Thomas Nagel, 'Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem'

A Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture

Introduction to it by Ted Honderich

     Tom Nagel was born in Serbia into a Jewish family, studied at Cornell University, then Oxford, and then Harvard under John Rawls. He taught at Berkeley and Princeton before settling at New York University. The first of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecturers, he first became widely known in philosophy in 1974 for a paper whose leading idea is that something's being conscious is there being something it is like to be that thing, say a bat, or you. The question and title 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?' has done more than any other to unsettle confidence among hard physicalists about the nature of consciousness. It gives content and salience to common talk of subjectivity.

            This contribution to the contemporary philosophy of mind is like any other conception of consciousness in issuing in the question of how our consciousness is related to the brain, often called the mind-body problem. This question of relation, perhaps inadvisably, has been given more attention than the direct question of what it is to be conscious, the nature of that fact, what that fact is.

            What Nagel contemplates in the present lecture, after some opening reflections on what each of us can gather from our first-person experience, is whether a state or event of being conscious is an objective physical state. More particularly, is your having a thought or a feeling right now a physical state of your brain? Is it, more particularly, as in the theory of functionalism, and in all or most cognitive science, a physical state that 'functions' in a certain way, which is to say no more than that it is a state or event that stands in certain causal connections with earlier and later events?

            Nagel allows that there is some necessary connection between your conscious thinking and your brain. But he denies that there is a satisfactory answer that identifies your piece of thinking or feeling with a physical state, takes the thinking or feeling as being objectively physical. He allows that there is causal connection between conscious states or events and physical events, say your arm movements, which is very often taken as an irresistible argument for a physicalism.

            But, he elaborates and concludes, we cannot understand how there could be causal connection between consciousness and brain. That is on the way to being as incomprehensible as the thought or utterance that the number 379 has parents. For the thought of causal connection between consciousness and brain, we need concepts we just have not got, including concepts dealing with our hesitation about consciousness being in space.

            We really must not suppose we can rightly believe or try to believe what we cannot understand. Our situation, therefore, is that we must admit we have no answer to how consciousness is related to the brain, no theory of how it is or is not physical. The old and disdained dualism of body and mind, the first physical and the second not, may still be true in this age of a plethora of physicalist theories.  Whatever may happen in the unforeseeable future, after we are all dead, we have to accept that the mind-body problem is for us a mystery. This has prompted some others into as much or greater pessimism, and given pause to more of us.

            His immediately relevant books are Mortal Questions, 1979, which contains the paper 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?' as well as papers on matters of life and death, The View From Nowhere, 1986, including 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?', What Does It All Mean?, 1987, ideal as an introduction to philosophy, and Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012, which has caused some controversy.  His moral and political writings include The Possibility of Altruism, 1970, and Equality and Partiality, 1991.

            They and the lecture raise questions of which he is aware but which may trouble you still more. What is an objective physical fact? If your being conscious is not an objective physical fact, maybe not taking up space, how can it cause the objective physical fact of where you are or the movement of your arm? If there are different kinds of physicality, what are they? I myself wonder if there is what deserves the name of being subjectively physical.