The Philosophy of Thomas Nagel

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Introduction

Nowadays, philosophy has ceased to be a privilege of sages. Indeed, everyone is occasionally engaged in it. However, without proper guidance delving into the depths of philosophy may prove to be difficult for an unprepared thinker. As a result, nowadays, there is a wide array of scientific works giving an insight into the primary philosophical problems. One of them is the book named What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel, which is, perhaps, the most concise introduction to philosophy. However, brevity is a sign of the ability to speak to the point. In his book, Nagel discusses the central questions of philosophy, for example, reality of the surrounding world, free will, mind-body connection, etc. The following essay is dedicated to analyzing the three problems presented in Nagel’s book, which include the issues of knowability, free will, and meaning of life.

The Surrounding World: A Fact or a Fiction?

In the second chapter of his book, Nagel raises the problem of knowability, namely by questioning reality of the surrounding world. Indeed, it can be just an illusion or a dream created by one’s consciousness. Of course, the existence of some things is considered undeniable but in case the reality is a dream, any arguments to prove its existence will be just a part of this dream. The most radical conclusion that one may draw on the basis of this information is that one’s consciousness is the only thing that exists, which reminds of the doctrine of solipsism (Nagel, What Does it all Mean? 11). However, skepticism as inability to know whether the surrounding world exists also plays an important role. In order to address this issue, it is required to analyze it through the prism of solipsism and realism.

As stated by Nagel, each human learns the world through their senses. Thus, they cannot be sure of the fact which has not been observed personally. For example, a spectator sees a car crashing into a telephone pole and forcing it to fall down. However, if he or she turns away from the scene being distracted by something else, he or she cannot be sure that the pole still exists, as it is not seen anymore. Some may say that in this case the pole, as well as the car, is in the state of quantum uncertainty, meaning it has not collapsed yet. However, from the point of view of a physicist, it will definitely collapse as quantum uncertainty is known to be inapplicable to macroscopic objects, such as telephone pole (Dew Jr. and Foreman 72). Nevertheless, from the standpoint of a solipsist, the pole will not collapse before one sees its fall with their own eyes, which is already quite absurd.

Another step in the discussion of the present problem is the question of how one may observe the mentioned event. The majority of people will say that it can be seen as light goes into the spectator’s eyes, creating a visual image of what is happening. However, from the point of view of solipsism, it may be just an illusion created by one’s consciousness. In this case, it is probable that both the event and the spectator observing it may be similar illusions created by someone else’s consciousness. The problem lays in the fact that an outside observer cannot confirm the presence of consciousness in another person, even the one who undoubtedly has it. The only entity where the existence of consciousness is obvious to a person is this person themselves. As a consequence, each person admits the existence of consciousness in the entities surrounding them due to the fact that they all belong to the same species and have the same way of perceiving the world (Dew Jr. and Foreman 34).

It is interesting to note that Nagel has written an article dedicated to the problem of consciousness and perception named “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and has become a classic in the study of consciousness. In his article, he points out that a creature can be conscious only when “something is” this creature, that is when the world is perceived from a subjective point of view of this creature. Any attempts to identify the mental phenomena to physical processes in the brain are unsuccessful due to their subjective nature, which, according to Nagel, is the very essence of consciousness. Therefore, no one can imagine what it means to be a bat which perceives the world with the help of echolocation organ that is absent in humans, along with such common senses as vision and hearing (Nagel, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” 436).

It is possible to add that one’s perception of the surrounding world may also be an illusion, but it still does not mean that there is no need to sleep, eat, work, etc., to continue living. Thus, even in case this world is an illusion, it is of a surprisingly stable nature. In fact, to be perfectly honest, it is impossible to argue that the apparent world is an illusion as it is not yet proved that the objects that are supposedly behind all the sensations do not exist (Valberg 54). Therefore, the illusory nature of the world is as much a fantasy as the fact that the world is real. Since the observed phenomena usually behave in a quite familiar and predictable way based on the people’s desires and habits to see and explain the events in a trivial way, it can be assumed that the models of reality created by one’s consciousness fit the reality itself in absence of the possibility to ensure the real state of things.

