On the feeling of a lonesome bat / Von den Gefühlen einer einsamen Fledermaus / Des sentiments d’une chauve-souris solitaire

To my mind, the existence of consciousness, of a subjective experience is one of the greatest mysteries of the entire universe.

I remember very well my feelings as I followed a course about the origin of life as a high-school student. I was a young atheist and I had no problem to believe there were (and still are) various plausible theories explaining how self-replicating systems can come into being.

Yet, I was deeply puzzled by the very existence of conscious experiences, which I associated at that time with every living things including bacteria.

So I was wondering: “how can a bunch of chemicals lacking any kind of subjectivity become a being with inner experiences and sensations?“

This was for me a startling but awe-inspiring unanswered and probably unanswerable question.

I believe that the intuitions I had then as a teenager are still largely valid, and that what has been called the “hard problem of consciousness“ is unanswerable within a reductive materialist framework.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

But what about the following situation: a neuroscientist of the future has isolated a bat in a very complex machine which allows him to know exactly all chemical and electrical processes taking place within the brain of the poor animal. Suddenly, the bad emits an ultrasound and the researcher measures absolutely everything going on in its body.

Would he know what the bat subjectively felt as it sent out the ultrasound?

This is a question which the great philosopher Thomas Nagel famously raised in his groundbreaking article: „What is it lile to be a bat?“ which is freely available on the internet. I recommend readers unfamiliar with this line of arguments to first take a look at the groundwork.

The argument against RM one might derive from his ideas is as follows:

  1. if RM is true, someone knowing all the physical processes making up the subjective experience of a creature would know that experience

  2. a brilliant neuroscientist in such a position couldn’t know what the above bat experiences

  3. therefore RM is false

While examining the philosophical literature on this topic, I was astounded to see that most reductive materialists don’t contest the validity of 2). Intuitively, it seems to be obviously true.
Our current scientists are already capable of knowing a lot about the physics and chemistry of what’s going on in a bat’s brain, and I fail to see how any increase in our understanding of the synaptic impulses could provide us with a knowledge of the inner experience of our evolutionary distant fellow mammal.

This is probably the reason why it is premise 1) which is generally denied.
Many reductive materialists would say that even if we knew everything about the neurology of such a brain, we would not know what the being experiences because the structure of our own brain is too different.

I’ve never understood how one can make sense of that in a materialist framework.
If the subjective experience is as material as the atoms of the chair I’m sitting on and the electrical processes of the computer I’m using, then why would a complete knowledge of physics allows me to know everything about both objects but not about the feelings of the animal?

Let us suppose that species A and species B dispose of brains enabling them to perfectly understand physics and chemistry while being radically different in other respects. It makes only sense to say that species A cannot know what species B feels if these very feelings are something MORE than physics and chemistry, that is if one form of dualism is true.

So to my mind a reductive materialist has no other choice than to deny premise 2).
In spite of our strong intuitions an exhaustive knowledge of the brain’s physics of the animal would allow the scientist to know subjectively what the bat is experiencing.

But this seems very close to if not indistinguishable from eliminativism, the belief that what we refer to as our subjective experience is an illusion, probably spawned by evolution.

An obvious epistemological problem of this position is that the existence of our conscious experience is immediate and much more certain than complicated physical, chemical and biological theories.

In such a context, dualism (which I define as the belief that mental and physical processes are not identical) appears to be the most reasonable position.

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

 

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Meiner Meinung nach ist die Existenz des Bewustseins, einer subjektiven Erfahrung, ein der größten Geheimnisse des ganzen Universums.

Ich errinerre mich sehr gut an meine Gefühle, als ich als Gymnasiumschüler einen Unterricht über den Ursprung des Lebens hatte. Ich war ein junger Atheist und hatte kein Problem, zu glauben, dass es vielfältige plausible Theorien gab und immer noch gibt, die die Entstehung von selbstreplizierenden Systemen erklären.

Dennoch war ich über die Existenz von bewussten Erfahrungen sehr erstaunt, die ich zu dieser Zeit mit jedem lebendem Wesen (einschliesslich Bakterien) verband.

