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What Does it all Mean?

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Thomas Nagel’s book “What Does it all Mean?” is a very brief introduction to philosophy for those who have little knowledge of its purpose. Philosophy can generally be understood as the process of people seeking to understand fundamental truths about themselves and their connections to the world and others. It is a thinking process in which a person critically evaluates and argues their answers to life’s most basic questions. It can be a bit difficult to investigate philosophy because the more simple the topic, the less tools available. A philosopher cannot take things for granted nor can he assume too much. In his book Nagel addresses nine questions relating to human existence and presents each one alongside flaws with the corresponding theories within his book. Philosophy differs from mathematics and science as it doesn’t rely on experiments or concrete evidence and is thus much harder to understand so I plan to start small and analyze three of the questions presented by Nagel. These include the questions of how we know that the world around us is real, if we actually have free will, and what the meaning of life is.

How Do We Know Anything?

In this chapter Nagel presents the question of reality: how do we know that anything outside of ourselves really exists? The idea of solipsism is the first one that Nagel greets us with, the idea that the inside of our minds are the only thing that we can be sure of. Solipsism is a much more radical form of the idea of skepticism in which it is believed that just because something cannot be proven does not necessarily mean that there is no justification in believing it. “Maybe you… are the only thing that exists, and there is no physical world at all— no stars, no earth, no human bodies.” (Nagel 11) All of our experiences are like a dream with no external world and any evidence of an outside world would come from our minds. Our minds are the only thing that we can be sure of but we cannot even be sure of our own pasts as our mind is the only thing allowing us to access our past experiences so how can we be sure that what we are remembering even happened?

Although this is an interesting view, I’m afraid I would have to disagree with it. How would you know that there is no world to observe without observing it? It is impossible to observe nothingness. If I were the only thing that existed and I were living in a dream world then why can I not simply alternate the universe around me? There is no foundation in this view as in order to appeal to logic and explain why one’s own mind is the only thing that exists would be to affirm what one refuses to believe. The senses are believed to be unreliable in terms of arguing against solipsism and skepticism but I believe that the senses are very important in arguing for the existence of an external world. That being said, it is important to also acknowledge that sometimes even science cannot be considered a reliable source without the reliability of the senses.

This does not only reference the traditional senses such a sight, taste and touch however. This is in reference to what one may call a sixth sense, our unconscious awareness of the world beyond ourselves. This idea can be linked to verificationism as it can be understood as a premise being considered meaningful if, and only if, it can be definitively determined as either true or false. Just as we are able to pay attention to events that we store away in our memories consciously, we are able unconsciously tap into memories formed by connections we don’t explicitly pay attention to. Our brain is able to learn that sound shadows correlate with someone or something moving past us or recognize a fake smile from a real one upon subconsciously analyzing context in which we have seen people smile in the past.

Unconscious awareness is not all learned, however, as it is believed that some of these responses are innate and hardwired into our brains. An example of this is a person being blind from birth. They have never been able to see the world around them but they are still consciously aware of the fact that there is a world around them. We cannot see oxygen, but we know that it exists because how would we otherwise live without it? Even when you can’t perceive how you sense something it is important to recognize there are scientific reasons to trust in your feelings and intuitions. Acknowledgement of the fact that we are aware of things, even if we aren’t consciously aware of this fact, is useful because such recognition can decrease harmful self-doubts.

Free Will

In chapter 6 of his book Nagel introduces the idea of free will alongside several different theories. Free will is basically saying that a person has the right to choose their own their own course of action. With the idea of free will Nagel presents the concept of determinism along with its implications. Free will essentially means that there are laws of nature in which a set of conditions before an action dictate that the action will take place regardless of any other recourse. Nagel seems to hold the position that if everything that people did was predetermined then they are essentially trapped and cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Though there may be some evidence to support the idea of determinism, I would like to believe that we are born to have free will. It is essential to recognize that there are serious repercussions that come with believing in a theory such as this one. Not only would free will not exist, it would be considered immoral to try to punish someone for their wrongdoings as determinism implies that it was already determined that the would commit such transgressions. Nagel injects the idea of causal determinism where our actions are determined by nothing at all with implications of psychological explanations. I agree that it is likely for there to be psychological reasons for a person’s actions being based around a sum of our past experiences paired with current circumstances. We evaluate a situation and in the end are the ones to make the final decision for what we think is the best course of action. We consciously choose which experiences apply to our current situation and how those factors would affect our present-day circumstances.

Free will could be linked to the ideas of freedom of action and moral responsibility. One should understand that while similar, freedom of will is not the same as freedom of action. Let’s say that Chloe wanted to eat an apple but they realize that she didn’t have any apples in her kitchen and is unable to get any at the moment. This is a scenario of a person having free will, because Chloe chose to eat an apple, but not free action, because Chloe is not able to eat the apple. With this distinction presented, it appears that in order for one to have freedom of action to execute an act they must have freedom of will.

The dominant view of the connection between free will and moral responsibility believes that if a person does not have free will then they thus are not morally responsible for their actions. Let’s say that Chloe was convinced to do an act that was morally wrong, such as robbing a bank, she cannot be held morally responsible as she did not do that action of her own free will. It is meaningless to assert that the existence of free will implies that things just happen for no reason. Free will is a fundamental feature of the world and as such cannot be analyzed.

The Meaning of Life

Nagel presents the idea of life and asks why we act in certain ways when life is considered meaningless in the end. We can’t live forever so we can only find the meaning of life within life itself and in order for our life to have meaning, it must be part of something larger. This “something larger” is most often pointed towards the existence of God or some other ultimate explanation but this does not entirely satisfy the question. The meaning of an ultimate explanation can be endlessly questioned, leading to a conclusion of life having no meaning. That being said, it is practical to accept that what one does matters even if life is inherently purposeless.

The external interpretation of life usually makes the claim that there is a realm to which life leads after death. Our life on earth is assessed by a being most often known as God, who assigns some reward or punishment after death. Life’s purpose and justification is to accomplish the expectations of God, and then to receive our final reward. “If God is supposed to give our lives a meaning that we can’t understand, it’s not much of a consolation.” (Nagel 100) Nagel appears to be unsatisfied by the religious notion of a deity as he thirsts for knowledge. He is not placated by accepting a unified worldview in exchange for being unable to rigorously question such a worldview. The internal view of meaning argues that meaning is best found in undertakings that benefit others or the Earth as a whole. The reward for these activities has to be found here, in the fulfillments that they offer within this life.

I believe that if we feel like we are working towards something that is significant and we are indispensable to other people, then we will feel meaningful even if when looking at the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter. According to William Shakespeare, “Life is a stage and we are the actors.” This perhaps acknowledges that life quite automatically tells a story the same way a play tells a story. We are more than just actors, however, we are the playwright too. As we act in the ongoing play called life, we are using our imaginations to write a new script. Life is therefore synonymous to storytelling. Thus, the meaning of life is in principle like the meaning of ‘the play.’ The meaning behind the reason for there being plays with playwright, stage, actors, props, audience, and theatre, not a single play with its plot and underlying values and information. The motivation of the play is self-expression, the effort of the playwright to tell a story. Life is a grand play written with mankind’s impressive creativeness with this same purpose.


After reading and inspecting the questions Nagel presented, many of which he left rather open ended, the conclusion that I can draw is that there are no true answers to any of the questions. Is there a world outside of who I am? Do I have free will? What is the true meaning of life? Each of these questions can be seen from an infinite amount of perspectives and can result in an infinite amount of conclusions. In the end, one’s own perception of the world around them is what determines their outlook on life. 

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