What is it Like to be a Man?

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Somerset, NJ. Thomas Nagel’s article “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”1 is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of philosophical work completed in the last fifty years.  Taking issue with what he calls a “recent wave of reductionist euphoria,” Nagel insists that the phenomenon of conscious experience presents a far graver conceptual dilemma than such reductionist explanations account for.  Famously defining consciousness, or subjective experience, as “what it is like to be” an organism, he reminds us that nothing about this experiential realm is revealed to us in the physical operations of the organism; one could possess perfect knowledge concerning the neurophysiology of a bat, and yet still have no idea what it is like to be a bat. This renders all reductionist physical accounts of consciousness fatally incomplete, as they are bound to omit the very thing they are purporting to explain:

We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction.  In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things.  This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation….Experience itself, however, does not seem to fit the pattern….If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.

The impossibility of deriving a sufficient account of conscious experience from the application of scientific methodology – which is to the modern mind the instrument, par excellance, for understanding the nature of objective reality – is a conceptual impossibility.  We are not waiting for further research to provide us with the empirical data we lack in order to extricate ourselves from these perplexities.  No such data could remedy the impossibility of understanding the subjective in terms of the objective.

What is remarkable, then, is that Nagel ends his article by defending physicalism, even though “we do not have the beginnings of a conception of how it might be true,” and advocating a new sort of objective approach to conscious experience, an approach that seeks “a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right.”  To arrive at this conclusion, Nagel must stretch the resources of the language to an intolerable extent – suggesting the possibility of an “objective phenomenology” – and skirt dangerously near the absurd: “one might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see.”  And there remains an ambiguity in this conclusion as to whether or not Nagel believes that science could conceivably render an adequate account of conscious experience; his defense of physicalism would seem to suggest the affirmative, but not so his appeal to understanding the subjective in subjective terms (“understanding the mental in its own right”).

There is little ambiguity, however, among Nagel’s colleagues in academic philosophy about this matter.  A conviction in physicalism, and the possibility of science fully explaining conscious experience in the future, is extraordinarily widespread among contemporary philosophers, almost to the point of constituting a professional creed (though there are some notable exceptions).  Implicit in this position is the deeper conviction that for conscious experience to be truly understood – for anything to be truly understood – it must be understood scientifically, that to understand a thing in an essential way is to understand it scientifically.  Such an attitude is bound up with that common belief among modern philosophers, traceable to the logical positivists, that their discipline is merely an auxiliary to the more fundamental work of the sciences, a belief adequately summarized by Jerry Fodor as “the world picture that the natural sciences have a sort of priority…to which other discourse is required to defer insofar as it purports to speak literal truth.”2

Of course, such a “world picture” inevitably assigns to science the status of full and final truth.  If “physics is complete,” then the physical sciences must be – or at least, must be capable of becoming – the repository of our complete knowledge.  The frequent assertions offered by evolutionary biology and its partisans, that Darwin’s theory finally provides us with a full and satisfactory account of our origins could only be right if science itself could be capable of providing us with a full and satisfactory account of our origins, which is to say, if an explanation of the entirely mechanical features of nature exhausted everything there is to say about nature.  And that such an explanation does exhaust everything there is to say about nature is a matter of unshakeable conviction to a majority of academic philosophers.

If science offers a complete account of nature, then it must be able to offer a complete account of human conscious experience, since human conscious experience is a feature of nature.  It must be able to say something about what it is like to be a man.  Accordingly, for several decades, a relentless effort has been undertaken by those in the disciplines of cognitive science and philosophy of mind to conceptualize such an account – an explanation of the mental in terms of the purely physical.  The results of this endeavor are unambiguous – it has been a complete disaster.  One would be hard pressed to identify, in all of intellectual history, a philosophical detour more obstinately barren, more improgressive, more tangled up in empty verbiage, more devoid of genuine insight, more irrelevant to life as it is actually lived, than is to be discovered in contemporary philosophy of mind.  John Searle described the futile history of this materialist project as follows:

One sees this pattern over and over.  A materialist thesis is advanced.  But the thesis encounters difficulties; the difficulties take different forms, but they are always manifestations of an underlying deeper difficulty, namely, the thesis in question denies obvious facts that we all know about our own minds.  And this leads to ever more frenzied efforts to stick with the materialist thesis and try to defeat the arguments put forward by those who insist on preserving the facts.  After some years of desperate maneuvers to account for the difficulties, some new development is put forward that allegedly solves the difficulties, but then we find that it encounters new difficulties, only the new difficulties are not so new – they are really the same old difficulties.3

From token and type identity theories, to functionalism, to the intentional stance, to higher order theories, the materialists stumble from one version of sterile academese to another.4 When anyone attempts to point out to them the futility of their entire project, they simply toss off a few disdainful accusations of “mysterion” and “dualist,” and go on about their mission.  They repeatedly claim that even though no one can conceive of what a physicalist account of the mental would be like, yet still it must lie out there somewhere beyond the horizon of future research, a claim that reeks of charlatanism, and which inevitably calls to mind Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “a nothing will do just as well as a something about which we cannot speak.”  And nowhere, not in so much as a page of this literature, does one discover even the beginnings of an answer to the question, “what is it like to be a man?”  Such must be the consequences of stubbornly persisting in the attempt to square the circle, to explain the subjective wholly in terms of the objective.

