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The Future of Psychology: Can We Know What It’s Like To Be A Bat?

The other day, something unusual happened. I was lucky enough to find myself talking to someone who actually seemed like he was interested in what I do. Yes, I have to admit, I like talking about what I do, and no, you’re not any different. So, I told him that I graduated with a degree in psychology, and that I was pursuing a career in science journalism. He proceeded to ask me questions about my psychology degree, and that’s when I started bullshitting.

The truth is, I graduated with a degree in philosophy from a small liberal arts college. But to salvage credibility, I just say that I studied psychology (sometimes I even say neuroscience, but that’s only if I am feeling extra frisky). Saying that I have a degree in psychology isn’t completely false; I actually spent the second half of college reading more Kahneman and Tversky studies than I did Nietzsche and Wittgenstein aphorisms. You could say that I have enough psych knowledge to start a blog about it, and enough to detect if someone else was bullshitting about psychology.

Which is exactly what he started to do.

He suggested that my degree would come in handy in the corporate world. I can’t remember his exact words, but they went something like this: “psychology could be really helpful because it helps you understand how people think and behave. If you know a lot about psychology, then you know a lot about how people work.” This is when my limited psych knowledge kicked in, my bullshit detector went off, and the conversation got ugly. He threw a strike and I was going to swing.

Taking a deep breath, I responded:

 A typical neuron with all its neurites has a membrane surface area of about 250,000 squared micrometers. The surface area of the 100 billion neurons that make up the human brain comes to 25,000 square meters – roughly the size of four soccer fields. This expanse of membrane, with its myriad specialized protein molecules, constitutes the fabric of our minds. So to say that a degree in psychology (bachelors, masters, or PhD) means you know how people work is like saying that a degree in physics means you understand all of the physical laws in the universe; it’s like saying that a degree in mathematics means you know how to solve every math problem that hasn’t been solved; it’s like saying that a degree in chemistry means you could explain every all chemical reactions; it’s like saying a degree in biology means you could explain all life on Earth; it’s like saying that a degree in sociology (as embarrassing as a degree in philosophy) means you understand society; and it’s like saying a degree in women’s studies means you get women (which no one does). You get the idea. With a 100 billion neurons forming 100 trillion connections, the human brain is the single most complex entity in the universe. Saying that a psychology degree allows you to understand how people work is the most misguided, stupid, idiotic thing I have ever heard.

Ok, so I didn’t say those exact words right then and there, and I may have stolen the first part from a neuroscience textbook (Bear, Connors, Paradiso 2007, 98), but I convinced myself later on that I did, and that my friend bowed down out of respect for my unmatched knowledge of cognitive science. I had just graduated from college, and I was determined to prove my intelligence to the world.

To be sure, I am sympathetic to what he said because his thoughts were my initial beliefs upon entering college. At one point, I actually considered majoring in psychology because I though it would help me understand “how people work.” But my first impressions were wrong, and so were his.

All of this got me thinking, what does psychology teach you? Well let’s go back to what my friend said to narrow this question. He said that “psychology could be really helpful because it helps you understand how people think and behave, if you know a lot about psychology, then you know a lot about how people work.” This is a dangerous statement. Once you start talking about knowledge – the capital K kind that Plato and Socrates dabbled with – you run the risk of crossing into Thomas Nagel territory. Nagel, for those who are not familiar, wrote a famous paper entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that critiques a reductionist account of the brain. The argument goes something like this: even if you could describe all the neural activity of a bat, all the way down to the last neuron, you still wouldn’t know what it is like to be a bat. In order to know what it is like to be a bat, you would have to have the subjective feeling of being a bat, and that feeling cannot be accounted for even if you have a complete understanding of all the cognitive activity of a bat.

Nagel’s argument makes some valid philosophical points, but it is really only saying that psychology has a long way to go in terms of understanding brains. Of course, Nagel would sharply disagree with me here. He would say that no matter how advanced psychology gets, it would never be able to describe the subjective first person experience. Even if it had the most detailed fMRIs, and even if EEG’s could perfectly read all the electricity that brains generate, it would still be missing something – the subjective.

