What is it like to be a bat?

Here is Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, What Is It Like To Be A Bat?, which I love.

Tim Birkhead has written a book called Bird Sense — What It Is Like To Be A Bird, and he riffs on Nagel here.

Nagel:Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. 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.”

Birkhead: “He [Nagel] chose bats because they are mammals and we share a lot of physiology and neurobiology with them, and because bats possess a sense most of us don’t have: echolocation. I suspect Nagel thought that no human can echolocate, but in fact some blind people do so extremely well, in some cases well enough to go mountain biking without serious injury.”

Kimberling: No, we can’t extrapolate what a bat’s experience is like, or another person’s for that matter; that is what fiction is for! When extrapolation and reason fail we tell stories. The alternative is giving up. Birkhead does a very nice sleight of storytelling hand above by suggesting that a blind person’s echolocation and a bat’s echolocation are similar. I suspect that phenomenologically that bird won’t fly. I look forward to reading his book, though.

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