“The Triple Illusion of Christian Consciousness”, by Hasana Sharp



by Hasana Sharp (McGill University)

“Men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing.” – SPINOZAEthics, I, appendix.

 DeleuzeIn  Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze writes that “consciousness is inseparable from the triple illusion that constitutes it, the illusion of finality, the illusion of freedom, and the theological illusion.” The triple illusion that Deleuze identifies belongs to a fantasy of human exceptionalism. Consciousness of one’s desire, especially as it is described in the appendix to part I of the Ethics, includes a notion of reality designed for human use and enjoyment (finalist illusion) by a God who can offer or withhold love (theological illusion) from an individual who can freely earn or fail to be worthy of salvation (freedom illusion).

Yet the “triple illusion” that Deleuze describes seems to be historically specific. Rather than constituting consciousness as such, it aptly describes what might loosely be called Christian psychology. It is the psychology of those who believe that we are divine creations, endowed with free will, who may or may not use this will to earn salvation.

Spinoza begins with the premise that we desire and pursue our advantage, convinced that our desire signals our freedom. We typically perceive something as desirable and believe that we pursue it by virtue of a self-originating appetite. (…) From the pursuit of self-preservation,  Spinoza describes God as a kind of narcisistic self-projection (one that is developed by Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity). 

The tendency to imagine God as a power that arranges things purposefully for human pleasure is prompted by our experience of the excellent design of our bodies and things that meet our basic needs. In Spinoza’s words, “they find – both in themselves and outside themselves – many means that are very helpful in seeking their advantage, for example, eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, plants and animals for food, the sun for light, the sea for supporting fish” (Ethics, I, appendix).

The pleasures of food, visible beauty, and the sun’s warmth please humans all too well and prompt us to infer that there must be a “ruler of Nature” who arranged everything to suit us. (…) From the belief that their actions are prompted by self-generated goals, humans tend to be falsely convinced that God, too, acts with an end in view, that end being, simply, humanity. Yet nature does not always provide, and while the successful pursuit of self-satisfaction generates the notion that pleasant things exist for the sole purpose of enriching human life, unpleasant things are seen to reflect human vice.

Misfortune incites superstition and fear of divine punishment but does not interrupt the narcissistic notion that good or bad events, pleasant or repugnant things, point to oneself as a member of God’s most beloved creation, humanity. Insofar as we are trapped within the triple illusion of (Christian) consciousness, we are convinced that the external world, no less than our bodies, exists for us, and, the more we find ourselves to be favored, the more we are convinced that God recognizes, validates, and rewards us.

71Q6lKunzxLAs Spinoza puts is, “So it has happened that each of them thought up from his own temperament different ways of worshipping God, so that God might love him above all rest, and direct the whole of Nature according to the needs of their blind desire and insatiable greed” (Ethics, I, appendix). In accord with a certain worldview that arguably persists today, our desire prompts a portrait of God and nature as instruments of self-satisfaction…

For Spinoza, desire is liberated by establishing a distinctive kind of relationship to oneself and others. Spontaneous desire is less free insofar as we persist in the belief that desire is not constrained, provoked, and oriented by a complex history of causal determinations. We remain servile as long as we do not see ourselves as relational beings. Rather than socializing desire, however, we must naturalize it. We must come to act in light of being but a tiny “part of nature”, one singularity submerged within an acentric force of powers and counterpowers.

Spinoza comes to view freedom as a coordination of strenght and vitality in relationship to others. (…) Nature is absolute and self-caused, but freedom requires that we cease to see ourselves as independent in the same way as God. Human freedom is won only by coming to terms with our lack of freedom. We come to act effectively only when we appreciate that our agency is infinitely surpassed by the totality of other natural beings (Ethics, IV, p. 3).

The initial desire to be affirmed or loved by God above all others as a unique and irreplaceable being must be surrendered. The politics of renaturalization denies the possibility of mutual recognition between God and humanity, the Other and the self. (…) We are singular expressions of the power of infinite nature, knowledge of which Spinoza calls beatitude or glory.