So fragte ich mich: “wie kann ein Haufen von Chemikalien ohne irgendwelche Art von Subjektivität ein Wesen mit inneren Erfahrungen und Empfindungen werden?”.

Dies war für mich eine verblüffende aber ehrfurchtgebietende unbeantwortete und wahrscheinlich unbeantwortbare Frage.

Ich glaube, dass meine Intuitionen als Teenager weitaus gültig sind, und dass was das “schwierige Problem des Bewustseins” benannt wurde in einem reduktiv materialistischem Rahmen unbehandelbar ist.

Ich definiere den reduktiven Materialismus (die ich fortan als RM bezeichnen werde) als den Glauben, dass alles was real ist mit der Summe eines Satzes von physikalischen Objekten und Prozessen identisch ist, die die Wechselwirkung von Materie und Energie involvieren.

Es ist ganz bestimmt kein Problem für RM auszusagen, dass der Stuhl, worauf ich sitze, reduzierbar auf ein Haufen von Zellulose- und Lignitmolekülen ist, die eine gewisse Form im Raum besetzten.

Aber wie sollte man die folgende Situation betrachten: ein Neurowissenschaftler der Zukunft hat eine Fledermaus in einer sehr komplexen Machine isoliert, die ihm erlaubt, genau alle chemischen und elektrischen Prozesse zu kennen, die innerhalb des Gehirns des armen Tieres stattfinden.

Plötzlich emittiert die Fledermaus einen Ultraschall und der Forscher misst wirklich alles, was in ihrem Körper vorgeht.

Würde er wissen, was die Fledermaus subjektiv fühlte, als sie den Ultraschall aussandt?

Dies ist eine Frage, die der große Philosoph Thomas Nagel in seinem bahnmbrechenden Artikel „What is it lile to be a bat?“ aufwarf, der auf Internet freilich verfügbar ist. Ich empfehle Lesern, die mit dieser Art von Argumenten nicht vertraut sind, zuerst einen Blick auf das Grundwerk zu werfen.

Das Argument gegen RM, das man aus seinen Ideen ableiten kann, sieht folgendermaßen aus:

  1. wenn RM wahr ist, würde jemand, der all die eine subjektive Erfahrung eines Geschöpfs ausmachenden physikalischen Prozesse kennt, diese Erfahrung kennen
  2. ein brillanter Wissenschaftler in einer solchen Position könnte die Erfahrung der Fledermaus nicht kennen
  3. deswegen ist RM falsch

Als ich die philosophische Literatur über dieses Thema untersuchte, war ich verblüfft, festzustellen, dass die meisten reduktiven Materialisten die Gültigkeit von 2) nicht bestreiten. Intuitiv scheint es, selstverständlich wahr zu sein.

Unsere gegenwärtige Wissenschaftler sind schon fähig, viel über die Physik und Chemie der Vorgänge in einem Fledermausgehirn zu wissen, und es gelingt mir nicht, einzusehen, wie irgendwelche Verbesserung unseres Verständnisses der synaptischen Impulsen uns die Kenntnis der inneren Erfahrung des evolutionär entfernten Säugetiers liefern würde.

Dies ist vermutlich der Grund, warum die Prämisse 1) generell verleugnet wird.

Viele reduktive Materialisten würden sagen, dass sogar alles über die Neurologie eines solchen Gehirns wissen würden, würden wir nicht wissen, was das Wesen erlebt, weil die Struktur unseres eigenen Gehirns zu anders ist.

Ich habe nie verstanden, wie das in einem materialistischen Rahmen Sinn machen kann.

Wenn die subjektive Erfahrung genauso material wie die Atome meines Stuhls und die elektrischen Prozesse meines Computers ist, warum würde dann eine vollständige Kenntnisse von Physik mir erlauben, alles über beide Objekte zu wissen, obwohl es für die Gefühle des Tiers nicht der Fall ist?


