Thursday, March 8, 2012

What is it like to be a coke-addled bat?

My limited experience discussing intro-philosophy standards with fiction writers suggests that fiction writers, as a group, are especially taken by Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Why? I think Jay McInerney might have an answer.

I had forgotten that in Bright Lights, Big City, the main character spends a night with a philosophy grad student named Vicky. The next day he loses his job, and his (former) co-workers press him for details about how and why it happened.
"I really don't even know," you say. They're wondering: Could this happen to me? and you would like to reassure them, tell them it's just you. They're trying to imagine themselves in your shoes, but it would be a tough thing to do. Last night Vicky was talking about the ineffability of inner experience. She told you to imagine what it was like to be a bat. Even if you knew what sonar was and how it worked, you could never know what it feels like to have it, or what it feels like to be a small, furry creature hanging upside down from the roof of a cave. She said that certain facts are accessible only from one point of view-- the point of view of the creature who experiences them. You think she meant that the only shoes we can ever wear are our own. Meg can't imagine what it's like for you to be you, she can only imagine herself being you.
Interesting! If it is true that the only shoes we can wear are our own, writers should worry that the entire project of fiction is threatened. If the effort writers put into characterization is to be something other than self-delusion, then writers, at least, must think they're imagining what it is like to be someone else. And if their effort is to be valuable, they might hope that readers, too, are imagining what it is like to be the character.

I suppose there's a spectrum of possible imaginative projections. An easy imaginative projection is me imagining what it would feel like to me if I were experiencing the events of a story. (Good video games exploit the easy end of the spectrum reasonably well.)

At the hopelessly difficult end of the spectrum is Nagel's bat: no one can imagine what it feels like for a bat to be a bat.

Good fiction must fall somewhere in the middle. A lot then turns on just how much middle there is. How closely must readers and characters resemble each other before readers can imagine what it is like for the character to be that character? How closely must writers resemble their characters before they can write them well?

So Nagel's paper, of all the post-war classics in philosophy of mind, really is specially relevant to fiction writers. Neat!

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