On Not Knowing What it is Like

On Not Knowing What it is Like

We have picked up the habit of saying that we don’t know what it is like to be a bat, and this feeds into skepticism about materialism.[1] But we don’t stop and ask what kind of ignorance this is—about the nature or analysis of the type of knowledge we say we lack. What do I not know when I declare that I don’t know what it is like to be a bat? The word “like” here suggests similarity, so let’s paraphrase the locution in question using that word: I don’t know what the experience of a bat is similar to (what it is like). But I do know what it is similar to: it is similar to the experience of a dolphin, which also uses echolocation–as do some whales, shrews, and cave birds. So, I can answer the question “What is it like to be a bat?” by replying “It’s like being a dolphin, or a whale, or a shew, or a cave bird”. In that sense of the question, I know its answer; so there must be another sense that stumps me. I can also answer the question what is it like to be a human (or this individual human): it’s like being a chimpanzee or many other mammals, as opposed to a shark or a snake. Evidently, we need to reformulate the question if it is to be correctly answered “I don’t know”. We might try “What does it feel like to be a bat?”: but this gets us nowhere, because we do know what it feels like to be a bat—it feels the way being a dolphin (etc.) feels. This is still a similarity question whose answer I know. So, what is the question whose answer I don’t know in the bat case but do know in the human case? We need to expunge the comparative element suggested by the usual form of words.

The obvious move is to say simply that I don’t know the nature of the bat’s echolocation experience. But this won’t do because I do know a good deal about the nature of bat experience: I know about the function and workings of bat experience, as well as its brain correlates, and these are aspects of its nature. No problem, you reply, just restrict nature to phenomenological nature—we don’t know the phenomenology of bat experience. Again, we do know various facts about the phenomenology of bat experience, so we had better add something like “intrinsic phenomenology”—how the experience strikes the bat introspectively, or some such thing. If we are pressed to explain what is meant by “phenomenology”, we had better not say “what the experience is like”, because that will land us back with the first problem. At this point we naturally reach for the idea of knowledge by acquaintance: we don’t have knowledge by acquaintance with respect to bat experience—we don’t have the kind of direct knowledge of the bat’s experience that the bat has. And it is perfectly true that we humans don’t introspect anything like bat experience (or so we are assuming for the sake of argument). But why should it follow from this that we don’t know a certain property (“phenomenal character”) of the bat? Couldn’t we know it by inference? Seemingly not, but why? Why is it that we are thus ignorant? Should we just say that this is the kind of knowledge that can’t be possessed except by direct experience (introspection)? That may be so, but it cries out for explanation. Could it be that we think we don’t know but really do, as it has been suggested that the bat experience is really similar to human visual experience or indeed human auditory experience? Am I certain that I don’t know what it is like to be bat (in the knowledge-by-acquaintance sense)? And what exactly is this “knowledge by acquaintance”? That is a term of art, a technical term, despite its easy intuitive resonance. The word “acquaintance” is drawn from the ordinary use of the word to describe having met someone—but this is nothing like my knowledge of my own experience (“Pleased to meet you, experience of red”). But more fundamentally, what kind of knowledge are we talking about, and why is it restricted in the way it is supposed to be? It isn’t a type of propositional knowledge or knowledge-how or knowledge-what or knowledge-of, so what is it? The traditional idea is that it is sui generisand foundational, but it is not exactly pellucid or clearly analyzed; the notion tends to be left at an intuitive level. I don’t mean to cast doubt on its existence, or deny that it applies to our knowledge of experience; I mean simply to indicate that it is this obscure unanalyzed notion that is evoked by the familiar “what it is like” language. From the point of view of epistemology, this phrase from the philosophy of consciousness is a puzzling thing, a subject of some perplexity. But there appears to be nothing else that could be meant by the phrase but that puzzling thing. It can only mean “known by acquaintance”, as in “We can’t know by acquaintance the nature of a bat’s echolocation experience”. The familiar phrase is thus quite misleading given the use it is put to; and a lot of weight is placed on it. It is bandied about uncritically and incuriously.