Lasst uns annehmen, dass die Art A und die Art B über Gehirne verfügen, die ihnen erlauben, vollkommen Physik und Chemie zu verstehen, obwohl sie in anderen Hinsichten extrem unterschiedlich sind. Es macht nur Sinn, zu sagen, dass die Art A nicht wissen kann, was die Art B fühlt, wenn diese Gefühle MEHR als Physik und Chemie sind, d.h. wenn eine Form von Dualismus wahr ist.

So meiner Meinung nach haben reduktive Materialisten keine andere Wahl, als Prämise 2) zu verleugnen.

Trotz unserer starken Intuitionen würde eine vollständige Kenntnis der Gehirnsphysik vom Tier dem Wissenschaftler erlauben, subjektiv zu wissen, was das Tier erlebt.

Aber dies scheint, dem Eliminativismus sehr nahe oder sogar damit identisch zu sein. Der Eliminativismus ist der Glaube, dass was wir als unsere subjektive Erfahrung bezeichnen eine Illusion ist, die vermutlich durch die Evolution hervorgerufen wird.

Ein offensichtliches Problem dieser Position ist, dass die Existenz unserer bewussten Erfahrung unmittelbar und viel gewisser als komplizierte physikalische, chemische und biologische Theorien ist.

In einem solchen Kontext scheint der Dualismus (den ich als den Glauben definiere, dass mentale und physikalische nicht identisch sind), die vernünfigste Position zu sein. 


Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

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16 thoughts on “On the feeling of a lonesome bat / Von den Gefühlen einer einsamen Fledermaus / Des sentiments d’une chauve-souris solitaire

  1. “But what about the following situation: a neuroscientist of the future has isolated a bat in a very complex machine which allows him to know exactly all chemical and electrical processes taking place within the brain of the poor animal. Suddenly, the bad emits an ultrasound and the researcher measures absolutely everything going on in its body.

    Would he know what the bat subjectively felt as it sent out the ultrasound?”

    As I understand it, the argument is that chemical and electrical processes operating simultaneously create subjectivity as a by-product, a form of constant feedback.

    Physics dissects and breaks objects into the smallest possible pieces in an attempt to understand the underlying processes. This machine cannot in principle provide the scientist with the “sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy” but rather the complete static division (not sum) of physical objects and processes.

    Perhaps the same future scientist has another machine capable of taking the complete chemical and electrical data from the bat and implanting it into his own brain structure. Would that then allow the scientist to experience what the bat felt during the ultrasound?

    As a complete aside, I was fascinated to read about a blind boy who developed the ability to ‘see’ by using tongue clicks as a bat sonar:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/dorset/8291573.stm

    • Hello Irish observer 🙂

      “Perhaps the same future scientist has another machine capable of taking the complete chemical and electrical data from the bat and implanting it into his own brain structure. Would that then allow the scientist to experience what the bat felt during the ultrasound? ”

      Yup, it would probably allow him to experience what the bat feels.
      But this changes nothing to my argument.

      The human brain of the scientist is already capable of understanding perfectly physics and chemistry.

      If the bat’s subjective experience were only physics and chemistry, the scientist’s brain could understand it immediately.

      The fact that he could NOT do that without having a brain’s bat shows that something like Emergent Dualism is true: the mental features of an organism emerge from the brain, but are DIFFERENT from the brain processes and intrinsic to the creature.

      Emergent Dualism explains why a kind of brain transplantation would be necessary whereas Reductive Materialism (RM) does not.

      If RM is true, the human brain of the scientist would know the feelings of the bat in the same way it would know everything about the physical processes in my computer.

      Please, tell me if I have been clear enough.

      Thanks for the links, I’ll take a look at it.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

      • Isn’t emergent dualism and reductive materialism both compatible with materialism? Emergent dualism is essentially just ‘the sum is greater than the parts.’

        I’ve never encountered anyone defending a position of reductive materialism as you define it.

  2. I see two problems with your case: A) Knowing is not equivalent to being and no RM claims it is or that he can obtain perfect knowledge from all points of view; and B) the RM proponent seems to be held to a higher standard than the dualist.

