TOM NAGEL'S ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ANNUAL LECTURE,
CONCEIVING THE IMPOSSIBLE AND THE MIND-BODY PROBLEM,
An Introduction by Ted Honderich
Tom Nagel was born in Serbia into a Jewish family, studied at Cornell University, then Oxford, and then at Harvard under John Rawls. He taught at Berkeley and Princeton before settling at New York University. He was chosen as the first of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecturers after he became widely known 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 of the 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, perhaps more than any other contribution, raises or involves 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 persistently contemplates in the present lecture is the philosophical and scientific consensus, if a conflicted consensus, that 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, say something seen and arm movements?
Nagel allows that indeed there is causal connection between conscious states or events and such resulting physical events as arm movements, which is often taken as an irresistible argument for a physicalism about consciousness. Nagel contemplates, differently, that there is some or necessary connection between your conscious thinking and your brain. There could not be a zombie – something physically absolutely identical to you but unconscious.
But he denies that we understand such a relation, understand how there can be such a relation of necessity. We cannot make sense of how there can be necessary connection between consciousness and brain. That is on the way to being as incomprehensible for us as the thought or utterance that the number 379 has parents. For the thought of necessary connection between consciousness and brain, we need concepts we just have not got, including concepts dealing with our hesitation about consciousness even being in space at all.
He insists to real effect that 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. So 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.
Nagel’s four 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, 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, whose audacity has given rise to some controversy about evolution. His moral and political writings, as individual, 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 indeed can it cause the objective physical fact of the movement of your arm? If there are different kinds of physicality, what are they? Can it be that our present situation with respect to consciousness is not that we really know a requirement of which we also know that is not fulfilled -- but that it is not really clear what the requirement of necessary connection is, a requirement of which Nagel speaks in various ways, and that it will not be clear until it is fulfilled, until an analysis is seen to show what was needed all along?