The Freedom and its Reality

The sixth chapter of Nagel’s book is dedicated to the problem of freedom of will. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the choices the people make in life are not predetermined to some extent. On the other hand, a complete determinism, meaning that each action or event is predetermined thus eradicating free will as a phenomenon, is too radical to be true. As noted by Nagel, it relieves people from any responsibilities for their actions, making even the most atrocious human deed no more than a natural disaster (Nagel, What Does it all Mean? 54).

By factoring out all sorts of unconscious processes, it is possible to discover both the freedom of will and the lack of it. For example, when selecting an ice-cream on the shelves, people are guided by their personal desires. There is nothing they cannot prevent, and their choice is the expression of their free will. In another situation, where there is a choice of either eating the last piece of a candy or leaving it to another person, there may be a predefined situation – one’s politeness sometimes narrows the field of selection.

From the point of view of psychology, freedom of choice is always there. In particular, Sigmund Freud presents the principle of total subordination of a human to the pursuit of pleasure, which has not been challenged yet (Vihvelin 32). The difference in the described situations lies only in the level of one’s awareness. In case of moral constraints, one can talk about the same free choice between the two pleasures, with the focus shifting from the desire to eat candy to a desire to look mannered.

According to this position, free will exists. The people choose what they want and follow their choice. Even in case some of the choices are imposed by external circumstances, in the back of one’ mind one can always find their own desires which will determine their choice. It is the basis of the idea of total responsibility for one’s own life, which is promoted by all psychological theories and is the criterion of normal development of an individual (Vihvelin 40).

However, there are paradoxes that make the concept of free will questionable. For example, Schopenhauer claims that a person is able to make a choice between the several desires arbitrarily, but it may be extremely difficult for them to choose what they really want (Vihvelin 52). Thus, even if it is possible to assume the existence of freedom of choice, people still face insurmountable constraint, namely the lack of any control over their preferences and desires. For example, during the Presidential elections, the voter makes a choice. Depending on their priorities, they choose a candidate based on their principles, logic, and civic protest and feel the freedom of self-realization. However, there is no explanation where these principles have come from, why it is important to use logical thinking, and, ultimately, whether they have chosen their personal traits or they have emerged independently. In this regard, it turns out that in case the freedom of choice exists, it does not change much, as every choice is predetermined by complex histories of people’s lives and is totally unpredictable in every situation (Vihvelin 53).

Thus, one may ask what people lose by giving up their right to have free choice. The answer is simple and terrible – by losing free will, people automatically lose the right to have individuality, merits, achievements, plans, and dreams (Vihvelin 14). Such a perspective frightens them, causing a resistance that is manifested in the endless philosophical disputes on the matter. Thus, the question of freedom of will remains open. Even if all the evidence is against it, there is still distinct subjective experience of freedom of choice. Even if people are deprived of any ability to make an objectively arbitrary choice, it does not relieve them of responsibility for everything that happens to them. It is not important what directs their actions – the will of God or a blind chance, as subjectively there is only one way to deal with it, which is to accept the universal inevitability, one’s own free will, and personal responsibility for everything at the same time.

The Meaning and Purpose of Human Life

The tenth chapter of his book discusses the meaning of life – the issue that has interested mankind throughout all its history. It is interesting to note that the author does not provide a comprehensive answer to this question, presenting different points of view on the matter. Indeed, the reflections on this subject may be quite close to some people while the others may have never thought about it. However, there are times when it is especially important to know what people are living for and what gives meaning to their lives. With answers to these questions, one receives an internal support, which gives them strength to live and cope with difficulties. Nagel provides two ways to answer these questions – materialistic and spiritual one.

