by Celia Coates
“What is it like to be a bat?” is the question headlining an editorial in a recent issue of NEW SCIENTIST. It continued,
“Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1974 question has evolved to dominate our thinking on consciousness. Nagel’s point, simply put, is that even if we could fly and navigate using sonar, we would never grasp what it feels like to be a bat. The argument has become the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, the intractability of explaining subjective experience. Consciousness isn’t something you can measure or weigh; its ethereal quality is so fascinating as to verge on the mystical. … (W)e have been unable to explain how our brains create the conscious experience.” *
As outlandish as it may seem, I know something about how it feels to be a bat. Here’s the story: some years ago, when I was part of a brainwave training program, the instructor led us in an exercise for evoking a state of consciousness in which the theta brainwave frequency is dominant. It’s different from our usual waking awareness in which the dominant frequency is beta and we are busy thinking, constantly thinking. We closed our eyes, let go of that beta here-and-now state of mind, became very quiet and calm, and entered a kind of clear, meditative state. Then we listened to these instructions:
“Look down at your feet and see what they look like. What kind of shoes or foot coverings are you wearing? Are you a man or a woman?”
When I looked at my feet I was surprised to see that they were above my head, not resting on the ground. And – they had claws that were clinging to a grey, rocky surface. I was a bat! I could feel myself hanging upside down and then detaching from the cave roof and flying very fast out into the dark night sky. I was not aware of anything like “thoughts,” but I was vividly aware that I was using an area to guide my flight that in a human is found just above and between our eyebrows. I went fast and far out into the air and then sensed that there were insects flying around me. I zeroed in on one of them, opened my small jaws and took in one that was like a fly. I bit down, chewed, and swallowed. It was crunchy. (And I’m a vegetarian.) I continued to circle – flying fast – for a while and then our instructions must have been to bring our mind-experience to an end. I flew back to the cave and as I entered it, I was aware of a strong, pungent smell – the guano. As a human I found it unusual and unpleasant. I came to rest upside down again on the cave roof, surrounded by other bats, sensing that some of them were holding their babies.
I have never visited a bat cave, gone sky diving, or eaten insects. Although I had the dual sense of being both the bat and the observer, it was clear that I was experiencing being in a bat body as part of a bat community and sensing, moving, feeling, tasting, touching, and smelling with bat physical abilities in bat surroundings. I’d stepped aside from my ordinary viewpoint and, briefly, shared the reality of a bat. I’d never experienced anything like that before, and knowing how a bat feels was not high on my wish list. Where did this highly sensate, strange and clear experience come from?
The NEW SCIENTIST editorial presented the current standard view of scientists that the brain creates consciousness, although,
”…despite decades of thought, we have been unable to explain how our brains create the conscious experience.” It goes on to say,
“This is where engineering comes in. To build something you have to understand it precisely.” And then finishes with,
“Although an engineering approach won’t allow us to grasp the essence of ‘batness’, it looks like a promising way to build artificial consciousness. Who knows, it might eventually explain the mystery of our own being.” The editor wonders,
“Can we make a machine that does what a conscious human does?”
We’ve already created machines that can compute faster – and in some cases better – than humans can. Advances we could cheer about are forecast: “A growing understanding of how consciousness works could lead to fresh treatments for brain injuries and phobias, as well as a deeper understanding of ourselves.” **
We’ve made machines that appear to think and respond as a human would (like the one that can mimic psychotherapists’ responses). We have already developed artificial intelligence, but I do not believe that we can ever create a conscious machine.
People use the word “conscious” to mean different things. Sometimes it means being alert rather than comatose, or it can mean knowing that you know. For some of us the brain and the mind are different and separate but function together to allow us to experience the many dimensions of reality, so to be conscious means we can know ourselves, can have empathy for others, and can transcend the material level of being to discover the sublime. Science cannot explain subjective experience, but having subjective experiences is central to being human.
My experience took no more than 15 or 20 minutes. But my own “batness” was a vivid direct experience of something beyond what I knew. It needed my brain for me to be aware of what I was experiencing, but I don’t believe that the experience originated somehow in neurons and synapses inside my skull. The scientists’ probing further and further into the brain to find out how it produces consciousness makes as little sense to me as taking a TV set apart to find out how it creates Saturday Night Live or Downton Abbey. The programs begin elsewhere with thought, creativity and collective effort. We know that people create the programs, not the TV. I believe that the brain receives consciousness in the same kind of way a television receives programs. It is wonderful that science is discovering things about the brain, but when the NEW SCIENTIST editor wrote that consciousness, “verges on the mystical,” I have to say that mystics know more about the nature of Consciousness than the engineers do.
I side with the people across cultures who’ve believed for many centuries that Consciousness precedes and includes everything. It creates the brain, not the other way around. It is called by different names – The Force, Creator, God, All There Is, Brahman, The Great Spirit, Yahweh, and Supreme Being.… Many have experienced it.
This is a small post on a giant and complicated topic in which there are many different definitions and approaches. It’s a huge debate. Meanwhile, until there is a better understanding of what it means to be conscious and what Consciousness is, we each need to keep exploring, thinking, visioning, dreaming and making sense of our own experiences.
* * * * *
* NEW SCIENTIST, 21 September 2019.
** “Decoding Consciousness” by Emily Sohn, NATURE, vol. 571, 25 July 2019
The image accompanying this post is by Parker West from Pixabay.