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Some aspects of reality unknowable in principle?

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AshRyan, I knew what you meant but strictly speaking, a bat's awareness is neither "subjective" nor "objective." Those terms are only applicable to a volitional consciousness. Think of a bat's awareness as the metaphysically-given.

You're absolutely right. Thanks for the correction.

What I was trying to get at was the form/object distinction--even if we experience reality in a different form than a bat (or another person), that does not change the fact that we can have all the same knowledge of the same objects in reality--but I guess for some reason I was trying to avoid the Objectivist jargon.

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Bowser and Ash, you should both read Nagel's What is it like to be a bat? and Sloman's What is it like to be a rock?

Both articles lend a lot of good analysis to this discussion. Sloman's is one of the best discussions of this problem that I've seen.

Also, both of them say a lot of the same things that you guys are saying. It's just that rationalists of all varieties like to sieze on the "what is it like to be" question with glee, in ways that are clearly not what Nagel was getting at. That's actually what the Sloman article is all about - rationalists thinking that the words like "consciousness" and "phenomenology" can still have meaning after they've been stripped of definitions and placement in the heirarchy of concepts.

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I'm quite familiar with those articles as well as the debates by academics surrounding them. I have always thought them to be ridiculous.

There is nothing in common between those articles and my argument.

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My own belief is that much discussion of consciousness is based on a highly inflated conception of the clarity of the questions being posed, and the objective of this paper is to deflate such discussions.
I have always thought them to be ridiculous.
You and Sloman have similar opinions of the debates by academics surrounding Nagel's article. He simply provides much more analysis of the situation, and doesn't set up a strawman to criticize Nagel.

More importantly, this does not mean that some things in reality are inherently unknowable. On the contrary, to even speak of such a thing a contradiction (to speak of them you must at least first know of them).
There's a big difference between knowing OF something and knowing ABOUT it. I know OF performing open-heart surgery. But I know quite a bit less ABOUT it than a doctor. We can speak of things that we know OF without knowing much of anything ABOUT them.
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... and doesn't set up a strawman ...

There's a big difference between knowing OF something and knowing ABOUT it. I know OF performing open-heart surgery. But I know quite a bit less ABOUT it than a doctor. We can speak of things that we know OF without knowing much of anything ABOUT them.

And there is a big difference between the unknown -- some tangible thing of which we currently have no knowledge -- and the unknowable -- some tangible thing which, by its very nature, cannot be known.

Bowser argued against the latter, not the former. You should be careful of accusing others of making straw man arguments, especially when you make one of your own.

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You and Sloman have similar opinions of the debates by academics surrounding Nagel's article.  contradiction (to speak of them you must at least first know of them).

I should have clarified...I think they are ridiculously wrong not just ridiculous.

There's a big difference between knowing OF something and knowing ABOUT it.  I know OF performing open-heart surgery.  But I know quite a bit less ABOUT it than a doctor.  We can speak of things that we know OF without knowing much of anything ABOUT them.

I also disagree that you can know OF something without knowing ABOUT it. That is a meaningless distinction but I'm not even going to get into why it is meaningless since that would take us into Objectivist epistemology and you have demonstrated that you have no knowledge OF Objectivist epistemology nor do you care to learn ABOUT it.

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I've read the Nagel article. I might check out the Sloman article if I have the time, but to be honest it's not high on my list of priorities (especially given the ridiculous title).

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Re: Of/about...

Knowing of something doesn't necessarily imply that you know much of anything about it, except that it exists. I.e., if someone says, "I have to go to the store to pick up a pack of gahoozits," then all you really know about gahoozits is:

1. They are things that exist.

2. They can be acquired at stores.

3. They come in packs.

That isn't much.

Learning that cars exist doesn't make you an automotive engineer, or even tell you what they are. It does tell you that they have some properties - i.e., that there is an "about" to learn - but it does not tell you what those properties are.

Do you really disagree with me on this? Come on. I mean, the distinction between existence and identity is practically the introduction to Galt's speech.

you have demonstrated that you have no knowledge OF Objectivist epistemology nor do you care to learn ABOUT it.
That's an ad hominem fallacy, and you know it. If you have a personal problem with me, you can PM or email me, and I'll be happy to ignore you. Please don't clutter up the board with this tripe.
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I've been skimming this topic, so I may have missed something, but I'll try to add my own thoughts.

