Bats and the Impossibility of Empathy

I can still hear the soft pops of rain falling on the brim of my hat as I walked along a muddy trail through a dark forest in Costa Rica lowlands, on the long, flat tail of the slope that began in the central mountains, ending in the Caribbean Sea. The heavy air and wet foliage soaked up the light from my headlamp, and my visibility was reduced to the small patch of ground right before my feet. I could not see the dozens of bats whipping around me, but I could sense their presence from the sounds of their wings and even the little wisps of air on my face when they flew close. This was my first time in a jungle at night. I had no idea what to expect as I pulled my camera up under my rain jacket, but I knew this was about the most fun I had ever had.

We ventured out that night to photograph these common nectar bats, and they did not disappoint. Connecting this amazing experience to the practical realities of our relationships and work was certainly not on my mind at the time; I was thinking about getting the shot, keeping my gear dry, and not stepping on a venomous snake, but in retrospect that night helps make real for me an important lesson about our connections to one another.

In his now famous 1974 paper of the same title, philosopher Thomas Nagel asked, what is it like to be a bat? Nagel was writing about the mind-body problem. Specifically, he was addressing the ongoing efforts at untangling the mind-body problem through a reductionist approach. What Nagel meant by the “mind-body problem” is the puzzle of figuring out how our mind, our consciousness, our subjective experience, arises from our brain, from our physical body. As an aside, it is worth noting that this assumes our conscious mind actually does arise from our brain in the first place. We have good reasons to believe that to be the case, yet we have no way to be completely certain of even this most basic assumption. These are deep and dark waters we are navigating, and figuring out how our subjective experience of life emerges from electrical impulses firing in gray matter inside our skulls turns out to be an extraordinarily hard thing to figure out. In fact, it is often referred to simply as, “the hard problem.” Some argue that it is actually not “figure-out-able” from where we sit in the universe, an endeavor like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

In his essay, Nagel is not offering solutions to the hard problem. Rather, he is challenging the validity of using a classical reductionist approach in attempting to solve it. We can understand why a steel bar is strong by reducing it to atoms of iron and carbon and analyzing how those atoms interact with each other. We can understand how a wound heals by reducing our body to different types of cells, discerning how those cells function, and investigating how they respond to the injury. We can go deeper still and reduce the cells themselves to their constituent atoms, and when we do so, it all adds up. It is clear how steel’s strength and a healing wound arise from the interactions of their smallest parts. But this does not work for the mind. We cannot use this approach to explain the subjective experience of another conscious being, because we do not even know what that subjective experience is in the first place.

Consider the screen on which you are reading these words. The screen emits patterns of light. That light enters your eye, strikes your retina, and is converted into electrical signals. Those electrical signals travel along your optic nerves and enter your brain. The visual cortex responds accordingly. All this is reducible in the physical world, but that is where the power of the reductionist approach finds its limit. Presumably you are recognizing those signals as letters, decoding them into words, and deriving meaning from them. You are likely thinking about that meaning, and even thinking about what you are thinking. All of this, all the really important stuff, is happening in your mind, and how we crossed that gap, from electrical signals in your brain to what reading this sentence feels like for you is unknown. Nagel points out that we can only explain the subjective experience of reading — or of anything — via reduction if we ignore the subjective experience itself, the very thing we are trying to explain. We are pulling on bootstraps.

Nagel argues convincingly that the subjective experience of another conscious being, me, for example, is actually accessible from one and only one perspective: mine. Understanding this, we find that we struggle to define how we can really know if other beings even are, in fact, conscious. Of course you have many good reasons to conclude that I really am a conscious being and not just a very convincing robot, or a hallucination. The point is you cannot prove it. Nagel lays the groundwork for his case by offering a way to define what consciousness actually is in the first place, and from there determining how we know if something has it. He does so by asking his now famous question, what is it like to be a bat?

Nagel proposes that if there is an answer to that question — any answer other than “nothing” — then the bat is a conscious being. We do not have to actually know what it is like to be a bat, we just have to agree that there is something it is like to be a bat. Consciousness, for our purposes, is the presence of a subjective experience, the fact that there is something it is like to be that being.

