Bat Science

Bat Science

What does the science of bats (Chiroptera) include? There are 1,400 species of bats and they make up 20% of all mammals. Many of them use an echolocation sense, though not all. We can expect a science of bats to deal with their anatomy, evolution, physiology, and psychology. With respect to the first three of these we have made substantial progress, but concerning the fourth we have hit a brick wall. True, we have a decent overall psychology of bats, as good as our psychology of other animals, but there is a glaring lacuna—we don’t know what being a bat is like. That is, we have no adequate conception of (knowledge about) the nature of the sensations experienced by bats when they echolocate. The reason is obvious: we don’t have such experiences ourselves. Perhaps we have some knowledge of bat echolocation experiences, based on our own auditory and visual experience, but we don’t have a full conception—our understanding is partial. So, our science of bats is partial. This implies that our physiology of bats is also partial if we define physiology as “the branch of biology concerned with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts” (OED). We don’t have an adequate biology of bats. And if biology is conceived as a department of physical science, then we don’t have an adequate physics of bats either. All these disciplinary divisions are more or less arbitrary and institutional; the plain fact is that we have only a partial science of bats—very partial. We don’t even know how they experience the world! At best we have a kind of functional, structural, skeletal, abstract knowledge of the bat mind, not comparable to our knowledge of the human mind (we do grasp those experiences). Generally speaking, we don’t have a comprehensive science of any animal whose experience radically departs from our own. Nor do we really have complete knowledge of animal minds that differ only quantitatively from ours: we don’t know what it is like to smell like a dog or see like an eagle or hear like a cat. We can extrapolate from our own case to some extent, but we don’t have a clear and distinct idea of what these superior senses involve; we can’t imagine it. The fact is that we have this kind of knowledge by analogical reasoning: to the extent that our and their experiences are analogous we can possess such knowledge, but not otherwise. If our senses were even more impoverished, we would know a good deal less than we do now: if we were deaf or blind, we would not grasp the auditory or visual experiences of the vast majority of animals. Some animals are deaf or blind (not many), so they can’t have knowledge of the mental worlds of hearing and sighted animals—no matter how scientifically intelligent they might be (the octopus has virtually no sense of hearing). It is just luck that we have a wide enough range of senses to comprehend the minds of other creatures. It could have been all bats so far as human science is concerned—no animal mind would fall within the human science capacity. The reason is that knowledge of animal minds is first-person experience-based and unavoidably analogical.

We could put this by saying that empiricism is true for knowledge of experience (animal psychology). Classical empiricists divided knowledge into perceptual knowledge and reflective knowledge: they may have been wrong about the origins and limits of knowledge of the external world, but they were not wrong about knowledge of the internal world. We know about the mind only by experiencing it: if we haven’t experienced it, we can’t know it (fully anyway). We have no idea of bat experience because we have no impression of bat experience—that is, no introspective awareness of it, or anything like it. We have no analogue of bat experience in our own mind. Such knowledge is inescapably egocentric: we must proceed from our own case. According to this kind of empiricism, we cannot have a complete science of animals that are radically different from ourselves psychologically. Nor could other species have a complete science of us without sharing our psychology—as with a highly intelligent (but deaf) octopus. What this means is that the sensory physiology of a creature fixes the limits of its knowledge: human physiology stands in the way of a science of bats (or even cats and rats). We know other minds by analogy with our own, but sometimes there is no analogy. Hence, our psychological science is inherently limited. Some animal minds are conceptually and scientifically closed to us. Psychological empiricism precludes psychological omniscience.

