What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a paper that became an instant classic within academia: What Is It Like to Be a Bat?  Within this paper Nagel contends that although consciousness probably occurs in countless forms on our world and elsewhere in the universe, the fact that an organism is conscious at all means that there is something it is like to be that organism (Nagel, 1974).  It is a strange thought.  But is it at all possible to truly understand the internal subjective experience of another organism?

Well, how do bats navigate their world?  What do they do?  How do they live?  This was the initial thought process Nagel used to attempt to understand what it was to be a bat.  He imagined flying with webbed arms, trying to catch insects, and hanging upside down in an attic or cave.  He then attempted to understand their perception of the world. Most bats navigate their world using echolocation.  Echolocation is a type of biological sonar that allows bats to detect reflections from objects within their range using their own modulated shrieks.  They use it for travel and also to forage.  Of course, this perception is not at all similar to how humans navigate their own worlds.  Nagal concluded that:

“In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far) it tells me only what it would like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”

— Thomas Nagel

Since bats actually utilize a form of perception alien to a human, perhaps that explains why it is we can’t really know what it’s like to be a bat.  As a primatologist, I have spent countless hours observing primates (specifically chimpanzees and ring-tailed lemurs).  However, I will concede that even though I can explain their behaviour to someone, I can’t really understand what it is like to subjectively be a chimp or a lemur.  Lemurs primarily understand their world through olfactory perception.  Since I am primarily an audio-visual animal, I really don’t understand what it is like to understand my world through the sense of smell.  Another big obstacle in this thought-experiment is the fact that I think with language.  We all think with language and no other animal does this.  It would be incredibly hard to train my mind to think in a way that isn’t organized in some way by a linguistic narrative.  I also have a massively enlarged neocortex.  This makes it really impossible for me to imagine the differences in my thought processes enabled by that neocortex vis-à-vis a chimps (for example).

Perhaps in the future technology could help us understand other animal’s subjective experience?  Would it be possible to design a technology that enabled us to experience biological sonar or mimicked the olfactory capabilities of a lemur?  I believe Nagel would agree with me that this still doesn’t solve the problem of knowing what it is like to actually be that animal.  This is because other animals may have fundamentally different types of consciousness.  Perhaps consciousness itself has had different evolutionary trajectories throughout the organic world that we are currently unaware.  In this scenario, reductively understanding and mimicking our biological differences with them would do little to help us understand subjective conscious experience.  I personally think that we will never know what it is like for a bat to be a bat; we will only ever know what it is like for a human to imagine what it is like to be a bat.

Interestingly, geneticist George Church tackled this problem in his recent book Regenesis.  However, instead of attempting to understand what it is like to be a bat, he wanted to know what was like to be a cell.  In order to do this Church explained how nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), proteins (the cell’s housekeepers) and the lipid bilayer membrane function within a complex system (Church, 2012).  He concluded:

“To be a cell, then, is to be a deterministic system governed by DNA, composed largely of proteins and lipids, and energized by ATP.”

— George Church

Church is sort of cheating the philosophical question raised by Nagel in this example because, of course, a cell is not conscious.  The problem Nagel encountered was not in explaining how a bat functions or behaves, but it was explaining how a bat is.  We can explain how a cell functions, but asking what it is like to be a cell is only useful as a thought experiment for humans to learn more about cells.  I am relatively confident that there is no such thing as a “cellular experience” in the subjective sense.

However, this problem goes much deeper than just our inability to understand what it is like to actually be another animal (or an individual cell).  We also have an inability to understand another human’s subjective experiences.  Michael Stevens recently used colour to explain this philosophical conundrum:

“Colour does not exist in the outside world, beyond us, like gravity or protons do. Instead, colour is created inside our heads. Our brains convert a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to colour. I can measure the wavelength of radiation, but I can’t measure or observe the experience of a colour inside your mind. So how do I know that when you and me look at a strawberry, and in my brain this perception occurs which I call “red” a perception like this doesn’t occur [‘not red’], which you have of course learned to call red, we both call it red, we communicate effectively, and walk away, never knowing just how different our internal experiences actually were.”

— Michael Stevens

This is not just an issue for colour.  This is really an issue for all subjective experience. Philosopher Joseph Levine called the difficulty that physicalist theories of mind have in explaining the way things feel when they are experienced (qualia) the “explanatory gap.”  Explaining subjective experience and qualia is still known today as “the hard problem.”  We have no way to know whether my red is the same as your red.

I have given this some further thought over the last few days and I couldn’t help but think about “the hard problem” from an evolutionary perspective.  As I stated above, I agree with Nagel that we may be forever impeded from knowing what it is like to be a bat.  This is because the evolutionary gap between humans and other animals is immense and we don’t know whether consciousness itself has evolved in different ways.  However, with human experience, can we not be relatively confident that our subjective consciousness is relatively similar due to shared ancestry?  We are incredible similar genetically after all.  This may be another reductive attempt to understand a subjective phenomenon, but it seems plausible to me that my red is the same (or similar) to most other humans perception of red simply because, give or take a few cone and rod cells, a human eye is a human eye.

Of course, I am not a philosopher, and I don’t know whether this has been considered before, but it may be useful.

You can find Cadell Last and his evolutionary thoughts on Twitter.

Also posted via Svbtle:


Church, G. & Regis, E.  2012.  Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature And Ourselves.  New York: Basic Books.

Nagel, T.  1974.  What Is It Like to Be a Bat?  Philosophical Review, 83: 435-450.


About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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