It would not be difficult to convince oneself that knowledge by acquaintance, so called, is a mysterious phenomenon. An experience occurs and somehow it immediately produces a special kind of knowledge of itself that cannot be acquired in any other way. What kind of cognitive equipment is required for such a feat—is it conceptual or non-conceptual, propositional or non-propositional? How reflective does one need to be in order to be capable of possessing it?  Do non-human animals have it, or human infants? It is knowledge of a thing, as Russell would put it, but does it involve some sort of mental representation of that thing? Can this representation feature as a component of belief? Is the knowledge distinct from its object or an aspect of it? Which things are possible subjects of it? It seems difficult to conceptualize, more like a theoretical requirement than a plain datum. In a word, it is a mystery—a mystery of epistemology (and not the only one, what with induction, the a priori, and creative hypothesis formation). Thus, it is a mysterious type of knowledge that gives rise to our recognition of the mystery of consciousness. We grasp the mind-body problem by deploying a notion that baffles us. We know we have knowledge by acquaintance (whatever exactly it consists in) and this enables us to know that we don’t know what it is like to be a bat—we know that we don’t know this by means of acquaintance. Hence, we don’t know it at all, and hence (allegedly) bat experience can’t be reduced to bat brain states. The driving premise of the whole argument is that bat experience can only be known by acquaintance with it—but that idea raises mysteries of its own. This is not an objection to the argument, just a reminder that it rests on ideas that themselves present profound puzzles.[2]         

[1] See Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (1972) and earlier work by others.

[2] I think the phrase “what it is like” has become too much of a mantra in these discussions. It is useful in mobilizing intuitions, but not as a basic term of exposition. It should be possible to eliminate it from argument not rely on it to do serious work. It is not sufficiently analyzed. It leaves the subject in a poorly formulated state.

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11 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    A very constructive perspective. Not to take away the mystery, but your post prompts me to wonder if some aspect of this problem is amenable to serious study via consideration of the process of acquiring knowledge through acquaintance. For instance, I believe that there have been studies where sighted people are blindfolded for a period of time, and visual information is rendered by some device placed on a portion of their skin. Apparently, they eventually learn to “see” in some sense, using the tactile information. Are they just acquiring a new skill, or are they also acquiring acquaintance with a new type of experience? (Similar experiments could be presumably performed using information transmitted via sound, i.e. to develop echolocation capabilities.) If this does involve acquaintance with a new type of experience, presumably this comes gradually, and may involve the development of offshoots of more basic experiences (or experience-types) that we may not normally be aware of. Maybe, via thoughtful questioning of the subject, together with controls of some form, something might be gleamed into the process of developing acquaintance. Though such a study would unlikely help with the question of ultimately where knowledge via acquaintance blooms from (perhaps from nothing reifiable), it could cast light on its mechanism; and perhaps on the hierarchical structures, or “algebra”, underlying the process of experience.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      We can imagine training a human child in echolocation from an early age; perhaps he would have some inkling of what it’s like to be a bat. After all, the bat uses its ears and we have a pair of those. Animals with better hearing than us might also be closer to grasping the nature of bat experience. Alternatively, we might hook our brain up to a whale brain and experience what it experiences vicariously. There is no logical bar to any of this.

      Reply
  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Though it seems to make sense to ask “what is it like” to have a specific experience (e.g. echolocation), is there a coherent way to understand the question “what is it like to be a bat”, or oneself for that matter? This obviously also involves the problem of identity and the bundling of experiences (as per Hume, Parfit, Dennett etc). Is this question of identity orthogonal to the question of knowledge via acquaintance? Or related?

    Reply
  3. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    1. I agree perfectly with your note 2 .
    2. In this subject firstly it must be clear that what the questioner mean: what is being bat ( batness) ? , or what is nature of bat’s experience of external world ? do you agree ?

    Reply
  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    A left-field question. Knowledge through acquaintance does not seem to require the use of reason. It could be called knowledge without reason. Is it related to the type of experience described by the idiom “knowing in the heart”? It strikes me that knowing something “in the heart” is like knowing by acquaintance, but where the acquaintance is not conscious – as if it is remembered by the “heart” not the conscious “mind” (where “heart” presumably must be understood as some part of the mind, not the physical organ).

    Reply
  5. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    It seems reasonable to assert there is something it’s like to see in general, as opposed to seeing something specific, like the colour red. Is there something it’s like to be sentient in general? Another way of putting this would be to ask if there can be knowledge by acquaintance of the general experience of knowledge by acquaintance.

    Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        A form of knowledge always available to us, but largely taken for granted, rarely directly apprehended and appreciated up close. Perhaps because it is indescribable. There is nothing it’s like to not have it.

        Reply

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