The inextricable thread of subjectivity and the conundrum of objectivity: commentary on Nagel’s “What is like to be a bat?”

And what of the cosmic fabric- if the thread ceases to be?

 And what become the warp and weft- if the thread ceases to be?

In his meticulous article, Nagel propounds the subjective nature of experience as a fundament of consciousness. He describes that this is essentially ‘what it is like to be something’; the ineffable internal terrain which is the basis of consciousness. The complexity and characteristics of this inner terrain are distinct for each conscious entity, and this is the premise of his article.

Nagel argues that the preponderant analytical methods fail to capture this and are essentially incapable of doing so. He avers that it is impossible to give a physical account of phenomenological features due to the impregnable barriers levied by subjectivity. Subjective phenomena are undissevered from a single point of view, and he states that an objective physical theory operates without that viewpoint. Thus, it is impossible to ever discuss the ambits of subjectivity or its intrinsic nature if one operates from a fundamentally different paradigm of so called ‘objectivity’, or one that cannot inhabit that singular viewpoint.

Further on, he discusses the incapacity of extrapolation to arrive at a specific subjective experience—imagination/extrapolation is always ensnared in the limitations and characteristics of our own subjectivity, which is an impassable boundary. Whatever we may conceive of the inner terrain of another, will always be in terms of our own inner terrain. To capture the essence of another internal reality, we must truly inhabit and be that entity to comprehend that experience in any capacity. The bat metaphor only serves as a chauffeur to the vast verity. We are spiders roving (and simultaneously creating) the ambits of our webs of comprehension. The spider silk emanating from our internal terrain, sets the limit for everything we know, theorize, speculate, and contemplate on. Nagel declares that he believes that there are facts beyond human comprehension that will remain forever inaccessible to the capacities of our human psyches. These facts, he says, exist beyond the realms and propensities accessible to what is human language. To append my thoughts, I would state that the concept of ‘human language’ here could encompass all forms of human senses, abstractions, and methodologies; and furthermore, our externally manifested tools and technologies that operate on human-derived logic. Thus, limitations of our internal terrain, are always transmuted in some rudimentary level to our external tools for probing reality/ the cosmos, even though they surpass certain physical limitations.

In describing phenomenological facts, and their subjective and objective nature, Nagel states that it is possible to assume some other point of views and thus there is room for comprehension beyond one’s own inner reality. Thus, in a sense, there is a possibility for ‘perfectly objective’ facts, he writes, when one can cognize another’s experience. He goes on to saying that phenomenological facts are subjective in that even the supposed objective attribution of experience is accessible to only an individual who is adequately similar to the object of attribution; in order to have a capacity to be perceptive to both the first hand and third hand points of views. Nagel goes on to writing that the greater the dissimilitude between two individuals, the more ineffective the endeavour, to reconcile experiences.

Here again, to append my personal ideas: I think this distinction is slightly nebulous; and while I appreciate his conceptions, some questions arise. Would “perfect objectivity” truly be the befitting phrase here? Does what Nagel call a facet or corroboration of objectivity, merely describe the ability to for individuals to communicate? Here, by communicate, I describe an interaction which enables changes in inner terrain/conceptions, without an actual exchange of ideas—i.e, there is no ability for one to impart elements of their inner reality(i.e ideas/experience) to another. The ultimate result of this communication is only ‘transmutations’ in the structure of the internal terrain of the individual (as a result of the interaction), but these changes too, are within the domain/language of their own internal reality. Thus, there is nothing ‘transferred’ in the reaction, and there is never a confirmation that both individuals access the same ‘objective reality’.

A metaphor that comes to mind to supplement this picture is perhaps the phenomenon of chirality. Even if the reflection bears so much resemblance to the reflected, it cannot represent certain facets of what the reflected object is, and the two can never be superimposed. This deficiency to truly share a reality/ experience is perhaps prescriptible to ideas and conceptions that are more abstract in nature rather than palpable physical reality/experiences

Further on, Nagel states that this subjectivity of phenomenological facts is greatly pertinent to the mind-body problem. He writes that if the subjective experience is accessible only via a single perspective, unveiling the true nature of experiences is tenuous in the physicality and concomitant mechanisms of the entity. He explains that the domain of understanding physical mechanisms is objective and can be accessed by many perspectives, thus failing to capture subjectivity of experience.

Nagel then arrives at the ultimate nature of objectivity and states that he ‘wishes to remain noncommittal’ about the possibility of an end point—i.e, the fundamental and intrinsic objective nature of a given thing. He says that the possibility of reaching this ultimate objective nature remains open, and that it may be more precise to regard objectivity as a direction to travel.  To append an opinion here, this seems to be a sagacious approach to the matter and opens possibilities of better grasping consciousness and reality. An antithesis to this approach would be reject all possibilities of an objective endpoint, questioning if the tenaciously subjective nature of reality would ever permit the existence such an endpoint.

In confronting physicalism, Nagel does not reject it nor claim that it is fallacious. Instead, he proposes that the paradigm of physicalism is one that we cannot fully comprehend at present, due to our inability to discern how it is, or could be, true. Physicalism is still plagued by murk as we, he writes, cannot at present comprehend the hypothesis that the fundamental nature of subjective experience is encapsulated in a physical depiction. This is so until we are able to reconcile objective and subjective counterparts of something, i.e discern the objective nature of subjective experiences, or vice-versa.

In conclusion, Nagel proposes a paradigm of objective phenomenology that does not emanate from imagination or functions of empathy. He proposes that its principal goal is to depict the subjective character  of experience in a manner that is graspable to another being, who cannot have analogous experiences.

This proposition reverberates to me with the ceaseless predicament of being within the ambit of the internal web of spider silk, which appears to be inexorable. If subjectivity is the warp, or the weft, or the knot, we could surpass limitations by weaving differently, or by dealing with the threads differently. If subjectivity is the inextricable thread of reality, how must the loom be maneuvered?