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Tony Bellotti

Problems that arise from the incompatibility of Subjective and Objective knowledge

In his book The View From Nowhere (1986), Thomas Nagel discusses the various problems that arise when we consider the contrast between the objective world we inhabit, and are part of, and the inherently subjective way we view that world. Nagel writes that understanding the relationship between these external and internal standpoints is central to solving these problems: 'It is the most fundamental issue about morality, knowledge, freedom, the self, and the relation of mind to the physical world' (p.3). In this essay I will survey the problems that Nagel is referring to, and will echo Nagel's view that this issue is of central importance within philosophy. However, I will also suggest that Nagel is wrong in his emphasis in dealing with the issue.

The opening words of the book make it clear that Nagel sees ultimately only a single problem: 'how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included'. He then goes on to address the particular problems, each of which he sees as only an aspect of this single overall problem.

Problem 1: How can we account for the existence of subjective experience within an objective physical universe?

This problem is a modern version of the mind/body problem; i.e. what is the relationship between the mind and the body? Are they separate entities, or are they somehow different aspects of the same thing? The question was posed in Nagel's 1974 essay 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' and has been somewhat revitalised recently in the guise of Chalmers's 'hard problem' of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995).

Nagel argues that although we may understand the way bats use sonar to perceive their world, to fly and catch insects, we will never know what it is like to be a bat using sonar, precisely because we are not bats. Our understanding of bat sonar can only be a physiological and functional account; we will only ever have a view of bat sonar from the outside. Imagine what sonar must feel like inside, to a bat! In the same way that there is something it is like for us to see the world using our eyes (i.e. colours, hue and depth in our visual field), surely there must also be something it is like for bats perceiving the world through sonar. And since bat sonar is such an alien method to perceive the world, in relation to our human vision, then it is not too difficult to conclude that the bat's inner sonar experience is completely alien to our own visual experience; and that we will never know what it is like to be a bat.

The aim of Nagel's argument is to show that there are facts about the world that are not open to objective and scientific understanding; facts that can only be known from a particular point of view. The bat is an example of this. Science may uncover many facts about how bat's fly, how they behave and socialise, how they perceive the world, and so forth, through observation, experiment and dissection. However, the one thing about bats it will never uncover is how sonar feels to the bat. This experience is the exclusive domain of the bat. Nagel extends the argument to say that the feel of human mental experience cannot be reduced to physical, objective concepts, either.

Nagel wrote the essay as a challenge to the physicalists and behaviourists who at the time of the essay's publication were in an intellectually strong position. These groups claim that either mental phenomena are completely reducible to the physical world, as known by science, or simply do not exist at all. Nagel both aimed to re-assert their existence, and to show that they are not reducible to objective physics.

Although Nagel argues convincingly against physical reductionism, in some ways he is simply re-posing the old mind/body problem. He is arguing that mind and matter have distinct qualities, the former can only be experienced subjectively — from a point of view, and the latter is known objectively, hence they cannot simply be the same thing. As Nagel suggests, they may be dual aspects of the same substance. What makes Nagel's insight into this realisation so distinct from the more traditional Cartesian argument is that his argument starts from a third-person account of consciousness. The Cartesian argument begins an assessment of consciousness from a first-person investigation of the unique and irreducible qualities of consciousness. Nagel's third person perspective is both the strength and the weakness of his argument.

The weakness comes about because a critic may simply argue that what Nagel suggests has consciousness may not actually have this quality. In Nagel's essay, it is assumed that bats are conscious, and that there is something it is like to be a bat. But a counter-argument could easily be put that bats are simply flying automata with no inner feelings at all. Afterall, there can be no evidence of any bat consciousness: only the scientific knowledge of bat behaviour and function. But how far can this counter-argument be taken? If a bat is not conscious, is a dog? If a dog is not conscious, is another man? Surely the critic cannot also argue that all other men do not have a mental life? What must it have been like to be someone with unique genius like Picasso, for example? However, the critic can continue to hold his solipsistic position, that Nagel's argument is invalid because it starts with an assumption that there are other conscious minds. The solipsistic critic has some justification in requiring evidence if Nagel's position is to be taken as a serious philosophical argument. To this extent, the first-person approach has an advantage over Nagel's representation of the problem because, afterall, first-person consciousness is quite simply there, self-evident to itself.

