What is it like? Nagel’s “Life as a Bat”

We are shaped by our own individual realities, which are based on our singular relative perspectives. Every person faces a struggle and it is impossible to know the struggle of anyone else. Even if they were to tell you about their struggle you would have no way of understanding what it feels like to be “in their shoes”. In Thomas Nagel’s essay about what it is to be a bat he pokes fun at the concept of ever being able to understand someone or something. Socrates once said “I know that I know nothing”. Essentially Nagel is saying the same thing but about human understanding of alternate realities.

Nagel is pointing out that all things that make an individual behave a certain way is their past experiences and instincts. Just as it would be impossible for me to think like a bat, it would also be impossible for me to think in Chinese. Although I can become fluent in Mandarin I would still think in my mother tongue of English. I would be forced to cross reference any of my new found Mandarin vocabulary with my known English definitions. Just as there are cultural practices and traditions that I would never be able to fully comprehend. The moon festival of Tet in Vietnam is as foreign to me as Halloween would be to a Nepalese man.

Recently it has become easier to gain insight into others through the use of social networks. These networks create the illusion of understanding. New technologies along with globalization has increased the awareness of alternate perspectives. It is easy to see other’s likes, dislikes and comments. However, you are still only seeing what they want you to see or choose to share.

The conscious mind is formed from experiences and memories. If I were to touch a hot stove as a child my conscious mind would recall that memory and tell me to “be careful”. As human beings we are all capable of learning and growth. The ability to learn along with sentience makes us unique within the animal kingdom. Humans are aware of their own existence and have a fundamental need to be unique. The renaissance ideals of virtue and willpower are alive and well today. Humans want their lives to matter and want to affect history in some way. One of the most frightening thoughts for us is dying and not leaving any mark on this world. The human condition reminds us that our lives are finite but somehow tricks us into believing that we matter. People search all of their lives looking for some divine calling or purpose. Some of us have kids and tell ourselves that those kids will somehow matter.

Nagel writes that “Facts about what it is like to be an X are very peculiar, so peculiar that some may be inclined to doubt their own reality, or the significance of claims about them.” (Nagel pg. 437 of What Is It Like To Be A Bat?)

These claims further the argument that it is impossible to know what it is to be anything else other than what you were born as. Nagel even states that the act of being is “so peculiar” that we can’t even comprehend being ourselves. Furthermore, Nagel writes even if he were to become a bat “nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like” (Nagel pg. 439 of What Is It Like To Be A Bat?). So even if we could walk in the shoes of someone else it would be impossible to ever fully become them. As a man it is impossible to know what it is like to be born a woman even if that man becomes one. Again proving the point that all perspectives are relative and unique. Nagel uses the example that “The subjunctive character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me” (Nagel pg. 440 of What Is It Like To Be A Bat?). Given all of this reasoning I concur with Nagel that it is indeed impossible to understand the life of any other person, place or thing. Although it is possible to feel empathy and compassion it is impossible to know exactly how another creature feels unless that particular experience is replicated from the time of conception.

Religious Relativism

I have spent many Ramadan’s in Dubai. When I was 15 my parents took me on a trip to Egypt and part of the tour we visited Coptic Cairo. We visited a church and a synagogue near each other. The church contained a basement where Jesus, Joseph and Mary reportedly stayed during their escape to Egypt. I was amazed to see the diversity of Christianity and how certain sects have even designated new popes as the heads of their churches. I believe by understanding the differences in these sects including the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam are fundamental in achieving peace in the Middle East.

I consider myself agnostic and somewhat of a religious relativist. I believe that the earth is so diverse and that different societies have such different belief systems that a benevolent god wouldn’t punish someone simply because they were born into a different religion. In other words, I understand that if I was born Tibetan I would most likely have been Buddhist and not somehow miraculously find my current Christian God. Despite this realization, I still find myself turning back to the teaching of the Methodist Church. I like to express my gratitude to God for certain things fate has given me. So along with being a “religious relativist” and “agnostic” I also consider myself a Christian because I believe Jesus is the Messiah sent to die for my sins. I understand that these ideas seem to be relatively contradictory and I am still trying to figure them all out myself. By better understanding the historical and cultural foundations of Christianity I hope to better understand my own believe system.