Here’s a *very* short introduction to philosophy, published way back in 1987 but which I tracked down and bought because it was recommended by Edward Craig, author of that other short introduction to philosophy that I reviewed here. As Craig advises, this book by Nagel describes nine of the classic problems of philosophy without any historical perspective or mention of particular philosophers. And as Nagel says in his first line, “This book is a brief introduction to philosophy for people who don’t know the first thing about the subject.” Indeed. Well, I’ve gathered one or things so far about philosophy, so Nagel’s presentation did strike me as very basic. At the same time, Nagel occasionally allows himself to offer his own opinion about one or another still-contentious issue, and it’s interesting to see where he lands. (Particularly in matters touched on by Steven Pinker in the book I just finished.)

My take away from the book in general: science has, in fact, and just in the past few decades, resolved some of these matters, through investigation of the real world — and accomplished more than two thousand years of airy philosophizing.

And a follow-up thought, on 12 March: I wonder to what extent philosophy courses, or current book overviews on philosophy, remind the reader about the modern scientific discoveries that have superseded philosophical speculation, ancient and relatively modern. I’m guessing they don’t. They likely feel students or readers know enough about modern cosmology to understand that earth/air/fire/water speculation is curious but wrong. (Not about what’s real but about how early thinkers developed their ideas.) And what about mind/body dualism? No scientists has believed in “souls” for over a century. Does philosophy account for this? I’m guessing not. In this book, Nagel considers both sides of that issue, without mentioning science, and hedges. Other examples follow.

Subtitled “A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy”. Oxford, 1987, hardcover, 101pp.

So, a very high-level summary, of topics more than arguments. [[ With my comments in brackets. ]]

  1. Introduction. Nagel says basically what I summarized above.
  2. How Do We Know Anything? Echoing Descartes (without naming him): The only thing you can be sure of is the inside or your own mind. The extreme extrapolation of this notion is solipsism, and he invokes the alternative that maybe you came into existence a few minutes ago, complete with all your memories. But, he explains (as did Deutsch) that solipsism, once examined closely, is meaningless.
  3. Other Minds. Do others experience the taste of chocolate ice cream, or the color red, the same as you do? We assume so… but that’s only an assumption, as are our thoughts about whether other animals, or trees and rocks, think or feel. [[ Thought as reading this: this is a philosophical truism, yet we *do* know that colorblind people (and other animals) experience colors differently than we do; and we can understand this through understanding of the brain and mind. Also: the universality of how colors are *used*, e.g. the ‘hot’ color red is used for alarms and warnings, worldwide. So in a sense it doesn’t matter whether interior states of perceptions are the same, if people respond to those perceptions the same way. ]]
  4. The Mind-Body Problem. We can’t look at the brain, but science has concluded that our feelings and experiences reflect changes in the brain. Yet couldn’t the mind be something else? Thus the opposing stances of dualism and materialism. Author thinks “the reasons against a purely physical theory of consciousness are strong enough to make it seem likely that a physical theory of the whole of reality is impossible.” I’m pretty sure Pinker, and Wilson, would disagree. But then, Nagel is not a scientist…
  5. The Meaning of Words. How does a word spoken, or written, “mean” anything? Well — author goes on a bit too long about this — by social convention, of course. (There is no *inherent* meaning to any particular noise or squiggle.)
  6. Free Will. What does it mean to say, I could have done something different than what I did? The deterministic conclusion implies you can’t blame, or praise, anyone for what they did, since we’re not “responsible” for our own actions. Author wonders if free will is a philosophical illusion. [[ Still a contentious issue. But belief in free will may be, in Pinker’s terminology, an adaptation that serves to prevent people, given their intuitive thinking in other matters, from sinking into despair. That is: those who “believe” in free will get more things done than those who don’t. Even if it’s a false belief, as so many intuitive beliefs about the world are. Still need to read Sam Harris on this issue. ]]
  7. Right and Wrong. More than a matter of rules; it likely comes down to concern for others that you expect to be reciprocated. [[ Reciprocal altruism. ]] But are right and wrong different in other societies or at other times? Do they depend on circumstances? Author has trouble accepting this. [[ Here the answer comes again from evolutionary psychology. The moral sense evolved because it enabled cooperation with others to build towns and cities and all of civilization. So of course it shifts with circumstances and time. This goes to that hierarchy of morality again. That is: those who developed such a moral sense were able to cooperate, and got more things done, and thus survived in favor of, those who did not. ]]
  8. Justice. Life is unfair, for reasons imposed (racism, sexism) which we can correct for, and for reasons of circumstance (talent, inherited wealth) which societies may or may not try to correct for. Inheritance taxes, providing public resources, may work within a society, but these solutions are much more difficult to implement globally. And a world government would likely be horrible in many ways. [[ This is an area where simply looking at the evidence — the consequences of various social programs — should suggest which ones are better, or worth implementing. Except that so many people have firm “beliefs” immune to evidence. ]]
  9. Death. Survival after death keys off the mind-body problem. If a “soul” survives after death, how could it exist without support and stimulation from a body? Belief in an afterlife depends on faith. Still: how should we feel about death? Is it a terrible thing? We might fear it, or be relieved by it. The good things in your life come to a stop — but “you” won’t know it. Some people find the idea that the world goes on without them hard to take in. [[ My own feeling: I will regret dying if I haven’t accomplished the decades-long projects I’ve been working. But if they are finished, I’ll have a sense that “my work is done here,” and won’t mind. ]]
  10. The Meaning of Life. One common take is that nothing matters because in 200 years we’ll all be dead. Our achievements won’t last 200 years, let alone until the death of the universe. So what is the meaning of our lives? To accomplish something in relation to something larger? But why does *that* mean anything? You can ask the question again and again. (Like a 2-year-old asking endless “why”s.) Similarly if you appeal to God; what’s the explanation for God, and why is appeasing Him meaningful? [[ I recall the comparison to North Korea, in which the meaning of life is appeasing Glorious Leader. ]] You’re not supposed to ask. Author concludes the answer to this is: there is no “point,” and to realize that it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t exist. Some people are satisfied by this; others depressed, and retreat into faith. We take ourselves too seriously, author suggests, in our need to feel important. But perhaps this is an absurdity. Last line: “…if we can’t help taking ourselves so seriously, perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.”

My thoughts on this final point begin with my observation, partly in my essay, about the relationship between primitive perceptions of cause and effect, valuable for understanding the world but often leading to superstitions and animist thinking, and their consequences in the priorities of storytelling. Beginning, middle, end; problem, attempts to solve, resolution. Metaphor and analogy raise these relationships to a next dimension: things with causes and effects are similar to other things with analogous causes and effects. (Douglas Hofstadter wrote a whole book about analogy: Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, which I have but haven’t read yet.)

So isn’t “meaning” just an assignment of a desired effect to some kind of imaginary cause? Whereas the legacy of humanity’s growing understanding of the world in the past few centuries has revealed an impersonal cosmos devoid of what humans think of as “meaning” — because “meaning” is a construct for survival.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.