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Some aspects of reality unknowable in principle?

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Bowzer: “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.”

Isn’t the very existence of this thread proof that "What is it like to be a bat?" is an actual thought, or more accurately, a proposition? As to whether or not this proposition has cognitive content, one can make some statements about the apparent consciousness of bats; for example that it exists, has identity and that humans can discover something about the nature of bat consciousness.

And if objectivity is the recognition of reality as the ultimate standard of evaluation, that all knowledge is about reality, it’s hard to see how speculation about the consciousness of bats would sacrifice objectivity. It could just as well be argued that such speculation increases our knowledge of reality, via the development of sonar instruments etc.

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Suppose I started a thread with the proposition, "There is a pink flying unicorn in my backyard, but it's only visible to me." You would immediately see the merit of Bowzer's point, assuming he says the same thing in that thread. And aside from some posts containing only the word "Arbitrary" repeated hundreds of times, the thread would be very short. There is no knowledge to be gained from evaluating the truth or falsehood of my statement, nor of speculating on the physical properties of the unicorn. There is only the sacrifice of objectivity to be gained. And there is no argument on that point.

The bat question is also contradictory. It is, in effect, "Suppose a conceptual consciousness could reduce itself to the sense-perceptual level yet remain conceptually aware of itself." As such, it is impossible to evaluate it (just as if it were arbitrary).

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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).

Surely "what is it like to be a bat' was intended as a thought experiment, not as an actual question to be answered literally. I doubt Nagel was actually concerned with what a bat experienced - I think he was using the analogy to highlight the apparently ignored difference between what a living entity 'actually' experiences, and a purely behaviouristic description of that entity's experience in terms of observable space-time events. In this sense, it seems intended as an attack on the reductionist view that mental states can be completely reduced to measurable empirical phenomenon. Your dismissal of it as being 'arbitrary' seems to be missing the point; there certainly seems to be something meaningful which the question serves to highlight.

If you think that the 'bat' question seems too far-fetched even as a thought experiment, then ignore it and concentrate on the 'intelligent, rational aliens' paragraph, which seems to be making the same point in a perhaps more sensible manner:

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong, to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately, its subjective character is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us. The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature. And to deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.
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Feldblum: “Suppose a conceptual consciousness could reduce itself to the sense-perceptual level yet remain conceptually aware of itself." As such, it is impossible to evaluate it (just as if it were arbitrary).”

Sure, if you assume that bat consciousness necessarily involves self-consciousness. But there’s no reason to suppose that all consciousness includes self-consciousness. Some conscious beings may not be able to reflect on their own consciousness. Yet they are conscious. They would have to be, in order to make their way in the world.

Humans do have the ability to reflect in this way. That’s why we can speculate on the inner life of bats. In claiming that it is impossible to evaluate this inner life, you are conceding the substantive point that some aspects of reality are unknowable in principle. Keeping in mind my previous distinction between different ways of knowing, we appear to be pretty much in agreement.

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Isn’t the very existence of this thread proof that "What is it like to be a bat?" is an actual thought, or more accurately, a proposition?

No, it isn't a prposition at all. No knowledge can render it true, and no knowledge can render it false. For it to actually have a truth value, it would have to be an assertion, not a question. This does not mean that questions are automatically invalid; but the counterpart of invalidity for questions is where the question cannot reasonably result in a true or false statement.

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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.

I agree entirely with Matt's post.

The point is, we can know what it's like to be a bat. We just can't know it in the same form as the bat. But to demand that we be able to know it in the same form is just a variation of the skeptical demand that a particular consciousness not have a particular nature--i.e., it is a demand that consciousness have no identity of its own. That is of course an invalid demand, and it is an attempt to rewrite reality. Nagel's question amounts to nothing more than that, and should be dismissed as such.

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I agree entirely with Matt's post.

The point is, we can know what it's like to be a bat.  We just can't know it in the same form as the bat.  But to demand that we be able to know it in the same form is just a variation of the skeptical demand that a particular consciousness not have a particular nature--i.e., it is a demand that consciousness have no identity of its own.  That is of course an invalid demand, and it is an attempt to rewrite reality.  Nagel's question amounts to nothing more than that, and should be dismissed as such.

While it is a nonsense to use the fundamental inexperiencability of life 'through the eyes of another' as part of a general attack on human knowledge, this does not mean that we should dismiss the notion that other things _are_ having experiences in a way that is inaccessible to us just by observing their actions from our own perspective. Would you agree that what is experienced by the bat is fundamentally different from anything that we could describe by observing it, and learning about its actions?

