Do you know what it is like to be a bat?
I have been doing some reading on the tantalising question of what human consciousness is, and it has led me to some very strong arguments for the limitations of scientific explanations.
The natural enemy of the Christian faith today is no longer paganism as it was in the Apostolic age, but naturalism: the idea that nothing exists except that which is physical, made of matter and energy. The naturalist therefore only accepts that which you can examine scientifically and objectively. Anything outside this definition is considered not to exist or be real. Thus of course, the very idea of a supernatural God is unacceptable to the naturalist.
But human consciousness seems to pose an insoluble problem for the naturalist. In 1974 Serbian-American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a paper titled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” In it, he pointed out that no amount of objective, scientific knowledge can tell us what it feels like to be a bat. OK, maybe we can imagine flying like a bat, since we have our own similar experiences of flying in airplanes or floating under parachutes. But whereas we humans mostly experience the outside world through our sense of sight, bats mostly experience the outside world through a sense we do not possess: echolocation. They emit high pitched sound waves that bounce off their surroundings and they have specialised, highly sensitive sensors for picking up the reflected waves and creating a mental picture of the world around them. It’s a kind of natural sonar system.
Because we have nothing remotely like this sense of echolocation, we simply cannot accurately imagine what it is like to experience the world in this way – what it is like to be a bat. And this brings up the problem for naturalism. According to naturalism, since everything is physical, we should be able to understand everything. And yet here is something – what it is like to be a bat – that no amount of mere information or explanation can teach us. It seems to lie outside the realm of physical sciences; it cannot be reduced to mere objective facts.
“What’s the big deal?” I hear you asking. So we can’t pretend to be bats – so what? Well it turns out that this discovery applies to much more than bats. Especially, it applies to us. Physical, objective science seems to be totally incapable of accounting for what it is like to be a human being. There is something about the human experience that lies outside the whole realm of science. You might be able to map every single brain cell in your brain, describe how they work physically, how different bits are responsible for different jobs and even where exactly your memory of your dead pet dog Fido is stored. All this is physical, scientific explanation. But none of this will be able to explain why it feels like something to be you. That sense of being conscious, of knowing that you exist and experiencing all you experience cannot be explained by any amount of physical description and explanation.
Another way of looking at this is to point out the distinction between the subjective and the objective. The subjective is what you experience every day, the things you describe in the first person: “I feel cold”; “I see a tree”; “I want to eat”. You experience all these things in a way that no one else can, because you are the only one who is able to experience them from your own unique perspective. No one else can get inside your head and experience them exactly as you experience them. They may experience similar things in their own heads, but they can never experience them from inside your head.
“Hang on,” you ask, “don’t we all experience things the same way? We all see a green traffic light and know that we should go”. Well, can you be so sure about that? For example, how do you know that the colour you experience as green, the colour that produces a feeling of greenness in your mind, might not produce a feeling of redness in my mind? There is no way we could ever tell the difference. You have learned to go when you see a traffic light the produces greenness in your mind and you call it green. I have learned to go when I see a traffic light that produces redness in my mind, and I call it green. Our external behaviour is exactly the same, but our internal experience might be something quite different to each other. The subjective is directly available only to the person who experiences it directly and no one else, so it is impossible for us to know whether we really have the same experiences or not.
The objective on the other hand, is something that does not depend on any particular point of view at all – it is exactly the same for all observers. So, Nagel gives the example that if an alien race came to earth, even if they knew nothing about our language or science, they could still completely understand what a rainbow is. All they need are objective, observable, measurable facts and explanations of the physical world, which are the same everywhere and for everyone, even aliens. Note, however, that even with a perfect physical understanding of what a rainbow is, they will still be utterly incapable of knowing what it is like for a human being to see a rainbow, just as we are utterly incapable of knowing what it is like for them to experience a rainbow with whatever alien senses they may have. That first person, subjective experience is something they can never know purely from the physical facts.
So what does all this mean? Well it has some serious implications for the atheist who rejects belief in God on the basis that objective physical sciences are sufficient to explain everything there is. Remember that the naturalist says, “I don’t need God because everything in the universe can be explained using just the laws of nature without God.” Yet here is at least one thing that lies outside the ability of science to explain it. It seems to be something that is genuinely non-physical. You may call it whatever you wish: the mind, the psyche, the soul, the spirit, consciousness, sentience – but whatever you call it, it refuses to be accounted for by science. It seems to be hard evidence that there is indeed more in this world than things that are just made of matter and energy. And if there is at least one thing that is non-physical, then why shouldn’t there be more? The whole basis of naturalism is swept away, and with it, one of the chief arguments against the existence of God.
All from a bat! Who’d have thought so?