Nagel would apply the same test to any living being, from house flies to humans, from butterflies to blue whales, and to inanimate objects too. What is it like to be a doorknob? Presumably nothing, and thus we conclude doorknobs are not conscious. With living beings, Nagel is not saying that house fly consciousness and human consciousness are equivalent in their complexity. He is simply pointing out that if we believe there is something it is like to be a butterfly, then we should understand the butterfly to be conscious at some level, to assume that it is having some sort of subjective butterfly experience. That said, Nagel did not choose butterflies in making his case, he chose the bat, and he did so deliberately. So, why bats?

Photo © 2018 Greg Walker

To answer that, begin by looking carefully at my photo of the nectar bat. Notice the spot where his wing attaches to his body. That is the bat’s shoulder, and it works exactly like ours. From there, the first bone in his wing is his humerus, the upper arm, connected to his forearm by his elbow. The proportions are very different. The bat’s upper arm is shorter and his forearm proportionally longer than ours, better adapted to the motions of flight, but the design is identical. The bat’s forearm ends in a wrist, and then his hand. He has five fingers, just like us. They are greatly elongated, but you can count them all. His pinky, ring, and middle fingers are obvious, spread wide with webbing in between, the spindly bat pinky pointed straight down. His index finger forms the leading edge of the wing, and a tiny little thumb is just visible extending straight up. Hold your own hand out to your side, thumb up, elbow bent like the bat’s wing. Spread your fingers, pinky down, and envision them each about two feet long. Imagine the feeling of lift as you gain purchase on the night air with the translucent web of skin stretched between those long fingers, and you understand intuitively how a bat’s wing works because all the parts are intimately familiar.

Nagel chose the bat because it requires no leap of faith to understand that this creature is, in many ways, very much like us. Yet in other ways, it is entirely different, almost alien. It flies, for one, and importantly, it experiences its world through a sense we do not even possess: echolocation. The bat makes Nagel’s point effectively because it is at once obvious that there must be something it is like to be this little creature, similar in so many ways to ourselves, but that we have no idea what that something is. We have never had the subjective experience of echolocating through our environment, weaving effortlessly around trees and photographers in the dark jungle, and thus we cannot really know what that is like.

We know that bats make complex sounds, precisely modulated clicks and chirps. We know that the sounds bounce off objects, and the bat hears the echo with their ears. We know how their ears work to convert sound pressure into an electrical signal. We know how that electrical signal gets to their brain. We even know what parts of their brain receive it. That’s the “easy problem.” (Easy is relative, of course. Actually figuring all that out required dozens of scientific breakthroughs and monumental effort, but the “easy” problem ultimately yields to the reductionist approach.) That is where our understanding ends. As to what it is like for the bat to experience this, we have no clue. There is no reason to believe the bat’s experience of echolocation is anything like our own hearing. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe it is entirely different in ways we are incapable of grasping. I believe this based on the direct experience of my encounter with dozens of these amazing nocturnal aviators. In near-total darkness, they zipped around inches from my head in tight quarters yet never collided with me. They arced upward to our banana flower, hovering for a split second, precisely enough to sip a bit of nectar before darting away into the dense forest. It seems clear to me that these bats were surely experiencing something much more sophisticated than our sense of hearing. It is reasonable to guess that echolocation produces a bat experience analogous to vision. Yet I have no idea what that is really like, because I am not a bat. The bat’s subjective experience is accessible only to the bat, and to be precise, this bat’s subjective experience is known by only one being in the universe: this individual bat.

OK, you might be thinking, maybe that is somewhat interesting. Maybe it is a fun philosophical inquiry if you find those sorts of inquiries fun, but beyond that, why does it matter? Why is this relevant to any of the daily demands of real life, assuming you are not a bat biologist or a philosopher pondering the mind and consciousness?

