“what is it like to be a bat?” is the intriguing question posed by the philosopher thomas nagel in his 1974 article, first published in the philosophical journal.
nagel’s argument goes something like this:
“we can imagine what it would be like to be nocturnal, have webbed arms, be able to fly, have poor eyesight and perceive the world through high-frequency sound signals, and spend time hanging upside down.”
“But even if we can imagine all these things, it only tells us what it is like for me to be a bat, or for me to behave as a bat behaves. it doesn’t tell us what it’s like for a bat to be a bat.”
more than meets the eye
is nagel correct?
nagel is pointing out that there is a subjective character to conscious experience that is not captured by physical descriptions of the brain or observable behaviors. he disagrees with the reductionist materialist or physicalist version that denies the so-called “mind”-brain gap in the mind-body problem.
The mind-body problem arises because we often subjectively feel that our mind, with which we often identify most, is somehow much more than our physical brain. our mind sometimes feels separable (even if not separate) from our body too!
for example, we can forget that we are sitting on a bus, going to work, and instead be transported to an earlier time by using our memory. there is also a feeling that my experiences are truly unique to me, and no one else can understand them in the same way.
The materialist denies the gap between mind and brain by arguing that mind and consciousness can be fully explained by physical processes. this position they defend is known as monism and contrasts with dualism.
Note that René Descartes was a dualist, due to his explanation of the mind and body as two different substances. he equated the mind with the soul, an immaterial substance.
mind over matter?
While Nagel is not committed to dualism, he asserts that physicalism, to be convincing, must take into account both objective and subjective experience. both are necessary to understand the mind-body problem. he states, “without consciousness, the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. with consciousness it seems impossible’”!
nagel does not believe that we can easily explain consciousness simply by describing the experience or set of behaviors of a person or animal.
This raises a disturbing question: If I can’t embody a particular perspective, for example, I can’t be someone other than myself, then how can I really understand it?
How do I know what it’s like to be a bat, a dog, a cat, a horse, or even someone else? I can only truly understand what it is to be me?
nagel highlights the fact that there is something mysterious about consciousness that cannot be simply explained.
nagel’s argument has been met with criticism. Daniel Dennett is one such critic, although he credits this article as “the most cited and influential thought experiment on consciousness.”
dennett denies nagel’s claim that bat consciousness is inaccessible. he says that the most important features of a bat’s consciousness would be somehow accessible to third-person (ie, “objective” or empirical) observation. In this way, information about what it is like to be a bat could be obtained through scientific experiments.
Do you feel the same way about yourself?
However, this thought experiment still captures the imagination and plays on our fears of existing in a solipsistic universe. with our desire to be understood, we want to know that others understand how it is for us, and, in the same way, we for them.
Also, we can go further. With the development of artificial intelligence (AI), how can we tell when a computer becomes conscious? and if it is conscious, could we understand how that is?
Isn’t this important if we develop sentient robots that could be harmed by what we require of them (for example, to fight wars)?
Simply put, if you’ve ever wondered if the blue sky you see is the same experience your friend had (assuming they’re not colorblind), or if the sweet strawberry tastes the same to your partner, then you’re playing with this idea of subjective conscious experience.
can we really know what it is like for someone or something else?