I will certainly grant Nagel that it would be difficult to generate a neurological account of what it is like to be human, but I cannot say that it would be impossible like he did. Keep in mind that his paper was written in the heart of the cognitive revolution (1974), a time when cognitive science was on the raise and academics were just starting to realize the true complexity of the brain. A psychologist trying to understand subjective experiences back then would be like the first climber to find Mount Everest, except the previous highest known mountain was some insignificant foothill. If you spent your whole life climbing foothills, than Mr. Everest would be incredibly intimidating and you might conclude that getting to the top would be impossible. But over time, you would find a way to get to the summit. The psych world has identified its Everest, taken a few steps towards the top, but needs an Edmund Hillary to prove that reaching the top is, in fact, possible.

The point here is that Nagel’s argument is more a product of its time than it is an accurate assessment of the capabilities of psychology. In a few decades, I suspect that psych will look back and reminisce about how pessimistic it was. It would be like us looking back on some ancient Greek who concluded that it would be impossible to tell if the Earth was flat or not.

So let’s not close the door like Nagel. At the same time, let’s not be as optimistic as my friend. Although we want to think that a degree in psychology helps us “get” people, it really only begins to skim the surface of how they experience the world.

As for what psychology does in fact teach you, there are the answers you actually learn about in class: our memory sucks (Neisser), we are horrible at predicting the future (Tetlock), emotion is central to decision-making (Damasio). Then there are the answers that it aspires to teach you, and those would validate my friend’s claim and my initial impression. Although I was critical of his remarks, I hope that he turns out to be correct. Nagel has argued that he will always be mistaken, but I will remain optimistic and continue to look out for psychology’s Edmund Hillary. Will you?

Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review, 83 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2183914

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting post! As a student in the second year of my psychology degree I already know about the ridiculous statements people make when you mention what you are studying. I’m sure ‘do you know what I’m thinking?’ rings a bell for you too! I think Nagel’s work highlights the major divide in the topic of consciousness. Namely, to what extent is it actually measurable? I feel that psychology becomes especially mindblowing when one must consider the philosophical along with the scientific! I’m new to wordpress but I’ve subscribed to your blog and look forward to your future posts!

    July 15, 2011
  2. sammcnerney #

    Thanks Arran, look forward to fulfilling your interest in psych.

    As for this consciousness stuff, gosh, where to begin. There have been about a million books on it in the past decade (many from the world’s top neuroscientists i.e., Damasio, Ramachandran, Ledoux, etc.) that have asked way more questions than they have answered. It is a bit frustrating to see books titled “consciousness explained” or “what consciousness is” when we clearly have no idea what it is (I blame the editors). Great books though, lots of interesting stuff out there. We will see where it takes us. Clearly, I am optimistic.

    July 15, 2011
  3. Jamson Hariss #

    Let me begin by saying that I am not a psycologist nor am I phylosopher, nor is english my primary language, so,please, pardon my mistakes.
    Nevertheless having stumbled upon this article, and having read it, I can’t stop wondering from where the conclusion comes that size of brain (being volume, number of neurons, number of connections between neurons or area of membrane) has to do with understanding another person. Sure, you cannot replicate someones thoughts, but for every practical purpose you can get close enough to determine “how one works”.

    July 17, 2011
  4. You seem genuine enough, but knowing a little about philosophy and a little about psychology won’t really get you very far. You should read, and in particular, this article about cognitive biases by the main contributor.

    I study computer vision, which is multidisciplinary between computer science, ecology, biology, psychology, mathematics, statistics, and many other fields. Biases and heuristics, especially in human vision and cognitive architecture problems, play a huge role … but they are best understood in the context of decision theory and statistical machine learning. Being able to talk about biases at a superficial level is interesting, but it can do more harm than good if your audience doesn’t understand the subtleties of cognitive biases (e.g., check this out: ). Good luck in your future work exposing this interesting area of science.

    July 17, 2011
  5. July 17, 2011
  6. Sorry, it appears you don’t allow web links to be posted to the blog. At any rate, email me if you’d like this links I mentioned.

