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How to Abolish Minds: Feeling Batty

Ilkka Pättiniemi

When we last left off solipsism loomed in the horizon for the opponent of materialism. Here I will introduce an argument that might save the dualist/mentalist from such a horrid fate: Thomas Nagel’s famous How is it Like to Be a Bat? (1974).            

In his the paper Nagel argues that we are unable to take a bat’s point of view. That is, while it is clear from the physiological and behavioral similarities – and from our shared evolutionary – history that there is something that it is like to be a bat, due to dissimilarities between sensory modalities, behavior, neurology, etc. between ourselves and bats, it is not possible for us as human beings to truly know what it is like to be a bat. (Nagel 1974). In other words, there are subjective facts for which there is no (objective) third-person access.

Can we then know what it is like to be another person? Yes we can, according to Nagel. First, it would be wrong-headed to be skeptical about the subjective character of others’ experiences

because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it accurately, its subjective character is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us.

Nagel 1974, p. 440

Second, not only can we know that others have subjective feels, but we even have access to them:

There is a sense in which phenomenological facts are perfectly objective: one person can know or say of another what the quality of the other’s experience is. They are subjective, however, in the sense that even this objective ascription of experience is possible only for someone sufficiently similar to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view‒to understand the ascription in the first person as well as the third, so to speak.

Nagel 1974, p. 442

So, if one accepts Nagel’s reasoning (for the record, I do not, but that is not the issue here), one has a ready solution for the problem of other minds: not only do we know that it is indeed like something to be a bat or a person, but we can also know what it is like to be some other person besides ourselves. So, the day has been saved! Or has it? Join me next time to find out!

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it Like to Be a Bat? Philosophical Review 83: 435–450.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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