Knowledge is hierarchically dependent on consciousness. Consciousness, in all cases and for humans in particular, is of a certain nature. The consciousness of a bat is of a different nature than that of humans. By asking "What is it like to be a bat?" you're asking a human consciousness to pretend that it's a bat consciousness. It cannot do so. A is A. The question is detatched from the possibility of thought, detached from reason, detached from consciousness. It doesn't fall into the realm of knowledge. In short, it is arbitrary.

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If you have a personal problem with me, you can PM or email me, and I'll be happy to ignore you.  Please don't clutter up the board with this tripe.

I don't get personal about online BBS's. What I do have a problem with are people who come to an Objectivist discussion area with no intentions at all of learning or discussing the philosophy. I have already asked you if you come here to learn Objectivism or not and you still have not replied.

Please feel free to ingore me. I will not, however, idly stand by when posts are made that are, intentionally or not, animous towards the philosophy that this BBS stands for. I would not have such a problem with it if you at least expressed interest in learning the Objectivist position on these topics and you consistently do not express such an interest.

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By asking "What is it like to be a bat?" you're asking a human consciousness to pretend that it's a bat consciousness.  It cannot do so.

And, interestingly, there is a flip-side to this. Note that many who have a problem with abortion pretend that the fetus is a small person with a consciousness just like their own. It is not.

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many who have a problem with abortion pretend that the fetus is a small person with a consciousness just like their own.

Conversely, the fundie consciousness may very well be <light-hearted>just like</light-hearted> that of a fetus.

By asking "What is it like to be a bat?" you're asking a human consciousness to pretend that it's a bat consciousness.

All that's required is for the human to stop thinking conceptually, for his consciousness to reduce itself to the perceptual-level. But then, the question is moot - since such questions can only be asked by a conceptual-level consciousness.

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i would say to the questions are some aspects of reality unknowable, with all due respect, is nonsensical. how can one even discuss that which is unknowable. and if it is unknowable, how would we ever know that it is unknowable and if we know the unknowable, then we were wrong, it wasn't unknowable.

sv watson

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Absolutely not.  What he is describing is not an "objective part of reality," but by definition a "subjective" experience!  If my goal is to know objective reality, then what bearing does my inability to experience the world from a bat's (or another human beings, for that matter!) perspective have on that goal?  None whatsoever.

I agree with this statement, but I am confused. I am thinking of a term that is presently without a word in my mind but its defintion would be: The sum of all that is objective reality and the sum of all subjective experiences from whatever source, past, present, and future. Defined this way, subjective experiences of another are unknowable (I.e- perceiving through something/someone elses sense organs for example). I believe this is the concept he was trying to communicate. I agree that this is irrelevant to understanding objective reality and has absolutely nothing to do with being human, but I also agree that it is an unknowable experience to a human consciousness, but a bat with this sensory experience does exist in objective reality.

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Stephen, I disagree.

There is a "something it's like to be a bat", and it's very much "out there."  The bat exists.  The bat is experiencing.  That experience has identity, it is the sum of its attributes.  Therefore, "what it's like to be a bat" is every bit as real as "the way that red looks."

The experience of being a bat would be unknowable to anyone who is not a bat.  You might be able to get a good idea of what it's like to be a chimp by increasing or decreasing the degree of the things that we know about what its like to be human.  Of course, it would only be speculation, but you could probably make a pretty good guess.  I can imagine what i'ts like to be a super-strong hairy badly behaved retarded 2 year old with great climbing skills.  The very fact that we can even formulate meaningful words for it is a good exposition of the fact that it is at least conceivable.

However, bats have a sensory aparatus that we do not.  Perhaps a man with sight can imagine being blind, but a man who has always been completely blind could not begin to know sight.

As concepts are formed from sensory/perceptual experience, and our words are developed as part of concept formation, it is impossible to truly have a grasp of a concept that cannot in any way shape or form be reduced to perceptual reality.  Having a bat's sonar ability would be akin to having another, radically different, set of eyes.  You can't truly imagine what it's like without experiencing it.