To take a more relevant example, and one which will perhaps soon have real-world implications, consider the question of a computer (or robot, if you prefer) which could 'simulate' the behavior of a conscious human mind in every way. The behaviorist would claim that the fact that this computer is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human (in terms of passing Turing tests, and any other test you might want to invent) is enough for us to say that it is conscious. Nagel's point would be that we could not make this claim simply from the observation of its actions; there will always exist a 'what is it like to be a computer' that we cant answer - ie we can never really know if a given computer (or robot) is actually conscious, since we have no way of experiencing the world 'from its perspective' (or even knowing if it actually _has_ a perspective). The keypoint is there is a significant difference between actually 'having' experiences from the point of view of the experiencer, and the observence of these experiences from a neutral third person P.O.V, and this difference is often ignored in contemporary cognitive science/philosophy of mind (cf Turing Tests). It is certainly possible to recognise this difference without committing oneself to the Kantian view that all knowledge being contextual invalidates the possibility of ever obtaining 'true' 'objective' knowledge (which would somehow be gained withuot the use of consciousness or experience)

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Consciousness is defined ostensively. One does not defend the existence of consciousness by pointing to other conscious beings and flatly asserting that there is something more going on than just what the thing does. Yes, most academics deny the existence of consciousness in one way or another but Nagel's question is not a defense of consciousness. If this is what Nagel attempted to do in posing that question (and I think it is), then it is absurd.

Consciousness is not an explanatory postulate. It is a self-evident fact. Nagel's question--whether well intentioned or not--attempts to bypass one of the most fundamental axioms of all knowledge. I don't see how anyone can give it one shred of legitimacy.

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Consciousness is defined ostensively. One does not defend the existence of consciousness by pointing to other conscious beings and flatly asserting that there is something more going on than just what the thing does. Yes, most academics deny the existence of consciousness in one way or another but Nagel's question is not a defense of consciousness. If this is what Nagel attempted to do in posing that question (and I think it is), then it is absurd.

Noone is debating the existence of consciousness here. The meaning of the word 'consciousness' is defined ostensively to refer to that which you experience 'internally' (as you said), the existence of your own consciousness is self-evident, and the consciousness of other humans is deduced logically from the fact that they physically resemble you and act in a way similar to how you would act. The denial of any of this is fairly irrational.

The problem arises when the claim is made that something non-human, such as a computer (or a bat), is conscious. In this case, what you have is something that appears to act in exactly the same way as we would expect a human to act yet we know that it is not human. Behaviorists claim that since there is no way for us to empirically measure what an entity such as a robot 'actually' experiences in the subjective first person sense (if anything), we should treat something 'being' conscious and something 'behaving' as we would expect a conscious entity to act, as being identical. In other words, the idea of the consciousness of other beings (ie not your own consciousness, which you experience directly and can hence verify yourself) should be described in purely measurable empirical terms, since we lack the ability to move beyond these. Any attempt to posit that a being other than yourself 'is actually' conscious rather than just behaving consciously is meaningless, since we could never tell these apart (according to the behaviorist).

Consider a robot in star trek or whatever that acts exactly like a human, in every measurable way. Now, there seems to be a question of whether this robot 'actually is' conscious and has first person experiences in the way we do, or whether it is just a complex non-selfaware machine that is mindlessly processing data to simulate human behavior. The behaviorist would deny that this is a valid question to ask, since the two alternatives are functionally identical, and no experiment could tell them apart. Nagel's point (as I read him) is that there _is_ a very significant difference between the two possibilities, even if we lack the ability to ever differentiate between them.

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This does not mean that we should dismiss the notion that other things _are_ having experiences in a way that is inaccessible to us just by observing their actions from our own perspective. Would you agree that what is experienced by the bat is fundamentally different from anything that we could describe by observing it, and learning about its actions?

I'd agree to something even stronger: I cannot access the experiences of my twin brother just by observing his actions. What is experienced by my twin is different from what is experienced by me, even under the exact same conditions. That's a fundamental difference. Comparing conceptual knowledge and experiences, even experiences of other humans, is even more fundamental, so unsurprisingly you'll get a higher degree of fundamentalism in the difference between what a human experiences and what a bat experiences.

Saying that someone "knows what it's like to be deaf" does not mean that they are deaf. It mean like, as in "approximately". By observing bat-facts closely enough, we may be able to devise an apparatus that simulates what the bat experiences, giving us something like what the bat experiences, even though it is not identical to what the bat experiences. For a less sci-fi analog, you can experience what it's like, visually, to be exposed to about 60 years of high-density ultra-violet B, using certain somewhat brownish lenses. Like, but not the same as.

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Saying that someone "knows what it's like to be deaf" does not mean that they are deaf. It mean like, as in "approximately". By observing bat-facts closely enough, we may be able to devise an apparatus that simulates what the bat experiences, giving us something like what the bat experiences, even though it is not identical to what the bat experiences. For a less sci-fi analog, you can experience what it's like, visually, to be exposed to about 60 years of high-density ultra-violet B, using certain somewhat brownish lenses. Like, but not the same as.

