Nagel, Thomas (1937–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

4. Theory of mind

Commitment to the irreducibility of subjective facts leads Nagel to argue that the mind–body problem could only be solved, if at all, by a complete and as yet unimaginable revision of our conception of the basic constituents of the universe. Nagel explains that the relation of the mind and the body seems problematic if, as a result of the success of physical science, one holds a physical conception of objective reality, and espouses a reductionist programme according to which all phenomena must be explainable reductively in terms of physical objective facts. In opposition, he argues that the qualitative nature of conscious experience is a subjective feature of reality available only from a first-person subjective viewpoint. Hence, though the qualitative aspects of conscious experiences are part of reality, they cannot be explained in terms of objective facts in general or physical objective facts in particular.

The precise force of Nagel’s denial of the possibility of psychophysical reduction is important. He is not denying that we are physiological organisms or that the central nervous system (in vertebrates) and its physical states is necessary for subjective mental states. He is not denying that conscious organisms are made up of the same ultimate constituents that constitute all the physical phenomena in the universe. Rather, Nagel is proposing that our conception of the ultimate constituents as physical is too narrow for explaining that some combinations of those constituents have conscious experience. He is arguing for a dual-aspect approach, according to which the ultimate constituents are dual in nature – both physical and mental– in the sense that they can be combined to form physical things which have physical properties and conscious organisms which have the subjective properties of conscious experience (see Consciousness §2; Qualia).

Citing this article:
Sedivy, Sonia. Theory of mind. Nagel, Thomas (1937–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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