What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?



This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

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20 Responses to “What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    One of the things I like about you Frank, is that you make me think about why I think the way I do (if I can call it thinking). Now I’m thinking about what to write next — OK, I think if you write more about sex and include video, you’re readership will go up. May you have a happy, non-materialistic holiday. Not writing what I’m thinking next …

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    There is at least one more sex post in the pipeline; but I cannot promise video. However, I’m told there is plenty to be found on the internet.

  3. Pedro Dunn Says:

    As I approach 60, cookies still hold their appeal.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    For me too, at 66; but sex is still better.

  5. ausomeawestin Says:

    Very interesting application of Nagel’s thought experiment! I wouldn’t have thought to use it for anything more than an objection to physicalist identity theories that hold that mapping the complete set of brain state combinations constitutes knowledge of the qualia of first-person subjective consciousness.

  6. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    It’s only genes and memes, my friends, genes and memes.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Ausome: in short, we can’t know (yet).
    Herb: Not, it’s not. It’s much more complex.

  8. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    Well, it doesn’t get much more complex than genes. They define our physicality and, to some extent, our intellectual capabilities. Genes have evolved in each plant and animal for more than 2 billion years; we have vestiges of them in our chromosomes. And they continue to evolve. We are not the same humans as we were 10,000 years ago.

    A meme, as defined by Wikipedia, is “. . . an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.” Now that to me is pretty damn complex. This is especially true as memes, like genes, have evolved over time and found their way into all of our social institutions.

    Another critical aspect here is that genes and memes are both the results of causation; they are the emergents of an infinitely long chain reaction and interaction of causes and effects. As a result, the gene/meme relationship is about as complex as it gets.

    Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, if causation is the sine qua non of the universe, then there can be no free will. That’s because there can be no uncaused causes – no prime mover, no ex nihilo event, no luck, no chance, no miracles. In spite of certain physicists’ claims to the contrary, you can’t get something from nothing. Not in this particular universe.

    Of course, we want to have free will because that’s a way for us to feel in control. But, we’re not.

    And here we go into a whole other conversation about anthropic principles. But not now.

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    1. Actually, genetically, we are extremely close to being the same as 10,000 years ago. Or 50,000.
    2. Actually, genes do not govern the wiring of our brains, except in a general way; the wiring is way too complex for that. Genes supply only the general principles; the actual wiring “diagram” is the result of interaction between the developing brain and the environment.
    3. The “anthropic” argument is bunk, as I’ve explained: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/the-anthropomorphic-argument-for-a-higher-power/

  10. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    1. For how human genes have evolved over the last 10,000 years, see http://discovermagazine.com/2009/mar/09-they-don’t-make-homo-sapiens-like-they-used-to (But it depends on what you mean by “extremely close.”)

    2. For how genes control the brain, see http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/genes_at_work.htm (Hint: It’s much more than “general principles.”
    3. For how genes and memes interact, see http://www.neuroscience.cam.ac.uk/research/cameos/GeneticBrain.php

    Your essay, “The Anthropomorphic Argument for a ‘higher power,’” is OK as far as it goes. But there is much more to the anthropic principles than what you cover there; much, much more.

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    Herb is to be admired for persistence.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    “If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it?”
    I’m still not sure why you are separating yourself from yourself. In my mind, that “it” is simply me, acting in a more basic, subconscious way (instinct…ingrained experience, etc?)
    So the point is moot from my perspective.

  13. rationaloptimist Says:

    I don’t think it’s moot. The point is control. I do control whether to get up. But I can’t quite seem to control the exact moment when “I” “decide” to do it.

  14. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    Not to belabor the point, but you are not in control, you are under the illusion that you are. And if you truly are in control, then where did that control come from? That is, who or what controls the controller?

  15. Karl Miller Says:

    “So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing.”

    Really? I find I’m rather absorbed in … her. Like a conversation or a dance, not some self-visualization. Oh well, everyone has their signature fetish, I guess. A hall of mirrors is *kind* of like a transcendent experience.

    Don’t know where Nietzsche ranks on your blog, but he would say you only *intermittently* possess self-hood and will — and not always when you want them. Like the insoluble Self, the concept of a Will that is “free” from all constraint and experience is an artifact of (written) language. Both you and your response-ability exist “on paper.” Now, that is no small existence when you consider how much earthly activity is devoted to human paperwork. Paperwork is 70% of the U.S. GDP, after all. But it is paper all the same.

    As the chipper Friedrich put it, “there is no being apart from doing,” Nagel’s famous question is rigged from the outset. There are many, many things it is “like” to be a bat or to be Herb Van Fleet, for that matter. But Nagel’s not really interested in likeness; he’s interested in the direct experience of bathood and Herbhood. And this we can never experience for ourselves. At best we can only clone the bat or the Herb in some flawless model universe. Even then, we could not then experience them without first obliterating our own selves to make room for the clone experience.

    What we tend to do instead is broker compromises of meaning through a common language to relay, describe and simulate our particular experiences. Nagel’s question leads to what a lot of philosophers and neuroscientists like to call the Hard Problem of Consciousness, which is really the Easy Problem of Sensation any other day of the week, but which we strenuously *make* hard in order to enforce the specialness of our own particular experience.

    (And I know you don’t want to hear it, but Jaynes (and co.) would say that both the self and self-control were functions of language in first place. So a mangled phrase like “what it is like to be” naturally only leads to confusion or tautology — two things that are often mistaken for profundity, but are really a cheap conceptual shell game.)

    Now, anti-free-will absolutists like dear Herb are saying, I think, that you are beholden to a grand, unitary, linear causal chain that preceded and created you ad infinitum, and you do not, therefore, at bottom, have a will, ever.

