Thomas Nagel


American Philosopher, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University

Author Quotes

Those who have seriously criticized these arguments have certainly shown that there are ways to resist the design conclusion; but the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position — skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence — does not appear to me to have been destroyed in these exchanges. At least, the question should be regarded as open. To anyone interested in the basis of this judgment, I can only recommend a careful reading of some of the leading advocates on both sides of the issue — with special attention to what has been established by the critics of intelligent design. Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine — that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law — cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.

Though I shall for convenience often speak of two standpoints, the subjective and the objective, and though the various places in which this opposition is found have much in common, the distinction between more subjective and more objective views is really a matter of degree, and it covers a wide spectrum.

To make sense of interpersonal compensation it is not necessary to invoke the silly idea of a social entity, thus establishing an analogy with intrapersonal compensation. All one needs is the belief, shared by most people, that it is better for each of 10 people to receive a benefit than for one person to receive it, worse for 10 people to be harmed than for one person to be similarly harmed, better for one person to benefit greatly than for another to benefit slightly, and so forth.

We don't think of this as cable operators pushing a cell phone service. We want to leverage what Sprint has outside the home and create services and features so that consumers can take whatever media they have with them.

We will soon start moving toward a release mindset. That's new for the cable industry. There'll be a new release every few months. This will be a learning process.

When the objective self contemplates pain, it has to do so thought the perspective of the sufferer, and the sufferer’s reaction is very clear. Of course he wants to be rid of this pain unreflectively—not because he thinks it would be good to reduce the amount of pain in the world. But at the same time his awareness of how bad it is doesn’t essentially involve the thought of it as his. The desire to be rid of pain has only the pain as its object. This is shown by the fact that it doesn’t even require the idea of oneself in order to make sense: if I lacked or lost the conception of myself as distinct from other possible or actual persons, I could still apprehend the badness of pain, immediately. So when I consider it from an objective standpoint, the ego doesn’t get between the pain and the objective self. My objective attitude toward pain is rightly taken over from the immediate attitude of the subject, and naturally takes the form of an evaluation of the pain itself, rather than merely a judgment of what would be reasonable for its victim to want: “This experience ought not to go on, whoever is having it.” To regard pain as impersonally bad from the objective standpoint does not involve the illegitimate suppression of an essential reference to the identity of its victim. In its most primitive form, the fact that it is mine—the concept of myself—doesn’t come into my perception of the badness of my pain.

There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality.

There is no substitute for a direct concern for other people as the basis of morality.

I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.

Perhaps the belief in God is the belief that the universe is intelligible, but not to us.

A crucial determinant of the character of analytic philosophy—and a piece of luck as far as I am concerned—is the unimportance, in the English-speaking world, of the intellectual as a public figure. Fame doesn’t matter, and offering an opinion about practically everything is not part of the job. It is unnecessary for writers of philosophy to be more “of their time” than they want to be; they don’t have to write for the world but can pursue questions inside the subject, at whatever level of difficulty the questions demand. If the work is of high quality, they will receive the support of a large and dedicated academy that is generally independent of popular opinion. This is an enviably luxurious position to be in, by comparison to writers who depend for their status and income on the reaction of a broader public. Of course, there are plenty of silly fashions and blind spots inside the academic community, but in philosophy, at least, their effect has not been as bad as the need to compete for wider literary fame would be. I think arid technicalities are preferable to the blend of oversimplification and fake profundity that is too often the form taken by popular philosophy. A strong academy provides priceless shelter for the difficult and often very specialized work that must be done to advance the subject.

I have argued elsewhere against the various forms of reductionism-- behavioristic, causal, or functionalist-- that have been offered by those seeking to make the mind safe for physical objectivity. All these theories are motivated by an epistemological criterion of reality-- that only what can be understood in a certain way exists. But it is hopeless to try to analyze mental phenomena so that they are revealed as part of the "external" world. The subjective features of conscious mental processes-- as opposed to their physical causes and effects-- cannot be captured by the purified form of thought suitable for dealing with the physical world that underlies the appearances. Not only raw feels but also intentional mental states-- however objective their content-- must be capable of manifesting themselves in subjective form to be in the mind at all.

Powerful as it has proven to be, this bleached-out physical conception of objectivity encounters difficulties if it is put forward as the method for seeking a complete understanding of reality. For the process began when we noticed that how things appear to us depends on the interaction of our bodies with the rest of the world. But this leaves us with no account of the perceptions and specific viewpoints which were left behind as irrelevant to physics but which seem to exist nonetheless, along with those of other creatures-- not to mention the mental activity of forming an objective conception of the physical world, which seems not itself capable of physical analysis. Faced with these facts one might think the only conceivable conclusion would be that there is more to reality than what can be accommodated by the physical conception of objectivity. But remarkably enough this has not been obvious to everyone. The physical has been so irresistibly attractive, and has so dominated ideas of what there is, that attempts have been made to beat everything into its shape and deny the reality of anything that cannot be so reduced. As a result, the philosophy of mind is populated with extremely implausible positions.

A view or form of thought is more objective than another if it relies less on the specifics of the individual's makeup and position in the world, or on the character of the particular type of creature he is.

I should not really object to dying were it not followed by death.

Pragmatism is offered as a revolutionary new way of thinking about ourselves and our thoughts, but it is apparently disabled by its own character from offering arguments that might show its suyperiority to the common sense it seeks to displace.

Absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, I hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

Private property is a legal convention, defined in part by the tax system; therefore, the tax system cannot be evaluated by looking at its impact on private property, conceived as something that has independent existence and validity. Taxes must be evaluated as part of the overall system of property rights that they help to create. Justice or injustice in taxation can only mean justice or injustice in the system of property rights and entitlements that result from a particular tax regime.

Again: with regard to evolution, the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations, and I believe it remains an open question whether this could have been provided in geological time merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation. It is no longer legitimate simply to imagine a sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes, as if their appearance through mutations in the DNA were unproblematic — as Richard Dawkins does for the evolution of the eye. With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available. And the coming into existence of the genetic code — an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions — seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone.

If God is supposed to give our lives a meaning that we can't understand, it's not much of a consolation.

Some people believe in an afterlife. I do not; what I say will be based on the assumption that death is nothing, and final. I believe there is little to be said for it: it is a great curse, and if we truly face it nothing can make it palatable except the knowledge that by dying we can prevent an even grater evil. Otherwise, given the simple choice between living for another week and dying in five minutes I would always choose to live for another week; and by a version of mathematical induction I conclude that I would be glad to live forever.

Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed… As I have said, doubts about the reductionist account of life go against the dominant scientific consensus, but that consensus faces problems of probability that I believe are not taken seriously enough, both with respect to the evolution of life forms through accidental mutation and natural selection and with respect to the formation from dead matter of physical systems capable of such evolution. The more we learn about the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of these chemical processes of life, the harder these problems seem.

If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it's ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously.

The appeal to reason is implicitly authorized by the [subjectivist] challenge itself, so this is really a way of showing that the challenge is unintelligible. The charge of begging the question implies that there is an alternative–namely, to examine the reasons for and against the claim being challenged while suspending judgment about it. For the case of reasoning itself, however, no such alternative is available, since any considerations against the objective validity of a type of reasoning are inevitably attempts to offer reasons against it, and these must be rationally assessed. The use of reason in the response is not a gratuitous importation by the defender: It is demanded by the character of the objections offered by the challenger.

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American Philosopher, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University