What’s it like being a bat? ‘Seeing’ the world through your ears, or at least a sophisticated echo-location system. Or, what’s it like being an octopus? With eight semi-autonomous arms that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Intelligent aliens?’ on January 16th, 2019]. For most of us, it’s unimaginable. Perhaps, because we are not bats or octopuses, but that seems to be dodging the issue. Is it a consequence of our education and how we have been taught to think about science? Most scientists have been taught to express their knowledge from a third person perspective that omits the personal point of view, i.e. our experience of science. The philosopher, Julian Baggini has questioned the reason for this mode of expression: is it that we haven’t devised a framework for understanding the world scientifically that captures the first and third person points of view; is it that the mind will always elude scientific explanation; or is that the mind simply isn’t part of the physical world?
Our minds have as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy, i.e. about a hundred billion, which is sufficient to create complex processes within us that we are never likely to understand or predict. In this context, Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the ideas and images that we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us. So, if we struggle to describe our own consciousness, then perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot express what it is like to be a bat or an octopus. Instead we resort to third person descriptions and justify it as being in the interests of objectivity. But, does your imagination stretch to how much greater our understanding would be if we did know what is like to be a bat or an octopus? And, how that might change our attitude to the ecosystem?
BTW: I would answer yes, yes and maybe to Baggini’s three questions, although I remain open-minded on all of them.
Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.
Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.
In T H White’s Once and Future King, Merlin’s primary educational method was to turn Arthur, his pupil and the Future King, into various creatures. It’s a concept I’ve tried to adopt ever since first reading the book many years ago. It works for me.Penny
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