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Episode from the podcastMade You Think

56: What Is It Like To Be A Bat by Thomas Nagel

Released Tuesday, 25th September 2018
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“A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena,  though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lighting, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.”
In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat critically discuss the article What Is It Like to Be a Bat? by Thomas Nagel. This is the most famous piece on the mind-body problem. In it Nagel explores the mind-body issue, freedom, knowledge, meaning and value of human life. This article was penned down at an era where physicalism and materialism were prevalent, the idea that you can reduce all aspects of the mind to simply firings in the brain. However, Nagel was unpersuaded that physicalism of materialism gives an all-encompassing account of human experience.
“Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting with consciousness it seems hopeless.”
We cover a wide range of topics, including
  • The mind-body consciousness problem
  • Creating an objective interpretations of reality.
  • Learning skills to overcome reporters biases
  • Consciousness in animals
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and hacking of consciousness


And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of What Is It Like to Be a Bat? by Thomas Nagel!
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out our book episodes on consciousness like Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, Sapiens by Yuval Harari, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.
Be sure to join our mailing list to find out about what books are coming up, giveaways we're running, special events, and more.

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Show Topics

01:00 – Consciousness. The article is about the theory of mind and consciousness, looking into the mind-body problem. Aspects of the mind can be linked to how the brain responds.
01:58 – Challenge to physicalism rather than refute reductionism. Reductionism and physicalism cannot be fully understood; thus, making these two theories flawed.
“Every reductionist has his favorite analogy for modern science. It is most unlikely that any of these unrelated examples of successful reduction will shed light on the relation of mind to brain”. Nagel seems not to refute reductionism but rather exposing a big whole in it and saying you can't take reductionism seriously until you fill this hole.
03:43 – Mind-body consciousness problem. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting with consciousness it seems hopeless. “It seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective”.
05:27 – All problems are soluble given enough intelligence in time.
06:08 – Subjective filter for any information. Physicalism and reductionism create an objective interpretation of reality. Physicalism and reductionism in some ways rely on creating an objective interpretation of reality. All the thoughts human beings have are grounded from the subjective view of the world.
08:00 – Humans cannot understand a “what it is like aspect” because they are not in that very situation. A bat was used to demonstrate this concept. Human beings cannot comprehend how a bat moves and survives by echo-location thus this highlights human cannot understand subjective experience from human data.
09:04 – Humans can learn to echo-locate. An excellent example is Bobby McMullen, who is a blind mountain biker; he uses echolocation and his senses to mountain bike.
10:14 – However, according to Nagel, even if a human could echo-locate, that is still not equivalent to how bats echo-locate.
10:35 – Subjective interpretation of reality cannot be stepped out. This means something outside of one’s understanding cannot be fully grasped or comprehended. This concept applies to understand to someone who is totally different from you. You can never know exactly what they went through or understand what they do why they do some things; it is easy to judge someone thinking they are making irrational actions without viewing their actions from the subjective experience.
12:12 – How would look post-Trump era discussions. Urban Democrats have different interests and value systems than rural Republicans. Where to draw the line for life? Understanding pro-life people. Pro-gunners point of view. Having a gun in Texas is a must.
18:28 – Divided political sphere. Humans choose a side that will agree with their preconceived opinions.
19:58 – Decentralization makes it really hard to create a cohesive story and narrative for a population.
20:20 – Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Phenomenon where one will believe about something they know not about because it has been reported. Journalists are almost never trained to actually understand what they are reporting on, not confirming the authenticity of their sources and misunderstanding statistics.
24:00 – Learning how to read research articles is an important skill these days as we can't rely on media anymore. Famous bad reporters interpretations. Bacon is bad for you as smoking. Coconut oil is bad because saturated fats.
26:26 – Hanlon's Razor. Applying that to even news reporters, they are not doing it necessarily maliciously, they are doing it for one of two reasons- it works, people click on it and read it; the second thing is a lot of these sites are effectively content firms. This circles up to what Nagel is saying about subjective character of experience which we cannot step outside of and not understanding what it is like to be someone else.
28:20 – Test for consciousness. Mirror test for animal self awareness.
30:38 – AI discussion. What means a computer is conscious? Turing test is not enough. Reaching intelligence by brute force. Computers that don't want to play chess.
33:33 – Consciousness in animals. Every animal has a level of consciousness and awareness in the same fundamental way a human does. Dogs dreaming.
35:30 – The self is not necessarily an actual thing. Nagel is trying to keep the sense of self and the potential challenge to him is this thing you are trying to hold on to the mind, the sense of self is an illusion; there is not really anything special for what we think about this consciousness.
37:47 – Challenging reductionism. Nagel is challenging reductionism by pushing for a more helpful theory of mind that says it’s all mental- making it hard to comprehend any one’s mind.
38:43 – Subjective phenomena cannot be explained. Questions that arise with a conscious AI: can you unplug it? Can you reset it? Is it a slave? Riding horses and animals that work for humans.
40:26 – Artificial intelligence (AI) and consciousness. That will just reach a point where it is so competent that it is indistinguishable from interacting with another human.
43:05 – AI scare. An AI is sufficiently intelligent to be a threat to us all, it is sufficiently intelligent to know it shouldn't let us know it exists. AI that optimizes for paperclips can destroy the world.
43:38 – Use of the term is. E = mc2. Knowing that something is true without necessarily understanding why it is true. Consciousness and intelligence exist within its closed system.
50:10 – Knowledge is a justified true belief, based on theoretical understanding.
“You can know that something is something without understanding what it means for it to be that thing.”
53:41 – Tangent. Japanese soldiers fighting after the war was over.
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