Mr. Nagel's quarrel here is with the sort of extreme subjectivism and relativism which insists that all that we can know of existence is fatally infected by fact that it represents our own individual
perceptions: "The issue, in a nutshell, is whether the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." This is, of course, an ancient argument and the infection has
proved ultimately undeniable for even the greatest minds of previous centuries, so it's somewhat silly to think that his will be the "last word" on the topic, but Mr. Nagel does something unusually
forthright when he retreats to the redoubt of Cartesianism to make his stand in defense of reason. Descartes put it this way:
..I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it not follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of
something then I certainly existed. But [suppose] there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case too I undoubtedly exist, if he is
deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I
must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.
Here's how Mr,. Nagel interprets Descartes:
I would explain the point of Descartes's cogito this way. It reveals a limit to the kind of self-criticism that begins when one looks at oneself from the outside and considers the
ways in which one's convictions might have been produced by causes which fail to justify or validate them. What is revealed in this process of progressively destructive criticism is the unavoidability
of reliance on a faculty that generates and understands all the skeptical possibilities. Epistemological skepticism, like selective relativism, is not possible without implicit reliance on the capacity for
rational thought: It proceeds by the rational identification of logical possibilities compatible with the evidence, between which reason does not permit us to choose. Thus the skeptic gradually reaches a
conception of himself as located in a world whose relation to him he cannot penetrate. But skepticism that is the product of an argument cannot be total. In the cogito the reliance on reason is made
explicit, revealing a limit to this type of doubt. The true philosophical point consists not in Descartes' conclusion that he exists (a result much more limited than he subsequently relies on), nor even in
the discovery of something absolutely certain. Rather, the point is that Descartes reveals that there are some thoughts which we cannot get outside of. I think he was right ?? though I also think he
might have upheld the principle more consistently than he did.
To get outside of ourselves at all, in the way that permits some judgments to be reclassified as mere appearances, there must be others that we think straight. Eventually this process takes us to a level
of reasoning where, while it is possible to think that some of the thoughts might be mistaken, their correction can only be particular, and not a general rejection of this form of thought altogether as
an illusion or a set of parochial responses. Insofar as it depends on taking the external view of oneself, the discrediting of universal claims of reason as merely subjective or relative has inescapable
built-in limits, since that external view does not itself admit of a still more external view, and so on ad infinitum. There are some types of thoughts that we cannot avoid simply having ? that it is
strictly impossible to consider merely from the outside, because they enter inevitably and directly into any process of considering ourselves from the outside, allowing us to construct the conception
of a world in which, as a matter of objective fact, we and our subjective impressions are contained.
And once the existence of a single thought that we cannot get outside of is recognized, it becomes clear that the number and variety of such thoughts may be considerable. It isn't only "I exist" that
keeps bouncing back at us in response to every effort to doubt it: Something similar is true of other thoughts which, even if they do not always carry the same certainty, still resist being undermined
by considerations of the contingency of our makeup, the possibility of deception, and so forth. Simple logical and mathematical thoughts, for example, form part of the framework within which
anything would have to be located that one might come up with to undermine or qualify them ? and thoughts of the same type inevitably have to play a role in the undermining arguments
themselves. There is no standpoint we can occupy from which it is possible to regard all thoughts of these kinds as mere psychological manifestations, without actually thinking some of them. Though
it is less obvious, I believe something similar is true of practical reasoning, including moral reasoning: If one tries to occupy a standpoint entirely outside of it, one will fail.
Thought always leads us back to the employment of unconditional reason if we try to challenge it globally, because one can't criticize something with nothing; and one can't criticize the more
fundamental with the less fundamental. Logic cannot be displaced by anthropology. Arithmetic cannot be displaced by sociology, or by biology. Neither can ethics, in my view. I believe that once the
category of thoughts that we cannot get outside of is recognized, the range of examples turns out to be quite wide.
Having the cultural influences on our arithmetical or moral convictions pointed out to us may lead us to reexamine them, but the examination must proceed by first-order arithmetical or ethical
reasoning: It cannot simply leave those domains behind, substituting cultural anthropology instead. That is, we must ask whether the proposed "external" explanations make it reasonable to withdraw
our assent from any of these propositions or to qualify it in some way. The same thing is true whether the external standpoint is supposed to persuade us to withdraw a first-order judgment, or to
recognize its subjective character (or the subjective character of the whole domain) without changing its content. These are questions within arithmetic or ethics, questions about the arithmetical or
ethical relevance of the arguments.
