What is it like to be a…?

I should have known not to answer her question like that. I should have seen the book she was reading; I should have seen how heavy her briefcase was… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m a doctor now -an obstetrician/gynaecologist- but in the beginning I wanted to head in an an entirely different direction: philosophy. And it has remained in the background, nagging at me from time to time -always superficially, of course. My adventures were often confined to a simplistic skimming of the surface of the words, with their all too frequent academic double entendres escaping me completely. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh? And I did learn a lot of new phrases that I found I could sometimes slip into my consultations…

Usually I would get away with the occasional philosophical nuance, but I could also be careless at times. One has to be cautious with new patients; there are signs that should be read. For example, it is common sense never to wax philosophical with anyone carrying a heavy book and wearing unstylish, heavy glasses until you know them better. To ignore this maxim is to court embarrassment –or worse, acknowledgment that a boundary has been crossed.

Sandra exhibited all of the danger signs as she sat engrossed in a tome sufficiently heavy to require both knees to support it. A young looking woman with short brown hair and a blue skirt and blouse, she looked as if she were deeply concerned about the meaning of something on the page and as I watched from behind the front desk, she both underlined it and then wrote something in the margin. Even at that distance, I could see she was deadly serious about it. I debated for a moment whether or not to give her additional time to finish her deliberations and see another patient first, but just at that moment she spotted me and smiled.

“Sandra,” I said, walking over to her and wondering how she was going to manage to shake my hand and keep the weighty book safe from the floor.

But she managed it with the skill I would have thought only an older and more experienced scholar could aspire to. And then with a quick, practiced sweep of her other hand, she realigned her glasses further up on her nose, without dropping either the book or her smile in the process.

After that, she, the book and her briefcase followed me to my office and all three of them found a space across from my desk. Once settled, she scanned the room with curious eyes which flitted about like a pair of barn swallows but finally came to rest on a little carved wooden effigy of an African woman holding a baby in her arms.

“What’s it like to be an obstetrician,” she said after examining the woman for a moment.

Although the question seemed simple, it caught me off guard, for some reason and I was suddenly struck with the difficulty of answering something that really had to be experienced to be conveyed, let alone understood. It was almost like trying to describe what its like balancing on a bicycle, or what it would be like to be a police officer walking in a dangerous neighbourhood. It’s a subjective thing that can not accurately be described from the outside.

I’d recently been reading the famous 1974 paper by Thomas Nagel entitled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in which he confronts those who would attempt to answer the question by resorting to either physicalism (the idea that everything can be explained by some sort of physical process) or reductionism (by and large that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts): http://organizations.utep.edu/portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf

I have to admit that I succumbed to the temptation of pretending I understood more of what he wrote than I did. “What is it like to be a bat?” I said -it just slipped out before I could stop it. I suppose that somewhere inside I was thinking I was being clever and that I could then throw out a loose reference to Nagel’s paper –something like his ‘To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals.’ And so, their experiences being totally alien to me, I would not be able to describe them in words.

But as soon as I said it, I could see by her expression that I had inadvertently crossed a border into the country where she lived. A country where I, perforce, had become a bat. Her bat.

Her eyes immediately hummed with interest. “Fascinating you should ask that,” she said, choosing her words almost as if she were trying to keep them simple –much as we might when speaking to someone from another country. Another culture. “It’s difficult enough to describe what we do to someone in a different field, but an order of magnitude more difficult to describe what it is like to do it…” She smiled disarmingly and then continued. “As Nagel said,” and here she reached down and picked a somewhat lighter book from her briefcase and thumbed through it- ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.’ He picked bats instead of wasps or flounders, he says, ‘because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.’ I suppose he could have chosen dolphins or orcas but… whatever.”

I felt encouraged at her use of ‘whatever’. I thought maybe I could change the subject, but she immediately launched into a description of her position on his argument.

“Me,” she said as if we were sitting in a university lounge discussing the issue over a coffee, “I subscribe to a more intermediate position between reductionism and pure physicalism. I would put myself somewhere in the epiphenomenalist camp.” She looked up from the book and sent her eyes on a brief mission to study my face. The report was evidently not encouraging, so she decided to explain. “Epiphenomenalists posit that mental states are byproducts of physical processes –much as energy and its ability to do work are a product of, say, a steam engine boiling water.”

She carefully replaced the book in its briefcase-vault and stared at me again. Then she shrugged and a mischievous expression gradually conquered the previously academic one. “I think I will rephrase my original question and let you get on with your job. Do you enjoy being an obstetrician?”

“It’s sometimes Hydra-headed,” I said without thinking, and then quickly hid behind the computer screen when I saw her eyes light up once again.