By Varian Tippens
In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published a famous essay which is still taught in every philosophy of mind course titled, “What is it like to be a Bat?” In it, Nagel insightfully pointed out something with which we are all inclined to agree: We can’t know what the phenomenal world of a bat would be like. We can’t know what the conscious experience for it is like as it flies around, echolocating its environment. We couldn’t know what it is like, from the inside, to be a bat.
This, Nagel observed, points out a deep fact about conscious experience; that it isn’t something we can look at from the outside. Atoms, deodorant, and sushi rolls — physical things — can all be observed from the third person point of view. You, me, and our friend can all gather around an anthill and point at it, perhaps commenting on how busy the ants are today, exchanging knowledge about it with one another. In this sense, physical objects are objective — they are understandable and accessible from the third person point of view.
Conscious experience isn’t like that, and Nagel’s insight about our epistemic relationship with bats makes it clear. We can’t gather around a bat and observe its phenomenal experience. We can’t circle around it and point to its conscious experience saying, “oh look, that’s what its like to be this hairy little winged creature!” Conscious experience is inaccessible to the third person point of view, and so is subjective: accessible only to a single point of view, i.e to the creature who has it (or does it, if you think conscious experience is something we do). In this way, there are facts about the bat’s experience — those about what its like to be it — which we don’t and perhaps can’t have access to. Even if we did have such access by metamorphosing into a bat, we may find these facts inexpressible through human language.
“Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them (Nagel, 1974)”
Nagel remarks that such ‘private’ facts need not only obtain in extreme cases like that of the bat, though. Could I know what it is like to be a human without visual experience, or without hearing? Could a blind or deaf person know what it is like to be me? Of course we agree and assume that every individual in question has conscious experience, just that we might not know what its like to be one another, or how to communicate those facts if we could reach them.
It is these considerations which arise saliently when one ruminates on how people conceive of their relation with a bipolar individual. When we speak about this condition of mind, we tend to make three assumptions. First, that those souls who are afflicted with it certainly have conscious experiences, but that they are different in some way. While nobody says that these individuals have different perceptual experiences, we do think that their sentimental phenomenology is of an altered sort. Second, that we ordinary minds can’t know what its like to suffer these sentimental states, from the inside. People wonder what it is like to experience the incredible joy that comes before the crushing sensations of despair, and will often even say that they can’t imagine what it must be like. Third, we lack a way to describe what it is like in human language, even for those who suffer the calamity. Consider how people often use certain phrases for the sensations of elation that occur: “it feels like you’re a God,” or that you have “pathological love.” Of course, nobody has been a God, and so the statement is as helpful as saying that it feels like being a bat. And if one says the love is pathological he implies that the sensation is incomprehensible to those who are of sound heart and mind. Apparently the bipolar and the bat share something in common: we don’t know what its like to be them. Even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to communicate these facts about their phenomenal experience.
But there is something that is even more tricky about the way we conceive of the bipolar individual which distinguishes him from the bat — we are prone to saying that no two bipolar experiences are the same. In the case of bats, we at least agree that if they had some degree of thought, they would assume and can reasonably have knowledge that their conscious experience of echolocation is like that of their other little bat friends. They may not know for sure what the conscious experience of their fellow bats is like, but surely they know that they have similar phenomenal lives. With those curious bipolar creatures, however, we are quick to remind everyone that “no two experiences are the same,” and that in this way the condition is deeply personal.
Now, if the personal nature of the affliction is supposed to mean that no two individuals have the same life history or something of that sort, then that’s one thing. But I take it that what people mean is that the inner sentimental world of each bipolar person is unique in a way that is deep. The experience which is produced by a bat’s echolocation is presumably so radically different in phenomenal quality that we can’t imagine what it would be like with even the most creative capacity to imagine. Similarly, the pathological love that two bipolars undergo can’t be imagined even by each other — no two pathological phenomenal experiences are alike.
What we can say, then, is that the bipolar individual is conceived of as having radically subjective facts to his experience, understood in terms of who can legitimately ask the question, “what is it like to be that thing?” For bats, ordinary humans can ponder the question, but other bats — were they thinking creatures– wouldn’t have much reason to. For blind people, the typical human being can ponder the question, but other blind people wouldn’t really take pause to do so. For bipolar individuals, typical humans can ponder the question about you but so can the fellow sufferers of the pathological passions. In this way, the bipolar individual’s phenomenal experience has radically subjective facts, for even those of ‘like kind’ (other bipolar persons) are taken to be without an epistemic bridge into his mind. Indeed, these considerations seem to suggest that we be mysterians about the bipolar’s experience: just as monkeys might not be equipped with the cognitive faculties to understand mathematics, so too we just might not have the faculties to imagine the phenomenal experience endemic to these phenomenal minds. The phenomenology of the bipolar will remain a mystery.
