What Does it Feel Like to be a Bat?

It is a sensible question: What does it feel like to be a bat? Although we can never really know the answer (because we can never be bats), we know that there is an answer. It feels like something to be a bat. Well, at least we think it does. We think bats have consciousness and conscious feelings. On the other hand, it is not a sensible question to ask what it feels like to be brick or a table. It doesn’t feel like anything to be an inanimate object.

The bat question, in fact, is the title of a seminal paper in philosophy by Nigel Thomas, arguing and establishing that consciousness cannot be reduced to material explanations. After going through all the explanations based on physical and material processes, one can still ask the question, “Yeah, why does it feel that way, and not some other way?”

Before anyone accuses me of being pretentious, I should confess that I haven’t read the actual paper — just what was written about and based on the paper. The bat paper raises many interesting philosophical questions. So many that I may actually write another post on it. However, Philosophy is not my strong suit. Physics is. Let’s look at some of the physics behind being and feeling like a bat.

Bats are not blind, contrary to what you may have heard. But let’s say they are, and that they sense the space around them solely through echolocation. To feel like a bat then would be to “see” and navigate in our space using echolocation. If you were a bat, what would that space feel like? What properties would it have? For one thing, you can immediately see that nothing can go faster than the speed of sound. If a supersonic object were to be flying away from you, you would never get any echo from it because your pings will never reach it. And if it were coming toward you, it would pass you before the echoes from it would reach you. In fact, the echoes would reach you in reverse order, and the object would seem to be going at a subsonic speed away from you. In other words, the speed of sound would feel like an absolute, inviolable speed limit in your space. Sound familiar?

So if you had a really intelligent bat (like a bat Einstein), the physical description of the space-time geometry it would have come up with would have looked very similar to Special Relativity, complete with space contraction and time dilation. But as we can see, it is only an artifact of the sense modality, the information carrier, sound. Is it possible or even likely that SR also is only a mere artifact of our perception?