However, the strength of Nagel's third-person argument is that by making us think about alien perspectives that are completely inconceivable to us and completely different from the way we understand the world (as humans), the reader comes to realise that there is a qualitative distinction between the way the world is physically and objectively, and the way it is perceived consciously, subjectively. After all, the bat's experience of its world is different from the physical world itself. It is difficult to make this point with the Cartesian version of the argument because when one thinks of one's own consciousness, it is difficult to divorce perception of the world from what the world is in itself: when I see a chair, it is difficult to divorce my conscious image of the chair from the atoms and energy that really are the chair existing in the physical world, quite independently of my happening to see it.

It seems to me that Nagel's argument is ultimately positive, regardless of the weakness outlined above, because it does enable us to think about the very real distinction between subjective and objective knowledge. When brought back to the more philosophically solid Cartesian argument, this realisation is particularly instructive.

Problem 2: How can we be sure that the way we understand the world is the way the world actually is?

Ultimately, we perceive the world from within our own subjective viewpoint. When I look down a long straight road, I see the road and all the houses along the road receding in size the further away they get. Of course, the houses further down the road are not really smaller. That is simply how they look to me from one end of the road, because of the visual perspective created by my point of view. If I walk to the other end of the road, and look back at the houses from that position, I suddenly find that the houses that were furthest away and small have become the nearest and biggest houses. However, I know that the houses are actually all the same size, and that the distortion is caused because I am always seeing them from a point of view. I cannot escape the perspective, and I can never directly see the road and houses in such a way that this distortion disappears.

The upshot of this is that we can only know the external world through the medium of our subjective view. Hence it raises the question: how can we be sure that this medium is a good indicator of the external? What if my subjective perceptions are illusions or dreams? What if they are being projected into my mind by a malicious demon who is trying to trick me? All of these questions were raised by Descartes (1641), and are examples of the sceptical problem of knowledge.

Although Nagel certainly acknowledges and addresses this problem, his comments do not amount to an answer. He writes, 'The search for objective knowledge, because of its commitment to a realistic picture, is inescapably subject to scepticism and cannot refute it but must proceed under its shadow' [p.71]. So scepticism is the necessary outcome of realism. Even if we accept realism as true (i.e. that there are objects and processes in the world that exist independently of me or you), Nagel's comments do not answer the charge made by scepticism, that the world may be different to the way we are led to believe it is by our perceptions.

Problem 3: Personal Self-Identity

Even if we are able to solve Problem 1, it still leaves the problem of why any of us are the actual person we are. Why is it that I am this particular person Tony Bellotti (TB) and not, say, a bat? That I am the publicly accessible person TB seems to be a genuine fact. However it is not a fact that can be found within the objective world.

Of course, a trivial reply is to say that the word 'I' simply refers to the entity TB when spoken by TB. So, when I ask 'Why is it I am TB?' it is equivalent to the third-person question 'Why is it that TB is TB?' which is plainly true, because it is a tautology. Nagel convincingly argues against this reply by stating that the 'I' in the question refers to something that is abstracted from TB. It is conceivable, it seems to me, that this 'I' that I am could live as a bat, or as TB, or as anyone else; the experiences would be radically different, but the experiencer (the 'I') would be the same. Nagel calls this 'I' the objective self and likens it to Wittgenstein's "metaphysical subject" and Husserl's transcendental ego (p.62). Thus, for Nagel, the statement 'I am TN' has content by virtue of the fact that the 'I' and the TN are distinct, and hence the question 'Why am I the particular person I am?' is a genuine question.

Problem 4: Free-Will and Determinism

The world is understood objectively as a system of events that occur according to natural laws. Given this way of understanding, the question arises where in that objective model is there room for autonomous agents to act with free-will? Things like 'agents' and 'free-will' seem alien concepts in the physical world. Again, they are subjective components of our world that have no correlate in our objective understanding.

Problem 5: Ethics

The ethical problem is how to relate the needs of an objective moral code that can span society, with the needs of individuals and their actions. Can the needs of the many in a society outweigh the needs of a particular individual (utilitarianism)? Or should the individual always be allowed to do what they want regardless of social order (anarchism)? Both extremes of the objective/subjective balance would seem to have their difficulties.

Problem 6: Empirical Induction

Although only mentioned briefly by Nagel (p.84), I nevertheless think this problem is important because of its impact on the empirical sciences. Induction is, arguably, at the heart of the scientific method. It allows scientists to infer from particular cases or events, to generalities. The problem of induction is how we can go about justifying the inference. Just because all the crows that I have seen so far have been black, how is it that I can infer with confidence that all crows are black (or at least, most: as I may expect the odd albinos, for example)?

This is an important question in relation to Nagel's concerns because it involves the relationship between the subjective observation of particular events with the formation and justification of objective generalities.

