is, it cannot explain exactly how each person feels while being afraid, which level of fear appears, what situations provoke this emotion, and why. Such emotional experience is the subjective side of human conscious, and nobody can feel fear in an identical way with others. The same can be said about the rest of emotions, feelings, or senses. It is a widely known thing that people can perceive the same colors differently despite having similar physical structure of the human eyes. Nowadays, there are scientific evidences about the phenomenon of "perceptual impression of the color", which is related to human brain's ability to establish the link between particular color and prior knowledge about it, object to which this clue can be prescribed, emotional experience with this color or respective object, and individual imagination or expectation among other things (Witzel and Hansen 648). When looking at the color, each person is familiar with the sense that generates the set of associations, thus establishing intangible links between reality and memories. Hence, observing violet color, for example, one can feel the nostalgia for a parent's house where the mother used the washing powder with the lavender aroma. Nobody else could feel the same looking at the violet hue, as no one had identical experience even if his or her mother used the same powder. Thus, being somebody involves close interlaying of multiple mechanisms that influence each other, and most likely, the contents of conscious are determined by the way these mechanisms casually interact one with other (Tsuchia 4). Indeed, these mechanisms are not merely physical or neural, as it is said by reductionists, but subjective experience occupies one of the central places in this system.


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After all, one can become sure that the notion of conscious is rather complicated to explain it merely by means of applying traditional philosophical and scientific approaches that strive to structure and measure the activity of the brain. The theory of Thomas Nagel rightly challenges these methods and underlines the uniqueness of the human subjective experience, which determines the state of being somebody. Nagel's position about the urgent need to make a step from imperial objectivism to considering objectivism seriously is a valuable idea conserning solving the mind-body problem.

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