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What its like to be a bat - Critical Assessment

Updated on January 11, 2010



     The following essay critically assesses Thomas Nagel`s What is it Like to be a Bat? I will introduce the content by explaining the importance of consciousness as well as the subjective character of experience.  I will define the context of Nagel`s argument through examples he used in the article, as well as with evidence through Frank Jackson`s Epiphenomenal Qualia, and Bertrand Russell`s My Present View of the World.  I will then discuss epiphenomenalism and the pursuit towards greater objectivity before discussing some of the more questionable passages from Nagel.

     Nagel argues that consciousness is such an important part of the mind-body problem because it is an individual experience that can not be reduced into anything outside our personal understanding.  Physicalism has had success in reductionist theories for many subjects, but Nagel ultimately tries to prove that mental states, and specifically consciousness and experience can only be viewed in a subjective context and not objectively.  Reduction is a process by where we ultimately try to lessen our reliance on case-specific experiences and attempt to create a general-case definition.  These theories have always tended to work remarkably well with physics, math, and science.  Nagel has a point in saying that every organism that experiences consciousness is unique because no other organism shares that experience.  In this regard, he claims that “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.” (529)  This is what Nagel has called the subjective character of experience.

     Nagel makes two points about conscious experiences by using examples of robots and animals.  For robots, we could program them with certain functional or intentional states which would affect their behaviour (if you can call it that), but they would not be conscious in the same way humans are.  He does slightly contradict himself by second-guessing the complexity of these robots.  He claims that maybe if the robots were built complex enough, there is little reason to believe they would not develop some type of consciousness even if it is not very similar to our own.  This is supported by Nagel’s animal example that many animals have conscious experiences, even with the absence of language or thought.  It then follows that robots could be programmed with the ability to have experiences, even though ascribing them consciousness might be a step too far.

     The physical basis of the mind is difficult to comprehend because we can not reduce things like emotions very easily because we do not understand how neural activities are translated into mental states very well.  Every person has their own tastes and so someone who likes broccoli would describe its taste very differently than someone who does not like it.  Therefore broccoli must mean something special for each individual and we can not push its definition any further than that.  For this essay’s definition of qualia, I turn to self-proclaimed qualia-freak Frank Jackson where he has claimed that, “there are certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes.”  (Jackson, 762)

     It is useful to make the distinction of the analogical meaning of the expression, what it is like to be something.  Nagel is not referring to how things might be similar to others in resemblance, but rather, how the experience actually is for the subject itself.  “So if extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable.” (531) This is a shaky argument for Nagel to make because it appears he is attempting to remove `extrapolation from our own case`, which does not compliment the logical consistency of what he is trying to say.

     The following is what I believe to be one of Nagel`s better arguments perhaps not because of its logical consistency but more so due to its eloquence.  It is an argument that is made stronger by the claim that understanding falls on a continuum where the closer things are to one another, the more `accurate` that observation will be.  We should be mindful however; that perhaps our reduction of phenomenological facts could simply not be technically refined enough to comprehend what is really going on.

“There is a sense in which phenomenological facts are perfectly objective: one person can know or say of another what the quality of the other’s experience is.  They are subjective, however, in the sense that even this objective ascription of experience is possibly only for someone sufficiently similar to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view – to understand the ascription in the first person as well as in the third, so to speak.” (Nagel, 533)


     Let us take an apple.  If a Martian saw an apple it would begin by looking like a lump of matter.  If he saw how people behaved with apples he might think they are food. If the Martian saw humans eating a special type and variety of these foods, he might notice that they are fruit.  The point is that by reducing an object to its most simplistic form of experience and understanding, usually gives it a more accurate description of what that thing is.  Nagel wants to say that in the case of certain mental states, this reductionist model does not produce the most accurate description of what that thing is. “If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one 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” (535) I like this argument to the extent that it shows inherent difficulty in the reductionist approach with respect to mental states.  I do not like this argument because Nagel is quite vague about moving towards greater objectivity, especially when nobody has a clue about what we are supposed to be reducing in the first place.  Reduction could in fact be coherent; we might simply lack the technology to utilize it.

     Epiphenomenalism is something to think about in relation to Nagel`s question because we need to define the structure of where neural activities are ranked when compared with perceptual mental states.  Like the idea of the `Brain-o-Scope` we discussed in class, it seems there is no way we could understand enough about neural activity to perceive the same things as when the person remembers smelling a rose when they were younger.  What I mean by ranking is that we usually have a tendency to put first-person mental states on more of a `pedestal` than the neural activity that causes them.  Some people think of the first-person experience to be somehow more credible or real than an observational experience, but really their perceptual importance is probably split down the middle.  This is my opinion but Hume would counter that by saying, ``The existence, therefore, of any being can only be proved by arguments from its cause or its effect, and these arguments are founded entirely on experience.`` (Hume, 172)  From a realist perspective, we could also counter both of the previous arguments by saying that mental states are only a diluted image of what is really out there.  In this case, existence is a given and perception is just a fragmented conception of that.

