The last few days, I was snowed in, like many Irish people. This is the worst it’s been in thirty-something years. I live on the South East coast of Ireland. A year can go by here with only one day of snowfall, and usually none of it settles. A few days ago, to get to the shed five metres away, I had to clear the path of about a half-metre high of snow.
While it was like this, everything blurred and lost colour. Strange birds hung on to the bare swaying branches in a gray, streaming sky. They dropped to the snow to fight over apple cores. They were redwings, like mistlethrushes with rusted feathers on their chests and a black strip over each eye: a Groucho Marx eyebrow. None of us had seen them before (except my dad, who’s in his ’80s).(One of my instagram videos of redwings from this weekend.)
One morning, I opened the door and a bit of snow fell into the hall. A flock of birds leapt out of the evergreen bushes in a shocked flurry of wings. I stood there for a minute, taking in this erasing scenery. A ginger cat came around the corner of the house and looked at me, then left.
It snowed all day on Friday. It was snowing as it became light and continued into the sun setting again. I was working at home. Every hour or so, I’d break off work and walk out into the garden to see how things were. At the start, I groggily wore a dressing gown going out. The pond was frozen. My feet sank into piles of snow.
There was no sun these few days. Usually, in this town, the sun comes out at least once, gleaming on the sea or passing along the headland. But not these last few days. Or even today. Today, the snow has become piles of slush and running water. Blackbirds and wood pigeons have reappeared. Finches wash themselves in puddles and starlings have joined the redwings to fight.
The day before all this snow came down, I walked on to the beach. It was deserted, except for birds. A flock of black-headed seagulls settled in the surf as it rolled in, then lifted off again as it pulled back out. They did this over and over, as if they wanted one thing, wanted it, but kept forgetting it was transitory, and were constantly surprised.
What It is Like to Not Know
In these moments, I’m brought up short by the suggestion this gives me of the psychology of animals. There is an alienness of other creature’s sense of time. I don’t consider this an understanding to think of them this way. It is a bafflement. It is the opposite of insight.
There are lots of reasons why we may not understand the perspective of something else.
On a fundamental level, there may be a barrier to understanding ‘what it is like’ to be another thing , as most philosophers of consciousness refer to it (original article on this by philosopher Thomas Nagel). To change Nagel’s example of a bat for a seagull, I don’t know what it is like to be a seagull – even if I had wings; feathers; was surrounded by seagulls; liked dipping my feet in the surf. There is some irreducible subjectivity to being a seagull that cannot be shared with a non-seagull (such as me), even if the non-seagull, too, has subjectivity. We can even go further, following Nagel: there is some irreducible subjectivity to being me, or to being you, that cannot be shared with anyone else, even if they, too, have subjectivity.
I often struggle with Nagel’s ideas here and the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness that follows it (as characterised by David Chalmers). I won’t go into my problems here. I think there are still problems with imagining ourselves into the lives of other creatures, even if we don’t take on Nagel and Chalmers’ ideas (which, again, I struggle with anyway).
Another reason why we may be unable to understand what it is like to be something is closer to Nagel’s work, and something I find compelling and bizarre. It’s that part of what it is like to be something else other than me (or you) is that it is not me (or it is not you).
When I look at the seagulls lifting and sinking into the surf, I myself am not doing this. I have never done this. I’ve never had wings. I wear clothes. I do not have feathers. I like chocolate, coffee, and beer; I don’t like raw fish. It doesn’t matter to me what any particular seagull thinks of me. I remember the boredom of learning Irish from felt figures stuck on a board. I am standing on the shore watching these birds fall and sink.
I’m watching creatures that could in all ways be like me except this: they are not standing on the shore watching themselves sink. They don’t know what it’s like to wear clothes, to not have feathers, to like chocolate, coffee, beer, and to not like raw fish. Seagulls lack knowledge that I myself possess. I do not know what it is like to lack this knowledge. I do not know what it is like to know nothing of my own life.
(For what it is worth, I think this is buried in some of Nagel’s talk about people hanging upside down, yet not knowing what it’s like to be a bat.)
This is also true of you and me. I don’t know what it is like to be you, or you me. Even if you read these accounts of my life, or you tell me parts of yours, you won’t know what it is like to be me — because part of knowing that requires you to forget what it is like to be you.
If I could perfectly share with you my point of view, because my point of view is limited and does not include yours, you would need to lose your own point-of-view. If I were to become a seagull, I would need to forget to become me.
The Difference in Time
Another less forbidding difference between my perspective and those of other animals is in my sense of time. Animals’ sense of time may be very different to our own, and this difference alone may make them baffling to us.
My friend Kevin lives near Glendalough, way out in the Irish countryside, married to my school friend Joan. For years I’d come stay with them in their house; we’d drink wine, watch Gilbert & Sullivan, Morse, Hammer Horrors, talk about nature. Joan and Kevin’s is where I learned indifference to spiders; there were just too many of them in the room where I slept.