6 Replies to “What Drives Atheists Batty.”
Father, I encourage you to find and read a book called, ‘God, Actually’…it deals in depth with the issues of the human mind and conscience, creation and the physical universe, love, and other topics like the Resurrection and human suffering.
It was an insightful read for me, indeed!!
It’s written by Roy Williams, an Australian lawyer, who was born a Presyterian Christian, but lived most of his life an atheist. His intent was originally to write a book on atheism, inspired by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. However, his research led him do the opposite of that, writing this book; intentionally titled to counter Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’.
I enjoyed it and I’ve read it more than once…
P.S. I get no royalties from the author for the above promotion…haha…
And one other thing (this is not another plug for any other author, haha)…
When I get quizzed about my belief in God, this is usually how I respond, and it’s how I justify it to myself…If God did not exist, and had not reveal himself in some way (through a chosen few / the prophets) then there would have been no way for man to comprehend him. There would have been no reason for the thought of a God to have ever entered the human mind.
We see only the physical world and are only able to comprehend the physical world. So therefore, for man to have begun to comprehend God, God must have revealed himself to man somewhere along the line, otherwise we would have no reason to have started to think that there is anything beyond what we see.
It’s my first time seeing this amazing bat……..looking so strange. I think its may be a Rat. By the way I really impress to see the pics. I always wanna learn something worthy. Thanks a lot dear!
But how can you say that science cannot explain this phenomenon when you cannot explain it either? Just because you believe in God doesn’t validate any claim to know more about what it is like to be a bat or anyone else for that matter. If you want to present a valid argument then you should be able to explain how God makes anyone have feelings or thoughts, otherwise you are not making anymore progress than scientists.
The believer has an explanation for consciousness: the spirit. Christians believe we each have a spirit that is the most likely explanation for phenomena like consciousness and free will.
Atheists complain that you can’t measure a spirit with a ruler or see it in a microscope. But that’s the whole point – consciousness appears to be something that exists bbeyond the realm of the physical, so to explain it, you need something that also exists outside the realm of the physical.
As a logical argument, this is quite thoroughly valid. The reason most atheists reject it is because they start with the pre-assumption that only the physical exists – nothing else. This pre-assumption is in fact impossible to prove.
The way I see it, the human mind is so intricate that it is easier to conceive of somebody having ‘designed’ it than it is to assume that it happened and developed per chance; after all, when things in nature happen per chance they are more often than not, destructive. For example, cells in the human body are dividing all the time; if at any time just randomly, one cell out of the coutless cells in the body starts to divide in a different way to all others, we call it a mutation and a cancer.
Random events almost always serve to destruct; but such is not so with the advent of humanity. The event that caused humans to come into being as we know them today, whether that be creation or evolution, brought about a universe so complex and a human mind so incomprehensible that it is easier to consider somebody having fashioned them; not only separately and individually, but so they work together so harmoniously that any random change in the physics of how they relate proves destructive.
But the greatest thing about the human mind or human consciousness/conscience is the similarities there are between people no matter what their walk of life or personal circumstance. It is generally accepted,for example, that one does not take something that belongs to another without their consent. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the western world, the third world, or an isolated tribe in a jungle somewhere; this is a generally acceptd belief.
What this shows me is that there must be a common source that oversees or engrains this human commonality; because if there was no such thing then there would be no such thing as universally accepted standards or ways of conduct and each human mind will randomly develop to believe whatever suits it; again leading us back to destructive randomness.
I choose to believe that the earth was formed with a combination of creation and evolution. When God said ‘let it be’ he used the laws of physics (which he created) to make it happen. Studies show today that many of the mountain tops were once under water, the theory being that the tectonic plates moved over time pushing them up and out from under the deep. This is nothing different to the account in the Book of Genesis. In the creation account, God said (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have a Bible on hand), ‘Let the waters bring forth dry land’, then out of the water sprouted the land on which God placed the animals and trees. Why can’t it be that when God commanded the land to come forth from the water that he used the laws of physics to make it happen? Today we say it happened over millions of years, but why can’t God have sped up this process in ‘the evening and morning’ that were one day of creation (after all God created the laws of physics)? We don’t even know whether this ‘evening and morning’ was a physical 24 hour day; it could just as likely have been a million years, I mean isn’t ‘one day a thousand years, and a thousand years one day’ to God?
I also notice that the first line in the Bible says ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was without form’. In other words (or in my reasoning), God’s creation of the Earth started off with the laws of physics, something ‘without form’. Then using this, he says ‘let there be…’, in other words, ‘make it happen’. Using the physics he created, everything else was commanded to come into being. It is only when he comes to man that he personally fashions him or ‘makes’ him; but that’s another story all together.
And thus you can reconcile science with religion….