     Nagel seems to take the assumption that the moment we begin looking at something from an objective third-person view, we are missing the essence of what it is actually like to experience that sensation.  This can be seen in the example of pain; I know that when I broke my wrist it was quite sharp and painful, but when I remember that experience I do not really remember that sensation of adrenaline and pain.  On the other hand, when I think about being hungry yesterday there is no doubt that what I was experiencing is very similar to what I believe it to be.  I think this is what Nagel meant when he said, “It may be more accurate to think of objectivity as a direction in which the understanding can travel.” (534) 

     I reiterate the claim I made above; this continuum of understanding seems to be faulty because it looks a lot like Schrödinger’s Cat.  We do not `kind-of` know things. We may be `kind-of` good at things like math, but the fact remains that we know full well we are `kind-of` good at math.  We either know things or we do not, and I do not subscribe to the notion that knowledge can operate in a superposition.

What is it like for who to be a Bat?

“It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.  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.” (531) 


   I do not like this passage very much because Nagel comes very close to, if not indeed contradicting himself.  Where some of his other arguments are more convincing, it is very hard to not view this passage as circular to the extent that Nagel is laying on the ‘hypotheticals’ a little too thick.  By saying he wants to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat, he is ultimately removing himself from the equation.  By doing this, he is not really experiencing that which he assumes, but rather, he would be experiencing simply himself, as a bat.  In a sense, he is taking out the third-person perspective of it all and making his argument circular.

     Another inconsistency I noticed in Nagel was something Frank Jackson already said before me, but it goes with part of my argument above.  It is quite noticeable that Nagel changes gears mid-point in his article.  By the end it seems that his sweeping statements “object not so much to Physicalism as to all extant theories of mind for ignoring points of view, including those that admit (irreducible) qualia.” (Jackson, 766)  It seems that it would have been more accurate for Nagel to simply claim that there is indeed something unique to be a bat, and that by understanding bat-structure, we can form a better conception of what it is really like for the bat.  Instead, Nagel appears to be flirting with circularity by focussing too heavily on the perspective issue. 

     Jackson raises another important point which makes me look at the mind/body problem and Nagel’s arguments a little differently.  Suppose that an epiphenomenal quale is one newspaper company (The Times), and a Physicalist proof is another (The Telegraph).  The Times reports that the Spurs won a basketball games, and each company has a reporter at the game.  ``The Telegraph`s report is in no sense an outcome of The Times`, but the latter provides good evidence of the former nevertheless.``(Jackson, 769)  This changes the question a little bit because it claims we do not need to look for causal links between mind and matter because it is perfectly likely we will not find any.  The only link they might have is that they are both at the game, doing their own thing but seeing pretty much the same thing.  Perhaps one paper is biased towards the home team and colours the story much differently; this should not matter because most of the time the final scores will be listed the same.  This is not to say that there is no causality, but perhaps there are degrees of causality or we are experiencing something like an incomplete causality.  This notion is expressed by Russell, ``We have causal chain in which the beginning resembles the end, but the intermediate terms, so far as intrinsic qualities are concerned, appear to be of quite a different kind.``(19)

     Jackson does not pretend to single-handedly knock down qualia as a relevant philosophical question, but he does matter-of-factly point out that that, ``They do nothing, they explain nothing, they serve merely to soothe the intuitions of dualists, and it is left a total mystery how they fit into the world view of science.`` (770) He could be absolutely right, but this could also be one of those arguments that will look horrendously out-dated in fifty years.  I like Russell`s observation that indeed qualia may explain nothing, but this does not mean that qualia does not at the very least, contribute to some ``constancy of structure.``(19)  Another  point Russell makes is that in mathematical physics, ``the journey back from the abstract to the concrete is long and arduous, and, out of sheer weariness, we are temped to rest by the way and endow some semi-abstraction with concrete reality which it cannot justly claim.`` (21)  This is definitely part of the problem with Nagel`s argument because the complexity of neural activity happening in our brains makes it too easy to take the easy way out and succumb to circular or incomplete argumentation. 

     Another point of Nagel`s I disagree with is his rather obvious assumption that, “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.`` (532)  My point of contention is - why should they?  Is it even reasonable for Nagel to initially think that all expressions of truth should be expressible in a human language?  That is a pretty big pill to swallow, let alone to downplay as an obviously logical assumption.

     The main problem I have with Nagel`s paper is that most of his arguments are `safe` to the extent that we can not attack them from an opposite perspective; the paper is more like a series of hypothetical questions than an argument for or against anything.  We know so little about the relationship between minds and our brains, that trying to discredit Nagel is like cooking a gourmet meal with an easy-bake oven.  Sure, right now I can accept that Nagel poses some interesting metaphysical questions but in my opinion I have to label this paper as tabloid-philosophy because I find it quite self-affirming and circular.

