The Explanatory Gap, Psychology, and Possible Limitations of the Scientific Method


In 1972, Thomas Nagel first introduced what is now known as the “explanatory gap” amongst contemporary philosophers. It was described in his paper “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” and the gist of the argument was this: one cannot fully understand the mind unless one has experienced that mind.

Nagel took the example of a bat because bats are so fascinatingly different than humans; they hang upside down most of the time, use echolocation, they are nocturnal, and most eat nothing but insects. Could a human ever convincingly claim that he knew what it was like to be a bat? Nagel didn’t believe this was possible – I agree.

Can the same be true amongst humans? Can another human fully understand the mind of another, or, does one have to be in the first-person to understand the mind more clearly?

Philosopher Frank Jackson wrote a paper in 1982 titled “Epiphenomenal Qualia” where he introduced the famous thought experiment known as Mary’s room. It goes like this:

    “Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. (…) What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete.”

These arguments by Frank Jackson and Thomas Nagel are two of the most famous papers in support of the idea of qualia – a term used in philosophy to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience.

It is an idea often associated with mind/body dualism – the belief that the mind is in some-part nonphysical, and therefore a separate entity from our physical bodies.

However, the explanatory gap does not suggest that exactly, and it is perfectly compatible with a materialist view of the mind. The real questions that the explanatory gap provokes is within the field of psychology and the scientific method itself.

Science is science because of its objective, empirical, and third-person approach to knowledge. Science has often given man the ability to step outside of the subjective experience of natural phenomena, observe them, study them, test them, replicate their findings, and come to conclusions.

There is no doubt the breakthroughs and advancements science has come to offer man throughout the centuries. It would be foolish to deny these achievements.

Even in Western psychology (which is quite a young field relative to the natural sciences), researchers have made incredibly discoveries of the mind and how it works. We have devised useful models for how the mind perceives sensations (Psychophysics), how it processes information, stores memories, and solves problems (Cognitive Psychology), how the mind changes throughout the human lifespan (Developmental Psychology), how the mind builds associations and how these associations affect our behaviors (Learning or Experimental Psychology), how the brain or the “physical anatomy of the mind” works (Neuroscience), and we’ve been given the chance to take all of this information and apply it to a variety of other fields: Clinical Psychology, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Sport Psychology, Healthy Psychology, Forensic Psychology, etc.

There is no denying the leaps psychology has made, all in the name of proper science. This is knowledge we would likely have not gotten any other way if it were not for the extraordinary and rigorous scientific method.

However, there is good reason to believe that Nagel and Jackson are right and that we cannot fully explain or understand a mind from an outside view.

This is the belief that once science carries out its full course of discoveries that there will still be something left unsaid about the mind. That is: what it is like to actually experience consciousness itself.

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