It is as difficult to say what matter essentially is, as it is to say what mind essentially is.  It is as difficult to conceive of matter causing mental phenomena as it is to conceive of mental states causing physical behavior.  The reason why modern philosophers are stuck on the latter mysteries, and not the former, is not because these are intrinsically more perplexing, but because they constitute an impediment to the construction of the mechanical, scientistic account of nature which they so desperately want to construct.  Their primary interest in consciousness is not to understand it, but to reduce it, to demonstrate how purely objective explanations cover everything of genuine importance about human mental life.  This is why so little of the contemporary literature on consciousness has anything to say about what consciousness is – that is, what are the contents, the experience, of consciousness.  Their obsession with the mind-body problem is less about understanding the relationship between these two apparently irreconcilable domains, than it is about advancing their materialist dogmas by representing the mind as merely one more biological phenomenon.  The more one describes the subjective realm, the more specific one is about just what things – beliefs, desires, memories – are allegedly being reduced to physical causation, the more one realizes how outlandish such an enterprise must be.

No one should expect a final resolution of the metaphysical problem of universals, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others.  No one should expect a final resolution of the ethical problem of the justification of morality, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others.  Similarly, no one should expect a final resolution of the ontological problem of the mind-body relationship, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others (materialism falling distinctly among the others).  Watching professional philosophers of mind argue pompously for this or that picayune terminological distinction is a perfect object lesson in futility.  For the rest of us, the abiding and urgent question is the epistemological question – granted (as all sane persons do grant) that there is such a thing as human subjectivity, how is it that we understand this phenomena?  Putting aside all fruitless attempts to reduce the mental to the physical, how do we fathom the true nature of the mental, in and of itself?  How do we gain the knowledge necessary to satisfactorily answer the question, what is it like to be a man?

Let us try to take Nagel’s argument perhaps somewhat more seriously than he himself does seem to take it.  Let us abjure for all time the attempt to describe “the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”  Let us see such projects for the fantasies which they are.  Let us admit the conceptual impossibility of such a notion.  And let us attempt to understand consciousness in its own terms – to think about the subjective in terms of the subjective – and not consciousness as allegedly understood in objective terms, as reduced to matter, or as identified with physical processes.  Such an understanding begins with a recognition of the basic modes of conscious life – beliefs, and desires, and experiences, and memories, and reflections, and emotions, with all of their limitless and intense specificity.

No sooner do we recognize the contents of subjectivity than we recognize that our only access to that content, our only means for describing that content, and for asserting things about that content which can be weighed for truth or falsity, is through verbal assertions.  As Galileo claimed that nature spoke mathematically, we can say that the mental only speaks linguistically.  There are no mathematically-stated laws that are apposite to a memory or a desire.  Accordingly, any genuine form of insight regarding human subjective life will take the form of some verbal proposition; any discipline committed to pursuing such insights will take the form of a critical analysis of such propositions.  Any answer to the question, “what is it like to be a man?” will take the form of a linguistic description of memories, beliefs, etc., as they are really experienced, which is to say, with all of their individual specifications.

As soon as we delineate the necessary form which knowledge of man’s subjective life must take, the next question immediately presents itself to us: does such a form of knowledge exist?  And the answer rushes upon us just as quickly – of course it does:

How then too soon can hastiest death supplant

My fate-cursed life?  Her instrument, to my indignity,

Being that black fiend Contention, whom would to God might die

To gods and men, and Anger too, that kindles tyranny

In men most wise, being much more sweet than liquid honey is

To men of power to satiate their watchful enmities.

