whyis it like to be a bat?
  • we cannot know what it is like to be a bat

  • ---Thomas Nagel

  • BAT frees itself from the constraints of electronic
    music to create a human performance which uses,
    but is not used by, machines.

  • ---Howard Mandel

  • we can make music with machines
    and maintain our animal selves

  • ---Kitty Brazelton and Dafna Naphtali

  • when this is done, I hope I'm around to hear it.

  • ---John Cage


what?
who? when?
what is it like to be a bat?where?
 sonar?  why?
 how?


Justin Lieber: In [his article] "What is it like to be a bat?," Professor Thomas Nagel robustly and without argument asserts that there is something that it is like to be a bat. He equally robustly asserts, with little more argument, that we do not, never will, and perhaps simply cannot ever, know or reasonably suspect what it is like to be a bat. Though we may well learn everything about bat neurophysiology, understanding of what it is like to be a bat is forever beyond us. Therefore, Nagel, rather grandly concludes, physicalism is in trouble, for the recalcitrant subjective experience of being a bat is forever beyond us.


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.

Nagel takes it for granted that

  1. everything in, and everything true about, the "physical universe" must be fully-describable in human language, and hence, be capable of being fully understood by human speakers of human language(s); Nagel tries to show
  2. that there is a mysterious, luxuriant "subjective multiverse" that is partitioned into countless mutually-unintelligible subjective "world versions," perhaps one for each animal kind, and more generally for each "subjectivizing kind" including all the various hypothetical intelligent extraterrestrials---and as Nagel recently insists oneven insects having such a rich, and to all others unknowable and unintelligible world view, one can hardly discount the humble cognitive strivings of electric eyes and thermostats, let alone the claims of Crays.

But Nagel's assumption (1) appears bizarre, at least for a realist who believes that the universe exists apart from what we may say or can know about it. The universe is an enormously complicated affair, the organisms of earth, and those elsewhere, presenting one of its most stunning complexities. Even the mildest sort of realist should find it extraordinary to suppose a priori that every truth is expressible in human language and hence can be learned and understood by humans. And even the mildest sort of mathematical realist might point out that the various incompleteness and incomputability results establish formally that there are nonsubjective truths forever beyond our grasp. As I shall show, by way of a representative pragmatic example---a chess-playing computer---we characteristically have to understand much of the behavior and cognitive structure of even fairly simple organized beings in design or intentional modes, and thus we often find concrete and causal understanding beyond our grasp, pragmatically incomputable now and perhaps, in some fuller theory of human cognition, incomputable within the acquisitionally-available, or learnable, structures of human intelligence.

Actually, while Nagel vastly (or idealistically) over-estimates the possibility of our understanding all possible truths about the "physical" universe, I shall soon show that Nagel displays a most careless and, like Fontaine, whimsical and contemptuous disdain for such matters (un amas de rognures as Saci would say). Perhaps this is because Nagel supposes himself in an infinite jungle of such truths, fearing more that he will be buried in a truthful fruitfall than eager for such enlightenment. Empirical researchers should be so lucky. Respecting the "subjective multiverse" (2), on the other hand, Nagel is most respectfully and resolutely mystified, insisting both that it is endlessly rich in truths and that these truths are forever beyond us. Let us follow Nagel's particular exemplification of this claim in the case of bats.

Nagel is, as Montaigne was, in much the same position as the Wittgenstein of whom Ramsey remarked, "If you can't say it, you can't whistle it either." For he wishes both to make it out that bats have a lively subjectivity and that its character is also forever beyond our grasp. Indeed, he writes,

Bats although more closely related to us than wasps or flounders, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid.

Bats, Nagel writes,

perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, high-frequency shrieks.

Nagel gives whistling a brief try. He imagines that,

he has webbing on his arms...has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals...[but nagel soon breaks off with the conclusion that this, quote,] 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.

And that, Nagel is sure, he cannot know...

excerpt from the article "'Cartesian' Linguistics?" by Justin Leiber found in The Chomskyan Turn edited by Asa Kasher, Blackwell 1991.

