Quite a few years ago I heard of Thomas Nagel's book "The View from Nowhere," liking the provocative title. Nagel is better known for his What Is it Like to be a Bat? paper, which raised equally profound questions about subjectivity and objectivity.
No human knows what it is like to be a bat. Only a bat does.
The same is true of every species, and indeed of every individual within a species. I've been married to my wife, Laurel, for 29 years. So obviously I know her very well. But I don't know what it is like to be Laurel. Only she does.
I perceive my wife from the outside, an objective perspective. She perceives herself from the inside, a subjective perspective. What Nagel seeks to achieve in The View from Nowhere is a philosophical argument for how subjective and objective views of the world can be harmonized.
I've only read part of this book, yet feel that I've grasped enough of Nagel's way of thinking to fashion a blog post based on the first five of his eleven chapters.
Here's how Nagel encapsulates his goal.
A theory of reality with pretensions to completeness would have to include a theory of the mind. But this too would be a hypothesis generated by the mind, and would not be self-guaranteeing. ... The idea of a full conception of reality that explains our ability to arrive at it is just a dream.
Nevertheless, it's what we aim toward: a gradual liberation of the dormant objective self, trapped initially behind an individual perspective of human experience. The hope is to develop a detached perspective that can coexist with and comprehend the individual one.
That's certainly a laudable goal. It reflects what science is all about, though Nagel seeks a perspective that is universal, not limited to scientific investigations.
Appealingly, he simultaneously asserts the truth of our inherent subjectivity -- the fact that each of us knows ourself from the inside, while everyone else knows us from the outside -- with a commitment to fashion our ways of knowing into a perspective that comes as close as possible to being a view from nowhere.
Meaning, an objective view that minimizes the biases of our species, and our personal individuality as a member of Homo sapiens. In the chapter that I finished today, Nagel says that a "double vision" is needed.
I'm not completely sure what he means by this, assuming that the rest of the book will lead to an explanation. It isn't bouncing back and forth between a subjective and objective view, but rather involves combining subjectivity and objectivity in some way that eludes me at this point in my reading.
Here's some additional passages from the Double Vision chapter.
When we view ourselves from outside, a naturalistic picture of how we work seems unavoidable. It is clear that our beliefs arise from certain dispositions and experiences which, so far as we know, don't guarantee their truth and are compatible with radical error.
The trouble is that we can't fully take on the skepticism that this entails, because we can't cure our appetite for belief, and we can't take on this attitude toward our own beliefs while we're having them.
Beliefs are about how things probably are, not just about what they might possibly be, and there is no way of bracketing our ordinary beliefs about the world so that they dovetail neatly with the possibility of skepticism. The thought "I'm a professor at New York University, unless of course I'm a brain in a vat" is not one that can represent my general integrated state of mind.
The problems of free will and personal identity yield similarly unharmonious conclusions. In some respects what we do and what happens to us fits very naturally into an objective picture of the world, on a footing with what other objects and organisms do.
Our actions seem to be events with causes and conditions many of which are not our actions. We seem to persist and change through time much as other complex organisms do. But when we take these objective ideas seriously, they appear to threaten and undermine certain fundamental self-conceptions that we find it very difficult to give up.
Looking at other people and other living beings, we see that everything which lives, dies. Looking at other people and other living beings, we also see that if a brain is seriously damaged, the consciousness of the being with that brain is altered for the worse.
Yet most humans have a belief that some part of them will continue to live on after their death, often termed a soul, no matter what happens to their body and brain.
That's because from the inside our consciousness seems to be ethereal, unitary, and timeless in some sense -- since we have been conscious from birth until now, while our body and mental contents have changed in countless ways.
I share Nagel's goal of doing our best to view ourselves, and the world, in as objective a fashion as possible.
This requires that we subject our own beliefs and ways of knowing to scrutiny, which isn't at all easy, because how see our own self and the world typically seems so natural, it's difficult for us to envision how that perspective could be any different.
One of Nagel's key ideas is that an objective viewpoint has to include the subjectivity of the viewer as one aspect of what is being perceived. Otherwise we make the mistake of considering that we know everything about some aspect of the world, whereas actually that knowledge should include the knower.
I enjoy learning about neuroscience and human psychology for this reason. I just wish that religious people also would consider that their sense of knowing what God, spirit, soul, heaven and such are like could be mistaken. Not just by a little, but by a lot. Still, we have to keep seeking truth while knowing that it won't be possible to grasp truth completely.
Nagel writes early on in his book:
I believe that the methods needed to understand ourselves do not yet exist.
So this book contains a great deal of speculation about the world and how we fit into it. Some of it will seem wild, but the world is a strange place, and nothing but radical speculation gives us a hope of coming up with any candidates for the truth.
That, of course, is not the same as coming up with the truth: if truth is our aim, we must be resigned to achieving it to a very limited extent, and without certainty.
To redefine the aim so that its achievement is largely guaranteed, through various forms of reductionism, relativism, or historicism, is a form of cognitive wish-fulfillment.
Philosophy cannot take refuge in reduced ambitions. It is after eternal and nonlocal truth, even though we know that is not what we are going to get.