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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Apparently great pianists divide most of their time between concert venues and hotel rooms. I had the great privilege of conveying Jeremy Denk from one to the other in 2009, with an hour’s detour through a dark and smelly Cornish pub. It had been fifteen years since we talked Henry James over a pool table in a dark and smelly Indiana bar. I told Jeremy that I was planning to write a book about a piano tuner. He suggested that I read Watt by Samuel Beckett, because it involves a couple of piano tuners. Fortunately I did not write the book I intended to write — I wrote Snapper instead. Unfortunately I did read Watt by Samuel Beckett. It feels like a book written by someone who hates books and hopes, by writing one, to sully the whole enterprise for everyone*. Now suppose Henry James kept a blog. We’re going in the other direction here. Henry has been magically transported to the Age of Bullet Points — slugs of hot info designed to penetrate the thickest skull, and pretty much the antithesis of every line he ever wrote. They’re the Dirty Harry of punctuation. Henry has read some blogging guides exhorting him to be concise, include pictures, charts, interactivity! To his calibrated sensitivities it is as though he has entered a semantic abattoir wherein shade, echo and implication have been hacked off and discarded heedlessly underfoot. Naturally he would attempt to blog in such a way that nobody after him would ever wish to blog again. Like Samuel Beckett torturing old forms to create new ones, Henry James would mangle and conflate new media into some older, richer and more ambiguous form of expression. I am ambivalent about this blog, and I don’t know what it will look like a year from now. It could be full of cat videos or it could be littered with semicolons. I do know that Jeremy’s blog Think Denk contains long lucid essays of the kind the internet is supposed to discourage, and enlightening musical samples that must be very time-consuming to make, and other delights — it’s a paragon of innovative blogging. This does not mean that my blog will resemble his blog in any way. But it’s where I’ll take my cue.

* “An unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs,” wrote Beckett of Watt. Glancing through it again just now, it occurs to me that read in dribs and drabs it might be tolerable. Who can say no to six pages of convoluted legalese regarding six famished dogs?

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