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Lecture

Nagel (Lecture Schemata 3)

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Department
Philosophy
Course
PHIL 1200
Professor
David Matheson
Semester
Winter

Description
3   Nagel:  Nihilism  in  perspective     Three  bad  arguments  against  an  immanent  meaning  of  life     Nagel's  Clash  of  Perspectives  Argument  against  an  immanent  meaning  of  life     The  life  of  irony     In  his  essay,  the  contemporary    philosopher  Thomas  Nagel  provides  another  case  in   support  of  nihilism—or,  in  his  terms,  in  support  of  the  view  that  life  is  "absurd."     (Why  think  that  when  Nagel  talks  about  absurdity,  he  is  talking  about  nihilism  in  our  sense   (i.e.,  in  the  evaluative  sense  that  life  is  not  worth  living)?  Because  he  very  quickly  starts   using  evaluative  terms  as  synonymous  with  his  talk  of  absurdity.  For  example,  he  treats  the   claim  that  life  (or  whatever  we  do  in  life)  is  absurd  as  equivalent  to  the  claim  that  life  (or   anything  we  do  in  life)  doesn’t  matter  (143)  and  to  say  that  something  doesn’t  matter  is  to   say  that  it  lacks  worth  or  value.  Hence:  life  is  absurd  (in  Nagel’s  sense)  =  life  doesn’t  matter   =  life  isn’t  worth  living  =  there  is  no  meaning  of  life  =  nihilism  (in  our  sense).)     Nagel  assumes  in  this  essay  that  there  is  no  transcendent  meaning  of  life  (presumably   because  he  thinks  that  there's  no  good  reason  to  believe  in  a  transcendent  realm  or  being,   or  because  he  thinks  that  the  problem  of  evil  provides  a  good  reason  to  believe  that  there   can't  be  such  realm  or  being),  and  hence,  in  effect,  that  Premise  2  of  the  Nihilist's  Worry  is   true.  Against  the  backdrop  of  that  assumption,  he  presents  a  novel  argument  for  why  there   is  no  immanent  meaning  of  life  either,  i.e.  for  why  (in  his  view)  the  likes  of  Premise  3  of  the   Nihilist's  Worry  is  also  correct.     First,  however,  he  considers  three  popular  but  (in  his  view)  bad  arguments  for  the  idea  that   there  is  no  immanent  meaning  of  life  (143-­‐44):     1.  The  Temporal  Argument.  “It  is  often  remarked  that  nothing  we  do  now  will  matter  in  a   million  years.”  (143)  Fleshed  out  a  bit,  the  reasoning  behind  this  thought  goes  something   like  this:     P1  If  there  is  an  immanent  meaning  of  life,  _______________________________________________________       _____________________________________________________________________________________________________       ____________________________________________________________________________________________________.     P2  Life  can't  have  consequences  that  reach  forever  into  the  future  of  the  immanent  realm     (because  there  will  inevitably  come  a  point  in  the  natural  universe  where  it  will  be  as  if     life  never  existed).   C   Therefore,  there  is  no  immanent  meaning  of  life.     Nagel’s  reply:  "Whether  what  we  do  now  will  matter  in  a  million  years  could  make  the   crucial  difference  only  if  its  mattering  in  a  million  years  depended  on  its  mattering,  period.   2   But  then  to  deny  that  whatever  happens  now  will  matter  in  a  millions  years  is  to  beg  the   question  against  its  mattering,  period."  (143)     In  other  words,  P1  of  this  argument  already  assumes,  inappropriately,  the  very  thing  that  it   is  being  used  to  prove,  viz.  that  there  is  no  immanent  meaning  of  life.  (The  immanent  realm   is  inevitably  such  that  nothing  within  it-­‐-­‐including  the  consequences  of  life-­‐-­‐lasts  forever;   to  require  that  an  immanent  meaning  of  life  involve  life's  having  everlasting  immanent   consequences  is  to  require  the  impossible  of  an  immanent  meaning  of  life,  and  hence  in   effect  inappropriately  to  assume  from  the  outset  that  there  can't  really  be  an  immanent   meaning  of  life.)     This  means  that  the  argument  "begs  the  question,"  i.e.,  has  a  premise  that  inappropriately   assumes  the  very  conclusion  it's  trying  to  prove.     2.  The  Size  Argument.  "What  we  say  to  convey  the  absurdity  of  our  lives  often  has  to  do   with  space  or  time:  we  are  tiny  specks  in  the  infinite  vastness  of  the  universe…".  (144)   Applied  to  spatial  considerations  (size),  the  argument  here  would  go  as  follows:     P1  If  there  is  an  immanent  meaning  of  life,  then  life  must  significantly  relate  to  the  entire     immanent  realm  or  to  a  very  large  swath  of  the  immanent  realm  (i.e.,  to  the  entire     natural  universe  or  to  a  very  large  part  of  the  natural  universe).   