What’s it Like to Be a Bat? Contemplating the Mind-Body Problem

October 1, 2011

(Note: This is my first post in a series about the philosophy of cognitive science(s))

Today’s story begins with a well-known 16th-century French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher by the name of Descartes. Many will know Descartes for his contributions to mathematics (fun fact: He may be the reason that ‘x’ is most commonly used to express an unknown, such as a variable in an algebraic equation. For a longer discussion, see this).

Descartes also had a novel and extremely important worldview – he was one of the founders of the philosophy called “rationalism” – one which seeks absolute truths from the inside via the “pure light of reason.” Unfortunately, Descartes used the axiom “I think, therefore I am” to derive the existence of God – a dubious proof at best, one that undoubtedly calls into question Descartes’ own willingness to depart from a preexisting worldview.

But all of that is secondary. What Descartes is relevant for in the current discussion is for his theory of Cartesian dualism. Descartes believed that mind and body were dualistic, or two fundamentally separate substances. This view, popularly adapted into “soulism,” is still held by the majority of the world’s population.

Interestingly enough, even though Cartesian dualism is considered naive by today’s cognitive scientists, his work indicated that he was surprisingly willing to push the limits of a mechanistic world-view, even believing that nonhuman animals, or “brutes” as he called them, were entirely robotic. Humans were separate because of capacity for formidably complex mental feats such as natural language, and because of creative responses to novel situations. Acting as a historian, I postulate that Descartes, for the skeptic and rationalist that he was, was unable to completely divorce himself from a Catholic scientific worldview – evidence for this being his curious and convoluted arguments for the existence of God and his placement of humans in a fundamentally different category from other animals. Of course, evolution hadn’t been discovered yet so he’s not too much to blame.

The concept of Cartesian dualism, now rejected by the mainstream of philosophers, evolved into the “mind-body problem.”  To save a lot of explanation, the mind-body problem has essentially two parts:

1) Are things we consider “mental states” entirely physical?
2) If so, how can we explain such phenomena as consciousness?

To elaborate on question 1, we have to consider the difference between dualism and physicalism. Dualism is Descartes’ worldview, which holds that mental states are immaterial, whereas physicalism holds that they are entirely explained away by the particular architecture of human brains and “minds” in general. Dualism is largely debunked by the problem of causation – Burning one’s hand one a hot stove causes a mental reaction, the feeling of pain. The mental desire of hunger causes us to go and eat chips. How do these things affect each other, or how are they causally linked, if mental and physical states are distinct? To answer that we turn to physicalism.

Physicalism is, simply put, the view that all “things” in the universe are physical, so it rejects the possibility of supernatural entities or souls. So physicalism invokes something called the “monist view” of the mind-body problem – that mental states are causally linked to physical  states for the reason that they are physical states themselves. Simple enough. Within physicalism, there are various degrees of strength too. The strongest view is an actual empirical hypothesis waiting to be proven, the “type-identity theory,” which states that mental states and properties are identical to physical states and properties. This is particularly bold because it seems to suggest that every mind which contains the idea that “grass is green” would have some identical structure. I think that this inference isn’t completely accurate – different minds such as that of a cricket compared to that of a snake could contain the representation of grass analogously or isomorphically (Douglas Hofstadter’s term) but wouldn’t necessarily have to be identical to for the type-identity theory to hold.

There are also weaker forms of physicalism, especially property dualism or nonreductive physicalism, which says that even though physicalism is correct, it is not fully reductionist – i. e. low-level properties of physical objects such as magnitude, velocity, chemical composition, etc are not always sufficient to explain higher-level phenomena such as psychological states. This is closely related to emergentism, which holds that even though high levels of organization in a complex system such as the brain are dependent on low-level activity, they cannot be explained through the lower-level activity. Some thinkers, myself included, believe that the theory of emergence sweeps the problem under the rug, and isn’t fundamentally distinct from believing in dualism anyway, since it relies on “mystery” and “the unknown.”

So that largely sums up the answer to the first part of the mind-body problem, ie. whether mental states are physical or not. The second part is a lot trickier though. We arrive at something that Thomas Nagel terms “the knowledge problem” – even if we knew all the physical “facts” about the phenomenon of pain, for example, we wouldn’t know what pain feels like, extrapolating from those facts about pain. In his famous paper “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel delivers a critique against reductionist physicalists who reduce the problem of understanding consciousness to “low-level neuronal activity” without being more specific. According to Nagel, “consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable.” Can we imagine different intelligent cognitive architectures? By some stretch of the imagination, we may be able to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. But now we only know what it’s like for a human to be a bat…what about what it’s like for a bat to be a bat? Does being a bat feel like anything? Is that an absurd question, like asking what it feels like to be a water bottle? Or is it somewhere in between?

I guess I’ve probably provided more answers than questions. Consciousness will be dealt with in more detail later. But in the meantime, we swing around full circle to Descartes, who, as you might remember, believed animals were essentially robots. We all observe apparently intelligent behavior in “lower creatures,” even insects, but is it really intelligent or is it just robotic, as Descartes would say? Here’s an excerpt on the “sphex wasp” provided by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel, Escher, Bach:

When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. In due course, the eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket, which has not decayed, having been kept in the wasp equivalent of a deepfreeze. To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness — until more details are examined. For example, the wasp’s routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inches while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and reenter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated forty times, with the same result. [from Dean Wooldridge’s Mechanical Man: The Physical Basis of Intelligent Life]

Well that’s all I have to say on the mind-body problem for now. Stay tuned for more!

Further Reading:

What Is It Like to Be a Bat? – Thomas Nagel

(Note: All information is from MITECS and personal reflection (this is philosophy, after all), unless otherwise stated)