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What Is It Like To Be A Bat?

Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? in The Philosophical Review. N. 83. 1974. 435–450. Cornell University. 

In this essay, Nagel uses the metaphor of the Bat to argue against reductionist approaches to philosophy and the sciences. The essay makes distinctions between object and subjective analysis of the world and offers useful language such a ‘point-of-view’ to to think through the complex issues of being and experience. The essay argues that our experience of the world, and the essence of being a thing in the world can not be reduced to its component biological parts and that there are other ways of seeing, and being in the world.

Useful Quotes

“Facts about what it is like to be an X are very peculiar, so peculiar that some may be inclined to doubt their reality, or the significance of claims about them. To illustrate the connection between subjectivity and a point of view.” (p437-8)

“Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some
time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.” (p438)

“bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine” (p438)

“It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables
one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.” (p439)

“if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modification.” (p439)

“This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of representation on the other.” (p441)

“Whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view.” (p441)

“The point of view in question is not one accessible only to a single individual. Rather it is a type. It is often possible to take up a point of view other than one’s own, so the comprehension of such facts is not limited to one’s own case.” (p441-2)

“In our own case we occupy the relevant point of view, but we will have as much difficulty understanding our own experience properly if we approach it from another point of view as we would if we tried to understand the experience of another species without taking up its point of view.” (p442)

“For if the facts of experience-facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism-are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” (p442)

“A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena, though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lightning, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.” (p443)

“Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision.” (p443)

“After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat? But if experience does not have, in addition to its subjective character, an objective nature that can be apprehended from many different points of view, then how can it be supposed that a Martian investigating my brain might be observing physical processes which were my mental processes (as he might observe physical processes which were bolts of lightning), only from a different point of view?” (p444)

“In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation.” (p444)

“Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity -that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint-does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.” (p445)

“At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination-without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method-an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination.” (p449)

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