Rather than personal salvation or recognition, freedom involves a kind of depersonalization. The irrecoverable loss of oneself in God is precisely what Hegel rejected in Spinoza’s system, yet, in an epoch where the risk of too much man is arguably greater than the risk of too much nature, let us see whether we might find ressources for a posthumanist view of agency in Spinoza’s account…

For Spinoza, the highest form of self-knowledge that accompanies intuition involves the intellectual love of God (nature), which is decidedly not mutual. “He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return” (Ethics, V, p. 19). The lack of mutuality is two-sided. God does not create humans in order to be loved and glory in his almighty power. Humans are not God’s self-image, the vehicles of his glorious self-representation. God is an entirely impersonal natural force that is not oriented around humanity. Loving nature or God is nothing other than the active joy by which we love ourselves, not as exemplars of human goodness, but as absolutely unique instances of nature’s power.”

HASANA SHARP (Academia.edu)
Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization.
Read more quotes from this book.



“The World of Buckminster Fuller” [Documentary By Robert Snyder]

Buckminster FULLER before his geode dome at Montreal World Fair.

Buckminster Fuller before his geo-dome at Montreal’s World Fair, 1976.


“The Leonardo da Vinci of our time.” – Marshall McLuhan

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an architect, engineer, geometrician, philosopher, futurist, inventor of the famous geodesic dome, and one of the most brilliant thinkers of his time. His legacy becomes ever more relevant, providing us a road map to steer our planet away from oblivion – and toward a sustainable future for all of humanity.

This film by Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Snyder, like his other documentarieson “the greats” (Michelangelo, Henry Miller, Willem De Kooning, Pablo Casals, among others), transports the viewer into Fuller’s mind and soul. Told entirely in his own words, the film is an intimate, personal and inspiring message from Fuller to our fragile world.

The Dirty Little Secrets of Climate Change Denial – by George Monbiot, Naomi Klein, Noam Chosmky, Bill Maher, David Suzuki, Naomi Oreskes etc.


George Monbiot in Heat – How To Stop The Planet From Burning:

“The effort to tackle climate change suffers from the problem of split incentives: those who are least responsible for it are the most likely to suffer its effects. Bangladesh and Ethiopia are two of the countries which will be hit hardest. A sea level rise of 1 metre could permanently flood 21% of Bangladesh, including its best agricultural land, pushing some 15 million people out of their homes. Storm surges of the kind the country experienced in 1998 are likely to become more common: in that instance, 65% of Bangladesh was temporarily drowned, and its farming and infrastructure ruined. Ethiopia has already been suffering a series of droughts linked to climate change. Spring rains have steadily diminished since 1996. In 2005, partly as a result of the droughts caused by the failure of these rains, between 8 and 10 million Ethiopians were at risk of starvation.

Most of the rich countries, being located in temperate latitudes, will, in the initial stages at least, suffer lesser ecological effects. They will also have more money with which to protect their citizens from floods, droughts and extremes of temperature. Within these countries, the richest people, who can buy their way out of trouble, will be harmed last. The blame, as the following data suggests, is inversely proportional to the impacts.


Luxembourg – 24.3
United States – 20.0
United Kingdom – 9.5
Bangladesh – 0.24
Ethiopia – 0.06

Source: US Energy Information Administration

 Asking wealthy people in rich nations to act to prevent climate change means asking them to give up many of the things they value – their high-performance cars, their flights to Tuscany and Thailand and Florida – for the benefit of other people. The problem is compounded by the fact that the connection between cause and effect seems so improbable. By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning other people to death. We never chose to do this. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these acts without passion or intent.

To make this even more difficult, the early effects of climate change, for those of us who live in the temperate countries of the rich world, are generally pleasant. Our winters are milder, our springs come sooner. We have suffered the occasional flood and drought and heatwave. But the overwhelming sensation, just when we need to act with the greatest urgency, is that of being blessed by our pollution.”


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Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming

Author(s): Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

Dowload ebook: http://bit.ly/UBI3Kb (PDF, 36 mb)

Synopsis: The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers. Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly—some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is “not settled” denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, historians of science, roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

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Naomi3“Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude – that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.”

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“This deeply unfortunate mistiming has created all sorts of barriers to our ability to respond effectively to this crisis. It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to protect life on Earth. It has meant that regulation was a dirty word just when we needed those powers most. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions just when they most need to be fortified and reimagined. And it has meant that we are saddled with an apparatus of “free trade” deals that tie the hands of policymakers just when they need maximum flexibility to achieve a massive energy transition.”