One night, a bit drunk, Kevin and I wandered into their bathroom. It was crowded with house spiders. By ‘house spiders’ I mean what lots of Irish folks call ‘daddy long-legs’ (I don’t because that’s what I call crane-flies). Kevin and I got talking. He pointed at the spiders on the walls and drew my attention to the main cluster. They were around a female spider with a large dark egg sack in her mandibles. She was much bigger than the rest. Two males were cautiously stalking her and each other. But on other walls, there were lots of other spiders. These were also males drawn by the smell of the female spider but not competing for her attention.
Kevin told me they could keep all night at this mating, stalking, and clustering. He added this: when he lived in his old house, before he met Joan, he came into his bathroom at night and saw harvesters fighting. Harvesters are a kind of insect with four long translucent legs, like house spiders. They were on the rim of his bathtub. They had their front legs raised and locked against each other, and were pushing at each other. First, one moved back, then the other moved back; they kept doing this. They didn’t slow down, take a break, stop. Just: over and back, over and back.
Kevin went to bed. Next morning, he came back into the bathroom and there they still were: over and back, over and back, legs locked still in competition.
I moved back to Cork a couple years ago and lots of wolf spiders came into my room. I learned something by watching them. Wolf spiders can stay very still for long periods of time, then suddenly move, and be gone.
There was a wolf spider beside my lamp. I got up in the morning. There it was. I went to work. I came back nine hours later. There it still was. Then I moved something on the desk and it – vanished. I didn’t see it again. But, that night, with the light off, every so often I heard it scuttling around the floorboards.
Similarly, the year before last, at about 9pm each evening, a wolf spider would appear near the dining room curtain in my folks’ place. It wouldn’t move for hours. But it would always be gone in the morning.
Now, it is possible that all these creatures — invertebrates in this case — get up to regular activity when we’re not around. The harvesters take a break, go for a wander, look for food. Or the wolf spiders wait until no humans or similar animals are around, then hunt inside the rooms they occupy.
However, it’s worth asking why we should think that. What is it we think they must do in the time we spend away from them? Perhaps they do nothing. Perhaps their experience of these periods are like the brief moments between our eye blinks. It is not sleep but simply: nothing. There is nothing it is like for them to undergo this particular change — or, we might say, to pass through this particular period of time.
One of the difficulties with imagining this is we think of ourselves as constantly aware of time while we are awake. If I imagine the period between getting on the bus tomorrow and getting to work — about 90 minutes — I imagine myself experiencing all of that time.
I also imagine myself as having a state similar to what I’m in now: aware of the time I’m living through and also of past time (breakfast earlier today, last week on the beach) and in some way future time (going to work tomorrow morning, and every day after).
However, am I aware of all of the moments in my past and future, all the experiences I go through during my waking times? Am I aware of my breathing three seconds ago, or my thoughts at 7am this morning? It might seem that I can bring up a sense that I am or, if pressed, that I should be. But I don’t know if I am, really.
This brings me back to the seagulls on the surf: one of the difficulties of understanding these seagulls is that I imagine a certain state of consciousness they possess in lifting and falling. When I imagine that, I can’t help thinking of them as bizarre and alien. They lift up out of the surf as it rolls back, then settle over and over. It seems exhausting and confusing. Why would they settle when they do, and lift when they do? What state are they pursuing by their activity? What is going through their minds?
There may be something going through their minds, even as they lift and fall. I don’t believe that animals cannot be conscious, cannot have a point-of-view, cannot have subjectivity, or a what-it-is-like. However, that doesn’t mean they must experience every instance of their rising and falling.
Perhaps it is this: the seagulls feel their rise and fall like we feel breathing, heartbeats, or even eye blinks. Although there may be an experience to it, doing it over and over is not boring or bizarre. It is simply something that they do.
When the birds finally settle, the moments they spent to get there may be like a single moment.
Alternatively, there is something arduous to it, and it feels like a long time for them. My point is: I don’t know.
Why I don’t know brings my final point: my trouble with consciousness is that I’m not sure how to sort between unconsciousness and consciousness in other things. For example, I’m not sure how to sort between the activities in another being that are like eye blinks and the activities that are like visual experiences of looking. With eye blinks and looking, I can do it because I am aware of those activities in myself. I project the differences in me onto others. I know I’m not aware of my own eye blinks; I project on to you that you’re not aware of your own eye blinks.
But: with seagulls dipping? Spiders and harvesters competing? What do I do with them? How do I even divide consciousness from unconsciousness?
Indeed, even with other people, what I think may be an unconscious activity may not be. I see someone blink rapidly, and take it as a sign of insecurity or flinching. Yet, they are acting the blink, fully aware of doing it. One person or thing’s unconscious act may be another’s fully conscious practice or ritual.
A lot of other activities can be physically matched but not consciously matched. I need something else to grasp whether or not another creature’s behaviour is conscious or not.
One thing I think could help with this: we might get a better account of other creatures’ perspectives if we take into consideration the possibility that there are significant differences in different creatures’ experiences of time.