What it is actually like to be a bat…

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, when he asked “What is it like to be a bat?” The question was intended to make clear how the nature of subjective experience could never be known by objective knowledge of how it worked.
Well, it’s not really an answer, because it comes from a human being, not a bat, but there’s a fascinating article in New Scientist this week about how some blind people actually do use echolocation. This was supposedly the bit of bat experience that would be hardest to imagine.
Of course, it does this not tell us what it is like to be bat, but it does go some way towards telling us what it is like to be a blind human who uses echolocation. Most of us can’t know exactly what it is like, of course, but then I don’t know what it is like to be you either. (I’m not sure I know what it is like to me me, for that matter, but that’s a bigger question for another time.)
Anyway, I post the link mainly because it’s just really interesting. I have no particular discussion points, other than perhaps the question of whether or not this might be (another?) example of how there is more empirical evidence that is relevant to philosophers’ hypothetical thought experiments than has traditionally been believed.
Thanks to Ronnie Somerville for sending me the link.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Maybe we can change it from “what its like to be a Bat” to “what its like to be an ant.” and talk about navigating the world based on pheremones. I saw a youtube video of a kid who did something similar to the man in the article… He could play basketball in the street with his friends amazingly enough, although he’s totally blind. And he would be the one who told his friends when a car was approaching before anyone else usually.

  2. “Seeing” by echolocation is not the same as knowing what it is like to be a bat.

    Of course, even if it was, that would not undermine Nagel’s point. It would only be those who have the experiences that would know what it is like to be a bat (if that is what they know). Nagel’s point was not that there is a sharp dividing line between humans and bats, it is that we can understand subjective experience unless we have it. I do not know what is t is like to be bat, and equally, I do not know what it is like to be a blind person who can “see” using echolocation.

    Well, it’s not really an answer, because it comes from a human being, not a bat

    Are you suggesting that the problem arises because bats can’t speak?

  3. Nagel’s bat problem is really the problem of other minds. So even if bats could speak, I would never know what its like to be a bat, nor what its like to be a woman, or any other person.

    I don’t think Julian is suggesting we’re any closer to knowing what its like to be a bat. My previous comment was mostly in fun.

  4. I can know what it is like to have other people type experiences because they have experience like mine. I know what it is like for you to see red because I have seen red.

    This is different from the other minds problem. The other minds problem is a problem whose conclusion we feel compelled to reject even though it is difficult to explain why. Nagel is asking us to accept his conclusion: we can only have a true knowledge of what experiences are like if we have had those experiences.

    I don’t mean for my comments to sound too serious in response to a post that is a fun observation. I am just interested in the relation between science and philosophy, and how much scientific experiments can say about philosophical problems.

  5. No I think they pretty much are the same problem. Say I’m Red Green colorblind, my experience of the world is different than yours.

    Moreover, I don’t even know that our experiences are subjectively the same, since we use the same word consistently to refer to the same object. You see red, I see blue, but we both call it green, and nod in agreement when we see it instanced on a tree.

    Nagel’s bat problem is simply an extension of that. I may know exactly whats going on (chemically) in your brain, but I’d never know what its like to experience what the bat is experiencing, or whats going on in the bats mind.

  6. I’m not sure I know what it is like to be me, for that matter…

    Like having a bundle or collection of different perceptions?


  7. I think I’m following you Julian…

    it really highlights how diverse mere human perception is, and if we then can draw Kant into the equation, the phenomenal world, the world that we can indeed Know, becomes much more complex and in some sense, more unknowable; which further suggests a noumenal existence that is exponentially beyond our phenomenal capacity to know. Personally, I get this feeling when I hear right wingers extolling their perverse ideologies…I can only imagine their perceptual world, but I realize I cannot inhabit it. Either way, it is fascinating to say the least. Thinking about it further, cases such as this are why any empirical experiment, thought or material, is objectively lacking. Nagel’s “view from nowhere” I still believe is one of the best explications of the limits of objective thinking in relation to subjective being, and it is quite clearly an extension of his batsy essay. Whenever this problem set arises, I think of the Heisenberg principle, that inevitably, the measurement of one particular phenomenon and hence the perspective that is required to make the measurement exclude an equally valid objective perspective and quality of reality. I’ve been coming across some of Thoreau’s thoughts on this, and his extension of Kant are convincing in their relation to pragmatic social thinking. There’s something in Emerson as well, he talks of a pressing or shaping, and I feel lately as if reality is pressing upon us particular perceptions, the weight of which we can only handle in minute fractions. Not sure if that makes sense(?)

  8. Hi,
    I noticed someone else mentioned talking to a bat, and that was what I was thinking of too.

    do you think of ‘knowing what it’s like to be something’ as a scale or as absolutes, and do you think talking to a bat, reading bat literature etc. would allow you to say you knew any better what it was like to be a bat?

  9. Well, thanks to being inoculated beforehand by some of the ideas of Susan Blackmore [via New Scientist as it happened – Blackmore,S.J. 1989a Consciousness NS No.1658 1 April 38-41] I found Thomas Nagel’s essay “What is it like to be a bat?” to be somewhat dissatisfying. The better question to ask is clearly: What is it like to be created within the brain of a bat?

    Considered from this angle, it can be seen as feasible that a big enough virtual reality simulation of the world of a bat, assuming adequate haptic feedback from the model, might actually induce some kind of a semblance of a bat’s within the brain of a human game player. [You might want to watch out for people carrying sharpened stakes though :-]

  10. Согласен с тобой, можно и так.

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