Howard Mandel: In the mysterious, playful, perhaps Dadaistic "...Sermonette...," Brazelton and Naphtali combine aspects of the vastly diverse musical idioms with which they've have had extensive professional and personal experience---including medieval plainchant and other Western classical sources, Mediterranean folk styles, American pop, rock, jazz, soul and so-called "serious" modern and post-modern genres. But what's most unique to Bat is the breakthrough approach of the two women to employing both fixed- and real-time state-of-the-art computer-generated materials in live concert performance.

Brazelton scours the band's recorded jams and performances of through-composed episodes for out-takes, bits of sentences, often-ignored or unnoticed ambient noises (guitar hum, overemphasized tape hiss, digital clicks, etc.), and then processes them using such oldtime hardcore rigor as CMIX for granular synthesis and comb filtering, etc., at Columbia University Computer Music Center or pure non-plug-in CSound at home on her desktop. The results are fixed computer-generated elements which share a deep inherent timbre and content with the subsequently live material while standing out as unique one-of-a-kind sounds.

Naphtali's innovative design of the Max/MSP patch is demonstrated in what BAT calls the "ha!": Triggered by a single vocal "ha!", the Eventide delay unit is sent through a series of micro-timed changes to the length of delay time, each change causing a Doppler-generated pitched whine or roar, against which Tunick plays his drums aggressively. The Eventide is used uniquely here, less as an effects processor ornamenting the live sounds than as a stand-alone instrument.

Yet the electronics do not dominate, or serve as mere ambiance or click tracks, but are employed more like movable tectonic plates to support and shift dynamically with the trio's live action. BAT's soundtrack-like suites comprise hard and soft textures, static and charged noises, rooted and disembodied harmonies. A soft, sweetly contrapuntal madrigal turns into ultra-loud gunfire-like bursts, then "silences" which reveal themselves to be tinged with artfully harmonized, almost sub-sonic ringing. Surprise "found" sounds are set against fragments of a thundering rock song, wailed from the heart. Tempo is affected but never determined by non-live elements in the score. The live interactive computer electronics are used improvisationally, but a detailed, through-composed skeleton plan charts that interaction. BAT frees itself from the constraints of electronic music to create a human performance which uses, but is not used by, machines.

Description of she said---she said, "Can you sing Sermonette with me?" (1997) by Howard Mandel (1999).

John Cage: "What is involved with Ives, it seems to me, is the suggestion that not one thing is happening at a time, but rather that everything is happening at the same time. They simply are. We are living in a period when our nervous systems are being exteriorized by electronics, so that the whole glow is happening at once. There is no need to minimize the complexity of the situation, but rather a great need to make this complexity something we can all enjoy. If our arts introduce us to it, then I think they are performing a useful function...

"Silence is all of the sound we don't intend. There is no such thing as absolute silence. Therefore silence may very well include loud sounds and more and more in the twentieth century does. The sound of jet planes, of sirens, et cetera. For instance now, if we heard sounds coming from the house next door, and we weren't saying anything for the moment, we would say that was part of the silence, wouldn't we?...But I think electronics are now essential, and I think this is what makes rock and roll so interesting.

"...a specific suggestion I made with regard to liveliness in the field of rock 'n' roll: to do what Ives does in his Fourth Symphony: have three groups playing simultaneously in three different tempi. When this is done, I hope I'm around to hear it. I suggest (and there's no reason to stop with three) a complex starting and stopping process both during and at the beginning and end of the performance, like Ives, that is, rather than influenced, say. by Meister Eckhardt's notion that the soul is so simple it attends to one thing at a time. Nowadays everything at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive)."

---excerpts from John Cage: An Anthology, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Da Capo Press 1991) who culled the above from a 1966 Village Voice interview with John Cage by Michael Zwerin and Cage's subsequent letter to the editor.


The two published articles above are reprinted without permission for educational purposes only in hopes that interested readers will pursue and purchase the readings in their entirety