Cal Flyn in Prospect:
What is it like to be a bat? It might seem a silly question, but as I start my new series in which I imagine my way into various animals’ heads, it is a perfect starting point. Why? Because it is a silly question that has taken up an enormous amount of earnest intellectual energy ever since the American philosopher Thomas Nagel first posed it in a celebrated 1974 paper.
Bats, he wrote, are sufficiently similar to us—as fellow mammals, and therefore close relations—to allow us to imagine that they might have a form of consciousness resembling our own. But they are different enough to make understanding that consciousness impossible.
It was not enough, Nagel argued, to imagine what it would be like to fly around at dawn and dusk, or spend the day hanging upside down. That would only tell us what it would be like to behave as a bat does. “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat,” he says, but he seems to regard the requisite imaginative leap impossible.