Thomas Nagel's Analysis


In the book, "What Does It All Mean?" Thomas Nagel discusses the standard issue in the humans' lives that people use subjectivity to define them. He analyses these commonly held beliefs by use of both subjectivity and objectivity so as to determine the reality behinds them. Among the issue that he addressed include humans ability to recognize what is real, the importance of the human life, and the ability that humans have in making their choices (Nagel, 3). This paper will thus analysis some of the topic included in this book which will include, how do we know anything, the humans' free will, and the meaning of life. The paper will also compare the author's main arguments that that of other philosophers in finding a common point of argument.


How Do We Know Anything?

In chapter two of his book, Nagel focuses on what is the reality that humans know about in their lives. He addresses the issue by looking at the objective and the subjective perception that exist in humans societies when they determined what they know to be true. His main argument is that the only thing that is real to the humans is what is on their mind because that is the only component that they have a direct experience about (Nagel, 8). The rest cannot be determined to be true because even their existence remains unknown the human minds.

In support of his argument, Nagel used the idea of the dream to demonstrate that nobody had a full awareness of the reality beyond their minds. He wrote that when dreaming, people experience an external world, in which physical features like the trees, sun and moon are felt and seen. However, in humans reality, the dream is just an illusion of one's mind because all those physical features do not exist (Nagel, 11). However, Nagel takes a deeper meaning of this statement and argues that just because people believes that dreams are real when they dream, it could also be true in the real life situation. Maybe human’s life are created in one big dream that they perceive all these things and yet they do know that they are dreaming. He states that there might not be an existence of any external world, and all this occurrence appears to individuals, only in their mind.

Nagel finds that his initial focus on a reality of the outer world was more solipsism, and thus he attempted to redirect the initial assumption to skeptical point of view. In this new direction, Nagel assumed that humans do not know anything beyond their impressions and experiences. In that case, he wrote that external world could or cold not exist, and if it existed then it appearance could be similar or entirely different from what humans perceive it to be now (Nagel, 15). He thus concluded that even with skepticism, the reality of the external world was still not reliable, and thus only the content of the mind that seem to be real in all situations.

To demonstrate that the content of mind was the only thing humans could prove to be real, he used the minds of individual with mental illness. Those individual who have mental problem fails to identify themselves as ‘self' and thus they are perceived to be dead inside. They cannot recognize anything in their life; hence, they live in a world of illusion (Nagel, 16). If this is true, then it is conclusive that human with the normal mind, cannot also believe what is in their mind because once they lose that, they became complexly dead inside.

The work of René Descartes appeared to have influenced the argument made by Nagel because he also comes to the same conclusion when answering the question "how do we know anything?" In this work, Descartes started by doubting everything he knew, because the ordinary human experience was not enough to prove that what he knew was real. With his initial assumption, then everything to him was not true even his body, minds or his own through. However, he realized that despite assuming all these things were not true, there was only one feature that remains real to him. His mind continued to think no matter what, and thus thinking was true (Descartes, 56). If he could think, then even his mind was also present and real at the same time. However, apart from that, he did not find anything to be genuine or actual, and thus he concluded that he only know what is in his mind.

Apart from Descartes, the work of Nagel could also have been influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche concerning the question "how do we know anything?" He also came to the same conclusion that the mind was the only thing that appeared real as thinking continued no matter the circumstance. However, he took a much deeper meaning that Descartes as he did not believe the body and the mind or thinking were the same things. The thoughts were independent of the body because even the body and the mind existence was not even known. In his last statement, he stated that it thinks and thus it is real (Nietzsche, 43). The conclusion was in line with Nagel, who only saw the real thing was content inside the mind and not even the mind itself. Apart from evaluating the reality, Nagel also evaluated the free will in human beings as analysed below.

Free Will

In chapter six of his book, Nagel addressed the issue of free will that human beings purports to have when they make their choices. The main problem with the author is that he finds it hard to define free will because he finds himself torn between the two aspects that define why certain actions happened they the way they did. First, Nagel argues that his actions are determined in advance by a determinist force; hence, he makes choices concerning these forces (Nagel, 47). However, he disagreed with this notion because it made him feel trapped, and made him perceive other people like puppets who just followed their deterministic orders. On the second aspects, the author observed that his choices might come from his responsibility. But also he failed to agree on this because his responsibility must also have a determinate.

To demonstrate the above problem, Nagel uses the example of a cake and a peach to argue why it is hard to examine the free will in human beings. He states that when one wants a dessert of which the available choices are cake, which is sugary and has a possibility of causing fatness, and a peach he has to make a choice (Nagel, 48). However, when one ends up choosing the cake, he may say afterward that he would have opted for the cake. To Nagel, the idea that he would have opted for the peach is absurd because he had a choice but he did not choice it. However, if he wanted the peach but picked the cake that means his action was determined in advance.

To argue the case of deterministic force, he states that even the sunrise is already determined in advance at all time by the earth forces, and so is human choices determined by universal law. It thus means that human has no free will, but end up choosing what is already committed to them by a deterministic force which followers the sequences of past pattern (Nagel, 52). In that case, it is not an individual choice to choose a cake as it was already determined by events that took place many years ago.

To elaborate further on his problem, Nagel loses his focus on deterministic force and argues that his actions only happen due his responsibility. For example, he states that a person choices a cake and not a peach because his appetite at that period demanded a cake; hence the choice was instance and based on the circumstance at that time (Nagel, 57). However, Nagel does not accept the idea because even the appetite needed to be determined by something in advance, and if it needed no determinate, then they were no sense in that case. It is from that above scenario that the Nagel feels that the free will cannot fully understand where there is a deterministic force or its just human's responsibility.

