Posts for ‘The Argument’

A Point of View

In his essay What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel came up with a novel definition of consciousness: ‘…fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that is it like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism.’ This what-is-it-like state he equates with having a point of view.

The more I’ve thought about this notion and its ramifications, the more I’ve come to feel that it is one of the most fruitful insights of modern philosophy. The concept of point of view seems to touch upon most of the great philosophical preoccupations – the nature of mind, the existence of the soul, the meaning of right and wrong and good and evil, even that parody of metaphysical angst – the Meaning of Life. Most other philosophers don’t see it this way, I must admit. Even Nagel himself does not seem to appreciate the full implications of what he came up with.

What is it like to be a bat? was written in the context of a particular philosophical debate. Nagel’s aim was to give the subjective quality of experience an objective reality so that it couldn’t be talked out of existence by reductionists who believe that everything is, in principle, explicable using statements out of physics or chemistry or biology. Whether he succeeded in quite the way he intended is debatable but the point he made still serves as the basis for an effective challenge to reductionism.

Nagel’s take on point of view is a narrow one. The way we perceive things depends, to some degree at least, on our biology, in particular, the sensory apparatus of our species. Other species see things differently. A bat, his chosen example, has a sensory system based on echolocation. Its perception of the world is radically different from our own.  It is hard for us to even begin to imagine what it would be like to be a bat.  Thus, it is not enough to delineate the differences between the brain of a bat and the brain of a human being, as a materialist would do.  We also need to explain the difference in what it feels like to be those two different kinds of organism.  This is what is necessarily missing from reductionist accounts.

There are three linked ideas here. If something is conscious, then it has a point of view. If it has a point of view, then it makes sense to ask what it is like to be that something. These ideas become more powerful when we extend the notion of a point of view beyond the general, biological characteristics of a species to particular situations and to the experience of individuals. What is it like to discover gold? What is it like to drown? What would it have been like to be Tenzing Norgay on the top of Everest? Or Helen Keller graduating from Radcliffe College? What is it like to be me writing this or you reading it?

Point of view, in this way, is closely connected to our notion of empathy, which, in its turn, is central to our experience as social beings. Without empathy – the ability to appreciate how life, in general or in a particular situation, is for someone else – society as we know it is impossible. We would all be sociopaths in a world, like that envisaged by Thomas Hobbes, where life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Having a point of view is a necessary condition for empathy but it is not sufficient. I can make a stab at empathising with a bat – when it is trapped or in pain for example – but a bat does not empathise with me, despite its having a point of view. Empathy depends upon the ability to change one’s point of view in a particular way. I have to step out of my shoes and into someone else’s. I have to abandon the way I see things and try to see things your way, for example. This ability or the tendency to change perspective is a fundamental characteristic of human beings. I am pouring myself a cup of coffee and I suddenly notice the chrome dome of the lid of the coffee pot and it reminds me of something architectural or, maybe, the helmet of a suit of Asian armour and then I remember the story of Sohrab and Rustrum and then the place of Matthew Arnold in English Literature and… These shifts in consciousness are not just changes in subject matter, each brings with it a frame of reference, a set of feelings, a whole range of further possible associations. For any one point of view there are thousands, maybe an unlimited number, of other points of view that could follow it.    

And that, it seems to me, is at once our triumph and our tragedy.

A record crop of nectarines. If they survive.