I challenge this conception of the bipolar individual understood as having radically subjective facts; that these individuals are ones for whom we can reasonably ask, “what is it like to be them?” in the same way we could ask this of a bat. This is because the incredible and horrific states endemic to the bipolar’s phenomenology aren’t different in kind to ours, just different in emphasis and degree. While the bat’s experience is, as Nagel says, “alien,” the pathological passions are not. As such, we can communicate these states to eachother through language in a similar way we do with foods we are about to eat. If you’ve had cake before, and I want to tell you what its like to eat this cake, I can specify which tastes it has turned up or turned down. Perhaps it has a particularly salient amount of sugar, or its ‘underdone’ in its flour constitution, and so you can imagine what its flavor will be before it begins to dissolve on your tongue. If you’ve imagined well, you won’t be surprised. This is different from the situation of trying to imagine what it would be like to be a bat:
“Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like (Nagel, 1974).”
My goal here is to convey what it would be like to become bipolar — to ascend into the pathological passions of euphoria and then fall into their hopelessness of despair. So unlike Nagel, my goal is more communicative than philosophical. This essay takes for granted, then, that it is a mistake to think that human language can’t convey what its like to undergo the phenomenal experiences that befall the bipolar, and it certainly assumes that anyone inclined toward mysterianism about the phenomenal facts of these individuals needs redirection. If we lack access to the bipolar’s phenomenal experience it is a simple failure of imagination, not a deep one. The bipolar individual — confronted with your ignorance — has grounds to tell you to try harder. When it comes to the inner life of bats and bipolars, it is unquestionably easier to know the phenomenal experience of the latter over the world of former.
“First, then, let us consider whether the doing of injustice exceeds the suffering in the consequent pain: Do the injurers suffer more than the injured?”
In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates and Polus discuss the question of whether it is worse to be the doer of injustice or the sufferer of it. A similar question can be asked about being the doer of what is just as opposed to the recipient of it.
I take it as a given that human beings want good for others, and don’t want to see each other get hurt. We delight in seeing a child smile when we go out of our way to show her how special she is, and our joy is indeed great when we nurture her, perhaps teaching her the joys of playing outside in the sun or in the snow. Later when we show her the value in philosophy or art, and see our little baby understand something, showing an active interest in learning further, we want nothing more than to rejoice with her. Our hearts fill with delight when we are responsible for the good that she obtains.
But there are few things worse than being responsible for hurting others whom you love. If you have ever betrayed a child’s trust, breaking an important promise to her and seeing her cry as she innocently asks, “why did you do that, daddy?” then you know the suffering on your heart that this will engender. When you fail her, you undergo guilt, a sense of weakness, and you may even take yourself to be pitiful. When you hurt an innocent whom you love you want nothing more than to apologize and seek her forgiveness. You are lowered in her eyes for being a failure, and because you love her, you want her approval, and to be restored. “Please forgive me, baby. I’m so so sorry,” you might say, and until you do this and she hugs you tightly around the neck, your heart is not set right. You are suffering the pain of committing an injustice.
When we are responsible for the suffering of someone whom we love, it is debilitating. So much so that sometimes we may put up blinders to the things we’ve done. We might, for instance, make excuses to avoid confronting the fact of our responsibility, or in moments of extreme weakness we may even say that our loved one is to blame for their own hurt. But when we are acting honestly and face up to the facts, recognizing that I am the reason for this innocent, beloved person’s suffering, we experience misery. As Socrates put it, we suffer “disgrace.” Shame, guilt, weakness, fear, and pity.
What’s interesting about moral responsibility is that it really doesn’t have much to do with being causally responsible for something. For example, we can plausibly take Hitler to be morally responsible for the mass exterminations in Europe, but that doesn’t mean we think he caused them. It’s not like Hitler went out and personally turned on all the gas chambers and fired each round that ended the life of an innocent. Yet, we still might think Hitler is blameworthy for the deaths of millions; that he was responsible for these events. Indeed, we may take Hitler to be responsible for deaths that he didn’t even know about. Since we can be morally responsible for things we don’t know about or cause, its plausible that we can be morally responsible for things extended over time. We can reasonably say that the founding fathers are morally responsible for many of the sufferings of racism which persist to this day, because they chose not to recognize blacks as persons from the inception of the country. This could be true even if they didn’t know what would come of their choice, and if they can’t reasonably be said to have caused this outcome.
- The Responsibility Machine
Suppose that there were a device called The Responsibility Machine which has two settings, the good and the bad. The machine is able to play with your imagination and your episodic memories — those memories that are sensory-like — to present you with images derived from your experience. When you are placed into the machine it first removes your capacity to put up blinders, so that you can look at the images as though you were an innocent child seeing the event in front of you. Second, any person who is presented to you appears themselves as childlike; a sort of innocent creature who is bumbling about in the world.
When you choose the good setting, the machine shows you how you are you are de facto responsible for bringing about all and only the good in the lives of those you love, whether you knew about it or not, and whether you caused it or not. It shows you how you have bestowed incredible and deep good upon others, both distant and close in space and in time. But moreover, it shows you how evils that you thought you were responsible for, were in fact long-term goods that you brought about.
