Can We Really Inhabit Other Lives? 

  Copyright © 2010 Bruce W. Hauptli

I want you to be thinking about what Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”1 tells us about:

1. E.O. Wilson’s “consilience project,”

2. naturalism vs. supernaturalism, and

3. who we [or you] are. 

I will be taking up these points in turn. 

Wilson’s Consilience Project:

As you have seen, E.O. Wilson contends that “the cutting edge of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its constituents.”2  He contends that

outside our heads there is freestanding reality.  Only madmen and a scattering of constructivist philosophers doubt its existence.  Inside our heads is a reconstruction of reality based on sensory input and the self-assembly of concepts....The alignment of outer existence with its inner representation has been distorted by the idiosyncrasies of human evolution....natural selection built the brain to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it at a depth greater than is needed to survive.  The proper task of scientists is to diagnose and correct the misalignment.3 

The picture which Wilson constructs here is straight out of Descartes and the Enlightenment Project.  There seem to be what almost appear to be two distinct “orders of reality” for Wilson: the “external,” physical world and the “internal,” psychical (or mental) world.  Given that we know that our experiences, inner states, concepts, beliefs, and theories (all in the latter “world”) are sometimes clearly misleading characterizations of the external world—our perceptions can be influenced by our health, our fallible sensory abilities, our consumption of drugs, and even what others tell us.  Clearly the more carefully and scientifically we proceed, but better our knowledge of the world becomes. 

  For E.O. Wilson the ultimate goal is to provide naturalistic explanations for everything—on p. 60 he calls this project “total consilience.”  He recognizes that some phenomena are so complex or inherently probabilistic, that they may defy successful explanation as particular events in the history of the universe.  Nonetheless he says his view

...holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced....” [and that this] world view is the light and way for many scientific naturalists [and] (I admit to being one of them).…4 

As several of you may have noticed, Wilson clearly has an over-riding “faith” in the science of physics!  E.O. Wilson’s reductionistic consilience project is one version of an overall orientation I call naturalism, and one of the things I want to contend today is that naturalists should not be thoroughgoing reductionists of the Wilsonian variety.  To reach this conclusion (and to clarify my view on the possibility of inhabiting other lives), however, I need to bring another world-view into focus. 

2. Naturalism vs. supernaturalism:

Naturalists are best contrasted with supernaturalists who contend that there are supernatural beings, things, conditions, laws, etc. which transcend the universe but interact with it (providing it with its being, meaning, purpose, or, at least, some of its character).  While some supernaturalists theorize about the nature of the relationship between the transcendent and the mundane, many pronounce the relationship one of “mystery” (and here arises talk of “the mystical”). 

  Naturalists, on the other hand contend that “...there are no supernatural beings, that the universe is a closed system, that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of the universe can affect it.”5  Like Hamlet, “supernaturalists” believe that “there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in”6 the naturalists’ philosophy.  Of course there are naturalists who contend that the transcendentalists worship “false idols.”  Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, for example, contend that talk of the “mystical,” the “transcendent,” or the “scared” is simply a [misleading] emanation of the profane—they hold that our beliefs regarding it are like our beliefs about unicorns, witches, honest politicians, etc.  These naturalists would try to explain each alleged case of “hierophany” (the manifestation of the sacred in the profane) as a merely profane event.  Of course the transcendentalists can contend that Freud (and the others) merely suffer from a fear of (or phobia of) sacred things, events, or beings! 

  It will be useful for the purposes of this lecture, to look at bit more closely at some of the views of Rene Descartes who actually contended there were three fundamental and distinct categories of reality:

the “divine” or transcendent category,

the mundane, and finite, mental category, and

the mundane, and finite, physical category. 

Descartes maintained that these three “orders of reality” were fundamentally different (though interactive).  The first “made” the others, and actively interceded to ensure their proper functioning.  While he was a noted scientist, he was also, clearly, a transcendentalist! 

  Descartes, however, is perhaps best known for his discussion of the distinction between the mental and physical realms of reality:

first, they both differed from the “divine” category in that they are categories of finite things.  The transcendent realm consists of one (and only of one) infinite (and perfect) being.  The finite things differed amongst themselves, however, in that they all fall into one of two distinct categories:

the defining characteristic of the physical category, for him, was “extension” (everything physical has a shape and location)

the defining characteristic of the mental category, on the other hand, was “consciousness” [most frequently translated as ‘thinking’ or, more accurately, but less frequently, as ‘experiencing’]. 

