Nagel: What It Is Like to Be a Bat

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Do you know why watching macho men in movies dress up as drag queens to escape detection is so universally entertaining? Because it doesn’t seem to matter how much time men spend examining the intricacies of the way women move (and God knows they do), they never seem to be able to pull off a reasonable imitation. There seems to be something that is innately known by being female that is missed in the imitation of a female. So what essence of femininity is so hard to relate to a non female? This question can be broadened to encompass almost anything that we do not have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be that person, species, nationality, height or weight. Thomas Nagel uses an example very similar to this in his dualist view proposing that there is a gap between all the elements, descriptions and rules that are part of our concept of something, and the complete understanding by experiencing the sensations of being something.

Nagel uses an example of being a bat as an example to show the difference between being and knowing about a bat. In our concept of bat we have qualities like small flying rodents, sleep hanging upside and nocturnal. We could even know the specific DNA of a bat. But to say that we then know everything there is to know about bats seems naive. Nagel theorizes that there is a subjective character within the consciousness of a bat that is lost to us non bats. It is the qualia of the experience that is missed in the understanding. It is the “what it is like” to be a bat.

The qualia of our own conscious awareness is often used as an argument against the materialist view that when all things are subtracted from a thought or feeling or emotion, there is nothing left that would indicate the presence of an immaterial or unextended mind. There is a private nature to the qualia of our subjective experiences. And this inherent subjectivity is impossible to research in an empirical way. Nagel was not only concerned with the inherent knowing...
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