Philosopher Thomas Nagel is well known for rejecting the idea that science can explain all aspects of the human condition, a view expounded in his influential paper “What is it like to be a bat?”, and recently in a book trying to overturn materialist Darwinism as an inadequate explanation of life (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False). Nagel sums up his argument in the New York Times:
… it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well …
However, I believe this possibility is ruled out … The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves … but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience — how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.
So the physical sciences, in spite of their extraordinary success in their own domain, necessarily leave an important aspect of nature unexplained.
Let’s clarify what the materialist account of a “subjective experience” is. The brain is a network of neurons, connected to each other by dendrites and synapses. Electrical and chemical signals flow through the network in complex patterns. Those patterns are our thoughts. Our thinking and deliberation and decision-making are patterns of electrical firing flitting around our neural-network brain. A particular thought, a particular sensation, or a particular subjective experience, are all particular patterns of electrical firing.
Nagel is asserting that we can understand every physical aspect of this phenomenon, having a complete knowledge of the network and the electrical signals, and yet not understand “the subjective essence of the experience”, and thus not understand what it is like to be a bat. From there he rejects materialism as incomplete, and goes on to reject any materialist account of life.
My reply is, yes, Nagel is right, indeed we cannot always appreciate the subjective essence of an experience, but that is not a limitation of materialism and not a limitation of materialist science. Continue reading