You see the joy you brought to your Mom and Dad when you waddled around as a child, and the security and comfort you brought to you first girlfriend, when you showed her how special she is. You later truly loved a girl who nobody else showed affection for, and gave her hope and the capacity to trust in other people. You mustered your strength at just the right time to defend your college friend from bullies, and it meant something to him. You made this person laugh, that person wonder, and your friends be curious or take pause, and these individuals appreciated you for it. The machine shows you how things you did many years ago brought about the future success and good fortune for persons whom you admire and love. You said just the right words to your Dad when you didn’t know he wanted to hear them, and indeed thought they had hurt him, and lifted his spirits. In doing so, he found the motivation to pursue projects and relationships which brought him satisfaction later in life. You are shown the ways that you engendered trust and affection in those around you.
As this all occurs, you lose any sense of guilt, for you are responsible only for good. What’s more, any suffering you thought you had brought about in someone you love was actually a good in the end. In seeing this vision you believe with certainty that if your loved ones were to see it, they would surely love you too.
But when you flip the switch to the bad setting, you experience a responsibility nightmare. You are shown how you are de facto responsible for all and only those things your loved ones both near and far have suffered, whether you knew about it or not, and whether you caused it or not. Any goods that you thought you had brought about — all of those that you were shown on the good setting — were actually long-term evils that you are responsible for.
You see how you broke your first girlfriend’s heart with your weakness of will or callous indifference, and forever damaged her outlook and trust in other people. You see how you are responsible for blaming her for suffering that you brought her. You are shown how you confused a girl you later loved by refusing to acknowledge that you lied to her about something she needed your honesty about. You are shown how you are at least in part responsible for her death, and even for her family’s resulting suffering. You see how your college friend was damaged when your cowardice prevented you from standing up for him, when his bullies circled like vultures. You see the long-term misfortunates and persistent calamities that you are responsible for in the lives of your loved ones. Perhaps out of a fear of abandonment you made your brothers distrustful people, and so have made it difficult for them to find love. Or perhaps they resent themselves for things that you are responsible for, and will never find relief from this burden. You see all and only those ways in which your heart was cold to those whom you claimed to love, and how you brought them misery.
You are crippled with guilt, for you are responsible only for evil. Any good you thought you had done was de facto part of an evil event that you’re responsible for. You are sure that were your loved ones to see things this way, they would despise you.
Every individual who has been aptly labeled ‘bipolar’ has been through the responsibility machine, and flipped the switch. To be without guilt and responsible only for good is a way of breathing meaning into the notion that one feels “like a God,” or like “Jesus Christ.” You are someone who has a disposition to bring about blessings to other people, and are a decent person who has built trust and affection between people whom you love and care about. You have a good disposition, and are responsible only for the flourishing and good in others. In such a state, a human being will be incredibly excited, being free from the chains and debilitating burdens of guilt.
But to have the flip switched and to see your actions only as producing evil — creating a nightmare for your loved ones — is truly crippling, and leaves a man without desire to interact with any other human being around him, both for reasons of shame and a fear that since his disposition is evil, anything he does will lead to suffering. It is for this reason that the individual experiencing the despair of this affliction is prone to suicidal thoughts. Indeed, if you truly take yourself to be — and indeed are — of a malevolent disposition, wouldn’t suicide be the right thing to do? When a cell is infected with a pathogen it undergoes apoptosis, self destructing for the sake of the body. Would human apoptosis be the only way for a malevolent man to redeem himself?
- Bats and Bipolars
Bats couldn’t know what its like to be bipolar, for they don’t have moral sentiments. Indeed, non-human animals generally couldn’t know what the inner life of the bipolar is like, for the difference in phenomenology is a deep one; moral sentiments are alien to non-humans.
This is what marks off afflictions such as bipolar from other forms of malady that plague our existence as animals on God’s green earth. A bat, a rat, and a cat can get cancer. But only humans suffer the scourge of ‘pathological’ guilt, shame, and fear… or pride, beneficence, and gratitude, being the sort of creatures that have a rich array of moral sentiment. It is likely for this reason that suicide is a uniquely human act, and it is also for this reason that non-humans could never know what its like to be bipolar. For better or worse, they lack moral sensation.
But animals like us — human beings — do undergo these passions, and so we can share in the knowledge of what it is like to have them, even ‘pathologically.’ We can know what it is like to be bipolar, just as we can imagine what a particularly sweet or sour cake will be like before biting into it. There is no excuse for a human being to deny that he could grasp the phenomenology of those who have and routinely do enter the responsibility machine. Certainly there is no justification for claiming that even a fellow sufferer of the pathological passions has no reliable access into his neighbor’s mind. Language can convey what it is like, our imaginations can grasp it, and so we too can suffer those pathological passions that so violently disturb the bipolar soul. In this way, the malady exits the realm of the personal and radically subjective and becomes communal — a burden we can share with them in the same way we can cry with our loved one who is herself crying. To do this is to enact what Leo Tolstoy called “spiritual union,” and certainly there is no better cure for a disturbed soul than union with another.
- Nagel, T. What is it like to be a bat?