Here's to a truth we knew
It was a feeling that I shared with you
It could only be hinted at with metaphor
Crudely drawn clichéd form
But I knew what I knew
— TV on the Radio
When it comes to these questions, it’s worth wondering if empiricism hasn’t run amok in the halls of academe. After all, if we go about the business of being ambitious humans armed with an empiricism that grasps and gobbles up and conquers everything up to and including consciousness, it seems reasonable to wonder if we’ll lose something essential to the precarious project of being human—something such as humility. If nothing else, Nagel’s challenge reaffirms the value of humility.
I have no hard proof for this thesis, but I think there’s something to it: Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.
In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”
Are we really ready to stop talking?