    July 17, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Sorry about the the links – I changed the settings, so it should work now. If you have a second, email the links to, I would like to read them.

      As for biases and heuristics, I am not sure what you are trying to say. I would like to know what you mean when you say that 1) they are best understood by decision theory and statistical machine learning (that’s a bit of a mouth full!) and 2) B&H “can do more harm than good if your audience doesn’t understand the subtleties of cognitive biases “

      July 17, 2011
  7. Great stuff Sam. Cool to see and read your post in the SA blog.

    July 19, 2011
  8. Marychip #

    I would extend Nagel’s argument further and say that it is also missing the time dimension. Heraclitus goes to that point when he said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” A neurological snapshot of a single moment of one human’s experience in the space-time continuum might be an achievable Everest, but what would be the point of making the climb if the only reason to do so is (to quote Hillary) is, “Because it’s there”? Or, was there. It wouldn’t be the same mountain or the same Hillary.

    July 21, 2011
  9. sammcnerney #

    mmm, interesting. I would say there are lots of reason to “make the climb,” other than just doing it. I am thinking of technological and medical benefits that would come with the neuroscience research required to achieve such a feet. Agree, it would be the same mountain or the sam Hillary, I was speaking metaphorically of course, but I think it would be even better!

    July 21, 2011
    • Gottfried Leibniz is one of the greatest SOCRATICS becusae he challanges everyday “common sense” notions of causality and of life. Significantly, Kant teaches us in the Introduction to his “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” that “common sense” is a meaningless answer to the puzzling arguments of David Hume. Rather, one must approach such puzzles in terms of “justified true belief theory.” The perspectives and conclusions of Leibniz constantly challenges the taken-for-granted justified true beliefs which prevent one from thinking creatively. Leibniz and Schopenhauer have the most unique metaphysical systems, in my opinion. According to David Dilworth in “Philosophy in World Perspective” (1989), [The four-by-four matrix composed by Dilworth has four hermeneutical variables in the horizontal plane. They correspond to Aristotle’s Four Causes. In the vertical plane are the four “core” ancient Greek philosophical “profiles”: the school of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, and the Sophists.] Schopenhauer has the most unique concatenation of four hermeneutical variables in the history of philosophy. Dilworth describes Leibniz as an “atomistic Platonist,” or a “Platonic Democritean.” Leibniz somehow finds the elusive “middle terms” (sensus de communis) between these contradictory philosophical approaches! He thereby Socratically leads such everyday folk as myself to search for the wonders found in […] Was this answer helpful?

      August 1, 2013
    • to be a clinical psioholcgyst you would need an undergraduate degree in psychology, accredited by the psychological society (are you in the uk or Ireland? then it is the British Psychological Society or the Psychological Society of Ireland). then you would need to go on and do a professional doctorate in clinical psychology. if you have a degree in forensic science, then you should be able to get onto a conversion course in psychology, think it is a year, and that should be sufficient to get you onto a doctorate. but check out any course you do, online or traditional, that it allows you graduate entry into the psychological society. my friend got caught out that way, she did her degree majored in psych and then realised that it wasnt accredited and had to do a conversion course to get onto a psych masters. mine is accredited. definitely make sure whatever degree u do is recognised! good luck.also for clinical psychology, start volunteering for a relevant charity, childline or the samaritans or anything like that, the programs are competitive and most want experience to some degree.

      August 29, 2013
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  11. My guess is that we currently don’t know if we know what it is like to be bat. As Nagel claims, we may indeed never be able to know what’s it like to be a bat BUT at some point I suspect we’ll know why we can’t know this. Alternately, Nagel may be wrong and we actually do know very much what it’s like to be bat (perhaps echolocation is just a different means of achieving 3-D vision for instance) but we don’t yet know that we know this.

    In more general terms, we simply don’t know whether our five sensory modalities exhaust the space of possible qualia experiences or whether there are truly alien modalities possible “platonically” which are not accessible to our particular cognitive structure. (I would guess that the latter is true, but that’s just a hunch.)

    Only by a rigorous geometrical/mathematical analysis of qualia space and its relation to brain activity can these questions begin to be unraveled.

    August 9, 2012
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