Since their childhood, people are accustomed to the fact that they are surrounded by the things that benefit them. In case these things cease being useful, they are thrown away. For instance, people wear shoes until they are torn; use a pen until it is used up, etc. Thus, people are clearly aware of the nature of things: their presence and meaning are justified as long as they are useful. However, the same can be said about the world of people. The person feels comfortable and confident when they know that they bring benefit to someone, and the others need their work and knowledge (Eckstein 38). For example, a father cooks for his children that do not yet know how to do it. In this case, his cooking and, therefore, his existence have sense as no one else can replace him. Another example is connected with a person that possesses a certain set of potential talents and skills that can help other people, provided that they are developed to a sufficient level. In this case, such a development also becomes the meaning of one’s life as no other person can make this important contribution to the lives of other people. At the same time, this meaning of life is often undermined by the problem of mortality of a human being, as well as the small scale of the mentioned events. Indeed, Nagel notes that in case a person starts thinking of his/her role in life on a larger scale, it often loses all meaning as it is too transient and insignificant (Nagel, What Does it all Mean? 97). Thus, the question of the true meaning of life remains open.

Of course, there could be a religious way to address the issue of the meaning of life, where it is described as the one imposed on people by God. However, this approach is also not flawless. Indeed, in case the meaning of life is determined by an omnipresent and omnipotent being, one simply cannot interpret it (Thagard 74). For example, even the very concept of omnipotence cannot be grasped by a human mind, which is clearly illustrated by the following paradox: whether the omnipotent God can create a stone that is too heavy for Him to lift or not. Still, the omnipotence paradox can be solved by the fact that it cannot be formulated without a logical contradiction, which involves the subordination of God to the world, removal of the phenomena that is inherent in the world beyond its borders, or the absence of God. For example, in case of the discussed paradox, the logical contradiction lies in the fact that the terms “to lift” and “stone” are inherent in the world. Thus, God can create a stone that no one in the world can lift. However, God can lift it as He is not subordinated to the world and the process of lifting that is inherent in it. However, the people are not capable of extending their minds beyond the borders of the world, meaning they cannot understand God’s plans (Thagard 82). As a result, the issue of the meaning of life remains unaddressed.

Nagel reflects on this problem by stating that the idea of God being an ultimate explanation of the meaning of everything in the world is not satisfactory. Indeed, the idea of an encompassing entity that has no sense and does not require it is difficult to grasp. Moreover, it is impossible to seek the answer on its meaning from the outside world, as there is no “outside” in relation to it (Nagel, What Does it all Mean? 100).

Thus, it is clear that the true meaning of life is unexplainable due to the fact that one is simply unable to contain it in their mind. However, it should be noted that despite its ultimate inscrutability, this concept remains the one of a subjective nature, i.e. each person has their own personal meaning of life. The joy of having it warms a person, becomes a solid support, gives confidence, optimism, and desire to live, and improves and changes the world for the better. The person benefiting the others by their actions and way of life may not know a reliable answer to the question on the meaning of life because he or she does not think about it. Instead, it is possible to feel this meaning in the smile of a loved one, a word of gratitude, and each good deed committed. Such feeling is not to be rejected because, as claimed by Nagel, it will only result in the loss of self-confidence and personal stimuli – the wind that blows the people’s sails (Nagel, What Does it all Mean? 101).

Conclusion

The questions raised by Thomas Nagel have not lost their relevance until today. It should be noted that in his book, the author does not strive to provide the readers with comprehensive answers. Instead, he often leaves the questions unanswered and refrains from providing his personal opinion on the matter. Such neutral tone makes it clear that his primary goal is to make the readers find the answer on their own. Indeed, present essay uses the ideas of Nagel as a basis for the further analysis and discussion, often going out beyond the borders of pure philosophy as in the case of the problem of reality of the surrounding world. At the same time, some of the questions, such as the reality of world and the meaning of life, have remained unanswered due to their complex nature, while the freedom of choice issue was discussed basing on my personal opinion. Nevertheless, the review of Nagel’s work allows looking on the problems of philosophy through the prism of such sciences as physics and psychology, resulting in a unique experience.

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