Of course the analogy breaks down when you stop to consider that in some cases, people who are blind actually HAVE been able to develop a very rudimentary sonar ability, by clicking their tongues and training themselves to hear and interpret the echo.  Perhaps they can know something of what it's like to be a bat, but I certainly can't.  And there aren't words to explain it to me.

So, before you can say that something is "unknowable in principle," you must specify, "unknowable to whom?"  What it's like to be a bat is unknowable to me.  But bats certainly know it, on some level.  (I doubt they're very self-conscious, and they probably don't have words for it! :confused: )  Perhaps some humans have a bit of a clue what it's like.  But I never will.

Lastly, there is no "what it's like to be a rock."  Rocks do not "experience."  You could only properly say that there's a "what it's like to be" entities that are conscious on some level.

Isaac Z. Schlueter

http://isaac.beigetower.org

[EDIT]

By the way, this is a reference to Thomas Nagel's essay, What is it like to be a bat?  I suggest reading that article to get a good understanding of the problem that we're discussing.

Exactly what I was going to say. now I don't have to type it out, hahah.

Agreed.

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I agree with this statement, but I am confused.  I am thinking of a term that is presently without a word in my mind but its defintion would be:  The sum of all that is objective reality and the sum of all subjective experiences from whatever source, past, present, and future.  Defined this way, subjective experiences of another are unknowable (I.e- perceiving through something/someone elses sense organs for example). I believe this is the concept he was trying to communicate.  I agree that this is irrelevant to understanding objective reality and has absolutely nothing to do with being human, but I also agree that it is an unknowable experience to a human consciousness, but a bat with this sensory experience does exist in objective reality.

Dammit! I had just finished typing out a response to this, when the computer I'm on froze up before I could post it and I lost it. I hate it when that happens!

But basically, did you read my following post to the one you've quoted, where I clarify it since someone pointed out to me the inexactness of the term "subjective" in this context? That's why I put "subjective" in quotations (perhaps it would have been better if I'd hyphenated it, "subject-ive," a la Railton), but the real key to understanding this point is the Objectivist distinction between form and object. Keeping that in mind, I think that the concept for which you're trying to find a term would be a package-deal, an attempt to combine two essentially different (in this context) elements. Those of you who still think there's anything to the Nagellian claim should make sure you understand that distinction.

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DAC: “I am thinking of a term that is presently without a word in my mind but its definition would be: The sum of all that is objective reality and the sum of all subjective experiences from whatever source, past, present, and future. Defined this way, subjective experiences of another are unknowable…”

Hi Dac,

I would have thought the term you are looking for is ‘existence’, that is, all that which exists. Or perhaps it might be ‘non-human reality’. Whatever the case, it seems pretty clear that there are some aspects of reality that are beyond our understanding. In order to know what it’s like to be a bat, one would have to be a bat.

But I don’t see that as any cause for concern. The very fact that we can speculate in this way is a source of epistemological strength, in that it is a testament to human creativity, as well as a recognition of our epistemological limits.

Knowing the boundaries of our understanding saves us from spending vital reasoning time in idle, if fascinating, speculation.

E

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My point was to show that some aspects of reality cannot be known (I.e.- perceiving through another's sense organs, and experienceing reality as they experience it), but that this has no bearing on objective reality or our understanding of it. Some things are unknowable... and this is not a threat to objectivism. Because the things that are unknowable have no bearing on my life, or how I live it. Paraphrasing my original post:

...I agree that this is irrelevant to understanding objective reality and has absolutely nothing to do with being human, but I also agree that it is an unknowable experience to a human consciousness, but a bat with this sensory experience does exist in objective reality...

Maybe 'existence' would have been a better choice over 'reality'...

But I don’t see that as any cause for concern. The very fact that we can speculate in this way is a source of epistemological strength, in that it is a testament to human creativity, as well as a recognition of our epistemological limits.

Knowing the boundaries of our understanding saves us from spending vital reasoning time in idle, if fascinating, speculation

I agree.

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There's equivocation on the what "know" means here. We cannot experience what the bat experiences--we cannot have the bat's awareness. But we can know what it's like to be a bat, indirectly.

We don't experience what other people experience, either, but we know they have faculties of awareness similar or identical to our own, indirectly.

We have a sensory faculty to directly experience magnetic forces, either, but we know about magnetism, indirectly.