Descartes held that the distinct finite categories were fundamentally different orders of reality which obeyed radically different sorts of laws (he seemed to be of “two minds” about the transcendent category—sometimes holding that it was unconstrained by laws, and at other times maintaining that it obeyed the “laws of reason”).  The physical realm, according to him, obeyed a set of Galilean laws, and was nothing but matter in motion.  Minds, on the other hand, acted on the basis of reasons, desires, and emotions.  Here the model of causation was what we may call “agent causation”—my reasons, desires, or emotions both explain and cause my choice to act in a particular way along lines often spoken of as “agent causation.” 

  Within each “realm,” we make predictions as to what would happen given specification of initial conditions—one can predict how fast a ball would fall (given its weight and height), and one can predict that certain future experiences were likely to be pleasurable or painful given similar initial information). 

3. Naturalism and Subjective Experience:

From Descartes’ day to our own, science has made tremendous strides in understanding the physical “side of things.”  Indeed, when we try to order the sciences in terms of their “successfulness,” we can see that their degree of success seems to be inversely proportional to their distance from “the mental”—the following “ordered list” is generally accepted: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, political science, and ethics.  That is, we take it as given that the laws of physics are more established than those of chemistry, which, in turn, are more advanced than those of biology, etc.  Indeed, I believe it is the success of physics which motivates Wilson’s reductionistic tendency—he believes that only the physicists explanations accurately describe reality (whether we are describing atomic structure, or nuclear policy.  This view contends that Descartes’ radical separation of the different “orders of reality” leaves us with only a “misty,” “non-quantifiable,” “subjective,” and illusory transcendental and mental realms which scientific understanding shows to be radically different from what people had traditionally thought.  Cartesian minds and the Cartesian deity are both impervious to the measurements of physical scientists, and are not bound by physical laws.  While the “Romantics” (who followed the Age of Enlightenment) found such categories of reality more comforting than the cold category of matter in motion, they certainly did not develop a growing core of objective knowledge about the “mental” or “human” world which engendered consilient explanations and laws about mental and transcendent reality. 

  E.O. Wilson recognizes that the “empiricistic” view which looks at the mind and the transcendent through scientific eyes seems inadequate to many people.7  He claims, however, that if the thinkers tempted by the mental (and transcendent) orders had only studied biology and experimental psychology, they would not have come up with the theories they came up with.  For Wilson, the ultimate explanations for mental and transcendental phenomenal are objective, empiricistic, and reductionistic—they “reduce” the mental and the transcendent to physical phenomena.  In short, one of the primary motivations for the sort of reductionism we see in E.O. Wilson is the desire to avoid the “occult” realms of reality of which Descartes’ divine and finite mental categories seem characteristic. 

4. The Inherent Subjectivity of Our Experience:

Now I can clarify where I disagree with Wilson.  As Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be A Bat?” suggests, there are phenomena which can not be reduced in the manner which Wilson champions.  For the remainder of this lecture, I want to concentrate your attention upon one broad set of phenomena which, I believe, are inherently irreducible, but nonetheless utterly mundane.  I have in mind, of course, the familiar world of conscious experience in mind.  While I agree with E.O. Wilson (and Thomas Nagel, John Searle, and many others), that there are no mental phenomena without brains, I believe these phenomena are not explainable by appeal to biological, chemical, and physical phenomena in a manner which will allow for total Wilsonian consilience through reduction.  At the core of this contention, of course, is the view so ably argued by Nagel, that the mental phenomena are inherently subjective and, thus, that they are wholly incapable of being reduced to the objective laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. 

  Let’s make certain we are on the same “wave length” here—I want to be talking about conscious experience:


I take it that you will all agree that in addition to a dropped object, floor, sound waves, neurons, and electro-chemical interactions, there was the experience of a somewhat shocking, auditory event.  Now note that our talk of all the elements on the list except the last one is capable of being put in the third person—we can say what needs to be said about sound waves, neurons, etc., by speaking objectively (in the third person).8 

  Now we can also speak of the noise in this manner—indeed I am doing so now!  I can speak of your experience, and I (and we) can do so in the third person.  In this “objective” manner, we can speak about “Excedrin headaches,” “puppy love,” “Golden Panther Spirit,” etc.  I can reach (and psychologists, music theorists, political theorists, economists, and others can do so even better) a level of objective understanding about human experiences.  However far we take such inquiries, however, one fundamental element of your experience will intrinsically resist objective treatment—the fact that it is yours (that it is subjective). 

  A problem which arose with Descartes’ view that the two finite orders of reality were wholly distinct bifurcation” is important here—philosophers call it the “problem of other minds.”  I have been speaking of your experiences, but, what evidence do I have that you have experiences?  Since they are inherently subjective, how can anyone have evidence about them (except, of course, for the subject in question)?  