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“We also have to confront how the mismatch between climate change and market domination has created barriers within our very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of humanitarian crises with anything more than furtive, terrified glances. Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real – let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.

And little wonder: just when we needed to gather, our public sphere was disintegrating; just when we needed to consume less, consumerism took over virtually every aspect of our lives; just when we needed to slow down and notice, we sped up; and just when we needed longer time horizons, we were able to see only the immediate present.

This is our climate change mismatch, and it affects not just our species but potentially every other species on the planet as well.”

— Naomi Klein,
“Climate change is the fight of our lives – yet we can hardly bear to look at it” 

You might also enjoy:

N. Klein interviewed by Bill Moyers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

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climate change 2
climate change
June 8, 2014 Toxic Emissions Where were you dad? tumblr_n6nihsZNG41r55d2io1_500
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Neil deGrasse Tyson:


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Noam Chomsky;

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David Suzuki:

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On The Verge Of Climate Collapse // George Monbiot’s book “Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning”

Monbiot 2


In Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, written in 1590 (and that would later inspire Goethe’s Faust), he tells the story of a brilliant scholar, “glutted with learning’s golden gifts”, who reaches the limits of human knowledge. Bored by terrestrial scholarship, he plots, by means of necromancy, to break into

…a world of profit and delight
Of power, honor, of omnipotence.

When, he believes, he has acquired his demonic powers, spirits will fetch him everything he wants:

I’ll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.

So Faustus draws a circle and summons the Devil’s servant, Mephistopheles. He offers him a deal: if the Devil will grant him 24 years in which to “live in all voluptuousness”, Faustus will, at the end of that period , surrender his soul to hell. Mephistopheles explains the consequences, but the doctor refuses to believe him.

Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That, after this life, there is any pain?
Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales.


So the bargain is struck and signed in blood, and Faustus acquires his magical powers, With the help of a flying “chariot burning bright”, he takes a sightseeing tour around Europe. He performs miracles. He summons fresh grapes from the southern hemisphere in the dead of winter.  After 24 years, the devils come for him.  He begs for mercy, but it is too late. They drag him down to hell.

If you did not know any better, you could mistake this story for a metaphor of climate change.

Faust is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles, who appears in the original English text as a “fiery man”, is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits. 24 years is the period – about half the true span – in which they have enabled us to live in all voluptuousness. And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve probably worked that out for yourself… Our use of fossil fuels is a Faustian pact.


To doubt, today, that manmade climate change is happening, you must abandon science and revert to some other means of understanding the world: alchemy perhaps, or magic.

Ice cores extracted from the Antarctic show that the levels in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane (these are the two principal greenhouse gases) are now higher than they have been for 650.000 years.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have been rising over the 20th century faster than at any time over the past 20.000 years. The only means by which greenhouse gases could have accumulated so swiftly is human action: carbon dioxide is produced by burning oil, coal and gas and by clearing forests, while methane is released from farms and coal mines and landfill sites.

As CO2 and methane levels in the atmosphere increase, the temperature rises. The concentration of carbon dioxide, the more important of the two, has risen from 280 parts per million parts of air (ppm) in Marlowe’s time to 380 ppm today. Most of the growth has taken place in the last 50 years. The average global temperature over the past century has climbed, as a result, by 0.6º Centigrade. According to the World Metereological Organization, “the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest in any century during the past 1.000 years.

Already sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to the smallest area ever recorded. In the Antarctic, scientists watched stupefied in 2002 as the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed into the sea (see The Guardian’s Antarctica Sends 500 Million Tonne Warning of the Effects of Global Warming, 20 March 2006, by John Vidal).  A paper published in Science magazine concluded that is disintegration was the result of melting caused by a warming ocean.