So, beyond our own existence, the functioning of our minds and our inability to remove ourselves from the midst of certain thoughts within our minds must likewise be taken to be evidence that
they exist objectively.
The easiest example he offers to demonstrate this point is the idea that 2 + 2 = 5. One can use reason to argue that there may be other parts of the universe, or other universes, or other planes of
reality, or what have you, where this equation is true, but we can not in truth wrap our minds around the idea. It makes for a nice debating trick to propose that it could be true, and seems rational
on its face, but try for a minute or two to process the concept--you take two apples and you add two apples and you have five apples. Can't, can you? Now that does not in any conclusive sense
disprove the possibility, but it does suggest something of the limitations with which we approach thinking about any such questions. Subjectivism turns out to be at least as susceptible to the power of
reason as reason is to subjectivism.
That doesn't seem like a terribly satisfactory place to end up at, this eternal stalemate, but by this late date it does seem inevitable. We obviously do all accept, in practice, that we each exist and that
reason and mathematics and the like function and render truths. Nor, in our own minds, in our day to day lives, do we qualify this at all. But these are, when we take the time to dissect them again,
beliefs. Reason, so often set in contrast to it, is itself built on a foundation of faith. The following doesn't come from Mr. Nagel's book, but seems an especially lovely illustration of this fundamental
point. Here are two of the great minds in history grappling with these first questions, The Adams-Jefferson
Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams by Lester J. Cappon (Editor)
Adams to Jefferson (Montezillo, May 12th. 1820.)
The question between spirit and matter appears to me nugatory because we have neither evidence nor idea of either. All that we certainly know is that some substance exists, which must be the cause
of all the qualitys and Attributes which we perceive: Extension, Solidity, Perception, memory, and Reason, for all these are Attributes, or adjectives, and not Essences or substantives.
Sixty years ago, at College, I read Berkley, and from that time to this I have been fully persuaded that we know nothing of Essences, that some Essence does exist, which causes our minds with all
their ideas, and this visible World with all its wonders. I am certain that this Cause is wise, Benevolent and powerful, beyond all conception; I cannot doubt, but what it is, I cannot conjecture.
Suppose we dwell a little on this matter. The Infinite divisibility of it had long ago been demonstrated by Mathematicians--When the Marquis De L'Hospital arose and demonstrated that there were
quantities and not infinitely little, but others infinitely less than those infinitely littles, and he might have gone on, for what I know, to all Eternity demonstrating that there are quantities infinitely littles,
and he might have gone on, for what I know, to all Eternity demonstrating that there are quantities infinitely less than the last infinitely littles; and the Phenomena of nature seems to coincide with De
L'Hospitals demonstrations. For example, Astronomers inform us that the Star draconis is distant from the Earth 38. 000, 000. 000. 000. miles. The Light that proceeds from that Star, therefore,
must fill a Sphere of 78. 000, 000, 000, 000, miles in diameter, and every part of that Sphere equal to the size of the pupil of the human Eye. Light is Matter, and every ray, every pencil of that light
is made up of particles very little indeed, if not infinitely little, or infinitely less than infinitely little. If this Matter is not fine enough and subtle enough to perceive, to feel and to think, it is too subtle
for any human intellect or imagination to conceive, for I defy any human mind to form any idea of anything so small. However, after all, Matter is but Matter; if it is infinitely less than infinitely little,
it is incapable of memory, judgement, or feeling, or pleasure or pain, as far as I can conceive. Yet for anything I know, it may be as capable of Sensation and reflection as Spirit, for I confess I know
not how Spirit can think, feel or act, any more than Matter. In truth, I cannot conceive how either can move or think, so that I must repose upon your pillow of ignorance, which I find very soft and
consoleing, for it absolves my conscience from all culpability in this respect. But I insist upon it that the Saint has as good a right to groan at the Philosopher for asserting that there is nothing but
matter in the Universe, As the Philosopher has to laugh at the Saint for saying that there are both Matter and Spirit, Or as the Infidel has to despise Berckley for saying that we cannot prove that
there is anything in the Universe but Spirit and Idea--for this indeed is all he asserted, for he never denied the Existence of Matter. After all, I agree that both the groan and the Smile is impertinent,
for neither knows what he says, or what he affirms, and I will say of both, as Turgot says of Berkley in his Article of Existence in the Encyclopedia: it is easier to despise than to answer
Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am Ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.