    We don’t need to consider a bat. We need only consider our fellow man. We can’t possibly know what it is to be him unless we become him. But you seem to expect a RM to be godlike in his knowledge. You expect him to transform into an atom if he studies an atom, or a bat if he studies a bat. I include an atom because to the dualist there can no real difference between an atom and a bat. He can’t possibly say an atom doesn’t ‘experience’ in its own way. That sense of experience could be anything if it’s not material. Furthermore, in order to be consistent, we have to hold the dualist to the same standard. He can contemplate dualism all he wishes but he will never know what it is to be a bat. The dualist isn’t god-like in his knowledge either. So the dualist obtains no more knowledge than the RM. What’s the point in pondering what no one can know?

    • Hello DonJindra, thanks for your comment!

      You must understand this is a thought experiment with a scientist PERFECTLY knowing the physics of the bat’s brain.

      Now there are two possibilities:
      1) he would know what is it like for the bat to send out the ultrasounds
      2) he would not know it

      In my post, I merely argued you cannot believe in 2) while being a reductive materialist.

      A dualist believes that if something has a subjective experience, it is DIFFERENT from physical processes, so 2) is a situation a dualist would predict.

      Some dualists (panpsychists) would indeed believe an atom has a kind of subjective experience.

      I take the (empirically supported) position that only beings disposing of a sufficiently complex brain-like structure CAN experience anything.

      • I understand it’s a thought experiment. I claim it’s a flawed thought experiment because it depends on a reality that does not exist. In reality, knowledge does not equate to god-like experience from all points of view. When you write, “he would not know it” what you really mean is “he would not experience it.” As a materialist, I would never claim knowledge of X is experiencing X. I might study World War I but I will never experience WWI. To claim that materialism implies this meaning strikes me as an absurdity.

  3. lothar, your logic is flawed. Your argument:

    if RM is true, someone knowing all the physical processes making up the subjective experience of a creature would know that experience

    a brilliant neuroscientist in such a position couldn’t know what the above bat experiences

    therefore RM is false

    is invalid on the basis that statement #1 is erroneous. We cannot yet understand interspecies events yet even given the complete neurochemical reaction. It would be better for now to stick to same species processes.

    • Hello Susan, thanks for your comment!

      “It would be better for NOW to stick to same species processes.”
      So you probably mean we don’t know yet everything about the physic and chemistry of a bat’s brain?

      I completely agree with you, of course.

      But IF (according to materialism)the bat is just a machine and its feelings are identical to brain processes , knowing every physical process taking place within it is akin to knowing EVERYTHING about the bat.

      According to RM, what makes the electrical and chemical reactions in its brain so sapecial that we cannot comprehend them, tough we understand them in every other domain?

      Lovely greetings from France and Germany.
      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com
      Hello Susan, thanks for your comment!

      “It would be better for NOW to stick to same species processes.”
      So you probably mean we don

  4. Hey Lothar, I saw this thread and had to comment. Basically, I agree with what what the Observer and donjindra have already said. Nagel is one of that funny breed: a dualist atheist. He thinks there’s something special, not godgiven but still special, about wetware as opposed to hardware. I have to agree with Douglas Hofstadter when he asks, “what is it like to bat a bee? What is it like to be a batted bee?”

    Having “all” the data on a bat’s point of view, in the form of numbers and graphs and descriptions, is not the same as being in a bat, and living the bat’s world with bat senses. Just because you can theoretically reconstruct bat qualia from all your information, doesn’t mean that you can actually do it, especially not in real time. If you were God, or a very good programmer of virtual reality, you could do it, but none of us are that good.

    Thus, I don’t see that qualia are really a problem for materialism- or at least, they’re no more a problem for us than for supernaturalists.

    • If I understand you correctly, you believe that

      1) subjective feelings are REAL and completely IDENTICAL to an ensemble of brain processes

      2) a human scientist knowing everything about the brain of a bat emmiting an ultrasound could not know what the creature feels because his own brain is not capable of well representing the complexity of the processes at stake

      3) a superhuman scientist capable of representing (almost) everything would know what the bat subjectively experiences

      But if this were true, should we not expect to be already capable to figure out A PART (say 1-5%) of this subjective experience?

