In his book, What Does It All Mean, Thomas Nagel introduces the subject of free will. To demonstrate this topic of free will, he gives the example of choosing between chocolate and peach options. According to Nagel, this is the scenario in which free will is at work given that no force is making an individual to select one option over the other. Nagel asserts that our actions are determined by existing circumstances which make the actions inevitable (Nagel 34). This suggests that there are no other choices given other than to act according to the predetermined circumstance.
The chocolate and peach raise fundamental questions that call for explanation. Suppose it were not determined in advance that one would select the peach over the chocolate, and the individual reached the decision to choose the peach without explanation, how could that have been one’s own doing? Or if it was predetermined that the person would select the peach rather than the chocolate, how is it probable that one is able to reach such decisions if decision making should be alternative options?
The answer to those two questions lies in the concepts of free will and determinism. One may be driven by their own free will to choose the chocolate but their desires are influenced by some cause (Nagel 54). One’s desire to pick peach over chocolate serves as the motivating variable for the act of free will to be conducted (Nagel 45).
If people’s actions are predetermined, then they are not making the decisions and it is practically impossible to perform anything different from what has been determined in advance. There are forces (antecedent cause) that exist before one acts determine his/her action. This perspective is referred to as determinism. This concept holds that our actions and thoughts are ultimately predetermined by physical forces and the laws of the universe. Free will and determinism are incompatible. If our universe is deterministic, it means free will is not possible.
There are two aspects of free act including responsibility and autonomy. In his discussion, Nagel address the problem of autonomy. He does not buy the idea that people freely performing their actions is an illusion. For Nagel, people do not act all; rather it is the physical and natural law that acts through them (Nagel 43). Responsibility deals with what one could have done or could not have done in the first place. An agent can be held responsibility for the state of affairs which stem from the actions in which they are under control. If determinist holds true, then antecedent causes are responsible for human actions. But if determinism does not hold true, then nothing is responsible. There are people who believe responsibility needs that actions are predetermined. For example, when one chooses a peach, it was because the desire for it was greater. The idea of free act is incoherent. This is because free act is impractical regardless of whether the concept of determinism is true or false. Both determinism and indeterminism renders our actions unfree (Nagel 52). Moreover, free will needs self-regulation which is impossible to exercise. The fact that free will is incoherent, it means that the concept is meaningless.
Autonomy is similarly threatening to the concept if free will. “The problem of autonomy is the fear that the idea that our own actions are freely performed by us as agents is merely an illusion. We really do not act at all, but rather what we do is only what happens through natural and physical law” (Nagel, 57-58). For Nagel, the problem of autonomy leads to the situation of hopelessness of desiring something impossible.
Meaning of Life
In chapter 10, starts by refuting famous arguments by those who contemplate the meaning of life as absurd. Although Nagel accepts that life is absurd, he claims that inadequate reasons have been provided for thinking that life is not only meaningless but absurd. Them he gives reasons why he thinks human condition is absurd.
Philosophers suggest that human life is absurd since nothing human achieves matters in the distant future because well be dead and gone. This is a strange thought since it is not explicit why the idea that people will be dead in distant future should suggest that nothing they do presently really matters. It is true that people are struggling to attain their goals, but there is no logic if those accomplishments will not last. Nagel gives some examples to show why the arguments are inadequate. It is always suggested that nothing we achieve now will matter in two hundred years to come. But if that is the case, then by the same taken, equally nothing that will be the case in a thousand years matters now” (Benatar, 32). If this is the case, Nagel offers, then it remains that facts concerning the future matters nothing as well. For Nagel, this is inadequate reason for contemplating that human condition is absurd. People have the tendency of using the phrase human life is short to show that life is absurd. For Nagel, these considerations are irrelevant to view human life as absurd. He argues that living infinitely would not reduce the absurdity.
Nagel sees absurdity as within humans themselves. Although we engaged in our work, we journey via life with great seriousness, but we are able to expand our thinking and about our achievements as arbitrary. Immortality complicates human chances of discovering meaning in life as it “casts doubts on the ultimate significance of our projects” (Benatar, 54). Nagel does not consider immortality or human reason as redemptive.
Nagel also denies the argument that human condition is absurd because people cannot give ultimate justification or rationale for their action because of the fact that they will be dead in the distant future. He again refutes this reasoning because chains of justification do not need to continue indefinitely. It is suggested that one can study and earn income for paying food, entertainment, housing and clothing and support a family, but the final end is nowhere. Nagel’s response is that “life does not consist of a series of activities each of which has its purpose some later member of the chain”(Benatar 32).
Nagel views absurdity of human condition from a different angle. For Nagel, absurdity comes about due to discrepancy between the aspiration or pretension of human interactions with the world and the way our world is ordered (Nagel). People view their lives with seriousness, but they are also capable of stepping back and seeing that “everything they take seriously is open to doubt” (Benatar 34). Human lives are absurd due to the fact people live as if the doubts can be addressed
Taking our lives seriously entails aiming at greater things that survival and comfort. It means that one is committing himself to something big, “not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period” (Nagel 101). But seriousness seems to collide with the viewpoint from nowhere. If one attempts to view his “life 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” (Nagel 103). Yet one’s existence matters to his parents and friends who passionately care about him.
To evade absurdity, Nagel advises that we cease from taking human lives seriously. This seems to suggest our human condition is meaningless regardless of whether we are taking it seriously or not.
According to Nagel big projects fare the same as the small ones. For example, concern for state, family, intellectual innovation and revolution do not any fare well personal career (Belliotti 54).
Nagel believes we should respond to the absurdity of life with irony. This is because the absurdity of human condition is uniquely human. As humans, we have the ability to rise above and arrive at the cosmic perspective. He advises that absurdity should be approached with irony, acknowledging the discrepancy between what to be expected and what really occurs.
Nagel’s idea of the absurd can never be an inevitable part of our human condition, especially for those of us who are dedicated to religious theism. Moreover, the notion that human life is absurd relies upon human pretensions.
Belliotti, Raymond A. What Is the Meaning of Human Life? Amsterdam [u.a.: Rodopi, 2001. Print.
Benatar, David. Life, Death, & Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. Print.
Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.