One of the perpetual problems in the philosophy of mind is what, if anything, we truly know about the consciousness of others. A 1974 paper by American philosopher Thomas Nagel produced a famous thought experiment about what it's like to be a bat. This article considers, instead, what it is like to be a bee.
"You’re a honeybee. Despite being around 700,000 times smaller than the average human, you’ve got more of almost everything. Instead of four articulated limbs, you have six, each with six segments. (Your bee’s knees, sadly, don’t exist.) You’re exceptionally hairy. A shock of bristly setae covers your body and face to help you keep warm, collect pollen, and even detect movement. Your straw-like tongue stretches far beyond the end of your jaw, but has no taste buds on it. Instead, you “taste” with other, specialized hairs, called sensillae, that you use to sense the chemicals that brush against particular parts of your body. You’ve got five eyes. Two of them, called compound eyes and made up of 6,900 tiny lenses, take up about half your face. Each lens sends you a different “pixel,” which you use to see the world around you. The colors you see are different. Red looks like black to you and your three “primary” colors are blue, green, and ultraviolet. ... Your four wings move at 11,400 strokes per minute. You can sense chemicals in the air. ... But how much does any of this tell us about what it actually feels like to be a bee?
"We all know what it’s like to be ourselves—to be conscious of the world around us, and be conscious of that consciousness. But what consciousness means more generally, for other people and other creatures, is a hot potato tossed between philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and anyone who’s ever wondered whether it feels the same to be a dog as it does to be an octopus. ... The problem is that in trying to envisage any consciousness besides our own, we run into the limits of the human imagination. In the case of honeybees, it’s hard to know if interesting behavior is reflective of an interesting experience of the world or masks a more simple stimulus-response existence. The lights are on, but is anyone home? ...
"In a human brain, key studies suggest consciousness lies in the midbrain, an evolutionarily much older section. In a study published last year, [cognitive scientist Andrew] Barron and [philosopher Colin] Klein investigated the structure of the bee brain, which seems to be made up of similar bits to our own, with a region responsible for similar tasks. 'It’s smaller, it’s organized differently, it’s different-shaped, but if you look at the kind of computations it does, it’s doing the same sort of things as the midbrain,' Klein says. 'So if you think in humans the midbrain is responsible for being conscious, and you think this is doing the same kind of thing, then you ought to think insects are conscious as well.' This biological approach opens up consciousness to a variety of other organisms that don’t do the clever things that bees do, like beetles or potato bugs. They might be less obviously interesting, but that doesn’t make them less likely to be conscious. ...
"While neurobiology is a very important part of the story, says [philosopher David] Chalmers, 'it may not settle the issue of consciousness. You very frequently find a situation where two people might agree on the neurobiology of a given case, but disagree on what that implies about consciousness.' He gives the example of fish, and the ongoing discourse about whether their neurobiology suggests that they do or do not feel pain. 'Knowing the neurobiological facts doesn’t necessarily settle the question.'
"We can try to imagine what it’s like to have six hairy legs, or see in pixels, or crave nectar. We can even try to imagine what it’s like to be part of a hive, a superorganism with motivations of its own. But what it’s actually like to be a bee—its subjective experience of the world—is going to remain elusive. But we’re starting to figure out that it’s probably like something. And that’s not nothing."
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