Well, what evidence do I have that I have experiences?  [And what evidence does each of you have that you, yourself, has experiences?] 

Can I ever have the same evidence in the case of another’s experience? 

One way of pointing to the difference here is to remind you of Nagel’s article.  Can I (or you, or anyone) “successfully” objectify experience?  To put it another way, could I ever completely specify, in third-person terms alone “what it is like for a bat to be a bat?”  As you have seen, Nagel claims that:


...if the facts of experience—facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism—are accessible only from one point of view, then it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.  The latter is the domain of objective facts par excellence—the kind that can be observed and understood from many points of view and by individuals with differing perceptual systems.  There are no comparable imaginative obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge about bat neurophysiology by human scientists, and intelligent bats or Martians might learn more about the human brain than we ever will.9 


That is, “success” in completely “objectifying” subjective experience would be failure!  The attempt to fully characterize the subjective in purely “objective” (and third-personal) terms would leave out something fundamental and undeniable.  Does this mean that subjective experiences are unreal?  It seems that this is what a reductionist must contend.  It is, after all, this fate which, as I noted above, thoroughgoing naturalists (like Marx and Freud) assign to the supernatural or transcendent realm. 

  What makes the case of subjective experience different (for, I contend, they are different)?  In the case of the transcendent (as least the sacred element thereof), transcendentalists point to the importance of hierophany (which he defined as the “manifestation of the sacred in the profane”).  There are individuals who claim to experience this.  Not everyone has such experience, however, and thus talk of “faith” (and of “belief”) becomes important in talking about the transcendent. 

  In the case of your subjective experience, however, such talk is inappropriate.  It is more than merely “difficult” for you to seriously contend that you only have “faith” or “believe” that you have subjective experience.  Moreover, it is exceedingly difficult for one to seriously contend that others lack such experiences.  To see that I am right here, try (really try) to deny that others’ experiences are real.  Look at the people around you and try to imagine that they were no more moved by the loud noise you recently experienced than the chairs they are sitting in.  Were you to think of others in this manner, then, perhaps, Shylock’s plaintive speech should ring in your ears:

hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?10 

Just try, to continue, to imagine that no one else has any experiences—that only you can feel pain, pleasure, sorrow, lust, affection, etc.  I don’t believe that you are capable of sustaining this mental picture for long (if you are really able to seriously entertain it at all).  But this means that you agree with Nagel, I take it.  You accept that there is something which it is like to “hear a noise,” “to feel pain,” “to experience lust,” etc.  This experience may well require a brain, (as well as ears, floors, air, etc.), and only occur when certain physical processes also occur, but the experience itself can not be successfully “objectified.” 

  Of course, we will have to be careful with what we mean by “conscious experience” here.  In her “The Authority of Reflection,” Christine Korsgaard maintains that:

a lower animal’s attention is fixed on the world.  Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will.  It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them.  That is, they are not the objects of its attention.  But we human animals turn our attention on our perceptions and desires themselves, on to our own mental activities, and we are conscious of them.  That is why we can think about them.11 

Part of me wonders about Korsgaard’s assurance here: how does she know that my dog Sophie is not conscious of me, her favorite toy, the change from “Daylight Savings Time” to “Eastern Standard Time,” etc.—what makes her so sure here?  Nonetheless, Korsgaard certainly points to an important distinction within our own experiences: there are times when we are “fixed on the world,” and where our perceptions are our beliefs, and our desires are our will.  It is also true that there are times when we engage in reflection, times when belief and will arise only after the perceptions and desires are subjected to reflective, or critical, scrutiny. 

  There are, undoubtedly, many other “levels,” “gradations,” “distinctions,” or what-have-you, to our subjective experience.  I will not try to distinguish all the different sorts of things we might mean by “experience,” but, for this lecture let me speak of all of them as if they were all of a single emergent type.  In saying that they are a specific type of emergent phenomena, I want to contend that, unlike some other phenomena, they are not reducible to that out of which they “emerge.” 

Here we need to contrast:

lightening which may be reducible to atmospheric electrical discharges, and wetness which may be reducible to the molecular (or molar) properties of H2O, on the one hand, from

the experience of hearing Beethoven’s “Fifth,” or the pain which arises when a limb is severed without the benefit of anesthesia, or the emotion of love without which much of our lives seem pointless. 