It is relevant because in our lives and work we have to relate to other humans. We have to try to understand them, and a critical step to understanding others is, paradoxically, understanding that you cannot. Not really. Not completely. The gap you encounter when you consider what it is like to be a bat might be bigger than the one you fall into when you attempt to understand the perspective of your coworker, but there is still a gap. Understanding that gap and what it means comes in recognizing that the question is not what it would be like for you to be a bat. The question is, what is it like for the bat to be a bat? That is the real question of empathy, and the ability to empathize matters.

Empathy is not imagining how you would feel if you were a bat. Empathy is understanding what it is like for the bat to be a bat. More accurately, it is doing your best to understand, and at the same time knowing that ultimately you cannot. You are not a bat.

Empathy is the capacity to relate to the experience of another vicariously, as if the feelings were your own, but we cannot really do this, not all the way. This is easy to grasp when we are talking about bats, but it is easy to forget when we are interacting with other humans because other people seem so much like us. It is easy to convince yourself that you know what someone else is going through, but you do not, not completely, because the other person’s subjective experience is only accessible from one vantage point: theirs. My experience of stress is not your experience of stress. My sadness is not your sadness. My joy is not your joy. My grief is not your grief. My experience of the feedback you just gave me is not your experience of the same feedback. My experience of anything cannot be assumed identical to anyone else’s experience of that exact same thing.

So that’s the bad news. On the one hand, it is very reasonable to believe that we all share similar experiences. We really can relate and deeply empathize with one another. This allows us to bond, to cooperate, to survive. But on the other hand, when it comes right down to it, there is a very lonely limit. You can never fully understand another person’s point of view, and no one else can ever fully understand yours.

That insight can seem isolating. If you have ever felt, in a dark moment, that no one really “gets” you, you are not entirely wrong. But there is good news too: people are not bats. Unlike bats, you can ask them about their subjective experience. (Technically I suppose you could ask the bats, but it seems unlikely they would respond). You can ask people what it is like to be them. You can become genuinely curious as to what it is they are really experiencing.

Of course this dialogue is not without complications, because although you are free to ask others to share their inner experience, they may or may not tell you the truth. There are a thousand reasons a person may not openly and honestly share how they feel, including the possibility that they themselves do not really know yet. That is often the case, and if we sense that in another, we can allow our empathy to guide us. Perhaps you can help them make sense of their experience. Perhaps they just need a bit of time. Either way, sometimes you can help.

However, as a leader, a manager, a spouse, a parent, a friend, or just a fellow human, you have to also consider that the reason someone is not sharing their inner world openly could be you. Are you a person who can be trusted with the truth of someone else’s subjective experience? Are you a person who is willing to step close to the edge of that unbridgeable gap between imagining what it would be like for you to be them, and really knowing what it is like for them to be them? Are you a person who can narrow that gap, gaze across, connect deeply and convey “I really want to understand what it’s like to be you?” If so, you have opened the door to real relationships, to real collaboration, and to great possibility. You have moved closer to gaining real shared understanding and cleared a path to right action. And if not, you might consider what judgements, beliefs, or assumptions are in the way. You might gently ask yourself if you have unintentionally concluded that you actually do know what it is like to be a bat.

Nagel chose the bat because he knew that it was intuitively obvious that they have a conscious experience very unlike our own. Anticipating their movements is nearly impossible, and photographing them at night is a bit like a video game, focusing intently on the banana flower and hoping one’s reflexes are fast enough to fire the shutter and flash just as one of these swift little night flyers dart in to sip nectar. Sometimes they come straight in and hover ever so briefly. Other times they wave off at the last minute. How do they choose? Maybe their echolocation told them that the big wet hominid with funny plastic fur (i.e., me) was a threat. Maybe they “saw” a rival bat and chose to chase it off. Maybe they perceived something beyond my imagination using senses I do not possess and interpretations I cannot fathom. All of these are reasonable efforts to empathize with the bats, and I like to believe I came to understand them better that night, but ultimately I must admit I do not and cannot know their reasons. After all, I am not a bat.


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