Summary of Problems

The above problems are all related to the more general problem of the relationship between the subjective and objective standpoints. They are summarised in the following table:

Problem Subjective Aspect Objective Aspect
1. Mind/Body Problem Consciousness/Mind Brain/Physical matter
2. Scepticism Subjective experience External world
3. Problem of Self-Identity 'I': the 'objective self' The publicly accessible person, or creature
4. Free-will Autonomous agent Physical world
5. Ethics Individual action Social morals
6. Problem of Induction Particular observations Generality

Of all the problems, I have written most extensively about the first two because they express the basic problem of the relationship between the subjective and objective worlds most fully. As Nagel writes:

The problem of bringing together subjective and objective views of the world can be approached from either direction. If one starts from the subjective side, the problem is the traditional one of skepticism [problem 2]... If on the other hand one starts from the objective side, the problem is how to accomodate in a world that simply exists and has no perspectival center, any of the following things: (a) oneself; (b) one's point of view; (c) the point of view of other selves... ; and (d) the objects of various types of judgement that seem to emanate from these perspectives [problem 1]. (p.27)

Problem 1 asks how we can understand subjective experiences given the existence of an objective physical world; obversely, problem 2 asks how any one of us can build a reliable objective world-view from our particular subjective point of view. As Nagel explains in the Introduction, all the outlined problems are actually aspects of the same overall bigger problem, but these two particular problems together represent the actual difficulty of binding the two standpoints. I wonder to what extent the other problems will fall in place if answers to problems 1 and 2 are ever discovered. It is interesting that both of these problems remain the overwhelming legacy of Descartes (1641) who initially raised them both in his Meditations.

Which is the best problem to tackle?

It is interesting to read Nagel's approaches to these two problems. To problem 1 he has put up convincing arguments that subjective experience simply cannot be reduced to an objective world view. It is clear that he sees this as the main issue. 'It is this ... version of the problem that particularly interests me. It is the obverse of skepticism because the given is objective reality — or the idea of an objective reality — and what is problematic by contrast is subjective reality... It accords well with a bias toward physical science as a paradigm of understanding' (p.27). I hope I have not pulled that quote out of context, but throughout the book there is an underlying assumption of a scientific realism which is never properly justified. Therefore, for Nagel, the subjective has to be justified in terms of the 'given' physical world. To some extent this is possibly because he is putting these arguments, primarily, against physicalists and so has to talk to them on their own ground.

However, it does strike me as odd to take as 'given' the one side of the subjective/objective divide which is patently not given. Afterall, we only build up an understanding of the objective world through the evidence of our subjective experience. It seems much more intuitive to take subjective experience as the given because it is simply there in front of us in our immediate consciousness. In an interesting essay on Charmers's 'hard problem' of consciousness, Hut and Shepard (1996) write:

To try to see how what we understand to be physical objects produce experience is in fact the 'hard problem', a problem that may simply be wrongly posed. Let us try as an alternative to turn the hard problem upside down, starting from experience, in order to see how what we understand to be physical objects may arise from it. (p.315)

and later,

... the biggest mystery is no longer consciousness but the objective physical world, which is never directly experienced but is only inferred on the basis of order and correlations within subjective experience. It seems to us more natural and epistemologically more justifiable to leave as inference what is inferred and to take as given only what is given, than the other way around. (p.317)

Taking this view, it is clear that problem 2 takes precedence. Problem 1 cannot be addressed precisely until we have established how we built up our understanding of the objective world, and that can only be done once problem 2 is solved. Of course, Nagel does tackle problem 2, but the conclusion he reaches is a little unsatisfactory. He does not really deal with the problem of scepticism. He dismisses it, somewhat, as an unfortunate side-effect of realism.


Nagel's The View From Nowhere presents the various problems that exist in trying to bring the subjective and objective viewpoints together. In doing this, it provides an alternative to the influential physicalist accounts which attempt to reduce the subjective view to the purely physical world, or deny its existence entirely. It is an excellent overview of the many aspects of the problem, and of the centrality of the problem in several areas of philosophy. Possibly its only downside is that it is not radical enough. Nagel takes a very realist line, and because of this, arguably, he analyses the problem the wrong way round, placing the problem of consciousness in priority above the problem of justifying our objective worldview.


Chalmers, D. (1995) "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience", Scientific American December 1995

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy translated by Veitch, J. (Everyman1912)

Hut, P. & Shepard R. (1996) "Turning 'the hard problem' upside down", Journal of Consciousness Studies vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 313-29

Nagel T. (1974) "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Philosophical Review 1974 reprinted in Mortal Questions (Oxford University Press)

Nagel T. (1986) The View From Nowhere (Oxford University Press)