Nagel and I contend that none of the latter can be, reduced to objectively-stated (third-personal) lawful characteristics of the physical phenomena out of which they emerge.  The items on the first list above might, for all I know, be so reduced.  The items on the second one, on the other hand, would lose something of extreme significance in a “reductionistic translation.”  In Nagel’s terms, there is “something it is like to be an individual” in each situation.  Moreover, what it is like is something which can not be captured in third-person objective discourse. 

  Now I want us to be careful here.  We can, and do, as I noted above, speak objectively about others’ experiences, feelings, etc.  Indeed, I have several times patiently explained to my children how they are wrong when they have said something like “I am in love.”  Moreover, I contend, and they have reluctantly admitted, I have (sometimes) been right.  That is, I have been able to override their first-person reports about their first-person present experiences.  I suspect you have been in similar situations (with parents and with friends), and have sometimes had to admit that someone else knows better than you do what is going on within your subjective experience. 

How is this possible?  After all, only you can have your experiences!  And if this is the case, then, how can someone else offer a characterization which is correct over and above your own? 

  It is a fact, I contend, that we have mental experiences.  It is no less an important fact, however, that we learn how to categorize, identify, discuss, and control, them in our interactions with others, and we are able to sympathetically consider or identify with others and their experiences. 

  While I can’t have your pain, I can imagine what your pain is like, and the better I know you, the more successful I can be in this activity!  Indeed, by reading novels, watching movies, discussing my feelings with my poker buddies, etc., I can become better and better at this activity—though my wife contends that I have made much less progress in this matter in the past forty years than I believe! 

  Indeed, I have identified (in my imagination) with:

other men:

“my name is Bond, James Bond,” and “Call me Ishmael....” [Herman Melville’s Moby Dick];

with women (specifically with William’s Shakespeare’s Desdamona):

And have you mercy too! I never did

Offend you in my life; never lov’d Cassio

But with such general warranty of heaven

As I might love; I never gave him token);12 

with madmen:

  the Joker and “The horror, the horror...” [Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness]; and

with people of other cultures and nations. 

While I can imagine what it would be like if I were a spy, a sailor, a woman spurned by the man she truly loves (who falsely believes that I love another), etc., however, I never so completely identify with the characters in a play, movie, or book, that I “utterly loose myself.”  Imaginative identification with other’s (in regard to their subjective experiences) doesn’t amount to becoming the other individual.  I guess it is along this road that madness develops, and I have a strong sense of self, and I hope you all do also! 

  Still, I would not want to be without this imaginative ability, and I would not want you to be without it (indeed, I have tried to make it so that you have to hone this sense by helping develop and continuing to support the University’s Core Curriculum of required courses—which, in part, encourage you to study literature, the arts, and comparative cultures and genders).  I believe this is important as it is here that we can strengthen our “moral sense” and our self-understanding. 

5. The Importance of this Limitation On Reductive Naturalism:

The questions which now arise are whether the unreducible truths are important, whether there are other phenomena which also resist Wilson’s reductionism, and what these phenomena might tell us about subjectivity and objectivity.  Here I can only give hints, because I have little time (and less knowledge).  First, in regard to the issue of the importance of this irreducibility, Korsgaard maintains that our consciousness of our mental activities:

...sets us a problem no other animal has.  It is the problem of the normative.  For our capacity to turn our attention on to our own mental activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them, and to call them into question....The reflective mind cannot settle for perception and desire, not just as such.  It needs a reason.  Otherwise, at least as long as it reflects, it cannot commit itself or go forward. 
  If the problem springs from reflection then the solution must do so as well.  If the problem is that our perceptions and desires might not withstand reflective scrutiny, then the solution is that they might.  We need reasons because our impulses must be able to withstand reflective scrutiny.  We have reasons if they do.  The normative word ‘reason’ refers to a kind of reflective success.13 

The question how we explain moral behavior is a third-person, theoretical question, a question about why a certain species of intelligent animals behaves in a certain way.  The normative question is a first-person question that arises for the moral agent who must actually do what morality says.  When you want to know what a philosopher’s theory of normativity is, you must place yourself in the position of an agent on whom morality is making a difficult claim.  You must then ask the philosopher: must I really do this?  Why must I do it?  And his answer is his answer to the normative question.14 

According to her, the normative, then requires that we take on the subjective point of view.  This does not mean that ethics and valuation are “purely subjective”—to the extent that we can identify with others, we may reflectively find that their experiences of pain, pleasure, beauty, and ugliness serve as reasons for normative constraints. 

