Incompatibility of Subjective and Objective KnowledgeIn his book The View From Nowhere (1986), Thomas Nagel discusses the various problems that arise when we consider the contrast between the objective world we inhabit, and are part of, and the inherently subjective way we view that world. Nagel writes that understanding the relationship between these external and internal standpoints is central to solving these problems: ‘It is the most fundamental issue about morality, knowledge, freedom, the self, and the relation of mind to the physical world’ (p.3). In this essay I will survey the problems that Nagel is referring to, and will echo Nagel’s view that this issue is of central importance within philosophy. However, I will also suggest that Nagel is wrong in his emphasis in dealing with the issue.
The opening words of the book make it clear that Nagel sees ultimately only a single problem: ‘how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included’. He then goes on to address the particular problems, each of which he sees as only an aspect of this single overall problem.
Problem 1: How can we account for the existence of subjective experience within an objective physical universe?
This problem is a modern version of the mind/body problem; i.e. what is the relationship between the mind and the body? Are they separate entities, or are they somehow different aspects of the same thing? The question was posed in Nagel’s 1974 essay ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ and has been somewhat revitalised recently in the guise of Chalmers’s ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995).
Nagel argues that although we may understand the way bats use sonar to perceive their world, to fly and catch insects, we will never know what it is like to be a bat using sonar, precisely because we are not bats. Our understanding of bat sonar can only be a physiological and functional account; we will only ever have a view of bat sonar from the outside. Imagine what sonar must feel like inside, to a bat! In the same way that there is something it is like for us to see the world using our eyes (i.e. colours, hue and depth in our visual field), surely there must also be something it is like for bats perceiving the world through sonar.