This is the context:

think it’s very hard to define consciousness in terms of anything more basic than consciousness, just as it’s very hard to define time and space in terms of anything more basic than time and space. But there are things we can which at least I think are helpful. There’s a phrase due to Thomas Nagel, who was mentioned earlier, who wrote the article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” You might say that a system is conscious when there is something it’s like to be that system—so it’s something it’s like to be me; it’s something it’s like to be you. But importantly, assuming you’re not a panpsychist, you would say there’s nothing it’s like to be that [points to a cup on the table] cup. So, likewise, a mental state like seeing will be conscious if there’s something it’s like to be in that state; for example, there’s something it’s like for me to see you right now, but there’s nothing it’s like for me to do some computation in my cerebellum.

source: The enigma of human consciousness.New York Academy of Sciences.

What does "it’s something" mean in this context? Does it mean "a meaningful statement"?

  • 2
    Quite frankly, I do not wonder that you are confused. "it's like to be me" makes no sense. I do not think it is even grammatical. It is certainly not idiomatic. What I suspect is meant is: "it's something like me," which is vague but understandable. Perhaps what is intended is: "consciousness is an attribute of human beings and perhaps other beings, but it is not a universal attribute. For example cups do not have consciousness." Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 19:40
  • @Juhasz I pick it up from this source: nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/nyas.12165 Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 22:11
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    I don't have access to that text, I had to listen to the conversation myself. The first "there's" is very faintly articulated and could easily be mistaken for "it's" (except that that doesn't make sense). However, the second "there's" ("...there's something it's like to be you...") is clearer and the last ("there's nothing it's like to be a cup") is quite clear. Also, as I've quoted in my answer, the original, written version, which the speaker is quoting, is "there is something it is like..."
    – Juhasz
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 22:24

1 Answer 1


Your transcript is wrong. It should read "—so there's something it's like to be me; there's something it's like to be you..." The quotation can be heard here, beginning at 51:23, The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness

What that means is still not obvious. Let's look to the origin of the phrase to see if it's any clearer.

no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism- something it is like for the organism. We may call this the subjective character of experience.

"What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (436)

That's still fairly difficult to understand, but the key appears to be the last sentence. The subjective experience of being something or someone ("someone" appears more appropriate to me, since anything with a consciousness ought be to regarded as someone) is what defines consciousness.

This is very similar to Descartes's proposition, I think therefore I am. Nagel's proposition might be better rendered: I experience therefore I am.

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