Proceedings of the XXII World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 42, 2008

Philosophy of Mind

Shaffarullah Abdul Rahman
Pages 189-197

Rethinking Nagel
Three Challenges to Physicalism (Rethinking Nagel’s “What is it Like to be a Bat?”: Nagel’s Three Challenges to Physicalism)

It may be tempting to think that given Nagel’s much-discussed bat argument in “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” (henceforth the Bat article), Nagel qua Nagel has conceived an argument against the very idea of physicalism. For example, Tye (1986 p. 7) argues that Nagel’s argument from the Bat-Phenomenology Analogy shows that the physicalist account of the mental phenomenon is incomplete. Churchland (1995 p. 196) conceives Nagel in a similar manner: “[from the Bat Argument] Nagel concludes that conscious phenomena cannot be given a purely physical explanation”. McCullough (1988 pp. 2-3), without regret, is more direct on the issue: Nagel is against physicalism because the state of what-it-is-likeness “escapes the scientific net”. The same goes with Pereboom who argues that Thomas Nagel advances an argument that shows physicalist account of the phenomenal states are “inadequate” (1994 p. 314). The most recent article dealing with the Bat argument also makes it clear that physicalism does not feature in friendly terms in Nagel’s thinking (Nagasawa 2004). While Nagasawa claims to offer a new approach to Nagel’s Bat argument in that Aquinas’ seemingly disconnected argument about the divine omnipotence can answer Nagel’s resistance to physicalism, it is quite clear that Nagel is still being treated as an anti-physicalist. Now, of course, it’s fallacious to say that all these philosophers are alike in their takes on Nagel’s alleged anti-physicalist outlook but I hope it is uncontroversial to say here that they seem to share a common view of Nagel: On Nagel’s account of conscious mental states, physicalism is false because it fails to explain exactly what it is like to be in those states. In this essay, I wish to argue that Nagel’s treatment of physicalism as demonstrated in the Bat article is much more philosophically subtle than his detractors thought him to be. From the outset, let me begin by stating that Nagel is not characteristically a foe of physicalism as most of philosophers make him to be but Nagel in the Bat article could seem be proposing three challenges to physicalism as follows: (P1) physicalism is false, (P2) physicalism is unintelligible and (P3) physicalism remains to be made intelligible.