What Is It Like to Be a Bat? More on Nagel’s Famous Conundrum

In my previous posting I quoted Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel suggested that it is “like something” to be conscious. It is like something, for example, to be a bat. It is like something else to be you, reading these words right now. It is like something to be tasting guacamole. It is like something else to feel nauseous (unless it was really bad guacamole).

And so on. By contrast, most of us assume there is nothing it is like to be a light bulb or a toadstool. They are not conscious, so it is like nothing at all to be them. (Some would argue that the toadstool is sentient, and of course panpsychists would argue that even the light bulb is conscious.)

In time “a consensus … emerged that Thomas Nagel’s expression, ‘what it is like to be’ succeeds in capturing well what is at stake” in discussions about consciousness” (Varela and Shear, Journal of Consciousness Studies, February/March, 1999, p. 3). But even though it was a stunning intuitive breakthrough, some people doubt that it has any clear meaning. David Rosenthal complains that the term “‘what it’s like’ is not reliable common currency” and quotes William Lycan as saying that this phrase is “positively pernicious and harmful” (Rosenthal, Analysis, July, 2011, p. 434).

Here’s an example of the way this phrase can confuse us. Some say that what-it’s-like includes only sensory experiences, such as seeing the blueness of the sky, hearing a harpsichord, or suffering a migraine headache. Others say that non-sensory mental states such as highly abstract thoughts can be “like something.” As Rocco Gennaro writes, “It does indeed seem right to hold that there is something it is like to think that rabbits have tails, believe that ten plus ten equals twenty, or have a desire for some Indian food” (The Consciousness Paradox, p. 27). It’s not easy to adjudicate this dispute.

Another problem is that this term allows us to fuse the subject of experience and the object of experience without realizing we’re doing that. If that sounds confusing, it probably means you’re paying attention. It is very difficult to think and communicate about this issue, but I’ll give it a go:

People sometimes use “what it’s like” to refer to what it is that we are experiencing – blueness, musical notes, pain, and so on. But others use what-it’s-like language to mean what it’s like to subjectively experience these things – what experiences are like for the creature that has those experiences.

This reflects a duality in the way we think about consciousness. Sensory experiences seem to be both what we experience and the way these experiences seem to us. They are a certain way, and they seem a certain way. There is a subtle but crucial difference between the sense that you are experiencing something and the sense that you are experiencing something.

I read Nagel himself as emphasizing the second interpretation. He didn’t talk about what a bat’s echolocation patterns are like. He talked about what it was like to BE the bat, sensing via echolocation. But many philosophers who speak of what-it’s-like emphasize the first interpretation – what the mental states that we are experiencing are “really like.”

I’ll mention just one reason this distinction is important. Theoretically, what we are experiencing and what it’s like for us to experience it could come apart. Suppose pain is a brain state that is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, as when a headache drifts in and out of my awareness. And suppose the experiencing self is a (very complex) brain state that detects and responds to sensory inputs. In principle, my brain could malfunction so that when the experiencing self detects a pain state, it operates as if it was enjoying the experience of tasting peanut butter. In that case, what am I really experiencing, pain or peanut-flavor? (For a spirited argument about this point see the articles by Block, Rosenthal, and Weisberg in Analysis, July, 2011.)

So when people talk about what it’s like to have conscious experiences, this implies both the experience that we’re aware of and what it’s like to be aware of this experience. It fuses the object of experience with the subject of experience. Discussing what-it’s-like makes it sound as if we’re dealing with one idea, but it’s actually an amalgamation of two ideas. This causes confusion.

And speaking of confusion, I’d appreciate feedback about which aspects of this blog-post are unclear to readers. I’m trying to refine my presentation of this murky topic.

In Your Living Mind I wrote: “We seem to have needed such a term, but perhaps we will eventually find better ways to express what Nagel was getting at.” I still find myself using what-it’s-like language, but I try to make clear what this phrase means to me. To me, consciousness involves what experiences are like for the experiencing subject. This seems more in keeping with Nagel’s original intent.

Roger Christan Schriner


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