M15. Assignment: What is it Like to Be a Bat?


The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay called “What is it like to be a bat?”  It is a serious attempt to understand what it means to say that something is something–something very different from some other thing. We can wonder about people, too.  What was it like to be Napoleon, or George Washington, or some famous movie star.  There is their outer appearance, but that is not what Nagel is after.

Bat Rat Tree

Bat cartoon.  Source: Flickr.  Creative Commons.

When we look at the bat cartoon above, the artist showed the kinds of things Nagel means when we view the life of a bat: the places it lives, the time of day it thrives in, the other animals it associates with. But Nagel is after something much more than these things.

The interesting thing about bats is how they perceive objects in the world external to them.  We all know that bats let out a screech, but what most people don’t know is that screech is the method bats use to see objects, not hear them. A bat’s senses work something like the sonar on a submarine. The sonar sends out a ping and when that ping hits an object, some of the energy of the ping is lost, and some of the energy is sent out in different directions, including a direction that leads it right back to the submarine. A receiver in the ship picks up the returning ping (vibration) and registers the difference in pitch.  That difference in pitch tells the sailor operating the sonar, what kind of object lies ahead, whether it be a rock or another ship.

In the same way, a bat sends out a screech which when it hits an object ahead of it is reduced in energy and the returning screech has a different pitch or vibration.  The bat takes that returning bit of energy and turns it into a picture of the object ahead.  It uses sound to create images.

Nagel makes much of this because as we know, we make images and colors from light energy which hits our eyes and is transduced by the brain into the images that we see.  What Nagel claims then is that it is impossible for us to even imagine how this is experienced  within a bat.  It is beyond us.  While we can understand this scientifically, we cannot ever know what it is like to experience life in the way of a bat.

Nagel comes to some conclusions about all of this week’s reading. For your assignment explain why Nagel’s idea is so important.


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