Almost all the world’s glaciers are now retreating. Permafrost in Alaska and Siberia, which has remained frozen since the last Ice Age, has started to melt. Parts of the Amazon rainforest are turning to savannah as the temperatures there exceed the point at which trees can survive… The World Health Organization estimates that 150.000 people a year are now dying as a result of climate change… All this is happening with just 0.6 ºC of warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a committee of climate specialists which assesses and summarizes the science, estimated in 2001 that global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8º C this century. (…) Professor Martin Parry of the UK’s Metereological Office estimates that a rise of just 2.1º C will expose between 2.3 and 3 billion people to the risk of water shortages. The disappearance of glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas will imperil the people who depend on their meltwater, particularly in Pakistan, western China, Central Asia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that “in some 40 poor, developing countries, with a combined population of 2 billion, crop production losses due to climate change may drastically increase the number of undernourished people, severely hindering progress in combating poverty and food insecurity.”

Heat – How to Stop the Planet From Burning
(Doubleday Canada, 2006, 277 pgs. Buy at Amazon.)
Read on at http://www.monbiot.com



By Hasana Sharp (1)

To think in terms of affect is necessarily to think in terms of “transindividuality”, such that forms of individuality are necessarily incomplete and variable in response to other beings.

Understanding human expression in terms of natural forces and affective determination urges us to conceive of speech as something that emerges by virtue of a complex play of contact and contiguity with other beings, human and nonhuman.

When defining human action, Spinoza’s target and antagonist is most obviously Descartes. André Gombay notes that there is something shocking and even abhorrent to most people about the Cartesian dictum “I think therefore I am”. (2) Aren’t we also embodied, feeling beings who relish the experience of awe before natural beauty and artistic expression?

With Spinoza’s theory of affect, we have a comprehensive redefinition of human agency. More than an affirmation of our corporeality, Spinoza’s theory of affect gives rise to a notion of agency that is in no way exclusively human.

The limitless possibilities ascribed to mind and body include not only those we call human but also the ideal and corporeal powers of beasts, computers, and collectivities.

“Affect” names those changes in power that belong to finite existence by virtue of being connected necessarily to other beings, immersed in a field of powers and counterpowers…

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of affect in Spinoza’s philosophy as a whole. “Affectus” is the first word of the Political Treatise and remains a protagonist throughout the text. The Theological-Political Treatise begins with a vivid portrait of the misery provoked by hope and fear, the affects that nourish the superstition and despotism that are the treatise’s objects of critique.

Affect refers to a universal power to affect and be affected, to the fact that finite beings enhance or diminish one another’s power necessarily, by virtue of their inescapable interdependency. An affect is an encounter between bodies that involves a change in one’s power, for better or for worse, together with the idea of that change:

“By affect [affectum] I understand affections [affectiones] of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.” (3)

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“Spinozean desire exists within a relational field and is fully actualized only with favorable relations. (…) The striving to persevere in being is the “essence” or “nature” of each and every singular thing. “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.” (4)

Conatus names the singularity of beings, a force of existence unique to each thing, which accounts for the infinite diversity of finite things in nature. Conatus names a power of self-organization, self-maintenance, and striving to preserve one’s distinctness amidst infinetely other singular beings.

Nevertheless, within Spinoza’s relational ontology, the singularity of each essence does not entail that the conatus is the exclusive cause of a being’s perseverance. To remain this table or this body, one must maintain a constant flow of exchanges with myriad ambient beings. One must perpetually mutate in order to remain what one is. (…) Our most fundamental power to be cannot ultimately be separated from the concurrent forces of other beings. It is for this reason that the concept of “transindividuality” is particularly apt for Spinoza.” (5)


(1) Sharp, H. Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. Chicago, 2011, pg. 24-26.

(2) Gombay. Descartes, IX.

(3) Spinoza, B. Ethics. III. Definition 3.

(4) Idem. Ethics.  III. Proposition 6.

(5) Sharp, H. Op cit. P. 132-33.

DEADLY ENVIRONMENT: The Dramatic Rise in Killings of Eco-Activists (The Global Witness Report 2014)


Urgent action required to challenge impunity of perpetrators, protect citizens and address root causes of environmental crisis

Killings of people protecting the environment and rights to land increased sharply between 2002 and 2013 as competition for natural resources intensifies, a new report from Global Witness reveals. In the most comprehensive global analysis of the problem on record, the campaign group has found that at least 908 people are known to have died in this time. Disputes over industrial logging, mining and land rights the key drivers, and Latin America and Asia-Pacific particularly hard hit.