     While marking this paper, I hope you understand that from my own subjective experience, this essay has been a work of art, if not indeed the greatest thing ever written.  If one is to deny this point, it is simply because of their fruitless effort to try to interpret the definition of my subjective point of view.  If that is the case, then one is practicing a strictly Physicalist ideology – something this paper shows as potentially inconsistent – and therefore any deviation from a perfect grade might be considered irrelevant because it is not in line with my own subjective experience. 

     Any seemingly obvious flaws in grammar spelling, or sentence-structure could be observed in two ways.  First, one could assume they are honest mistakes from someone who did not edit well enough. Alternatively, since I already admitted that this essay is the greatest thing ever written, any mistakes found within it reflect the ironic and circular nature of the subjectivity of consciousness.  This is true because as a professor, you will be grading me, based on an essay written from my subjective experience – something I am sure we would both find to be an ineffective way of illustrating the real and complete essence of what my essay is like to me.




Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development. London: Allen & Unwin Ltd., (1969). Pp. 16-27.


David Hume. Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. (1955). Pp. 169-173.


Frank Jackson. `Epiphenomenal Qualia`, Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982) in John Heil (Ed.). Philosophy of Mind. Oxford. UK: OxfordUniversity Press. Pp. 762-771.


Thomas Nagel, `What is it like to be a Bat?`, Philosophical Review 83 (1974) in John Heil (Ed.). Philosophy of Mind. Oxford. UK: OxfordUniversity Press. Pp. 528-538.


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      whited 6 years ago

      ***Can you help me with this assignment based on Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat? To agree or disagree with D. or M. and give some supporting reasons.***

      Here is a short, and inconclusive exchange between two characters—a materialist and a

      dualise (M and D), talking about qualia (aspects of the world as it appears to a being with

      my sort of sensory receptors and brain);

      D: You don't deny, do you, that appearances occur, and that among these appearances

      are qualia?

      M: Of course not. How could I?

      D: And these are not part of the public, measurable world of physical science.


      D: Then, since appearances do occur and they don't belong to the world as described by

      physical science, there must be more to reality than what is physical. And that "more" is

      the mind, in which appearances occur.

      M: Not so. From the fact chat the sun actually

      appears to move across the sky, it does not follow that there is some actual domain in

      which the sun really moves that way. In general, it does not follow from the fact that

      something appears to happen or be in a certain way, that there is some place or part of

      reality in which it really occurs.

      D: You're missing the point.

      M: That's what I was going to say.

      Comment on this exchange from Nagel's point of view.

    • mthurston profile image

      mthurston 6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Think about the following in relation to the subjective character of experience and consciousness. Think about objectivity; more specifically, the pursuit of greater objectivity and how it tends to clash with Nagel's rather outlandish claims.

      “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.`` (532)

    • profile image

      jamil 6 years ago

      Well Michael I appreciate your opinion and advice here. I would feel more comfortable about your opinion if you were not trying to promote your book. Feels more like you are spamming me. For the $35 price on your book I am sure I could get bat removal information for free elsewhere on the internet or buy talking to our local pest control.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by however.

    • mthurston profile image

      mthurston 6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      I gotta say I'm more than a little confused with the last comment.

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      WildBloom 4 years ago

      Hi, I just want to comment here about a common physicalist response to Nagel's argument I've heard over and over again.

      The classical objection of the materialist to the argument that the scientists who know everything about the bat's brain would be incapable of knowing its subjective feeling is to acknowledge this but then saying that it is not the case because qualia are irreducible to matter but because our brains have not evolved in such a away to allow to comprehend them.

      However this seems to completely miss the point.

      Let us consider a (materially) all knowing scientist. He knows everything about the physical processes going on in a computer and in a wash-machine. Therefore, we can say for example that he entirely knows what is the rotation of clothes within the wash-machine for he knows every material thing about the process (like the chemical composition of the clothes and the products used to wash them, the speed of the rotor and so on and so forth.) He does not need to be transformed in a wash-machine in order to know everything about what is taking place.

      Now, according to materialists, the subjective feelings of a bat sending out ultra-sounds is completely reducible to a collection of atoms, molecules, electrons and their interaction. But if this is truly the case, the mere knowledge of the chemistry and physic of the brain will necessarily lead to a full knowledge of the subjective feelings or qualia, since the latter is reducible to the former.

      If however a complete knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the entire bat does not provide us with a knowledge of the bat's inner life, this shows that its subjective perceptions (qualia) are different from mere physics and chemistry.

      And if we consider qualia to be emergent and irreducible properties emerging from the brain, it is completely expected that they can only be experienced by creatures having the appropriate neuronal structures.

      If, on the other hands, qualia were nothing more than molecules, atoms, electrons and their interactiion, the fact of having the wrong type of brain would be completely irrelevant, our brain is clearly capable of apprehending physics and chemistry, therefore he would also entirely know the inner life of the bat in the same way he can entirely know the ensemble of atoms which make up a glass of wine.

      As a consequence, I believe Nagel's argument is still valid and shows that reductive materialism is false. Thus, any thorough-going naturalist should recognize irreducible emergent properties and things as a part of reality or nature.

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