We shall meet hereafter and laugh at our present botherations. So believes your old Friend,
Jefferson to Adams (Monticello. Aug. 15. 20.)
[L]et me turn to your puzzling letter of May 12. on matter, spirit, motion, etc. It's croud of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to
give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, 'I feel: therefore I exist.' I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I
feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter
and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it's
creator, as well as that attraction is an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called
thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tracts of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a
will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of
sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that
there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy
of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that 'God is spirit,' but he has not defined what a spirit
is, nor said that it is not matter. And the antient fathers generally, if not universally, held it to be matter: light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter. [...] All heresies being now done
away with us, these schismatics are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheists only in their belief that 'nothing made something,' and from the material deist who believes that matter alone
can operate on matter.
Rejecting all organs of information therefore but my senses, I rid myself of Pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations
hyperphysical and antiphysical so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes deceived, but rarely: and never all our senses together, with the faculty of
reasoning. They evidence realities; and there are enough of these for the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied
with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. I am sure that I really know many, many, things, and none
more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you shall be tired of it yourself.
When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; tho' such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen
and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning.
For with what confidence can I venture upon such bold enterprises, when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature? Can I be sure,
that in leaving all established opinions I am following truth; and by what criterion shall I distinguish her, even if fortune shou'd at last guide me on her foot-steps? After the most accurate and exact of
my reasonings, I can give no reason why I shou'd assent to it; and feel nothing but a strong propensity to consider objects strongly in that view, under which they appear to me. Experience is a
principle, which instructs me in the several conjunctions of objects for the past. Habit is another principle, which determines me to expect the same for the future; and both of them conspiring to
operate upon the imagination, make me form certain ideas in a more intense and lively manner, than others, which are not attended with the same advantages. Without this quality, by which the mind
enlivens some ideas beyond others (which seemingly is so trivial, and so little founded on reason) we cou'd never assent to any argument, nor carry our view beyond those few objects, which are
present to our senses. Nay, even to these objects we cou'd never attribute any existence, but what was dependent on the senses; and must comprehend them entirely in that succession of perceptions,
which constitutes our self or person. Nay farther, even with relation to that succession, we cou'd only admit of those perceptions, which are immediately present to our consciousness, nor cou'd those
lively images, with which the memory presents us, be ever receiv'd as true pictures of past perceptions. The memory, senses, and understanding are, therefore, all of them founded on the imagination,
or the vivacity of our ideas.
No wonder a principle so inconstant and fallacious shou'd lead us into errors, when implicitly follow'd (as it must be) in all its variations. 'Tis this principle, which makes us reason from causes and
effects; and 'tis the same principle, which convinces us of the continu'd existence of external objects, when absent from the senses. But tho' these two operations be equally natural and necessary in
the human mind, yet in some circumstances they are directly contrary, nor is it possible for us to reason justly and regularly from causes and effects, and at the same time believe the continu'd
existence of matter. How then shall we adjust those principles together? Which of them shall we prefer? Or in case we prefer neither of them, but successively assent to both, as is usual among
philosophers, with what confidence can we afterwards usurp that glorious title, when we thus knowingly embrace a manifest contradiction?
This contradiction wou'd be more excusable, were it compensated by any degree of solidity and satisfaction in the other parts of our reasoning. But the case is quite contrary. When we trace up the
human understanding to its first principles, we find it to lead us into such sentiments, as seem to turn into ridicule all our past pains and industry, and to discourage us from future enquiries. Nothing
is more curiously enquir'd after by the mind of man, than the causes of every phenomenon; nor are we content with knowing the immediate causes, but push on our enquiries, till we arrive at the
original and ultimate principle. We wou'd not willingly stop before we are acquainted with that energy in the cause, by which it operates on its effect; that tie, which connects them together; and that
efficacious quality, on which the tie depends. This is our aim in all our studies and reflections: And how must we be disappointed, when we learn, that this connexion, tie, or energy lies merely in
ourselves, and is nothing but that determination of the mind, which is acquir'd by custom, and causes us to make a transition from an object to its usual attendant, and from the impression of one to
the lively idea of the other? Such a discovery not only cuts off all hope of ever attaining satisfaction, but even prevents our very wishes; since it appears, that when we say we desire to know the
ultimate and operating principle, as something, which resides in the external object, we either contradict ourselves, or talk without a meaning.
