What’s it Like to Be a Bat?

April 23, 2023 Cognitive Insights, Consciousness No Comments

This is about the ‘hard question of consciousness.’ Some argue this will never be solved.

In his 1974 article, “What is it like to be a bat?” Thomas Nagel argues that conscious experience is subjective and can only be known from that perspective. We might imagine what it would be like to hang upside down, but Nagel argues that we cannot objectively know what a bat’s (conscious) experience is like. From there, he posits that “Without consciousness, the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness, it seems hopeless.” He concludes that ‘reductionism to the materialist level’ (his view of science) cannot explain consciousness.

A bat doesn’t think about itself as being a bat instead of, for instance, a cat.

The bat also does not have philosophical thoughts about itself, let alone its thinking. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ [I think, therefore, I am] has not been, nor ever will be one of its ponderings.

Therefore, ‘What would it feel like to be a bat?’ is an object of human philosophers’ contemplation. It is not a question that the bat is concerned about. No bat (nor anyone else) asks himself the question what it’s like to be me-as-a-bat.

Dear reader, what does it feel like to be you?

You can react to this question in two interesting ways:

  • By trying to get the raw feeling of what it is to be you. If you do this exercise several times, you find that the raw experience differs each time. Keep that in mind. Only you can do this exercise about yourself, and even more, only you at each specific moment. Tomorrow will be far too late to have the exact same experience as today. This is mainly the case because your eighty billion neurons are involved (as a starter).
  • By trying to describe the feeling. Then you start using terms to capture your present experience of what it feels like. If you are honest with yourself, you soon discover that no combination of terms can fully capture your experience. Not even the fleeting one at the present moment, and not even if you would have much time for description.

Back to the bat

In contrast to you, the bat has far less time for being a philosopher. Also, as a consequence, its experience is naturally far more direct. If it could understand the question, it would react to it in the first way. Just like yours, its reaction would be different each time.

There is no such thing as what it is like to be a bat except as an experience, and it’s each time different, moment after moment.

Thus, we can better replace the question of the title with the following:

What is, to a bat, the experience of being?

An answer to this question readily lies closer to the actual experience of the bat. It is not the experience of being a bat — big difference. Also, we know by now that this experience is very fleeting.

There is, to the bat, an experience of being in the present moment. Moreover, any inkling of a previous or the next day is part of the experience at this very moment. The bat doesn’t have an explicit internal agenda as we do.

Yet bats are very social beings with a keen social memory. For instance, blood-sucking bats regularly give some blood to each other, keeping personal track of who recently gave or received it.

Still, for all we know, the bat may at any moment consciously sense its fleeting experience as the only thing that exists ― the environment in space and time being part of it.

So, the title’s question doesn’t seem to lead to a clear answer about consciousness.

One might ascribe some consciousness to the bat — compared to us, a tiny consciousness. This is interesting in itself. The bat has a tiny, fleeting consciousness that is inaccessible to us. That doesn’t mean there is a hard problem of consciousness.

Discrete versus analog.

Yes, it is subjective, but we can still think, investigate, and say sensible things about it.

Is consciousness an on/off phenomenon, however tiny the ‘on’ might be? Or is it instead a volume button phenomenon— not discrete but entirely analog in any practical way?

All evidence – including the fleetingness of any experience – points to the second. This is also evidence against any ‘hard problem.’ There is no sudden appearance of full human-like consciousness as if by magic — also not in the bat.

Again, there is no feeling of what it is like to be a bat. The bat knows little more than tiny, fleeting experiences. There are even smaller fleeting experiences with simpler animals — therefore, tinier consciousness. Following the chain downwards, it becomes harder and harder – and more subjective – to still call it ‘consciousness’ until nobody – or almost – would call it ‘consciousness’ anymore.

There is no hard line to draw.

Likewise, there is no hard problem to solve.

Instead, the soft problems (including how-to) are crucial.

Despite what Nagel said, the soft problems of consciousness are also so much more interesting. For instance, several features of subconceptual processing shed a fascinating light on the emergence (from inside out) of characteristics of consciousness as we all know it from the outside.

Not even a reduction to the materialist level is needed.

I hope we will soon find out with all this that science can have a heart after all.

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