What is it like to be “you”? You simply can’t know, and this is why.
Even a bat doesn’t know what it’s like to be a bat.
Philosophy sometimes makes me want to smash my front teeth with a cement dildo. But then there are other times when it genuinely fascinates me. Today is one of the former days, where I’m pushed to the edge of sanity by someone else’s armchair fantasies. Nevertheless I’m forced to admit that it’s interesting. You might think so, too.
In “What is it like to be a bat?” Thomas Nagel argues that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat. (It’s a famous paper, really mind-blowing, if you can believe it.) He argues this because the only way to know what it’s like to be a bat, he says, is to be a bat. No amount of textbook information about the physical process of bats and bat bodies can tell us what it’s like to be a bat.
Therefore, Nagel says — and this is the point of the whole paper — there must exist something more than the physical world. Specifically, there must be something non-physical behind our experiences.
There is something very wrong with this argument, though!
What’s wrong? Well, it assumes too much. Mainly it assumes that a bat knows what it’s like to be a bat.
Now, hear me out. You might be thinking, “Of course a bat knows what it’s like to be a bat. It’s a bat! Anything knows what it’s like to be itself.” But think for a second and you’ll have to admit that some things, despite being themselves, probably don’t “know what it’s like” to be themselves. Plants, rocks, little pieces of dust, certainly are themselves, but they don’t know what it’s like to be themselves. And if we think about what it means to “know what it’s like,” we might realize how complex this act of reflection really is, and furthermore we might not grant the bats this uncanny, cerebral ability.
Forget about bats for a second. Let’s talk about you.
Do you know what it’s like to be a child?
You certainly should, on account of your having been a child. You have childhood memories, and some which are particularly strong. But even though you have these memories and know for a fact that you were a child at one point, it does not follow that you know exactly what it’s like to be a child.
(So all those mopey emo teenagers are actually right when they tell their parents “you don’t understand me!”)
Why? Let’s take a look at something simpler: chocolate ice cream.
Let’s assume you have tried chocolate ice cream.
If you’ve had chocolate ice cream, it’s a fact that at one point you tried chocolate ice cream for the first time. Therefore, you should “know what it’s like” to try chocolate ice cream for the first time.
Try to remember. Maybe you don’t even remember what it was like, when you had it, or who you were having it with. (By now you can imagine the less kid-friendly example I replaced with “having chocolate ice cream for the first time.”)
Even though you’ve had chocolate ice cream and at one moment had it for the first time, it’s probably been many years since your first scoop. The memory of that first scoop — if you remember it at all — isn’t the same as the moment when you had the experience. Maybe you remember it well, and you can replay the memory in your head. Still, there are pieces missing and details are fuzzy. Maybe you replace these crucial details with more recent memories. But it’s safe to say you’re not “reliving” the experience. So, I ask you: do you actually know what it’s like to have chocolate ice cream for the first time? It’s possible you don’t, even though you know you went through it.
Therefore, having had an experience does not mean that I “know what it’s like” to have that experience. I can FORGET, after all.
Going back to Thomas Nagel, I would dispute the assumption that a bat actually knows what it’s like to be a bat. A bat is never going to sit back and reflect in its little bat armchair about what it’s like to be a bat. And if I were ever a bat, I certainly would never know what it’s like to be a bat, because I would be a bat and I would always be locked in the present experience of being a bat. I wouldn’t know what anything “is like.” I’d just fly around and eat bugs!
But that’s not all! Like bats, we don’t even know what it’s like to be ourselves.
We are always locked in the present experience, and even we stop for a moment and reflect on what we just experienced one second ago, that memory we have called to our attention and now experience is no longer equal to the experience we believe we have recalled.
Example: you had to give a speech at work. You were really nervous. But you got through it. While you were giving the speech, you were in the experience of giving the speech. Call this experience E1. If you thought about your speech while you were giving the speech, you would be in a different experience: the experience of thinking while giving a speech. Call this E2. Depending on which one you were doing, you have another experience when you’re thinking about your speech on the ride home. You’re in E3, the experience of remembering either E1 or E2. E1, E2 and E3 are all very different. And even if you think you know what it’s like to do E1, you really only know what it’s like to do E4, which is the experience of reflecting on E1 and thinking you know what it’s like to do E1.
