What Does It All Mean?

book by Thomas Nagel

What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy is a 1987 book by Thomas Nagel.

Quotes edit

  • Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn't rely on experiments or observation, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.
    • 1. Introduction
  • If you think about it, the inside of your own mind is the only thing you can be sure of.
    • 2. How Do We Know Anything?
  • The most radical conclusion to draw from this would be that your mind is the only thing that exists. This view is called solipsism. It is a very lonely view, and not too many people have held it.
    • 2. How Do We Know Anything?
  • There is one special kind of skepticism which continues to be a problem even if you assume that your mind is not the only thing there is -that the physical world you seem to see and feel around you, including your own body, really exists. That is skepticism about the nature or even existence of minds or experiences other than your own.
    So the question is: what can you really know about the conscious life in this world beyond the fact that you yourself have a conscious mind? Is it possible that there might be much less conscious life than you assume (none except yours), or much more (even in things you assume to be unconscious)?
    • 3. Other Minds
  • [T]here is also a philosophical question about the relation between mind and brain, and it is this: Is your mind something different from your brain, though connected to it, or is it your brain? Are your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and wishes things that happen in addition to all the physical processes in your brain, or are they themselves some of those physical processes?
    • 4. The Mind-Body Problem
  • Physicalists believe that nothing exists but the physical world that can be studied by science: the world of objective reality. But then they have to find room somehow for feelings, desires, thoughts, and experiences -- for you and me -in such a world.
    • 4. The Mind-Body Problem
  • Words are mostly used in talking and writing, rather than just as labels.
    • 5. The Meaning of Words
  • Definitions can't be the basis of meaning for all words, or we'd go forever in a circle. Eventually we must get to some words which have meaning directly.
    • 5. The Meaning of Words
  • This is an idea of "can" or "could have" which we apply only to people (and maybe some animals). When we say, "The car could have climbed to the top of the hill," we mean the car had enough power to reach the top of the hill if someone drove it there. […] But when it comes to people, we seem to think that they can do various things they don't actually do, just like that,without anything else happening differently first. What does this mean?
    • 6. Free Will
  • This is a funny question: we all know what it means to dosomething. But the problem is, if the act wasn't determined in advance, by your desires, beliefs, and personality, among other things, it seems to be something that just happened, without any explanation. And in that case, how was it your doing?
    • 6. Free Will
  • The ideas of wrong and right are different from the ideas of what is and is not against the rules. Otherwise they couldn't be used in the evaluation of rules as well as of actions.
    • 7. Right and Wrong
  • There are many philosophical problems about the content of morality -- how a moral concern or respect for others should express itself; whether we should help them get what they want or mainly refrain from harming and hindering them; how impartial we should be, and in what ways. I have left most of these questions aside because my concern here is with the foundation of morality in general -- how universal and objective it is.
    • 7. Right and Wrong
  • The world is full of inequalities -- within countries, and from one country to another. Some children are born into comfortable, prosperous homes, and grow up well fed and well educated. Others are born poor, don't get enough to eat, and never have access to much education or medical care. Clearly, this is a matter of luck: we are not responsible for the social or economic class or country into which we are born. The question is, how bad are inequalities which are not the fault of the people who suffer from them? Should governments use their power to try to reduce inequalities of this kind, for which the victims are not responsible?
    • 8. Justice
  • The fear of death is very puzzling, in a way that regret about the end of life is not. It's easy to understand that we might want to have more life, more of the things it contains, so that we see death as a negative evil. But how can the prospect of your own nonexistence be alarming in a positive way? If we really cease to exist at death, there's nothing to look forward to, so how can there be anything to be afraid of? 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 terrifying transformation. But that doesn't prevent many people from thinking that annihilation is one of the worst things that could happen to them.
    • 9. Death
  • The problem is that although there are justifications and explanations for most of the things, big and small, that we do within life, none of these explanations explain the point of your life as a whole -- the whole of which all these activities, successes and failures, strivings and disappointments are parts. If you think about the whole thing, there seems to be no point to it at all. Looking at it from the outside, it wouldn't matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won't matter that you did exist.
    • 10. The Meaning of Life