Released in the year of the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Brazilian rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes, Deadly Environment highlights a severe shortage of information or monitoring of this problem. This means the total is likely to be higher than the report documents, but even the known scale of violence is on a par with the more high profile incidence of journalists killed in the same period (1). This lack of attention to crimes against environment and land defenders is feeding endemic levels of impunity, with just over one per cent of the perpetrators known to have been convicted.

Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes (1944-1988), Brazilian trade union leader and environmentalist, murdered in 1988. Wikipedia.

“This shows it has never been more important to protect the environment, and it has never been more deadly,” said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. “There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment. Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it. We hope our findings will act as the wake-up call that national governments and the international community clearly need.”


The key findings in Deadly Environment are as follows:

  •  At least 908 people were killed in 35 countries protecting rights to land and the environment between 2002 and 2013, with the death rate rising in the last four years to an average of two activists a week.
  •  2012 was the worst year so far to be an environmental defender, with 147 killings – nearly three times more than in 2002.
  •  Impunity for these crimes is rife: only 10 perpetrators are known to have been convicted between 2002 and 2013 – just over one per cent of the overall incidence of killings.
  •  The problem is particularly acute in Latin America and South East Asia. Brazil is the most dangerous place to defend rights to land and the environment, with 448 killings, followed by Honduras (109) and the Philippines (67).


The problem is exacerbated by a lack of systematic monitoring or information. Where cases are recorded, they are often seen in isolation or treated as a subset of other human rights or environmental issues. The victims themselves often do not know their rights or are unable to assert them because of lack of resources in their often remote and risky circumstances.

John Knox, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment said:

“Human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them. Environmental human rights defenders work to ensure that we live in an environment that enables us to enjoy our basic rights, including rights to life and health. The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment they face as a result.”

Indigenous communities are particularly hard hit. In many cases, their land rights are not recognized by law or in practice, leaving them open to exploitation by powerful economic interests who brand them as ‘anti-development’. Often, the first they know of a deal that goes against their interests is when the bulldozers arrive in their farms and forests.

Land rights form the backdrop to most of the known killings, as companies and governments routinely strike secretive deals for large chunks of land and forests to grow cash crops like rubber, palm oil and soya. At least 661 – over two-thirds – of the killings took place in the context of conflicts over the ownership, control and use of land, in combination with other factors. The report focuses in detail on the situation in Brazil, where land disputes and industrial logging are key drivers, and the Philippines, where violence appears closely linked to the mining sector.

This week, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to issue a stark warning that governments are failing to reduce carbon emissions(2). It is likely to show the world is on course to miss the targets required to stay within the accepted 2C temperature increase that is generally considered a line that must not be crossed to avoid climatic upheaval. Global Witness’ research suggests that as well as failing to reduce their emissions, governments are failing to protect the activists and ordinary citizens who find themselves on the frontline of this problem.

“This rapidly worsening situation appears to be hidden in plain sight, and that has to change. 2012, the year of the last Rio Summit, was the deadliest on record. Delegates gathering for climate talks in Peru this year must heed this warning – protection of the environment is now a key battleground for human rights. While governments quibble over the text of new global agreements, at the local level more people than ever around the world are already putting their lives on the line to protect the environment,” said Andrew Simms of Global Witness, “At the very least, to start making good on official promises to stop climate change, governments should protect and support those personally taking a stand.”

The report also underlines that rising fatalities are the most acute and measurable end of a range of threats including intimidation, violence, stigmatization and criminalization. The number of deaths points to a much greater level of non-lethal violence and intimidation, which the research did not document but requires urgent and effective action.

Global Witness is calling for a more coordinated and concerted effort to monitor and tackle this crisis, starting with a resolution from the UN’s Human Rights Council specifically addressing the heightened threat posed to environmental and land defenders. Similarly, regional human rights bodies and national governments need to properly monitor abuses against and killings of activists, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. Companies must carry out effective checks on their operations and supply chains to make sure they do no harm.

Chico Mendes with his children. 25 years ago, th Brazilian activist was murdered and one of the Voices of the Amazon brutally silenced.