Bullet points for the confused:
- E1: Experience of giving the actual speech — non-repeatable, unique.
- E2: Experience of thinking about the speech while giving the speech — different from E1.
- E3: Experience of thinking about E1 or E2.
- E4: Experience of thinking you know what it’s like to do E1 or E2.
The point: One can only reflect on the mind’s present re-creation of the past experience, not on the “experience itself,” which is forever gone never to return, like a special and unique snowflake obliterated in the warm palm of your epiphenomenal hand.
The past is a fantasy we approximate based on faulty sensor readings and greasy microscope lenses. Despite “having memories” based on experiences we had while being ourselves at certain places and at certain times, we do not “know what it’s like” to be ourselves. We only “know what it’s like” to reflect on the fabrications of our own minds, which we do in the present.
As far as the “experience of being oneself,” there is nothing to talk about.
As soon as we start thinking about “what it’s like” to be ourselves, we stop learning about “what it’s like to be ourselves” and start learning “what it’s like to reflect on experience.” If we want to know what it’s like to be ourselves, the first rule is that we can’t think.
Yes, qualia are worse than Fight Club.
Just think about what people mean when they tell Anxious Anne before her hot date, “Don’t worry. Just be yourself.” They really mean, “Stop thinking, stop reflecting, relax, just be in the moment.” In harsher terms, “Come out of your head and back into REALITY, where you act as a moving body in the world but are not paying attention to it.”
It is almost an unspoken rule that “being oneself” is not possible when one is self-aware, as if it is widely understood that human consciousness involves a constant switching gears between being oneself and reflecting on oneself.
This brings us to the second rule, which is “You can’t be yourself.”
As soon as you’re self-aware — as soon as you’ve conceptualized yourself in the situation you’re having — you’re not in that situation anymore. You’re in mental fantasy land, living an approximation of life tuned to suit a rigid self-concept. (Navel-gazers be forewarned! You’re walking corpses! Oopsie!)
Let me put it another way. If I’m at a party, say, just “being myself,” then I think it’s safe to say I’m not in a super reflective state. I might be doing anything…drinking, talking, playing ping pong…but if I’m being myself I’m probably not very self-aware. And if I’m not in a super reflective state already, the only way I can know what it’s like to be myself at this moment is to recall the moments after the fact. Anyone who has ever tried to remember exactly what happened at a “really great party” knows that they can’t. Likewise, I’m liable to remember the experience of “being myself at the party” differently from how it actually happened.
So, I ask again, do I really know what it’s like to be myself? Doubtful! I only know what it’s like to re-create a memory of a great momentary shindig based on a bunch of shit I happen to have stored in my brain right now.
And does a bat know what it’s like to be a bat? Doubtful! It only knows — fly! bugs! air! screech screech!
So, back to Mr Thomas Nagel…
…who supposedly gave a good argument for the realness of non-physical events called “qualia” or “experiences.” He didn’t, by the way, because the whole idea of “what it’s like” is a loaded concept founded on a questionable presupposition that it’s possible to know what anything is like. Where does this leave us? It leaves us not having a solid story to tell about what the heck is going on when we have experiences. Sure, neurons are firing and whatnot, but there’s something happening that just doesn’t seem amenable to physical explanations.
An alternative explanation of qualia.
Qualia are an abstraction that our mind makes into something real. For instance, we say an arrow flying through the air is “in motion,” but all that means is that it was here once and now it’s there. Motion isn’t anything except an abstract line between two discrete points — very good for humans who like to tell stories, but actually non-existent. Motion is nothing but an illusion: the illusion generated from flashing many 24 motionless frames of film in a second. It is a fabrication, a product of the imagination.
And so with all of our experiences. They do not exist. Our experiences are the “motion” of the arrow. There cannot be motion without the arrow. Yet there is never motion except in our imaginations. Welcome to the world of believable fantasy, where we all live every day, by no fault of our own, without any means of escape except by death.
Bats are probably too stupid to know what it’s like to be bats.
We are smarter than bats, but we still can’t really figure it out.
We always have experiences all the time, while waking. Even remembering something old is a new experience.