Abstract

At the end of “What is it like to be a bat?”, Thomas Nagel speculated about the development of an objective phenomenology, or a way of describing experiences that could be understood by creatures unable to have the experiences under consideration. Nagel’s remark was provocative and intriguing, but the ideas were not developed in further depth. This paper discusses the prospects and limits of objective phenomenology. I argue that although facts about the qualitative character of experience are subjective, facts about the structure of experience are objective. What this means is that there is a range of experiential facts that we can understand about any kind creature, no matter how alien.

Although structural facts are objective, they cannot be discovered using third-personal methods alone. Just as there is an explanatory gap between physical facts and qualitative facts about experience, so too there is an explanatory gap between physical facts and the structure of experience. To discover facts about experience, we must employ first-personal methods and bridging principles that enable inferences from physical facts to phenomenal facts. The upshot is that even objective phenomenal facts cannot be investigated solely using the methods that science traditionally employs.