Nagel—What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

by Thomas Nagel

[Nagel, Thomas. 1974. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83 (4): 435–50.]


philosophical argument against reductionism. particularly as employed by physicalist materialism.

  1. consciousness is an experience, so it cannot be explained through the body—this is the problem with reductionist explanations of the “mind-body problem”
  2. because consciousness is an experience, it feels like something to the experiencer: “no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism” (426).
  3. What it feels like (is like) is unique to that organism, so consciousness is purely subjective
  4. In order to explain an experience to someone who has not experienced it, one would have to use objective description, which simply cannot encapsulate subjective issues
    1. Nagel uses bats as an example—how do we begin to understand what it is like to see with sonar and echolocation? We have no subjective background for this.
  5. So, the only thing we know (can ever really know) is what it is like to be ourselves (subjectivism)
  6. But wait! This does not mean that physicalism is necessarily false. This just means that we have no way of knowing or proving whether or not it is true.
    1. we don’t even know what “is” means: “For example, people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background” (447).
    2. which is why we don’t know what it is to be a bat
    3. which is why no one can know what it is to be something (someone) else
    4. which is why the mind-body issue will never be solved until we discover a way of objectively and inclusively relating experiential consciousness

reductionism—things are not that complicated; they are merely the sums of their parts, which are also not complicated

materialism—(in philosophy) matter is the only real thing; mental, spiritual, emotional, etc are all manifestations of matter doing stuff

physicalism—like materialism, but specifically arguing that all mental phenomena can be explained by physical bodily processes

Annotation Summary for: Nagel – What is it like to be a bat?

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What Is It Like to Be a Bat? Thomas Nagel The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4. (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “CONSCIOUSNESS is what makes the mind-body problemreally intractable. Perhaps that is why current discussionsof the problem give it little attention or get it obviously wrong.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “what makes the mind-body problem unique, and unlike the water-H20 problem or the Turing machine-IBM machine problem or the lightning-electrical discharge problem or the gene-DNA problem or the oak tree-hydrocarbon problem, is ignored.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism­ something it is like for the organism.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We may call this the subjective character of experience.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Without some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot: know what is required of a physicalist theory.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “To illustrate the connection between”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “subjectivity and a point of view, and to make evident the impor­ tance of subjective features, it will help to explore the matter in relation to an example that brings out clearly the divergence between the two types of conception, subjective and objective. I assume we all believe that bats have experience.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Bats, present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those re­ sources are inadequate to the task.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.)”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of repre­ sentation on the other.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The point of view in question is not one accessi­ ble only to a single individual. Rather it is a type.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” In our own case we occupy the relevant point of view, but we will have as muchdifficulty understanding our own experience properly if we approach it from another point of view as we would if we triedto understand the experience of another species without takingup its point of view. 8 ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “if the facts of experience-facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism-are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The latter is a domain of objective facts par excellence-the kind that can be observed and understood from many points of view and by individuals with differing perceptual systems.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character ofan experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it.”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accu­rate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished byreducing our dependence on individual or species-specific pointsof view toward the object of investigation. ”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Experience itself, however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make nosense here. ”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Certainly itappears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of humanexperience by leaving behind the particularity of our human pointof view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjectivecharacter of experience is fully comprehensible only from one”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity -that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint-does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” It would be a mistake to conclude thatJ physicalism must be false. Nothing is proved by the inadequacyof physicalist hypotheses that assume a faulty objective analysis of mind”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But I believe it is precisely this apparent clarity of the word “is” that is deceptive. Usually, when we are told that Xis r we know how it is supposed to be true, but that depends on a concep­ tual or theoretical background and is not conveyed by the “is” alone. We know how both “X” and “Y” refer, and the kinds of things to which they refer, and we have a rough idea how the two referential paths might converge on a single thing, be it an object, a person, a process, an event, or whatever.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But when the two terms of the identification are very disparate it may not be so clear how it could be true.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “For example, people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In order to understand the hypothesis that a mental event is a physical event, we require more than an understanding of the word “is.””

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Very little work has been done on the basic question whether anysense can be made of experiences’ having an objective characterat all. Does it make sense, in other words, to ask what my experi­ences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me? W”

Page 16, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I should like to close with a speculative proposal. It may be possible to approach the gap between subjective and objective from another direction.”

Page 16, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination-without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method-an objective phenomenology not dependent on em­ pathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not cap­ ture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”


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