It might be wondered whether something similar holds for knowledge of physical reality. I don’t mean the claim that physical reality is itself experiential (idealism); I mean the suggestion that the human body provides the basis for all physical knowledge. The idea is not unheard of in cognitive development circles, but it has lacked clear elucidation. It would be odd if knowledge of other minds were inherently egocentric but not knowledge of other bodies (including inanimate ones). Isn’t egocentricity more likely to obtain across the whole field of human knowledge if it holds in part of it? The question is difficult to decide because of the homogeneity of matter: the matter of the body is the same as the matter outside the body, so we don’t have the situation in which the knowing mind is trying to extrapolate beyond its own nature. We don’t have a bat-type situation with regard to other bodies, animate or inanimate. We are not in the position of trying to use our own body as the model while other bodies differ drastically from it. So, our means of acquiring physical knowledge might be egocentric without encountering any limits analogous to the bat case. Luckily all bodies resemble my body, matter being homogeneous (but see below). Knowledge of my own body thus suffices for forming a conception of all other bodies; my knowledge-forming capacities are never put to the test in the way the bat’s mind puts them to the test. But we can formulate a fanciful thought experiment to determine how it might challenge our ability to think about other bodies: what if we had no body, being immaterial beings, and yet we tried to form a conception of material bodies? If you couldn’t use knowledge of your own body as a point of comparison, could you really grasp the nature of material bodies outside of you? You couldn’t think, “This thing is like my body and I know what that is, so I know what it is “. Surely you would have a different conception of rocks and squirrels if you had no body to form your basic notion of physical things. You wouldn’t know what those things are without knowledge of your own body to rely on. You would find them alien and mysterious without this epistemic prop.[1] Just as we don’t grasp what ghosts are, ghosts don’t grasp what we are—because these things are just too different from each other. We would not know what a bat’s body is if we had no body ourselves to compare it to—just like our current ignorance of its experience. Our knowledge would be at best partial. The further physical reality departs from the perceived reality of the human body the less we understand it—witness the idea of an electromagnetic field or a black hole or the quantum world. We lose our grip on the physical reality we are trying to grasp. We struggle with abstractions, mere words. If so, there is an underlying egocentricity in our knowledge of the physical world, though it doesn’t show up in ordinary life, because we don’t generally encounter anything sufficiently alien. Minds are heterogeneous, so we encounter instances alien to our own mind; but matter is (generally) homogeneous, so we don’t find radical departures from the matter composing our body.[2] Other bodies are analogous to our own body, so we can use analogical reasoning to grasp their nature; not so other minds. Still, both types of knowledge are epistemically egocentric, and hence subject to egocentric empiricism. The basic knowledge is knowledge of self, whether of mind or body; the rest is derived by analogical extension. That, at any rate, is a hypothesis worth exploring; it makes a lot of sense of our epistemic predicament. According to this view, all science is egocentric and limited, not just bat science; bat science is just a special case. Fundamentally, all scientific knowledge is grounded in knowledge of self.[3] All our knowledge is filtered through our self-awareness, imbued with it, conditioned by it. It is proprioception extended. I first know myself; then I work outwards from there. The more remote the other mind or body is, the more tenuous our grasp of it becomes; the more alien to our nature, physical or mental, the more incomprehensible. This is what bats teach us if we listen carefully to their message.[4]

[1] There is a lot to be said about how one’s own body shapes one’s view of the physical world, but I won’t go into it now. We feel our own body at every moment, from the womb onwards, so we naturally think of other bodies as potential objects of feeling. An animal needs a special awareness of its own body in order to function and survive. If we try to separate our concept of body from our body, we are apt to conceive of something thin and etiolated, like mere geometrical extension. The lived human body is not like that. We call other bodies “bodies” for a reason. Our concept of matter ultimately has its roots in the felt reality of the human body. We can imagine creatures that refuse to extend the concept of body beyond their bodily boundaries. The body is our primordial physical object. Plus, we are naturally self-centered, self-obsessed, self-interested. We have a special epistemic relation to our own body.

[2] What if some animals had bodies composed of dark matter?

[3] This doesn’t mean science isn’t objective (in one of the many senses of that word); it just means that our conception of its objectivity has to be more nuanced than we might have supposed. We still have objective confirmation procedures, but what is confirmed reflects us as well as mind-independent reality (Ernst Mach had a view like this—science as physiologically constrained).

[4] There could be a follow-up paper entitled “What is it Like to be a World Completely Different from the Human World?”, or simply “What is it Like to be Non-Human?” Human epistemology is human epistemology, as bat epistemology is bat epistemology. We can never escape our own biological nature.

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