  Such reflective consideration and identification with the lives of others can help us reflect critically upon our own lives (speaking here both individually and socially).  By imaginatively inhabiting the lives of others (both individuals and groups), we can come to critically reflect upon our own and, surely, respond to the evaluative questions which our self-consciousness raises. 

Can We Really Inhabit Other Lives? 

What does all this have to do with the possibility of “inhabiting” other lives?  Well, a lot will hinge, of course, on what we mean by ‘inhabit’.  If “inhabiting South Florida” means “living in South Florida,” then we do inhabit it—indeed I have been doing so since 1976.  If “inhabiting South Florida” means having a rich bi-cultural experience, then many do so, but this gringo misses too much of what is going on to “inhabit” this local that way—I am more like a tourist than a resident, and tourists aren’t inhabitants (unless they significantly overstay their visas and escape the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security).  If “inhabiting” the life of another person (or culture) means “having their experiences,” then I can not do so—at least not easily.  I suppose this individual born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1948 could have learned Spanish beginning in 1976 when he moved to Miami.  It is possible he could have become fluent, learned how to make meals based on rice and chicken (rather than corn and beef), and he might even have come to be called “Tio Bruce.”  But I would be more like an “immigrant” than an “inhabitant” of the Cuban-American life experience—you can take the boy out of Dubuque, but you can’t take the Dubuque out of the boy!  Now it is just possible that if I really worked at it, I might pass for Cuban (it would require a lot of work, but surely I could pull it off—after all I have been faking the life of a philosopher for quite a while). 

  But what would it take for me to “inhabit” the life of a Miami Cuban-American.  Well, I think I would have to become one.  Clearly I can’t change the city of my birth—but that is not a problem as many Miami Cuban-Americans were actually born in the U.S.A.  But I would have to change so much that I would, literally, become someone else.  If this is what we mean by “inhabiting other lives,” however, then to inhabit another life is to cease to inhabit one’s current one.  I don’t think this would be good, and while your professors are actually endeavoring to change you (indeed, to transform you), their goal, I believe, is to make you better, not turn you into someone else altogether. 

  Are there limits on our abilities to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others?  Well, I said that I have identified with women, and some contend that this is well beyond the powers of contemporary males.  I certainly believe, however, that the more one becomes acquainted with another individual (culture, etc.}, the more successful one is likely to be in one’s imaginative inhabitation of that life or culture.  There will certainly be greater barriers if it is another species one whose life one is trying to inhabit—and this is undoubtedly why Nagel chose bats for his example—however much I try to imagine maneuvering around the campus by echolocation, I utterly fail at this attempt.  The “life of the bat” is largely “foreign” to me.  Indeed, I believe that when human beings try to imaginatively inhabit the lives of animals they, of necessity, engage in anthropomorphism.  We imagine the lives of dogs and cats by imagining them as having our perceptions, desires, emotions, etc.  The more unlike the “other,” the less successful we are likely to be in our efforts to imaginatively inhabit their lives.  By the way, I believe this contention speaks volumes for our efforts to identify with transcendent entities—since they are “maximally different,” our efforts can only be anthropomorphic!  But that is another story. 


1 Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, Philosophical Review v. 83 (1974), pp. 435-450.  Back

2 Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (N.Y.: Knopf, 1998), p. 58 (of the paperback Vintage Books edition, 1999).  Back

3 Ibid., p. 66.  Emphasis added twice to passage.  Back

4 Ibid., p. 60, emphasis added to the passage.  Back

5 Paul Draper, “Darwin and Hume On Evil,” work in progress, November 1998, pp. 12.  Back

6 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V, 166-7.  Back

7 Cf., Wilson’s Consilience, op. cit., p. 270.  Back

8 The third person is the person used by a speaker in statements referring to anyone or anything other than himself or the one or ones to whom he/she is speaking (e.g., he, she, they).  In contrast, the first person is the person used by a speaker in statements referring to her/himself (I for the singular, and we for the plural), and the second person is the person used by a speaker in statements referring to the one or ones to whom he/she is speaking (e.g., you).  Back

9 Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, op. cit., p. 442.  Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1986) provides an excellent treatment of Nagel’s view of the nature of “objectivity” and “subjectivity.”  Back

10 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice [1598], Act III, Scene II.  Back

11 Christine Korsgaard, “The Authority of Reflection,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), pp. 90-130, pp. 92-93.  Back

12 Shakespeare, Othello, Act V. Scene II, 58-61.  Back

13 Christine Korsgaard, “The Authority of Reflection,” op. cit., pp. 92-93.  The first emphasis is added by me.  Back

14 Ibid., p. 96, emphasis added to the passage.  Back

Revised on: 7/14/2015

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