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    Industrial Grade Linguist Copernicus's Avatar
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    Nagel's Batty Explanation of the Mind-Body Problem

    In 1974, Philosopher Thomas Nagel published his classic 17-page explanation of why it is so difficult to understand the physical basis of consciousness: What is it Like to Be a Bat?

    In internet discussion forums, people love to argue over the nature of consciousness. Most people seem to believe that brains cause consciousness, and I will not try to argue otherwise. That goes without saying. But how? How can there be an objective explanation of subjective experience? People believe that there must be some explanation that reduces to physical activity, but reductionism never seems to get us anywhere. People who wish to discuss this question intelligently really need to start by reading Nagel's brilliant essay, because Nagel nails it. And, no, the paper is not mostly about bats. That is just the intuition pump that Nagel uses to make his argument about why reductionist claims are so unsatisfying.

    One can come away from Nagel's essay with the rather unsatisfying answer that What it is Like to Be a Bat is just What it Feels Like to be a Bat. But that is just as unsatisfying as saying that the bat's consciousness is some kind of physical phenomenon. Sure, the bat has a brain, but it doesn't experience reality in the same way a human brain does. So what is consciousness in a bat? You can come up with all sorts of thoughts on what you imagine it to be like, but you don't sense reality in the same way that a bat does. You don't use echolocation to paint a 3D picture of reality (although some blind folks do develop a more limited ability to detect objects and distances through sound and other senses). And bats are more like us than snakes or worms or plants. At what point does consciousness of our sort go away? Worms have very rudimentary nervous systems. Are they conscious at all? We like to say that robots are not conscious, yet they behave in ways that give the illusion of conscious behavior. Is it possible for a robot to be conscious? In my opinion, it is. And robots quite often rely on echolocation to map out their local space.

    The answer to the mind-body problem is grounded in the nature of experience. Brains have experiences, but what is an experience from a physical perspective? That's all I want to say for now--to point people at Nagel's explanation, if they have not already read this seminal paper. I will give my thoughts later on the way to think about the objective side of subjective experience.

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    It's a hard problem to solve in part because this ability has evolved over literally billions of years. The nervous systems of animals are unfathomably complex, the brain is difficult to study, and science is pretty young.

    For my part I'm satisfied with saying it works and moving on to more interesting problems. When it comes to pragmatics how consciousness works physically really isn't that important. But I think it's worth noting that we seem to frame consciousness as a thing we have, rather than a thing that's happening. This is worth noting, because a lot of philosophy has been preoccupied with confirming that humans are somehow special, and not just like every other animal.

    Most of what we call 'conscious' experience is just parts of our physiology sensing and reacting to the environment across time, just like any other animal. How does it work? Billions of years of iterations.
    Last edited by rousseau; 04-24-2021 at 10:49 PM.

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    Veteran Member Treedbear's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    In 1974, Philosopher Thomas Nagel published his classic 17-page explanation of why it is so difficult to understand the physical basis of consciousness: What is it Like to Be a Bat?
    ...
    The answer to the mind-body problem is grounded in the nature of experience. Brains have experiences, but what is an experience from a physical perspective? That's all I want to say for now--to point people at Nagel's explanation, if they have not already read this seminal paper. I will give my thoughts later on the way to think about the objective side of subjective experience.
    Thanks for the reference to the article, which I haven't had time to read yet but look forward to. I went right to the last paragraph though and found this which subscribes to my own views on understanding the subject of conscious experience (my bolding):

    Apart from its own interest, a phenomenology that is in this sense objective may permit questions about the physical basis of experience to assume a more intelligible form. Aspects of subjective experience that admitted this kind of objective description might be better candidates for objective explanations of a more familiar sort. But whether or not this guess is correct, it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective. Otherwise we cannot even pose the mind-body problem without sidestepping it.
    As is often the case when dealing with paradox it might be a matter of not addressing the right question. Also a more objective point of view requires adopting a broader perspective.

    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    ... At what point does consciousness of our sort go away? Worms have very rudimentary nervous systems. Are they conscious at all? ...
    What if an extremely advanced space-traveling race visited Earth? People like to worry about whether human would be bred like cattle for food. But would they look at us as lower on the consciousness scale? Perhaps barely conscious at all? We likely would be, compared to their level of understanding and general awareness.

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    Industrial Grade Linguist Copernicus's Avatar
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    Nagel was writing at a time when computer technology was leading to a revolution in our understanding of chaos theory, although the concept of emergence was very old, going back at least to Aristotle. The point is that an entity interacting with other entities in a system can exhibit properties or behaviors that its parts do not have. Those properties emerge only when there is systemic interaction. Nagel does not speak of emergence, but it seems clear that subjective experience emerges from objective interactions in a running neural system. Generally speaking, we can analyze chaotic interactions in a system by reducing the system to simpler interactions between entities within the system. Cellular automata are one way of formally capturing simple emergent behaviors, so it is possible to achieve a kind of reductionist explanation that seems almost intractable by other methods. We just need to identify the major components of the system that are interacting with each other and discover how they interact. The people who are building such systems from the bottom up are roboticists--the creators of autonomous systems that interact with the same environmental factors that human beings interact with, including especially other human beings.

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Consciousness doesn't exist.