I agree with you completely, and I suspect that Nagel would too. Bear in mind however that this is not the position he is arguing against - his target is the positivist-inspired crew who claim that there is no meaningful difference whatsoever between being deaf as it is described in observational terms like you mention, and what a deaf person 'actually experiences'. According to several proponents of this view, any statement which cannot be reduced to observational terms is inherantly meaningless, and thus talking about the 'actual experience' of a deaf person beyond that which your apparatus could measure would be 'metaphysical nonsense' which has no place in science. This is what (I think) Nagel is taking exception to, rather than claiming that our inability to experience a bat's world in non-observational terms somehow constitutes a hole in our knowledge.

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[Nagle's] target is the positivist-inspired crew who claim that there is no meaningful difference whatsoever between being deaf as it is described in observational terms like you mention, and what a deaf person 'actually experiences'. According to several proponents of this view, any statement which cannot be reduced to observational terms is inherantly meaningless, and thus talking about the 'actual experience' of a deaf person beyond that which your apparatus could measure would be 'metaphysical nonsense' which has no place in science.

In other words, they demand, not just that you start, but that you stay on the perceptual level. They rule out conceptual thought.

Once you abandon concepts, there is no way to distinguish conscious entities from non-conscious entities -- or to distinguish anything from anything else at all.

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In other words, they demand, not just that you start, but that you stay on the perceptual level.  They rule out conceptual thought.

Yes, exactly. Some would claim that they arent so much throwing out concepts, as they are advocating that all concepts must be reducible to percepts, but in practice I believe this works out to be the same thing. I'm certainly not advocating the positivist position, I was just outlining it because I think that is what Nagel's paper was attacking, and thus it helps to put it into context.

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Perhaps calling this a "margin of error" is misleading.  Really, it's simply a limit to the capability of human vision.  But our senses do not have to be infinitely capable of discerning everything in order to be trustworthy.  That would be the Kantian argument.  "Our eyes have limits.  Therefore, we're not seeing reality, but just reality 'filtered' through our senses."  It's an invalid argument, because it demands infinite precision and accuracy in order to grant trustworthiness.  And that's ridiculous.

SHAZAM! That's a key point to be made here.

All forms of perception, anywhere in the universe, natural or artificial, are of finite *resolution*, which can be described as measuring ability. The terms, or *units* of resolution (not to be confused with units of a concept) change with regards to the sensory apparatus in question. Trying to resolve something in reality that is smaller than the limit imposed by the size of your smallest unit of measurement (for the eye, the individual light-sensing cells of the retina) is just guesswork, but that does not in any way invalidate the information that *is* resolved.

I was not misled by the term "margin for error", as that idea is definitely related to resolution; "margin for error" is simply the biggest thing that the perceptual mechanism in question cannot resolve. When discussed in context of purpose, that is usually specified as an "error tolerance".

(By way of sidebar, this basic idea is embodied in the Nyquist theorem, which says that meaningful information cannot be resolved past half the "sampling rate", which is a type of resolution.)

All that artificial devices such as telescopes, night vision and X-rays do is extend that resolution in a particular direction.

A lot of bad (but prevalent) arguments, such as the confusion of viewpoint with "bias" which is used to attack objectivity in journalism, and other attacks on certainty, rely on this invalid "infinite precision" argument. Most attacks on epistemological absolutism do as well.

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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...

To paraphrase, everything is knowable, but not everything is able to be experienced... Aren't 'experiences' part of all that exists? Yet some of them cannot be 'experienced' by me. This seems close to the 'unknowable', maybe the proper term is 'un-experienceable' (if this is a word)... The distinction seems minor when discussed in the context of 'the sum of all that exists'.

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DAC: But it's not minor. That's like saying that we don't (and can't) directly experience magnetism, and therefore can't know it. Or we don't experience atoms, and therefore can't know them. Or don't experience ultraviolet light, and therefore can't know it. And so on.

It's equivocating sensory and perceptual experience with conceptual thought. It's saying that if we don't have an automatic means of sensing something in reality, that we can never know about it.

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Yet some of them cannot be 'experienced' by me.  This seems close to the 'unknowable', maybe the proper term is 'un-experienceable' (if this is a word)...  The distinction seems minor when discussed in the context of 'the sum of all that exists'.

I don't see how the difference between knowledge and sensation is in any way minor. Experiences certainly exist, but that doesn't make them knowledge. We can know any experiences (specifically, "know the nature of") but we cannot experience experiences other than our own.

Snakes, leeches and copepods have nervous systems so they sense things, but they don't know things. There are huge numbers of things that are unexperienceable, and I have never seen anyone claim otherwise. The fundamental question is whether there are limits on knowledge. Unknowable and unexperienceable only have in common the word-parts un-, -able, and the fact that they are rooted in the brain.

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Thanks for the clairification... I was lumping knowledge and experience and it appears that this was unneccessary. I was thinking the 'sum of all that exists', which is existence, includes 'experiences', and that since some of those experiences could not be experienced, this limited what I could 'know' about existence/reality, which I use interchangably.

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