And like a pliant fume it spreads through all their breasts, as late

It stole stern passage thorough mine, which he did instigate

That is our general.5


I open myself to my family as much as I can, and very readily signify to them the state of my will and my judgment toward them, as toward everyone.  I hasten to bring myself out and put myself forth: I do not want people to be mistaken about me, whether for better or for worse..6


In the midst of the conflict, the Doge, a venerable and conspicuous form, stood aloft in complete armor on the prow of his galley.  The great standard of St. Mark was displayed before him; his threats, promises, and exhortations, urged the diligence of the rowers; his vessel was the first that struck, and Dandolo was the first warrior on the shore.  The nations admired the magnanimity of the blind old man, without reflecting that his age and infirmities diminished the price of life, and enhanced the value of immortal glory.7

Whatever else one wishes to say about these passages, they do each and every one constitute a true assertion about human mental life; they do each and every one satisfactorily answer the question, “what is it like to be a man?”  Therefore, the disciplines represented by each passage constitute real knowledge about human consciousness, not understood as a philosophical abstraction, but as it exists, full of content, with each and every one of us.  For as Daniel Robinson wrote,

The distinctive task pertains to what is distinctive about human life, which is not merely or primarily “subjective experience.”  What is distinctive about it is its amenability to rhetorical sources of motivation, to desires grounded in moral precepts, to forms of art and play, belief and conviction, and hopes and intuitions, by which “behavior” rises to the level of personal responsibility.8

Accordingly, the proper study of human subjectivity will be undertaken in the disciplines of rhetoric, ethics, aesthetics, literature, and history, which is just to say, in the humanities.  Because what defines a humanistic discipline is that it matches the form which knowledge of human subjectivity must take, consisting of irreducibly verbal descriptions of human beliefs, desires, memories, emotions, and their effects upon the world.  And since a human life is so essentially a history of conscious experience, it is to the humanities that we must turn for wisdom about ourselves; the sciences will have little to contribute to such an understanding.

Contemporary academic philosophy displays astonishingly little awareness of the tradition of western humanistic learning.  Read any contemporary philosopher purportedly dealing with the issue of human consciousness, and you will find a great many details about recent neurological research, genetic theory, or various psychological experiments.  You will find nary a reference to Sophocles or Samuel Johnson, and one cannot help concluding that the overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers are as little acquainted with these authors as the typical high school drop out.  One cannot help concluding that the overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers possess absolutely no comprehension of what sort of insight into human subjectivity is to be gained from a serious and prolonged program of humanistic study.  Consequently, they go on pursuing a knowledge of consciousness, quite as though such a thing has never existed before in the world.  It is as if a gang of academics pompously announced the advent of “philosophy of agriculture,” which would at last discover the true method of producing foodstuffs through the cultivation of seed and soil.

To be sure, the present condition of the humanities does little to justify the sort of claims I have made for it.  It is impossible to discern in the mess which is deconstruction and multiculturism any kind of understanding, let alone the profound and fundamental understanding I am attributing to the humanities generally.  There are a variety of causes for this catastrophic state of affairs, which it would be impossible to explain satisfactorily here, although I will state that one of the prime causes has been the long subjection of humanistic learning to several pseudo-scientific dogmas (namely, Marxism and Freudianism), with the attendant pretense – the same pretense maintained by today’s philosopher of mind – of understanding human mentality in objective terms.  It will suffice to say that at the root of the malaise in contemporary humanistic disciplines is an antagonism and revulsion to the tradition of western humanism, which has finally resulted in a broad ignorance of that tradition.  That just is to say that the cause of the incoherence in the humanities generally is the same cause of the incoherence in the specific field of philosophy of mind – an ignorance of the tradition of western humanism.  And the remedy for both is the same: a sincere return to that tradition.

At any rate, it is a matter of pure modern prejudice to regard the work of a Gibbon or a Montaigne as somehow “less true” than other forms of knowledge, simply because it is not subject to scientific verification. After all, the wisdom concerning human life that is to be found in, say, a canto of Dante or a chapter of Tolstoy exceeds the collective insight of all the modern philosophers of mind, by a factor of about six or seven trillion.  It is to the old classics we must turn if we wish to possess a genuine comprehension of human subjective life, which is human life itself.

It is Shakespeare and Plato, and not Dennett and Pinker, who will teach us the essential facts about our human estate.  We must finally confess that the sort of knowledge we have been pretending to pursue was once abundant in the western world; we have squandered that inheritance for too long, and so now we ignorantly go about searching for a wisdom that our forbears once held as a common possession.  We must now make the one admission that the modern mind finds so impossible to make: we must admit that our predecessors knew vastly more than we do.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.  He currently serves as Contributing Editor for The New English Review.


[1] Nagel, Thomas  “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” in The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

[2] Fodor, Jerry In Critical Condition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 3.

[3] Searle, John.  The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 30.

[4] A critical examination of this sordid history can be found in Daniel N. Robinson’s Consciousness and Mental Life (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008).

[5] Homer, The Iliad (Chapman Translation), Book 18, lines 97-106.

[6] Montaigne, Michel de, “Of the Affection of Fathers for their Children” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1958), 288.

[7] Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol VI. (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 682.

[8] Robinson, 207-108.

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