Most of you probably know about Thomas Nagel’s famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?” (article here), which denies a materialistic understanding of consciousness based on our inability to understand what a bat’s consciousness is really like. While philosophers have argued over Nagel’s thesis, there’s little doubt that, at least for the present, we have no way of getting inside a bat’s head to answer his title question. (I often wonder, while tending the ducks at Botany Pond, what it’s like to be a duck.)
While a bat’s mind is inaccessible for the nonce, that’s also true of any other creature, including other humans. We don’t know what it’s like to be Christopher Walken, for instance. But we can be pretty sure, based on the fact that the neuronal wiring and acculturation of humans in our society is fairly similar, and because we also can get self-reports from people, that the consciousness of our fellow hominins is pretty similar to ours. There are of course exceptions: people in vegetative or comatose states, people with severe mental illnesses, and so on.
Speaking of the latter, when I woke up in the middle of the night last night (I don’t sleep well during the pandemic), it suddenly struck me that I have no idea what it’s like to be Donald Trump—in a way that’s similar to Nagel’s question. More than most other humans, Trump’s inner life is largely inaccessible to me. That is, his behavior and mentation seems so alien compared to those of other people, that I have no idea what’s going on in that depilated noggin. Surely, though, he thinks that although he appears narcissistic, erratic, and foolish to most of us, he thinks he’s just fine—tremendous, as he says. He’s a “stable genius.” He surely thinks that it’s other people who are the problem.
The disparity between how Trump describes himself and how he comes across is greater than that of most people, though all of us have a self-image somewhat at odds with how we seem to others. It’s just that in Trump this disparity seems huge. And I wonder if others have entertained this same question.
As a determinist, I can’t fault Trump for making the wrong choices about what he does and what he says, or about who he’s become. That’s all a product of his genes and his environment and he never really had a choice in the ” libertarian free will” sense. But of course we can—and should—call him out for his behavior, because, though influencing the man himself is a lost cause, we might influence others to vote against him.
What is it like to be a Trump? I doubt that it’s pleasant given his obsessive monitoring of how people regard him and his frequent bursts of anger and invective. But I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d respond that he’s “perfect”, that “there’s nobody on Earth happier than I.”
So go the 2 a.m. thoughts during a pandemic.