“What is it like to be a bat?”—a pathway to the answer from the integrated information theory

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What does it feel like to be a bat? Is conscious experience of echolocation closer to that of vision or audition? Or do bats process echolocation nonconsciously, such that they do not feel anything about echolocation? This famous question of bats' experience, posed by a philosopher Thomas Nagel in 1974, clarifies the difficult nature of the mind–body problem. Why a particular sense, such as vision, has to feel like vision, but not like audition, is totally puzzling. This is especially so given that any conscious experience is supported by neuronal activity. Activity of a single neuron appears fairly uniform across modalities and even similar to those for non-conscious processing. Without any explanation on why a particular sense has to feel the way it does, researchers cannot approach the question of the bats' experience. Is there any theory that gives us a hope for such explanation? Currently, probably none, except for one. Integrated information theory (IIT) has potential to offer a plausible explanation. IIT essentially claims that any system that is composed of causally interacting mechanisms can have conscious experience. And precisely how the system feels is determined by the way the mechanisms influence each other in a holistic way. In this article, I will give a brief explanation of the essence of IIT. Further, I will briefly provide a potential scientific pathway to approach bats' conscious experience and its philosophical implications. If IIT, or its improved or related versions, is validated enough, the theory will gain credibility. When it matures enough, predictions from the theory, including nature of bats' experience, will have to be accepted. I argue that a seemingly impossible question about bats' consciousness will drive empirical and theoretical consciousness research to make big breakthroughs, in a similar way as an impossible question about the age of the universe has driven modern cosmology.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12407
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophy Compass
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017

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