What is it like to be...?

by Chris Chittenden

"What is it like to be a bat?”

… Thomas Nagel, Philosopher

Have you ever seen the movie Bambi and become tearful when Bambi's mother is killed? How about the scene in Shrek when Shrek feels heartbroken when he overhears Donkey and Fiona discussing her curse and thinks she is talking badly about him? Did you feel emotional then?

Whether you did or didn't get emotional in those scenes, many people did. Yet we know that these characters are not real beings, but animated either by hand or computer. Regardless of this knowledge we still find ourselves relating and emoting in response to joy and pain. We do this because the animators are very good at creating characters who have a human quality to which we can relate.

The mystery of consciousness is one of my pet interests and one of the early seminal thinkers in consciousness studies, Thomas Nagel, posed the very simple question, "What is it like to be a bat?" He used the question to challenge materialism and to further explore what we mean by consciousness. He ultimately drew the conclusion that consciousness relates to 'subjectivity'. In other words, we assume an object is conscious if it has its own internal subjective experience of the world.

For example, what if we asked the question, "What is it like to be a mug?" We would most likely answer, "nothing", as we believe that a mug does not subjective experience being a mug. However, although it is easy to see a bat as having a subjective experience of the world and therefore being conscious, we cannot know what it is actually like to be a bat as they have a very different structure to us and therefore a very different way of being cognisant of the world.

Yet, if we go back to where we started these musings, we can see how easily people assume the consciousness of another being and relate it to their own. This is both a blessing and a blind spot. It a blessing as it allows us to relate to other living, or apparently living, beings. It is a blind spot because it is all too easy for us to assume that another's subjective experience matches our own.

It has been said that personal growth is movement away from egocentrism. Egocentrism is often misconstrued as putting oneself at the centre of everything but actually speaks to an inability to separate one's self from others. In other words, egocentric people assume their experiences are shared by all. As a result, highly egocentric people are unable to take on any other perspectives than their own.

The question, "What is it like to be... ?", is central for personal growth as it forces us to at least consider other beings' experience. Ironically, we can never really know the answer to this question. I cannot know what it is like to have your subjective experience and vice versa. However, the inquiry in and of itself allows us to appreciate and hopefully accept others' experiences as being legitimate for them. In doing so, we not only grow as a person, we may well find we understand those around us better.

I invite you to now take a few minutes for your own growth, pick someone you know well and ask yourself, "What is it like to be them?" Then maybe you could share your thoughts with them. Who knows, you might find out something you never knew!

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© 2015 Chris Chittenden