P2  Life  can't  significantly  relate  to  the  entire  immanent  realm  or  to  a  very  large  swath  of     the  immanent  realm  (because  life  and  its  consequences  are  just  insignificant,  small     parts  of  that  realm).   C   Therefore,  there  is  no  immanent  meaning  of  life.       Nagel’s  reply:  "…if  our  lives  are  absurd  given  our  present  size,  why  would  they  be  any  less   absurd  if  we  filled  the  universe?"  (144)     In  other  words,  according  to  Nagel,  the  first  premise  of  this  argument,  P1,  like  first  premise   of  the  previous  argument,  seems  inappropriately  to  assume  the  very  truth  of  its  conclusion.   Thus,  this  argument  also  seems  question-­‐begging.     3.  The  Instrumental  Worth  Argument.     Another  inadequate  argument  is  that  because  we  are  going  to  die,  all  chains  of   justification  must  leave  off  in  mid-­‐air:  one  studies  and  works  to  earn  money  for   clothing,  housing,  entertainment,  food,  to  sustain  oneself  from  year  to  year,  perhaps  to   support  a  family  and  pursue  a  career—but  to  what  final  end?  All  of  it  is  an  elaborate   journey  leading  nowhere.  (One  will  also  have  some  effect  on  other  people's  lives,  but   that  simply  reproduces  the  problem,  for  they  will  die  too.)  (144)     (Note  that  Nagel's  use  of  the  term  "justification"  (and  a  bit  later,  "purpose")  in  this  part  of   his  essay  is  meant  to  be  equivalent  talk  of  "meaning.")     To  capture  the  reasoning  of  this  argument  succinctly,  let's  first  introduce  a  distinction:   3     Instrumental  worth:  _______________________________________________________________________________     _________________________________________________________________________________________________________     else of worth. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________         Intrinsic  worth:  ____________________________________________________________________________________     ________________________________________________________________________________________________________.       Given  this  distinction,  we  can  now  represent  the  reasoning  of  this  third  argument  as   follows:     P1  If  there  is  an  immanent  meaning  of  life,  then  life  must  relate  to  something  immanent       that  has  intrinsic  worth.   P2  Life  can't  relate  to  something  immanent  that  has  intrinsic  worth  (because  nothing         immanent  has  intrinsic  worth;  immanent  things  can  only  ever  have  instrumental     worth).   C   Therefore,  there  is  no  immanent  meaning  to  life.     Nagel’s  reply:       …life  does  not  consist  of  a  sequence  of  activities  each  of  which  has  as  its  purpose  some   later  member  of  the  sequence.  Chains  of  justification  come  repeatedly  to  an  end  within   life  …    No  further  justification  is  needed  to  make  it  reasonable  to  take  aspirin  for  a   headache,  attend  an  exhibit  of  the  work  of  a  painter  one  admires,  or  stop  a  child  from   putting  his  hand  on  a  hot  stove.  (144)     In  other  words,  Nagel  is  claiming,  in  effect,  that  the  second  premise  of  this  argument,  P2,  is   false.  There  are  immanent  things,  he  claims,  that  can  have  intrinsic  worth,  e.g.  the  relief  of   pain  (by  taking  aspirin),  the  enjoyment  of  aesthetic  experiences  (by  attending  an  art   exhibit),  the  prevention  of  harm  to  others  (by  stopping  the  child  from  putting  her  hand  on   the  stove),  etc.     Having  dispensed  with  what  he  considers  to  be  three  bad  arguments  against  the  possibility   of  an  immanent  meaning  of  life,  Nagel  then  goes  on  to  present  what  he  considers  to  be  a   good  argument  for  this.  We'll  call  this  Nagel's  "Clash  of  Perspectives  Argument,"  for  reasons   that  will  soon  become  apparent.     To  understand,  and  succinctly  represent  Nagel’s  own  argument,  we  must  first  distinguish   between  two  different  perspectives,  or  points  of  view,  on  the  ways  in  which  our  lives  relate   4   (through  our  actions  and  the  situations  in  which  we  find  ourselves)  to  things  within  the   immanent  realm:     Internal  perspective:  the  point  of  view  a  person  herself  has  about  the  way  in  which  her   life  relates  to  immanent  things  (i.e.,  the  point  of  view  a  person  herself  has  about  her  ac
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