Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thomas Nagel and point of view

To: Chris E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Thomas Nagel and point of view
Date: 10 June 2005 12:44

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 2 June, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'Nagel and Point of View'.

This is undoubtedly a good essay, but yet I struggled with it. I suspect that this is not your fault but mine: that although writing quite a bit about Nagel I haven't tried sufficiently hard to understand his notion of an 'objective' account of the subjective qualities of experience, as a contribution to the philosophical debate around the mind-body problem. Perhaps I have been too quick to dismiss Nagel's idea as either facile or incoherent, without trying to work out exactly where the incoherence lies.

So this will be less a critique of your essay and more like a series of questions - which is not normally the way I work. But please bear with me. Do feel free to respond to the issues raised here.

As you indicate, there is a perfectly good sense in which we can talk, objectively, about how things are for others, subjectively. Novelists do this all the time. Indeed, the human mind is sufficiently agile to construct iterated intentional clauses. 'It seemed to Peter that Mary experienced Angela's discovery of John's doubts as...'.

But Nagel is after a much stranger animal. Intentional discourse points at the world through the subject. It talks of how things 'seem' to subjects, using the concepts which apply in a familiar way to those very things. 'As Mary looked across the bay, the fronts of the houses seemed orange in the setting sun.' What concerns Nagel is the 'seeming', as object, as an event in the world concerning which we can ask, What is it? How does it relate to other objects in the world? This is the problem which has given rise to a new concept, the 'quale'. Not only do the fronts of the houses *seem orange*. There was something in Mary's mind that *is orange*. Now the problem is explaining how Mary's quale of orange relates to things going on in her brain.

But Nagel does not espouse a qualia theory, having set his face against the 'alleged privacy of experience to its possessor'. So what is left? I honestly don't know. Nagel evidently thinks there is something, otherwise what is all the fuss about?

What is it to describe a point of view? As you say, it is to describe how things in the world appear from that point of view. 'The houses are orange.' From that statement, and from the truth of the statement, 'The houses are white', one can deduce that the first statement - taken in the way that it was intended - is a true description of a point of view, rather a false description of the houses across the bay.

We *can* examine points of view 'from the outside'. But all this amounts to is various ways of describing the world as it appears from that point of view, for which our familiar vocabulary for describing things is sufficient.

However, you say towards the end, 'If the subject qua subject can never be an object of another point of view, then it cannot be explained by reductionist theories.' This is the point where I suspect I've lost it.

We can talk about how things are for Mary. With a bit of imagination (contra Nagel), we can talk about - or make a pretty good stab at talking about - how things are for a bat. So we have a mode of discourse, a vocabulary which does pretty well in describing certain aspects of the world, viz. people and their experiences, and possibly bats and their experiences too. Then we have the growing body of knowledge of brains and nervous systems and how they work. Now it occurs to us that if these two kinds of knowledge are ultimately talking about the *same thing* then there ought to be a way of translating one form of discourse into another. As if there is some (very complicated) statement about things going on with brain cells which is equivalent to 'The houses seemed orange in the setting sun'. I can well understand Nagel's protest at that. But that is not a protest against materialism as such, only against reductionism.

Another clue is what you say about 'I'. What your examples show is that 'I' can never be identified with any given object of my perception. I can be here, and the 'object' gone, or it can change and become completely different from what it was before. 'I' is identified rather by its point of view. It doesn't follow, however, that this point of view can be located anywhere, or in any thing, even if it seems to me that I imagine that it can.

Then, right at the end of your essay, you seem to be saying something which I very much want to agree with. Whatever question we ask about the world, there is someone asking the question. I am asking the question. From my point of view, other human beings appear as part of the world. (I would argue that there is a powerful case for saying they must be more than this, but that would take us into ethics.) So in this sense, the 'knower' can never be reduced or done away with. But is that what you meant?

- I have a strong sense that I have missed something, which might be very obvious. If you have that sense too, please run the point by me again.

All the best,

Geoffrey