Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What is it like to be a dog?

To: Charles C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is it like to be a dog?
Date: 11 September 2003 11:06

Dear Charley,

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 September, and also for your e-mail of 31 August with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, entitled 'On Qualia'.

You have chosen to approach the question of qualia by considering Nagel's question, 'What is it like to be a bat?' but with 'bat' replaced by an animal which you have come to know very well, your mobility assistance dog Friday.

Now this isn't just a question of making the example more relevant to your experience. A critic of Nagel will say that we do know a lot more about what it is like to be a mobility assistance dog, than we know about what it is like to be a bat. What this arguably shows is that the 'what is it like' question does not require, or ought not to demand, an all-or-nothing answer.

Why might it seem important to have an all-or-nothing answer?

The defender of qualia who uses Nagel's approach seems think that knowing what a mental state 'is like' is having an object in front of you. If the 'object' inside a bat is necessarily different from the 'object' inside me, then no amount of analysis in terms of physical states or behaviour can account for the existence of the object, the quale.

On my desk is a rock from Cornwall. At my leisure, I can inspect its different qualities of colour, shape, texture, weight. Compare this. When I woke up this morning, I felt a pang as I remembered that it was 9/11, I got dressed, burned the toast, waited impatiently for the bus to take me to my office. In each case there is something 'it was like' to have these experiences. But this 'something' doesn't seem to be anything like the rock from Cornwall. The more I try to focus on its what-its-likeness as an object, the more nebulous the experience becomes.

What I actually do, when I recall these experiences, is more like 'replaying the tape', attempting to call up the experience again in my imagination. However many times I do this, I get no closer to 'identifying the quale'

I had a dream the other night that there was going to be an alien invasion, and I couldn't decide what to do. First I crouched under the table, then I hid in the cupboard. Then I went out into the empty street and a solitary air force jet flew by. After I woke up, it seemed that I knew for the first time, from my dream, 'what it was like' to feel that peculiar sense of confusion and vertigo, 'The aliens are coming!' My philosophical hypothesis to explain this is not that I came face to face with an 'object' which I have not met before, the 'aliens-are-coming feeling', but rather that I *connected* thoughts and feelings that I had not connected before. The creativity of my dream constructed a new narrative for me to enjoy, just as reading a well written novel might have done. In other words, 'what it is like' is more like a narrative than an object.

You have told the reader several things which enable them to construct a narrative about your dog Friday. Of course, the narrative is incomplete. Yet we feel that we know much more about what it is like to be Friday than we know what it is like to be a bat. Friday doesn't know 'what it is like' to be Friday because he doesn't *know* anything. - I am saying that this is the only legitimate sense we can talk about the what-its-likeness of something.

I once wrote about Nagel, that it *is* logically possible to come to know what it is like to be a bat ('Naive Metaphysics' Chapter 6, section 6). Perhaps over the next few days, I will exhibit increasingly bat-like tendencies as the evening draws near, culminating in a complete transformation a week from now. Waking up in my human form the next day, I will have a wealth of information which I did not have before about bat life. But it will be general, necessarily partial, not the specific kind of information you expect if you are looking for a mental object with such-and-such properties.

As you do not discuss the private language issue, I have said nothing about the attack on qualia from the private language argument, something which I do make much of in the program. As your essay has demonstrated, however, there is a lot to say about the question of qualia before one considers the question whether qualia are not merely objects but *private* objects, in the sense of 'privacy' attacked by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations.

All the best,