Jewniversity corner: What makes life worthwhile?

The Meaning Of Life is what non-philosophers assume philosophers discuss. This month Jewniversity Corner looks at one who does: Thomas Nagel

March 09, 2018 12:17

What is the meaning of life?

You probably get that disorientating feeling, every now and again, that the ideas or ideology to which you are most committed, or the projects to which you are most dedicated, are in fact futile or worthless. Many reflective people will be familiar with the (hopefully fleeting) sentiment that life actually has no meaning.

The Meaning Of Life is what non-philosophers assume philosophers discuss. In fact, few of them do. But Thomas Nagel addresses it in his book, The View From Nowhere (OUP). The answer, reassuringly, is not 42 as suggested by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a terrific book. Whilst most philosophy books focus on one narrow topic, The View From Nowhere tackles many. And although it doesn’t provide a solution to traditional philosophical problems, it offers a brilliantly simple way of reframing them.

Nagel points out that a unique human characteristic is our ability to take a detached view of our lives and actions. We don’t just interact with the world instinctively. We can, as it were, look down upon ourselves, judge ourselves, assess ourselves, as though from outside our skins. We can take, what Nagel calls, a view from nowhere.

From this cosmic perspective, we may be struck by the thought that we are infinitesimally tiny dots in a vast universe. Or that we, and everyone else, is going to die. Our struggle to write that book, or promote that cause, or secure that deal, or pass that exam which a few minutes ago seemed so vitally important can all of a sudden feel absurd.

The fact that we have an inner and an outer perspective is at the root of many philosophical puzzles and tensions, suggests Nagel. Take ethics. Is it OK to harm someone for a greater good? From the objective standpoint we might conclude that what matters is the greater good, what is best overall. But the subjective view resists this: we don’t want to torture someone even to save a life, we don’t want to betray a friend to maximise the happiness of others.

Or take an issue philosophers feel compelled to contemplate - free will. Do we have free will? I certainly feel free. I feel free to order pizza or pasta in my local Italian restaurant. On the other hand, when I take the objective standpoint and consider that the world is subject to causal laws, scepticism about free will is likely to creep in. Presumably my choice to select the pizza over the pasta is governed by prior conditions, including prior beliefs and desires (that I find pizza tastier than pasta, for example). In what sense, then, is my choice really free? Free will seems like a trick, an illusion.

Or take another puzzle, how to account for and categorise the weird phenomenon of consciousness. On the one hand, the outer perspective wants to explain it in scientific terms, in the language of neurons and synapses. But our subjective experience does not seem to be reducible to science; a description in purely physical or material terms misses something. Nagel illustrates this in his most famous article, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? You can give a complete scientific description of how bats operate how they navigate, using sound like sonar, for example. But that doesn’t tell us how it feels to be a bat.

It’s difficult to know how it feels to be Thomas Nagel, not least because, although he has taught philosophy for decades, delivered numerous lectures and written regularly for the New York Review of Books he has given very little biographical detail away. He agreed to respond to a few questions from the JC. He was born in 1937 in Belgrade to German Jewish refugees, and arrived in the US in 1939. He was raised in and around New York but had no religious upbringing. I asked him whether he had a Jewish identity which he could summarise. To which he replied:

“I’m a Jew.”


David Edmonds is the host of Philosophy 247 

March 09, 2018 12:17

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