Thomas Nagel

Thomas
Nagel
1937

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

Author Quotes

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.

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.

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.

Communitarianism -- the ambition of collective self-realization -- is one of the most persistent threats to the human spirit.

If one thinks about it logically, it seems as though death should be something to be afraid of only if we will survive it, and perhaps undergo some terrible transformation. But that doesn't prevent many people from thinking that annihilation is one of the worst things that could happen to them.

The denier that ID [intelligent design] is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.

Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable.

If sub specie aeternitatis [from eternity's point of view] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

The point is... to live one's life in the full complexity of what one is, which is something much darker, more contradictory, more of a maelstrom of impulses and passions, of cruelty, ecstacy, and madness, than is apparent to the civilized being who glides on the surface and fits smoothly into the world.

Consider how strange is the question posed by someone who wants a justification for altruism about such a basic matter as this. Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital with severe burns after being rescued from a fire. “I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,” he says, “and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic? How can his pain give me or anyone else looking at it from outside a reason? This question is crazy. As an expression of puzzlement, it has that characteristic philosophical craziness which indicates that something very fundamental has gone wrong. This shows up in the fact that the answer to the question is obvious, so obvious that to ask the question is obviously a philosophical act. The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic.

I'm actually surprised how well we've done. We've made more progress in the first 100 days of this one than any other joint venture I've been involved in.

The problem is one of opposition between subjective and objective points of view. There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality. But often what appears to a more subjective point of view cannot be accounted for in this way. So either the objective conception of the world is incomplete, or the subjective involves illusions that should be rejected.

Even if life as a whole is meaningless, perhaps that's nothing to worry about.

I'm not sure I understand how responsibility for our choices makes sense if they are not determined.

Author Picture
First Name
Thomas
Last Name
Nagel
Birth Date
1937
Bio

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