What it is like to be a bat? Famous Thomas Nagel question from 1974. The one that reopened long lasting question whether there is something beyond matter. The question that was provoked also by famous Susan Blackmore (2003) thought experiment:

“Imagine you want to go to the beautiful city of Cape Town for a holiday. You are offered a simple, free, almost instantaneous, and 100 per cent safe way of getting there and back. All you have to do is step inside the box, press the button, and…

The box is, of course, Parfit’s teletransporter. In making the journey every cell of your body and brain will be scanned and destroyed, and then replicated as they were before, but in Cape Town. Would you press the button?”

If your answer is YES, then you are pure believer in reductionism. If your answer is NO, then you somehow follow Thomas Nagel. But it is even more instructive to open this question from time to time. As Susan Blackmore notices, argumentations to answers vary considerably over time. You do not have to be religious to strongly argument against pushing the button!

But even opening a question of whether animals have consciousness is dangerous. Does your cat have a consciousness? If consciousness emerges on a top of specific (complex) set of activated neurons that appear in living creature’s phenotype and his extended phenotype, then cats should have consciousness. And experience shows us that they are at least conscious of us. But are they self-conscious? We do not know. But how do we know that humans are self-conscious? We know because fellow humans convey their self-consciousness with the help of memes, words in this case. Memes are the only windows into others private experiences. Living creatures that have not (yet) developed memes, cannot reveal their inner experience.

So, we know that bats are conscious, but we cannot know if even they feel like a bat, since we do not know whether they have self-awareness.

But the question of “what is like to be a bat” goes even further. Namely it would be utterly wrong to consider consciousness as some sort of representation of reality. Consciousness in fact establishes a gap between perception and conception. We do know what our concepts are since we as conscious creatures create them. But we do not “know” what our percepts are. We can only guess that our senses “take in” all that goes around us in terms of vision, sound, smell and touch, but we are sure that our consciousness re-creates totality of our perceived reality on a basis of only tiny fraction of total perception. Even more: we most often re-create reality in our mind even before re-created reality happens and often even such that does not really correspond to reality (illusions).

We are creating our own memetic reality. When we ask ourselves, what it is like to be me, we create memetic reality that did not exist prior to this question and what is even more important: this question cannot be reduced to anything that preceded that question. Our consciousness cannot be reduced to anything prior to consciousness itself. Thomas Nagel was right and Daniel Dennett wrong at least in his pursuit of mechanistic material reality of consciousness as a result of something that develops from the (material) cause to the (mental) effect.


Andrej Drapal