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What Is It like to Be a Human?

For those who do not closely follow philosophy, this paper grew out of Thomas Nagel’s famous 1972 paper “What is it like to be a Bat?” My purpose is expository: to rephrase Nagel’s argument so as to bring out its structure.

IMAGINE AN INTELLIGENT BAT CONTEMPLATING THE mind-body problem, name of Tim Nigel. Nigel has noticed that humans have an auditory sense not possessed by bats (of his species): they can hear various pitches. This enables them to appreciate music (unlike Nigel and his conspecifics) and also to have other types of auditory experience not available to bats. We can suppose that bats hear only a single pitch and only echoes of their own monotone shrieks, impressive though their sense of echolocation is. Thus Nigel concludes that he doesn’t know what it is like to be a human, at least so far as hearing is concerned. He has some inkling, to be sure, because he does have an auditory sense, but the range and variety of human hearing makes this sense alien to him—just as humans have an auditory sense that provides only partial insight into the auditory sense of bats. He thinks that if he could hear pitch variations in the manner of humans, then he would know (fully) what it is like to be human; but as things stand he cannot grasp the nature of human experience. This is a region of reality he cannot get his mind around (Nigel is a resolute metaphysical realist). He expresses his conclusion by saying that human experience is “subjective” and can only be grasped “from a particular point of view,” in contrast to “objective” things that can be grasped “from many points of view, i.e., from no specific point of view.”

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