Tuesday, 6 May 2008

English for the dawn of sanity: bats

Here’s one of my opinionated ideas about the sort of thing English should be doing once we’ve got the government off our backs. This is the sort of thing I'd be trying now if I were teaching in a comprehensive school again.

Kids of all ages are receptive to philosophy. Science and RE quite obviously give rise to philosophical issues, but English should get in there too. (That certainly calls for a longer discussion; part of the idea is that we should expand our concept of literature to include a much wider range of texts, beyond fiction, poetry and drama -- and travel.)


Consider the case of bats. Give your students the following three paragraphs (and the extra ones below if you think they might be up to it). (Some students, if not all, should be exposed to this sort of prose, but in a context where you’re there to help them with it.)

I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

I have said that the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now we know that most bats (the microchiroptera, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

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. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

That’s Thomas Nagel, 1974, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ http://members.aol.com/NeoNoetics/Nagel_Bat.html


A more familiar form of the same problem is explaining what sight is to someone blind from birth. For all the dissection of human organs of sight or bat organs of sonar, no one can convey in words what it is like to see or ‘sone’ (we need a verb) to someone who has not experienced them.

Let the kids have a go. ‘You’re a bat with human speech: explain what the world is like. Remember that you can’t use words like ‘see’ in your explanation because you’ve no idea what seeing is like (except in expressions like ‘It must be something like what you call seeing’).’

Knowing that bats use sonar is like knowing that we use sound waves and vibrating tympanums or light waves; but our experience isn’t of waves: we hear and see things, the world, not vibrations and excitations.


To do a good job of explaining his or her experience, our talking bat is going to have to find equivalents for the range of our sense terms: we not only see but look at (that view is nice to look at); we hear and listen (to); think of the different senses of feel (feel a touch, feel the door to find the keyhole in the dark). But no array of terms will do it for us, because experience is incommunicable unless the listener already knows something close to it.

Nagel’s point is that there’s no ‘just’ about experience: you can’t say that seeing is just having light impact on our retina etc., in the way that you can, in some sense, say that heat in an iron bar is just the excitation of atoms, or mass is just energy. No Martian analysing our eyes would get any idea of seeing from them; no inspection of tissues would show what pain is like. No examination of brains shows what it is like to have a mind.

The general issue is about conscious experience: what is it, how do we know what has it and how can science deal with it? (Does a computer have it? Could it?)

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism. / We may call this the subjective character of experience.

For good measure, if the class is interested, throw these at them:

And if there's conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable even in the most general experiential terms available to us.

….in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us….

Does it make sense… to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?

It’s good for students, too, to be exposed to those typical philosophical moves: ‘Does it make sense to ask or say X?’ and (elsewhere in the article) ‘It’s hard to attach any meaning to the idea that…’

Finally, no harm in imparting a bit of basic know-how about academic life. In fact, if you’re hoping that students will go to university from families that have never sent anyone there, the more of that you do the better. Like, What is a university? What’s it for? What is a department? What are degrees? What’s a professor?

To that end, tell them the provenance of the article: The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

It’s a journal. What’s that? Show them one – it’s not exactly a magazine. Talk about the role of publication in academic life. What are the Roman numbers (can they read them? Should they not be able to? Teach them!) Explain volume and issue and page references. How can a single journal have 435 pages? It doesn’t – the volume does. Etc. Don’t make a meal of it, but miss no chance to let them in on these secrets of the ways of (parts of) the adult world. I know you’re an English teacher, but don’t be afraid to tell them stuff.

That’s what I now think. I’m afraid I didn’t always.


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