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Issue 10 – Easter 2022

The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

What is it like to be a bat?


One of the more famous questions in contemporary philosophy was first posed in the 1970s by Thomas Nagel: what is it like to be a bat? Nagel’s answer, to put it as briefly as possible, is that we cannot know. We can know what a human imagines a bat’s perspective and experience might be like, but the experience of being a bat, from a bat’s point of view, is inaccessible to us. Human beings have consciousness, intentions, the ability to abstract and to introspect. Bats, and animals in general (at least as far as we can tell), do not. We are simply too different from beasts to understand them on their own terms; we will never know what it is like to be a bat. We do know what it is like to be a human being thinking about bats. (For Jaspreet Singh Boparai’s essay of Robert Burton, who numbered bats among “those creatures which are saturnine, melancholy by nature,” see page 46.)

The inexhaustibility, or indeed for Nagel the impenetrability, of animal wisdom and experience is an old wheeze of practically all humanity’s. Saint Thomas Aquinas held that “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly,” and in his prologue to the Apostles’ Creed he recounted the tale of a philosopher who “spent thirty years in solitude in order to know the nature of the bee.”

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