    I am only able to observe a single instance of it, amongst billions of human brains and trillions of brains with varying degrees of difference from human brains. Therefore that single datum is clearly an outlier and can be discarded from the dataset.

    Problem solved.

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    Mazzie Daius fromderinside's Avatar
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    Did you check your sub vocalizations or visual reenactments while you were making that statement? Whatever it is it is physical and, for you and those around you, an illusion. There is no 'You' to bring it forth.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    it seems clear that subjective experience emerges from objective interactions in a running neural system.
    I hesitate to say much about subjective experience based on what philosophy has said. We need to open up the brain and understand the mechanics, then the mechanics are what can be said. It seems like a trivial point, but I think what I mentioned earlier about consciousness as something that happens is important.

    Classically we've phrased experience as something that happens to 'us', where I'd argue that it just happens. We're a material system that senses and responds to the environment. We don't experience, the body has an interface with the environment that allows it to respond. So when our foot touches the ground, a sensation that the ground is there happens. In some way the brain processes and interprets that information.

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    Industrial Grade Linguist Copernicus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    it seems clear that subjective experience emerges from objective interactions in a running neural system.
    I hesitate to say much about subjective experience based on what philosophy has said. We need to open up the brain and understand the mechanics, then the mechanics are what can be said. It seems like a trivial point, but I think what I mentioned earlier about consciousness as something that happens is important.

    Classically we've phrased experience as something that happens to 'us', where I'd argue that it just happens. We're a material system that senses and responds to the environment. We don't experience, the body has an interface with the environment that allows it to respond. So when our foot touches the ground, a sensation that the ground is there happens. In some way the brain processes and interprets that information.
    I am thinking along the same lines that you are, but I disagree that we "don't experience". Of course we do, and we even have a name for what we do. That's exactly what the nervous system does for us. And I would stop just referring to "the brain". It is the entire nervous system, including the peripheral nervous system. Our ability to model reality and predict future events is entirely constructed out of experiences that we can reconstruct every time we remember something. Just "opening up" the brain isn't really going to help us solve the mind-body problem, and Nagel explained why, in my opinion.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    it seems clear that subjective experience emerges from objective interactions in a running neural system.
    I hesitate to say much about subjective experience based on what philosophy has said. We need to open up the brain and understand the mechanics, then the mechanics are what can be said. It seems like a trivial point, but I think what I mentioned earlier about consciousness as something that happens is important.

    Classically we've phrased experience as something that happens to 'us', where I'd argue that it just happens. We're a material system that senses and responds to the environment. We don't experience, the body has an interface with the environment that allows it to respond. So when our foot touches the ground, a sensation that the ground is there happens. In some way the brain processes and interprets that information.
    I am thinking along the same lines that you are, but I disagree that we "don't experience". Of course we do, and we even have a name for what we do. That's exactly what the nervous system does for us. And I would stop just referring to "the brain". It is the entire nervous system, including the peripheral nervous system. Our ability to model reality and predict future events is entirely constructed out of experiences that we can reconstruct every time we remember something. Just "opening up" the brain isn't really going to help us solve the mind-body problem, and Nagel explained why, in my opinion.
    My claim isn't that we don't experience, it's that there is no central experiencer. I think it's more accurate to say that the body 'senses' the environment by various means, and what is stored in memory is our 'experience'.

    IOW there is nothing called 'mind' that experiences. There is a body that senses. We imagine ourselves as a 'something' that senses, where in reality we're a body of disparate sensory organs that interact with the environment in conjunction with each other.

    I tried reading your article but had trouble really gleaning the central message. But overall I'm skeptical of the role of philosophy in understanding neuroscience. Certainly the brain is a physical system and in theory the phenomena it projects can be modeled. So until we have the means to model it I don't know what value there is in thinking or writing about it.

    Perhaps if you explained the paper it would help those that don't have the time to really commit to it.

    Sent from my SM-A520W using Tapatalk

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by rousseau View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Copernicus View Post
    it seems clear that subjective experience emerges from objective interactions in a running neural system.
    I hesitate to say much about subjective experience based on what philosophy has said. We need to open up the brain and understand the mechanics, then the mechanics are what can be said. It seems like a trivial point, but I think what I mentioned earlier about consciousness as something that happens is important.

    Classically we've phrased experience as something that happens to 'us', where I'd argue that it just happens. We're a material system that senses and responds to the environment. We don't experience, the body has an interface with the environment that allows it to respond. So when our foot touches the ground, a sensation that the ground is there happens. In some way the brain processes and interprets that information.
    I am thinking along the same lines that you are, but I disagree that we "don't experience". Of course we do, and we even have a name for what we do. That's exactly what the nervous system does for us. And I would stop just referring to "the brain". It is the entire nervous system, including the peripheral nervous system. Our ability to model reality and predict future events is entirely constructed out of experiences that we can reconstruct every time we remember something. Just "opening up" the brain isn't really going to help us solve the mind-body problem, and Nagel explained why, in my opinion.
    It's worse than that, Jim. There's the endocrine system to consider as well.

    It tends to get ignored, but it's much more complex than the nervous system, it's much more influential in many circumstances, and its effects tend to be systemic, while nervous system effects are more localised.

    If you ignore the endocrine system, you are ignoring a very large part of the question, and if you don't, you need to consider pretty much every cell in the body - including many that are not even human, or eukaryotic for that matter.

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