What is it like to be a bat?

Been a while since the last real philosophy post here in Schlueterica. Luckily, as sometimes happens, the Objectivism Online Forums came to the rescue.

The discussion is at http://forum.objectivismonline.net/index.php?showtopic=743

“Reason’s Ember” kicked it off with this post:

Building on something I said in another thread:

I cannot know what it is like to be a bat. However, there is an experience out there we can call “what it’s like to be a bat.” I know that that experience is an objective part of reality, it exists. However, I can never know that experience itself. My capacity to know has that limit.

Do people agree with those statements?

Stephen Speicher beat me to the punch with the first reply:

First, I disagree that “there is an experience out there …” What is “out there” is a bat, not an experience.

Second, the bat is not unknowable. The experience of actually being a bat is un-experiencable (if such a word exists). Personally, I have no problem with that. I also will never directly experience what it is like to be a rock, but I stumble along in life anyway.

My Response:

Stephen, I disagree.

There is a “something it’s like to be a bat”, and it’s very much “out there.” The bat exists. The bat is experiencing. That experience has identity, it is the sum of its attributes. Therefore, “what it’s like to be a bat” is every bit as real as “the way that red looks.”

The experience of being a bat would be unknowable to anyone who is not a bat. You might be able to get a good idea of what it’s like to be a chimp by increasing or decreasing the degree of the things that we know about what its like to be human. Of course, it would only be speculation, but you could probably make a pretty good guess. I can imagine what i’ts like to be a super-strong hairy badly behaved retarded 2 year old with great climbing skills. The very fact that we can even formulate meaningful words for it is a good exposition of the fact that it is at least conceivable.

However, bats have a sensory aparatus that we do not. Perhaps a man with sight can imagine being blind, but a man who has always been completely blind could not begin to know sight.

As concepts are formed from sensory/perceptual experience, and our words are developed as part of concept formation, it is impossible to truly have a grasp of a concept that cannot in any way shape or form be reduced to perceptual reality. Having a bat’s sonar ability would be akin to having another, radically different, set of eyes. You can’t truly imagine what it’s like without experiencing it.

Of course the analogy breaks down when you stop to consider that in some cases, people who are blind actually HAVE been able to develop a very rudimentary sonar ability, by clicking their tongues and training themselves to hear and interpret the echo. Perhaps they can know something of what it’s like to be a bat, but I certainly can’t. And there aren’t words to explain it to me.

So, before you can say that something is “unknowable in principle,” you must specify, “unknowable to whom?” What it’s like to be a bat is unknowable to me. But bats certainly know it, on some level. (I doubt they’re very self-conscious, and they probably don’t have words for it! ) Perhaps some humans have a bit of a clue what it’s like. But I never will.

Lastly, there is no “what it’s like to be a rock.” Rocks do not “experience.” You could only properly say that there’s a “what it’s like to be” entities that are conscious on some level.

By the way, this is a reference to Thomas Nagel’s essay, What Is It Like to Be a Bat? I suggest reading that article to get a good understanding of the problem that we’re discussing.

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