What is it like to be a bat?


Reading a bit this evening about the mind-brain problem, starting with Thomas Nagel’s op-Ed in today’s Times. Traced that back to this item in the New Yorker, another article earlier this year, and finally back to the 1974 “What is it like to be a bat?”.

I haven’t had time today to really think about it, gearing up for Fall semester, but those links will at least give me something more useful to do than listening to administrators drone on at the mandatory meetings tomorrow. (Prediction: quality of tomorrow’s blog inversely proportional to quality of tomorrow’s meetings.)

But that is a heck of a title, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and so at least I can contemplate that for a bit. Actually, Terry Pratchett contemplated it very well, in “Lords and Ladies“. A witch, Granny Weatherwax, has the ability to “borrow” another animal’s body.

Nagel’s original piece, nearly forty years old now, poses the problem of understanding the perception of another being. We are limited in this ability to perceive because the tools we use for our own perceptions are too limited.

Presume you meet another person remarkably like yourself – in age, gender, race, nationality, political and religious views, education, etc. You would most likely be able to describe this person’s perceptions of the world fairly accurately. But change something – perhaps as major as gender, perhaps a minor difference such as handedness. (I happen to be a southpaw.) This decreases your ability to relate to another’s perceptions.

Now change a physical sense – Nagel uses color blindness as an example. How do you describe the color of a rose to a colorblind person? (Maybe you buy him these magical glasses instead.)
Extend that to the sensory abilities of a sonar-using bat, with the proprioception of having wings instead of hands…

And bats are still mammals. How primitive can an organism be and still have something called consciousness? A fish? A worm? An insect?

If there are any other communicating species on this planet, they may well be dolphins or whales, aquatic mammals. We can’t yet truly talk to them, so we don’t know if they really communicate. But dolphins do have some kind of name system and memory.

Now extend this to the prospect of intelligent beings that evolved on a different planet. I think it would be darned hard to communicate with them. Although maybe not.

Well, this has drifted away from the mind-brain problem a bit. Nagel’s article is pretty dense to a layman (I snuck in my college philosophy requirement with Mathematical Logic before the department decided it shouldn’t count) and I haven’t even touched the other articles yet.

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