Benjamin Libet, a philosopher, also agrees with the same account of free will give by Nagel, which further open the understanding of Nagel problem. He specifically conducted an experiment to determine if the action of free voluntary. His findings were that the initial response to a choice stated from the unconscious mind and thus humans did not have any ability to determine their initial choices. There was a determinist force that was operating within their unconscious mind which was responsible for their decision, a law that Libet describes as the law of nature (Libet, 562). The finding from Libet, however, show that the outcome of a free choice was not necessarily be determined by the unconscious mind because conscious actions later influenced there. On his part, the biggest problem that Libet faced was to explain whether the intentional actions that affect the outcome were also deterministic or originated from nowhere.

Another philosopher who may have inspired the work of Nagel is David Hume, who differentiated necessity from free will in human lives. In his work, Hume stated that people always followed a particular behavior of life which always called for similar outcomes at all times, and it was not the work of necessity to determine results. It is within the human nature to behave in a particular manner, and thus, behavior are not necessarily defined by an individual because they are have been done for centuries in a repetitive manner. Humes thus concluded that there is a law of nature that determines human actions and choices, and there is nothing life liberty to choices because decisions are made long before an individual take an action (Hume, 34). Hume thus gave more weight to the conclusion attained by Nagel in his work. Apart from free will, Nagel also addresses the meaning of life as analysed below.

The Meaning of Life

In the last chapter of his work, Nagel focuses on the topic of the meaning of life. The topic has been a central concern of most philosophy as the importance of life remains mystery to most of them. In his part, Nagel primary focus is to address where life has any meaning, or it is just a meaningless to the humans (Nagel, 95). However based on his knowledge and understanding of life, he concludes that life is meaningless and absurd in nature because it is always perceived from both the objective and the subjective point of view. These two perceptive brings confusion to the humans and thus at the end they result in the conflict which leads to absurdness in the meaning of life.

To demonstrate his main arguments, Nagel explains how life is viewed both from an objective point of view and a subjective point. In the individual perceptive, he explains that humans perceived their life as important and justified based on their understanding of basic life. It is through subjectivity that people understand themselves to be important because their lives matters to other, and thus they should also matter to them (Nagel, 97). In this view, people always give meaning to their life by attaining more education, attaining more wealth and having children with better life. When all this is done, then humans can see sense in their need to live, but for Nagel, all this are subjective reasons which cannot answer why people have to live rather than be dead.

To explain more on subjectivity approach on the meaning of life, Nagel addresses the issue of God as the primary reason that people lives. According to religion leaders and other scholars, people lives so that to fulfil a higher purpose which comes from the God. The argument is that people life on earth will determine their afterlife, and hence, the lives they lead in the land is importance as it will determine what will be their tomorrow destiny (Nagel, 98). However, according to Nagel, this also do not appear to be objective because the whole point of the existence of God also brings question on the meaning of life. He explains that is God exist, and that people live to be awarded an afterlife by the God, then what is the importance of that afterlife. If there is no answer to the importance of afterlife, then even the need to live for God purpose is not importance but subjective.

In the objective perceptive, Nagel finds that human lives because of been lucky to have lived, and they have no proper reason to explain why they live. From birth, the idea of life appear to be pre-planned by nature itself and thus people are just lucky to be part of that system. There is no ultimate goal in life because after all, everybody will die in the next 200 years, and also all humans efforts will also come to an end when the earth comes to a close (Nagel, 99). If that is true, then humans should not focus on finding the meaning of life because there are just favoured to be living even without any meaning.

It is from this two focus that Nagel finds a lot of conflicts when they both take at the same time. He observes that when people view life in a subjective manner, they gains some understanding of their significant in life, however, when they focus on objectivity, they losses that meaning which now make life to be absurd (Nagel, 101). From the definition of meaningful life, it is a life that makes humans to feels significant; however, an absurd life does not make people valuable; hence, life is meaningless.

Other philosophers who have written on this issue took a different direction from Nagel as some of them focused on the subjective perceptive as the most important aspect in defining the meaning of life. For example, Robert Audi argued that those things that bring happiness to life are the one which explains the meaning of life (Audi, 350). He thus concluded that the meaning of life delivered from the rewards and the intrinsic pleasure of human life; hence, humans must strive to be happy so that the can give meaning to their lives here on earth.

Plato, another famous ancient philosopher, argued that goodness was the primary determinate of the meaning of life. He wrote that people should always seek to gain the highest level of knowledge in their lives because this experience can be equated to the idea of good. The aspect of good was useful to life because from goodness, things gain their usefulness and value, and so do life increases it meaningfulness (Russell, 77). The conclusion of Plato on the meaning of life was that life was only meaningful if human attained higher knowledge in the form of the Good.


In conclusion, the documentation above has given a detailed analysis of the book "What Does It All Mean?" based on the topics, how do we know anything, the humans' free will, and the meaning of life. It has also compared Nagel conclusions with those of other philosophers with an aim of finding more understanding to the topics. It has been concluded that what is inside the mind is the only thing that is real in response to how do we know anything? On the issue of free will, it has to be determined that regardless of determinist or responsibility factors causing an action to occur, there do not necessary mean there is a free will. Lastly, concerning the meaning of life, Nagel tend to differ with most philosophers as he finds life to be meaningless and absurd.

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