Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to be a Bat? is an essay that explores the idea of human mental states. Nagel attempts to explain the metaphysical relationship between our mind and body, a currently incomprehensible concept known as consciousness. As well as providing an analogy to explain what this link consists of, he provides his reasoning as to why we’ve yet to find any serious prospect of accounting for the existence of the conscious. To this issue he consistently refers to “the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different.” (Nagel, What it is it Like to be a Bat?) In the examination of the theory of consciousness, our penchant for familiar and relatable terms is a constant weakness. Nagel argues that despite our extensive research in the field of neuroscience, our study of how our brains think and react, we’ve invested essentially nothing but abstract thought to the idea of consciousness. As such, he states, we are not yet in a position to explain consciousness in terms of physicality.
In his analogy of the bat, Nagel provides us with a comparison of humans to bats. To accurately articulate his argument, Nagel chose bats for their opposition to our sensory experiences. Bats navigate and see, for the majority of the time, using their echolocation. Their eyes are open very little at all times and they sleep upside down as well as, unlike most humans, during the day. As such, a bat’s daily experience is very different from ours. Nagel states that as humans we can imagine what it is to be a bat. We can imagine feeding on bugs in the night sky, using echolocation to see, sleeping during the day, even flapping our arms to fly; but, he says, this is only our attempt at being bats. It is US imitating a bat rather than a bat’s, so to speak, first person experience. Nagel calls this the “subjective character of experience.” It is, as far as we know, a state of mind available only to the singular bat.
To further Nagel’s study of the subjective character of experience, we can look closer at the analogy as it applies to humans. The bat does indeed have a variety of sensory differences from humans that make it very clear that we cannot experience the same subjective character; however, this subjective character can be applied to humans as individuals as well. It is impossible for any two humans to have the exact same genetics, and entirely similar life experiences. As such, the way that any human comes in contact with a concept or activity cannot be understood in entirety because it’s impossible for us, as other humans with different life experiences, to put ourselves in their metaphorical shoes. This is similar to the way in which it is impossible for us to understand the experience of truly being a bat.
As an example of this theory, we can consider a new employee at the place we currently work - wherever that may be is of little consequence. We can picture ourselves in the position of the new employee on their first day of work. We can imagine the nervousness, anxiety, and excitement of the first day because we’ve had that experience ourselves. However, because of the subjectivity of the new employee’s situation, we fail to realize the fact that she is thinking many different things than we were on our first day. Rather than being nervous about appeasing the boss in the example, she is worried about whether or not she will be treated differently because of her skin colour, or the quality of her clothing. This is not to limit the subjective experience to common concerns either. The new employee has come through a lifetime to this point of different experiences than us; different parents, peer groups, developed different social habits, her own way of thinking, and has a unique genealogy that separates all of us on a microscopic level. Nothing this person experiences is the same as what we know or have experienced ourselves, reinforcing Nagel’s subjective character of experience.
This same subjective nature can also be applied to human emotion, moreover the fact that no human feels the same emotion in the exact same manor. The way in which we experience emotions is influenced much the same as the reactions of the new employee in the example. It’s a product of a lifetime of experience. The way we react to situations and feel our emotions represents a majority of what it means for us to be individual humans. Our experience is what makes us who we are. Nagel enforces this as well when he says, “After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?” However, Nagel states he believes it is possible for one to understand the subjective experience of another through objective ascription by one “sufficiently similar to the object of ascription.” He believes it is possible to understand another person’s experience both in the first person and the third. In saying this, our opinions differ as I believe it is necessary to separate feeling from emotion.
My support of the concept of consciousness comes from the idea of feeling. An emotion constitutes knowledge, things proven to us by science. Neuroscience can predict the chemical reactions associated with happiness, the release of endorphins that make us feel ‘good,’ or excitement caused by the release of adrenaline. These are scientific emotions as opposed to feelings which are harder, impossible even, to articulate. Feelings transcend words in their subjectivity, something greater than the scientific physical reaction. And the way we, as individuals, experience feelings is directly comparable to Nagel’s subjective character of experience. Referring again to Nagel’s criticism of our weakness for explanations of the incomprehensible in familiar physical terms, the idea of feeling equates to a mental state because we are unable to ascribe words to it whereas with the idea of emotions, we are able to apply a physical description based on our current scientific knowledge.
The advancement of our understanding of mental states is thus limited by the restrictions of the language that we created. This difficulty is also applicable to all new ideas and previous incomprehensibles because the way we communicate is based verbally. Not only do we apply our language to new concepts, but we have given verbal descriptions to every single thing we can perceive and conceive, even a verbal description of every word we use. If there are no preexisting explanations for new concepts, a new method of communicating the ideas must be devised. The first solution is the invention of new language; forms, expressions, words. However, the immediate issue with the invention of new words is the need to assign to them meaning that we currently understand. Said problem also arises when faced with the suggestion of a solely physical, nonverbal description. If we were to attempt to show the feeling or the new concept, we’d need to put words to our actions in order to describe them. Again, we are limited by our language.
I believe that Nagel was correct in believing that we have no real progress toward an understanding of consciousness or mental states. Through his analogy of the bat, he makes the point that the subjective character of experience is vital in understanding said concepts. Because of the current lack of study in the scientific field in terms of mental states, as well as the extremely subjective nature of the topic itself, I think we’re far from any real prospect. I do, however, believe that it is possible for humans to understand this idea. The point Nagel makes about taking away what it means to be a bat by taking away the bat’s viewpoint is crucial in that it gives insight to what it means to be human. If we take away our viewpoint, our experience, what makes us individuals?