What Is It Like: Imagining and Religion


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(This post is by Bryne Lewis Allport)

In preparing for a recent class, I had the opportunity to interact with “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel. Apart from supplying me with interesting directions for my students’ discussion of the mind/body distinction, the article provided me with food for thought concerning my own endeavors in philosophy of religion.

To review, Nagel’s article argues that the subjective nature of consciousness makes it presently impossible to reduce the mind to mere material brain. He cautions against our tendency for analogy, remarking that the impulse to explain unknown concepts in terms of familiar ones often narrows our analysis along inappropriate lines. Nagel contends that conscious experience is just such a concept and continually evades our best efforts to describe it accurately.

In illustration of his point, Nagel asks the reader to consider the experience of being a bat. He argues that, for every organism, “there is something it is like to be that organism.”[1] The bat is a carefully chosen example: while we acknowledge its experience of existence is significantly different than our own, we still assume the bat to have a somewhat similar awareness of its existence. However, an understanding of that awareness is inaccessible to us. For example, although bats use sonar for orientation, it is a mistake to correlate this orientation with vision in human beings. What it is like for a bat to “see” by sonar is not analogous to what it is like for a human person to see with their eyes.

Ultimately, Nagel argues that this persistently evasive “what it is like” demonstrates consciousness is too sinuous a subject to be rendered down to simple formula. Nagel permits that it might indeed be proper to reduce mind to brain, but the methodology needed to achieve that reduction has not yet been developed satisfactorily.

The section of Nagel’s essay that really grabbed my attention was his invitation to imagine what it might be like to be a bat.

“It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth… In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”[2]

The bat’s experience cannot be opened by way of imagining its behaviors and physical characteristics. Even the most vivid dreams of flight cannot lift me over the primary obstacle: I am not a bat. After all, if I was a bat, then I wouldn’t need to go through the exercise of imagining myself one.

At the risk of offending Nagel with my need to craft a comparison, I wonder if religion isn’t a little like imagining to be a bat. Religion engages us in practicing our present existence differently while at the same time reminding us that that difference cannot be overcome by mere performance. If relationship with God or peace or justice were native to us, we wouldn’t need to imagine ourselves differently through religion.

By picking up “imagine” from Nagel, I do not mean to suggest that religious practice is ineffectual or fanciful. To imagine is to form an image. Whether the performance includes practical acts of kindness or symbolic songs and rituals, we attempt through religious exercise to bring God into better visibility through ourselves and between ourselves. According to Christian tradition, humanity was created in the image of God. We call ourselves “little Christs,” lesser denominations consciously coined in His likeness. Imagination is not inappropriate in and of itself. It only becomes inappropriate when we mistake performance as proof of perfection. Even if I manage to behave in a manner more consistent with God’s character, I am not being godly. If that transformation is to be accomplished, it lies outside my current methodology to affect it.

By demonstrating its elusiveness, Nagel’s essay defends consciousness as a rare and unique phenomenon. In the same way, I think admitting the limits of religious imagination affirms the value of the divine rather than denigrates it. I don’t like the idea of God at the tip of a magic wand, subject to the correct flip of the wrist or the right combination of secret words. I want to believe holiness is more than being thorough or convincing. If transformation awaits, I believe it is beyond my present agency to do anything more than imagine it. But in continuing to imagine it, I confirm a mystery worth the perseverance of my faith.

(A big thank you to the congregation of Binghamton MCC who allowed me to hash these thoughts through in their gracious company.)

[1] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” In Philosophy: History and Problems, ed. Samuel Enoch Stumpf and James Fieser. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 91.

[2] Ibid., 92.

bryne lewis allport :
  • Dorothy K Pierce

    I would love to think more about your statement concerning transformation. You must be doing more than just imagining its possibility!

    • Bryne Lewis

      Dorothy, Thanks for your comment. If we take “imagine” in the sense that Nagel uses it, it’s not “just imagining.” Imagining, or imaging as I suggest, includes modeling behavior. I certainly think behaving in a way that attempts to represent God’s character in the world makes us better people and the world a better place. I would even accept that these kind of modeling or imagining activities put us in a place where/when advent is possible. Through our actions, we stake out hallowed ground. The thing I mean to caution against is only that we don’t ever become so convinced of our own performance that we mistake our imaging for God’s arrival. I think we should be ever anticipating advent, but never to the point of believing we can bring it about through our own agency, no matter how sincerely or flawlessly accomplished.

      • Dorothy K Pierce

        Dear Bryne, I marvel at your mind and how much your love for God flows from the vastness of your being. I wish I could grasp more of what you share so generously with others (including me!) Love, Dorothy

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