Harrison Middleton University

Nagel and Hume on Consciousness

Nagel and Hume on Consciousness

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 18, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Harrison Middleton University hosts regularly scheduled discussions for the public as well as students. Open to anyone interested in intellectual discussion, short, easily digestible readings are provided electronically. If you’re interested in more information, reach me at as****@hm*.edu.

Our most recent Quarterly Discussion focused on Thomas Nagel’s article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and the first section of David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. As always, hearing the viewpoints of others increases my own depth of understanding.

Nagel’s article excites me for two reasons. First, it explores dimensions of our world that have been largely dismissed. Explaining that various species see the world in different ways and with different abilities is not new. However, Nagel extends that to remove a sort of human exceptionalism that had unintentionally inserted itself into the philosophical argument. We tend to be overconfident in the human skills and achievements without also noticing the real limitations placed upon us by our own design. Nagel draws attention to the fact that no matter which way we try to discuss the world of a bat, we still have to do it through human language and human understanding. We cannot escape our own sensory experience, even imaginatively. This final part is key. The human imagination is certainly capable of great marvels – as demonstrated by a plethora of scientific achievements, as well as art, music, literature, etc. – but it cannot imagine what it cannot imagine. Nagel writes: “[I]f the facts of experience – facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism – are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” In other words, each species has a sort of experience specific to the sensory capabilities of that bodily system. In some way, then, consciousness is linked to the senses, but we can’t quite access that experience just by understanding the nuts and bolts of that sensory system. We actually have to experience the system itself. Moreover, we might not be able to describe or understand that consciousness because it simply is the operating system.

The idea that observation alone cannot help us understand experience leads into discussions of consciousness. What does it mean to be conscious – particularly when sometimes we absent-mindedly complete a task, though certainly we haven’t absent-mindedly severed our mind-body connection? Hume begins the Treatise on Human Nature with a complicated explanation of the differences between ideas and impressions. In fact, he claims that the interaction of impressions and ideas is “the first principle in the science of human nature.” Hume goes on to explain that while he cannot find direct causality in nature, he admits that it is likely.

Clearly, understanding consciousness is a difficult topic that presents real challenges, even to ourselves. We may never fully understand the miracle of understanding, or the ways in which we experience being, but that does not stop many people from discussing ideas of consciousness and being. In the past hundred or more years, we have focused mainly on the physical because it is easier to study. However, both Hume and Nagel point out that humans may never achieve self-understanding if we stick to material studies alone. These readings, therefore, inspire further discussion and further investigation.

Thanks to the July Quarterly Discussion participants who enhanced my understanding of a number of key ideas. Additionally, the participants pulled out connections between the pieces that I had not previously seen. I am indebted to their patience and willingness to enter into conversation. I invite you to do the same. Join us on Thursday, October 19th or Saturday, October 21st for the next discussion which will focus on Social Science. Email as****@hm*.edu with questions or to reserve your spot. I look forward to talking with you!

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