Here’s a video of a skateboarding dog that’s been viewed a zillion times, and apparently even made into an iPhone commercial:
When we see this dog, it seems obvious to us that he’s having fun. And my guess is that the dog is, in fact, having fun — that is, he’s having a doggy version of the experience we humans would describe as “fun”. Sure, there’s the danger of anthropomorphizing animal behavior and assuming that a dog’s experience and motivations are pretty much like our own when they might actually be quite different. But I think there’s an equal danger of alien-morphizing (if I can coin a term) – that is, assuming that humans are so unique that any nonhuman animal is totally incapable of having experiences anything like we have. Dogs and humans are, of course, both mammals; our bodies are constructed along the same basic pattern of a head, torso, and four limbs, and their physiology is similar enough to ours that we can rely on animal testing of drugs to extrapolate the effects those drugs will have on us.
While we might make some errors in interpreting a dog’s behavior, I think most of us can pretty reliably tell when a dog is angry, excited, scared, surprised, and so on – all emotions that are familiar to us. It doesn’t seem at all farfetched to me to assume that this skateboarding dog is having fun.
So what about when the animal in question is a little more different from us than a dog is? Suppose it’s a crow, for instance:
I’m inclined to say that if it smells like fun, it’s probably fun. And if a creature is capable of having fun, it must be capable of conscious experience. “Fun” is not something we can attribute to an automaton.
I often wonder just how complex a brain an animal must have in order to have something we would recognize as consciousness. Is a cricket conscious? Is it like something to be a cricket? An earthworm? A slime mold? A paramecium?
And if it is like something to be any of those simple creatures, well, WHAT is it like?
Which brings me to a famous essay by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel.
The following is my condensed version of Nagel’s essay. The full essay is available here.
What is it Like to Be a Bat?
by Thomas Nagel
From The Philosophical Review, October 1974
Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless. The most important and characteristic feature of conscious mental phenomena is very poorly understood. Most reductionist theories do not even try to explain 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. 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.
Every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view.
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.
The essence of the belief that bats have is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now most bats perceive the world primarily by sonar, or echolocation. 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, and motion similar 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.
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 catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in the 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 resource of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.
The problem is not confined to exotic cases, however, for it exists between one person and another. The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him.
In contemplating 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 is 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 that it is like to be us. We know they would be wrong because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that its subjective character is describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us.
Whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view.
It is often possible to take up a point of view other than one’s own, so the comprehension of such facts is not limited to one’s own case. But the more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise.
This bears directly on the mind-body problem. For if the facts of experience are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism. The latter is a domain of objective facts – the kind that can be observed and understood from many points of view and by individuals with differing perceptual systems. Intelligent bats or martians might learn more about the human brain than we ever will.
The seeds of this objection to the reducibility of experience are already detectable in successful cases of reduction; for in discovering sound to be, in reality, a wave phenomenon in air or other media, we leave behind one viewpoint to take up another, and the auditory human viewpoint that we leave behind remains unreduced.
Very little work has been done on the basic question whether any sense can be made of experiences having an objective character at all. Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?
At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination – without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method – an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or imagination. Though it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.
A phenomenology that is in this sense objective may permit questions about the physical basis of experience to assume a more intelligible form. But whether or not this guess is correct, it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective. Otherwise we cannot even pose the mind-body problem without sidestepping it.