      And the more we would know the physical and chemical reactions involved here, the greater would be our knowledge of the bat’s feelings.
      Even given our limiteds representational abilities we would expect a growth of our knowledge of the bat’s subjective experience with any increase of the physics and chemistry of its brain.

      Yet I fail to say how the discoveries of new firing pathways could increase our knowledge of what it feels like to be the flying mammal in this situation.

      There is another problem with your position. You certainly believe that the bat has a perfect knowledge of what it consciously experiences.
      But how is it possible if its experience is IDENTICAL with extremely, extraordinarily complex physical processes the best of our scientists are utterly unable to know?

      If you want to defend materialism, it seems to me that eliminativism (an error theory of consciousness saying people intutions about their inner experience is significantly wrong) is a much safer route to take than a reduction.

      • lothar- Yes, I agree with your three points. I would also say that we are indeed capable of figuring out a small part of what it’s like to be a bat. I don’t know how you could put this on a linear percent scale, but perhaps we can be 0.5% aware of batness.

        But I don’t see why increased information, in the form of numerical data, would increase our bat awareness. As I said, our brains are simply not capable of “porting” numbers to qualia. What I perceive is beyond my ability to render into numbers. I don’t see why I should be reasonably expected to reconstruct even a bat’s experience based on numbers. We don’t sense numbers, we sense light.

        • Hey Zilch.

          First of all, I want to report something truly remarkable.
          10 minutes before you post this comment on the bat, I THOUGHT on this old post and how I could perhaps translate it into Lothringisch and repost it. I also THOUGHT than an objection might be that we cannot grasp the feeling of a bat because the brain processes are extraordinarily complex.
          Could it be divine providence? It is up to you to decide :=)
          Fir mich isch es echt e Wohnsinn!

          I will soon write another post going into your objections.

  5. I’ve actually reconsidered my position slightly having read more on the subject.

    Science placed a firm division between the objective and the subjective (two categories I’ve never agreed with) during the scientific revolution. That which could be described with mathematical rigour became objective and the subjective became all secondary qualities dependent upon a human mind (meaning, history, time, colour etc).

    The challenge for materialism is explaining how the human mind can be combined and integrated within the same physical laws that operate ‘objectively’. From what I’ve read, we haven’t made much progress on this problem. The tools of physics etc cannot in principle tell us what a bat is experiencing.

    But such gaps in knowledge are always negative; they don’t establish materialism is wrong. A new paradigm must be introduced before a paradigm shift can occur. Until then materialism still offers us the best means of reuniting the human mind with the rest of the physical world.

  6. Thanks for the link, lotharson, I find your post well put and it includes some good thoughts. But it is not progress, as I think you would agree. .

    The trouble with your dualism is that it leaves us back where we started. If mind and matter they are two different things, then how do we reduce them? There would be no way to do it.

    The only way to reduce them would be to say that are not different things but two different aspects, (just as Chalmers argues.)

    Then we can say they reduce to the phenomenon of which they are aspects.

    This reduction requires abandoning dualism for nondualism and dependent co-origination. Then we have eliminated everything except the Tao for a fundamental theory. .

    The immediate advantage would be that it becomes possible that not only do ‘all things have a portion of thought’, but that all thoughts have a portion of thing.

    • I haven’t given much thought to the two aspect dualism. As far I can tell, this is a form of non-reductive physicalism.
      And my post only aimed at refuting reductive materialism.

      Do you lean towards panpsychism?

      Cheers.

  7. I’d see the phrase ”two aspect dualism’ as an oxymoron, since if there are two aspects there must be a phenomenon that has these aspects.

    Materialism is non-reductive, so I’d say the phrase ‘reductive materialism’ is also an oxymoron.

    Yes, I lean towards panpsychism, but I wouldn’t; call it that.

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