Chico Mendes with his children. 25 years ago, in 1988, the Brazilian activist was murdered and one of the Voices of the Amazon was brutally silenced.


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You might also be interested in:


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Read also:

  • THE GUARDIAN: Investigation by Global Witness reveals there were nearly three times as many deaths in 2012 than 10 years previously.
  • HUFFINGTON POST:  More Than 900 Environmental Advocates Slain In A Decade As Concern For The Planet Grows.

“What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” – The Sci-Fi Philosophy of Thomas Nagel

BAT IN FLOWER A pollen-gilded bat emerging from a flower of the blue mahoe tree. This bat lives in eastern Cuba in a colony more than one million strong— a pollinating powerhouse. Photograph by Merlin Tuttle, National Geographic.

In one of the greatest essays in his book Mortal QuestionsThomas Nagel invites us to dare reflect in a bold and innovative way, as awe-inspiring as the best Science Fiction novels or films. Forget about mankind for a while and try to identify yourself with the perspective of an animal that’s quite different from bipeds and primates such as ourselves. Put yourself inside the skin of a bat, but not only in a cartoonish or playful way (don’t even waste time pretending you are Bruce Wayne, wearing a black costume and a horned mask, patrolling Gotham City in search of criminals to crush). Nagel is asking us to attempt to become a bat as it really is in Nature’s web of life, and how does it feel to be such a creature What Nagel is proposing is an exercise in which a human mind tries to move away from its humanness, venturing outside the zone of familiarity, and tries to really grasp what sort of experience it would be like to exist as a bat – or an eagle, or a worm. That ain’t easy, and “philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood.” (pg. 166)

This is not just a role-playing game (“let’s pretend we’re animals and meow like cats!”), nor it’s creative phantasy imagining the future (similarly to what was crafted with such greatness by David Cronenberg in The Fly). What Thomas Nagel is after with his sci-fi thinking, as we’ll further attempt to explore, is an explanation for consciousness in its great diversity. Reality contains objectively myriads of different organisms, with different perspectives and subjective experiences, and this field of study – Nature’s richness and diversity – may be explored not only by poets, mystics or people high on LSD, but also by philosophers, physicists, scientists, artists… Maybe we’ll become better humans if we try to understand better what it is like not to be human?

“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. (…) We may call this the subjective character of experience…” (p. 166)

 Those among you, dear readers, who are not poetically inclined, may deem as utter philosophical madness to refer to such a thing as “the subjectivity of bats” – or the conscious experience of pigs. But it’s been for centuries the self-imposed task and delight of poets, mystics, shamans, artists and many other human animals to understand and try to verbalize what it means like to be an animal different than ourselves. William Blake, for example, had a fruitful relationship with flies, as you’ll see in the following poem, and he also sung with his lyre some quite fascinating stuff about dogs, horses, skylarks:


“Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance,
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing…”

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“A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misus’d upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing…”


Thomas Nagel is interested in exploring the idea of animals as beings who experience the world from a perspective different from ours, from a subjective standpoint which differs greatly according to the organism’s complexity and to the various environments. For example, a polar bear and a huge whale like Moby Dick have very different conscious experiences by living where they do, I mean, the first in freezing snowy temperatures, the latter beneath the oceans’s rolling waves. But let’s go back to Nagel’s bats:

“I assume all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. (…) Bats, although closely related to us, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Now we know that most bats perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion and texture – comparable to those we make by vision.” (pg. 168)


These fascinating and scary creatures, winged mammals who fly speedily in the air even though they can’t see anything (thus the expression “blind as a bat”), have an existential experience which is quite hard for a human to imagine and that it’s impossible for us to really “live”. How is it like, subjectively, to fly around being a bat and using a sonar for sight? Does our imagination really permit us to truly experience Batness? And how to avoid scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or from the Batman comics, from messing-up our experiment by appearing on our Hollywood-colonized human-minds everytime we think of men and bats? Imagination is limited and usually binds us to a human perspective, argues Thomas Nagel, and to experience what truly is the subjective consciousness of a bat it’s not enough “that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.” (pg. 169) Now we’re getting closer to his point: Nagel wants to know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” (p. 169)