    Well, this bondage to the causal chain is rather flattering in that it ordains everything I do with the full faith and credit of the cosmos, but it only holds as an absolute if you go in for the Arrow of Time nonsense that seems so hip nowadays. Absolute free will is an illusion, yes, but so is the absolute determinism implied by the Arrow of Time. We feel we are catapulted by time into some empty future, but our experience is rather the friction point where future and past meet and combust. In other words, time is not an arrow, it is where the arrow meets the target and keeps on meeting. Genes and memes are powerful in their own spheres, but within both we have physics — and contemporary physics is not this one-way cause-effect thread of chronos that dissolves so many discussion in tautology. Time moves diachronicly, too.

  16. rationaloptimist Says:


  17. Gregg Millett Says:

    Isaac Newton: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

  18. Herb Van Fleet Says:


    Wow! You have sure served up a seven course meal of cognitive challenges. Well written, and packed, jam-packed, with mind bending, uh, stuff.

    And I appreciate all the references (I think), but I’m not sure if I’m like a bat or a cat. (Dr. Seuss could have sorted that out.)

    Couple of comments though. You say, “Now, anti-free-will absolutists like dear Herb are saying, I think, that you are beholden to a grand, unitary, linear causal chain that preceded and created you ad infinitum, and you do not, therefore, at bottom, have a will, ever.” (OK, I’m a dear. How sweet.)

    First, what I said about causation was, “an infinitely long chain reaction and interaction of causes and effects.” The operative word here being “interaction.” Think of it as the butterfly effect on steroids. That means causation can be, and mostly is, nonlinear, multifarious, highly chaotic, and virtually incalculable.

    Second, cause and effect are infinite, forwards and backwards. If A caused B, what caused A? This is the fallacy of the cosmological argument; e.g., if God created the universe, what created God? Therefore, at least in terms of logic, there can be no such thing as an uncaused cause. Another damn paradox we mere mortals have to cope with.

    In terms of the universe, a similar argument applies. The Big Bang (if there was one) must have had a cause because, in the physical world, you can’t get something from nothing.(This, notwithstanding physicist Lawrence M. Krauss’s argument to the contrary in his 2012 book. “A Universe From Nothing – Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing,” which has been heavily criticized by other physicists.) Every event must have been caused even if the cause is unknown – like the cause of the Big Bang.

    We just recently found that something called a Higgs Boson, a.k.a., the God Particle, is what adds matter to the universe. So, matter is the effect and the Higgs is the cause. Cosmologists are also dealing with some newly discovered phenomena called Dark Matter and Dark Energy and the “effect” or “effects” they have on the standard model of the universe; i.e., are they causative?

    Therefore, the world of science relies on an understanding of cause and effect to explain the universe and how it works.

    Then there is the human psyche and the subject here of free will. I would define the term “free will” as merely an anthropocentric description of the choices we make and the actions we take that result from actuating those choices. However, as described above, free will doesn’t exist in nature Ergo, for free will to exist, it must result from an uncaused cause.

    So, are we an exception to the rest of the universe? I think not.. Unless we are supernatural, we have to abide by the same rules as everything else in the universe. As the saying goes, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

    But this does not mean we are creatures of determinism either. However, our actions are determinable, but only if we had all the information necessary to reveal the related causes of the action. Unfortunately, cause and effect as it pertains to our behavior, takes place in real time and is thereby virtually impossible to identify. It’s the information flowing through millions, maybe billions, of the synaptic sparks in our brains that propel us into action. And that is the result of causation, not free will.

    As the late, great Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” He understood causation.

  19. Karl Miller Says:

    Thanks for the considered reply, dear Herb! There’s a new cosmological theory in vogue lately — that the big bang is an optical illusion and that our universe is really a 10-dimensional hologram. Well, why not. Not sure I can judge the 10D hologram answer, but I’ve often wondered if the big bang is an optical illusion … what you’d expect to see if you launched an arrow of time backward forever. I blame the arrow. And, as you can probably guess, I cotton to the Nietzschean “eternal return” model of the universe, where everything is simultaneously its cause and fulfillment. Since both a finite or infinite universe are equally incomprehensible, un- provable, and unacceptable answers … all we have is the infinity of scale, of context. Gravity explains one kind of context, genes another, memes another. But to understand why Sophie chose her daughter to die instead of her son, gravity and protein chains can only provide necessary, not sufficient, causal information.

    The most I can say about my will and my self is that they are intermittent experiences, but experiences all the same. I may not choose when I have them, but they do happen from time to time. I am sometimes here and sometimes in control. I am not permanent and my will is not always free.

    I appreciate and share rationaloptimist’s enthusiasm for Hume – most helpful on the vexing nature of causation. I do not think that we are “an exception to the rest of the universe,” but our relationship to causation is peculiar, at least, for trillions of miles in every direction. Whenever we locate a new causal context — gravity, genes, neurons, memes — we fashion a way to counter and re-purpose it. Genes determine a great deal, until we are conscious of them, at which point we can determine genes. I think we will always keep looking for new things to control, new things to bend into predictable patterns. Higgs Boson is lovely, but … what’s next? Infinity compels!

  20. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    To all,

    If you haven’t seen it and you get the Science channel where you live, see if you can find a repeat episode of “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman,” titled, “Do We Have Free Will?” Or, you can try http://science.discovery.com/tv-shows/through-the-wormhole/tv-schedule.htm

    I watched it last night, and it is very elucidating on the subject, albeit from a scientific point of view. Anyway, you can watch it and draw your own conclusions – freely, of course.

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