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My point was to show that some aspects of reality cannot be known (I.e.- perceiving through another's sense organs, and experienceing reality as they experience it), but that this has no bearing on objective reality or our understanding of it.  Some things are unknowable... and this is not a threat to objectivism.  Because the things that are unknowable have no bearing on my life, or how I live it.

You are confusing the notion of the "unknowable" with something else, and you also make an unwarranted assumption.

The notion of "unknowable" means "that which, by its nature, cannot be known." [**] To claim, as you do, that something cannot be experienced ("perceiving through another's sense organs, and experienceing reality as they experience it") is not the same claim as the unknowable. You can know (learn) about the sense organs of a bat without experiencing those sense organs directly. Knowledge and experience are not the same things, and the concept of the "unknowable" pertains to the former, not the latter.

But, regardless, your conclusion that "perceiving through another's sense organs ..." cannot be done, is itself completely unwarranted. There is nothing inherent in the nature of reality which would contradict such a possibility. You would have to be omniscient to claim that, for all time and under all circumstances, that it is not possible.

The fact of the matter is, we already have evidence that such a thing is possible. A while ago I reported on an experiment in which a group was able to reconstruct visual scenes directly from the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of a cat's brain. The LGN is an area of the thalamus (a middle brain structure) where the optic nerve fibers terminate. The neurons in the LGN send their axons (nerve cell processes which conduct impulses) directly to the visual cortex.

A large group of neurons were decoded to reconstruct a visual scene, in effect, seeing what the cat sees. In the examples shown in the paper, you can clearly see a time sequence comparison of the reconstructed image of a face, trees, etc. with the original movie frames. You are seeing through the cat's senses, albeit indirectly.

Now, this example is not exactly "perceiving through another's sense organs, and experienceing reality as they experience it," but it is not that far from it. If we can accomplish this part now, how can you say that in the future we will not be able to do much more and accomplish what you arbitrarily think to be impossible?

[**] The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 3, January, 1968.

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I am thinking of a term that is presently without a word in my mind but its defintion would be:  The sum of all that is objective reality and the sum of all subjective experiences from whatever source, past, present, and future.  Defined this way, subjective experiences of another are unknowable (I.e- perceiving through something/someone elses sense organs for example).

It seems to me the problem here stems from talking about "knowing experiences". I have experiences, and if I were in cognitive scientist mode I might (wish to) know the cause and consequence of a particular experience, but I don't know what it would mean for me to "know" my own experiences, much less that of a bat.

You can know that the object which the bat detects is a moth: but the bat does not know that it detects a moth (because bats don't know anything). You can know how they detect the moth (sonar) and eventually may know the auditory-neural mechanisms that enable the bat to detect a moth. Eventually you may even be able to directly experience something akin to what the bat experiences; but you of course you cannot experience it as a bat and "know" that experience, because you'd have to be a bat, and bats do not know (and you're not a bat).

Dave Odden

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Mattbateman: “There's equivocation on the what "know" means here. We cannot experience what the bat experiences--we cannot have the bat's awareness. But we can know what it's like to be a bat, indirectly.”

Good point. I think it was Russell who distinguished between ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ and ‘knowledge by description’. What we know about bats would fall into the latter category. But the former is by definition unknowable, at least as far as our current knowledge is concerned.

This subject also raises the issue of identity. If the concept ‘bat’ subsumes all the real-life attributes of bats, the experience ‘being a bat’ would have to include all those attributes. But in that case, ‘being a bat’ would have to be identical with being a bat, and for non-bats this would be impossible.

Human beings can of course imagine what it might like to be a bat. That is their epistemological glory. “To the Batmobile, Robin!”

E

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As with most questions that come from modern philosophy, Nagel's question (the one that started this thread) is arbitrary (earlier I pointed out why this question is arbitrary).

The proper response to the arbitrary is to just dismiss it outright:

The answer to all such statements, according to Objectivism, is: an arbitrary claim is automatically invalidated. The rational response to such a claim is to dismiss it, without discussion, consideration, or argument.

Once you accept that "What is it like to be a bat?" is an actual thought with cognitive content, then you have sacrificed all objectivity. This thread should be a lot shorter than it is. :D

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