There seems to exist an abyss of ignorance separating each species, though they all belong to the one and the same Web of Life. We might call this the Abyss of Alterity, but maybe someone needs to be a poet or a mystic to grasp what that means. Thomas Nagel paints a portrait of such an abyss, that we are seldom able to cross, when he writes about men and bats: humans can’t know what it’s like to be inside the skin of a bat, and neither the bat has a clue about how the heck it feels to be a primate such as ourselves. Simply because there’s no bridge that can serve as means of transportation, from human experience right into bat experience, and vice versa: “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.” (p. 169)

Even an imagination so powerfull and daring as Franz Kafka’s could only reach an anthropomorphized report of what it meant for Gregor Samsa to discover himself living inside the body of a bug. However, for Gregor Samsa, a human mind and a human consciousness are still locked inside the beastly body that he wakes up, in Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, suddenly transformed into.  Thomas Nagel knows perfectly well that one can’t become a bat after being born a monkey, a wolf, a bacteria or a human being, but he also states that human imagination fails to give us any true depiction of the specific subjective character of the experienced subjectivity of creatures of other species  – “it’s beyond our ability to conceive.” (p. 170)

This sets, methinks, epistemology in new grounds and adds a new chapter to the history of Skepticism in philosophy. Nagel’s highly skeptical conclusion – we’ll never really experience what it’s like to be an animal different than the animal we are – also spreads into his consideration of human affairs, where similar abysses of mutual ignorance also exist. For example: “The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.” (p. 170)

If we’re ever to meet extra-terrestrial organisms – be they iron-headed Martians, bizarre aliens from Titan, or other weird creatures from a far-away galaxy… – the same problem would certainly arise: the aliens wouldn’t have a clear perception of what it is like to be a human, similarly to our human difficulty – or even incapacity –  to truly understand what it is like to be a bat or a whale, a butterfly or an eagle, a worm or a lizard. Subjectivity, thus, is so highly varied in its manifestations, in its different incarnations, that we must revise our concepts and renew our vocabulary: “subjective” shouldn’t mean only “the personal self”, but some sort of existential perspective that exists in myriads of different ways according to the varied organisms and environments. This “enormous amount of variation and complexity” can be partially explained by Darwin’s theory of Evolution, but what Thomas Nagel seems to be pointing out is this: reality is too complex, its multiplicity is too great, for a mind such as ours, with a language such as we have developed so far, to truly understand it – which means, with an understanding that embraces all subjective conscious experiences of all living beings. This is one of the main problems his philosophy deals with, especially in the excellent mind-boggling philosophy-ride View From Nowhere.

The View From Nowhere

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“The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature.” (pg. 170)

Some sort of disconnection between the human animals and the Animal Kingdom as a whole seems to arise, Thomas Nagel argues, from our mind’s incapacity to truly understand any subjective experience that differs too much from ours. This can’t be explained only by biology, by processes of Natural Selection, because Culture intervenes with its systems, its symbols, its values. In a civilization, for example, where in the thousands of supermarkets one can buy the meat of recently killed animals, already packed and frozen and wrapped in plastics, people tend to dissociate their minds from any sort of empathy with pigs, cows or chickens. When it’s barbecue time and the dead bodies of recently killed animals are being grilled, people tend to never think about the slaughterhouses, and never think about what life feels like when lived subjectively as life destined to be slaughtered for meat. Great masses of humans, then, devour tons of meat in their barbecues and in their day-to-day lifes, they erect myriads of fast-food joints and stain the Landscape with McDonald’s-like signs and ads, without paying no mind to what they deem an unimportant matter, I mean, what sort of existence the animals that ended up on the plate or inside the Big Mac had lived through from birth to bacon.

“This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of representation on the other. (…) 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 human language. (…) The more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise. (…) A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena, though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lightning, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.  (…) Although the concepts themselves are connected with a particular point of view and a particular visual phenomenology, the things apprehended from that point of view are not: they are observable from the point of view but external to it; hence they can be comprehended from other points of view also, either by the same organisms or by others. Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision. And, in understanding a phenomenon like lightning, it is legitimate to go as far away as one can from a strictly human viewpoint.” (NAGEL, Mortal Questions, p. 173)

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Buy Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel at Amazon.