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What it’s like to be: a bat

The seemingly trivial question has taken up an enormous amount of earnest intellectual energy ever since it was posed in a famous philosophy paper in 1974—and we've learned more about the lives of bats since

By Cal Flyn  

As science advances, and ever deeper study is made of bats, the less impossible it seems to, at the very least, build up a sketch of what it might be like to be a bat. Illustration: Chris King

What is it like to be a bat? It might seem a silly question, but as I start my new series in which I imagine my way into various animals’ heads, it is a perfect starting point. Why? Because it is a silly question that has taken up an enormous amount of earnest intellectual energy ever since the American philosopher Thomas Nagel first posed it in a celebrated 1974 paper.

Bats, he wrote, are sufficiently similar to us—as fellow mammals, and therefore close relations—to allow us to imagine that they might have a form of consciousness resembling our…

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