Monday, 9 February 2009

What is it like to be a human?

There is a famous paper by philosopher, Thomas Nagel called “What is it like to be a bat?” The basic argument goes that since there is something it is like to be said furry flying creature, and it’s so very different from our own experience, then it is going to be a something that we can never know. More importantly, that something is a fact and that fact can’t be a fact of physical science. Since physics is about an objective, third person point of view, it can’t possibly include information only accessible from a first person point of view. And if you’re worrying that I’m calling bats persons, then don’t. I’ve missed out an important link in the argument. If intelligent bats, hanging out in cavernous bat campuses, are having this discussion then they might also be questioning if we have first person, subjective experience. In other words, is there something it is like to be a human?

Well what is it like? Right now, I experience that curious sense of being able to think about what I want to write, while I appear to be the person writing although (being a competent touch typist) the words seem to just appear on the screen in front of me. Next, I am aware of various aches and pains in my body. There is a jabbing pain in my back, a grating soreness a the top of my throat, a queasy nausea rippling behind my forehead which disappears the moment I focus on something else.

This introspection, this putting of my feelings, my perceptions, myself centre stage sets the scene for a Cartesian narrative where all reality emanates from the inside out. And like a child struggling with a recalcitrant tee shirt, this feels all wrong, muddled and confused because surely reality, Real Reality must come at us from the outside in. The facts are facts about the world. They are out there and inner space should be occupied with veridical perceptions of that outside world along with rational sifting, organisation, synthesis and reconfiguration of information. But although that’s how it should be, it isn’t like that. It’s much more like a skip that’s had the whole street take advantage of it to clear out their junk. And it hurts like hell. That’s what it’s like to be a human.