What is it Like to be a Bat? [notes on cognitive science]

05May09

In this article Nagel draws our attention towards the role of consciousness in the mind-body problem, attacking reductionist theories. He tries to show that there is no reduction concept available to deal with consciousness and goes on to explore these implications, by beginning with an account of the nature of consciousness.

It is clear that there is some level of consciousness at many levels of animal life, although there is little evidence to help us decide either way. He defines conscious experience of an organism as there being something it is like to be that organism. He calls this “subjective character experience” and claims that it cannot be captured in any reducible mental analysis, since these are logically compatible with its absence. The analyses include explanatory systems of functional/intentional states, the analysis of causal role of experiences of typical human behavior.

Nagel goes on to try and define an account of the physical basis of mind. Facts about what it is like to be an X are peculiar, especially since subjective features are very important. Thus, he uses the example of bats (assuming they have experience) due to their wildly different perceptual system. A bat’s brain uses the bat’s shrieks to correlate outgoing and incoming echos to obtain precise discriminations of size, distance, etc; comparable to the ones provided to us by vision. This system is wildly different from any sense we can experience or imagine.

Nagel states that experience provides material for our imagination, thus making it very difficult to imagine what it is like to be a bat. This cannot be done by adding new parts to my experience or subtracting parts from it (or any other combination of additions and subtractions). The experiences of a bat have in each case a subjective character which is beyond our ability to conceive. Same goes for the converse case where intelligent bats try to think what is it like for us to be human. However, they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us, and to deny the existence of something that cannot be described or understood is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance. Nagel leads this reflection on what it is like to be a bat towards the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth propositions expressible in human language. We can recognize their existence without being able to state or comprehend them.

This relates directly to the mind-body problem. If the facts of experience are only accessible from one point of view, then it is not possible to imagine how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism. A Martian scientist with no visual perception could still study and understand the phenomenology of the rainbow, but it would never be able to understand the human concept of a rainbow. Nagel talks of objectivity as the direction in which understanding can travel (i.e. from point of view to phenomena). This can be easily done in terms of external events, but for experience, the connection with a point of view is much closer. What is the objective character of an experience aside from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it? What would be left of what it is like to be a bat if we remove the bat’s viewpoint? But if there is no objective part to experience, how could a martian scientist investigating your brain be observing physical processes which are your mental processes?

Psycho-physical reduction aims to pursue a more objective understanding of a phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward it in favor of another that is more objective but concerns the same phenomena. But how could you do that for human experience? This approach seems unlikely to provide any useful insights. The point of view from which we can think of the internal world is its essence, therefore a reduction would take away the very thing we’re trying to find.

If mental processes are indeed physical, then there is something it is like to undergo certain physical processes. It would be wrong to conclude from this that physicalism must be false, rather we should admit that physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we don’t have a conception of how it might be true. Mental states are states of the body; mental events are physical events.

The use of the apparently simple verb ‘is’ usually implies that we know how X might be Y, because we either know X and Y ‘s nature very well, and so forth. However, when X and Y are very distant, this becomes hard to apprehend. Without a proper framework, the identification is mistified. However, we might have evidence for the truth of something we can’t understand. If we know nothing about a caterpillar’s metamorphosis and we leave it locked in a box to find that there is only a butterfly, we have reason to believe that the butterfly was once the caterpillar, even if we don’t know why this might be so. Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like as opposed to how they appear to me?

Could we come up with an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or imagination whose goal is to describe the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences? A phenomenology like that would permit questions about the physical basis of experience to assume a more intelligible form. It seems unlikely however that, until the subjective-objective problem receives more thought, a physical theory of mind might be developed.

from “What is it like to be a bat” by T. Negel

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