This deficiency in our ideas is not, indeed, perceived in common life, nor are we sensible, that in the most usual conjunctions of cause and effect we are as ignorant of the ultimate principle, which
binds them together, as in the most unusual and extraordinary. But this proceeds merely from an illusion of the imagination; and the question is, how far we ought to yield to these illusions. This
question is very difficult, and reduces us to a very dangerous dilemma, whichever way we answer it. For if we assent to every trivial suggestion of the fancy; beside that these suggestions are often
contrary to each other; they lead us into such errors, absurdities, and obscurities, that we must at last become asham'd of our credulity. Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the
imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers. Men of bright fancies may in this respect be compar'd to those angels, whom the scripture represents as
covering their eyes with their wings. This has already appear'd in so many instances, that we may spare ourselves the trouble of enlarging upon it any farther.
But on the other hand, if the consideration of these instances makes us take a resolution to reject all the trivial suggestions of the fancy, and adhere to the understanding, that is, to the general and
more established properties of the imagination; even this resolution, if steadily executed, wou'd be dangerous, and attended with the most fatal consequences. For I have already shewn, that the
understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or
common life. We save ourselves from this total scepticism only by means of that singular and seemingly trivial property of the fancy, by which we enter with difficulty into remote views of things,
and are not able to accompany them with so sensible an impression, as we do those, which are more easy and natural. Shall we, then, establish it for a general maxim, that no refin'd or elaborate
reasoning is ever to be receiv'd? Consider well the consequences of such a principle. By this means you cut off entirely all science and philosophy: You proceed upon one singular quality of the
imagination, and by a parity of reason must embrace all of them: And you expressly contradict yourself; since this maxim must be built on the preceding reasoning, which will be allow'd to be
sufficiently refin'd and metaphysical. What party, then, shall we choose among these difficulties? If we embrace this principle, and condemn all refin'd reasoning, we run into the most manifest
absurdities. If we reject it in favour of these reasonings, we subvert entirely the, human understanding. We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all. For my part, know
not what ought to be done in the present case. I can only observe what is commonly done; which is, that this difficulty is seldom or never thought of; and even where it has once been present to the
mind, is quickly forgot, and leaves but a small impression behind it. Very refin'd reflections have little or no influence upon us; and yet we do not, and cannot establish it for a rule, that they ought not
to have any influence; which implies a manifest contradiction.
But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and
experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and
can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I
court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy
myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by
relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my
friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any
Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin'd to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course
of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and
papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy. For those are my sentiments in that splenetic humour, which governs me at
present. I may, nay I must yield to the current of nature, in submitting to my senses and understanding; and in this blind submission I shew most perfectly my sceptical disposition and principles. But
does it follow, that I must strive against the current of nature, which leads me to indolence and pleasure; that I must seclude myself, in some measure, from the commerce and society of men, which
is so agreeable; and that I must torture my brains with subtilities and sophistries, at the very time that I cannot satisfy myself concerning the reasonableness of so painful an application, nor have any
tolerable prospect of arriving by its means at truth and certainty. Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or
for my own private interest?
If John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and David Hume can't demonstrate that Reason is self-sufficient, but can get on with their lives on the basis of Faith, mightn't we all?
All of which brings us back to Mr. Nagel, who had, less eloquently, but perhaps no less convincingly, gotten us to the point where we accept that objective truths do seem to exist somehow. But it is
with that somehow that the book becomes especially interesting. For one of the truths that Mr. Nagel arrives us at is that moral reasoning is just as "fundamental and inescapable" as scientific or
logical reasoning. And, here's the question, why should that be? We can, after all, imagine a Universe in which, even though there were no sentient beings to note it, 2 + 2 = 4. Indeed, we can't not
imagine it. But why should it be that we know, just as surely, that it is evil to pick up a rock and cave in a brother's skull with it? Why should the Universe be structured in just such a way that we
humans can penetrate to its truths through reason, that we should have such reason available to us, and that this reason not only tells us things about how the Universe works, but how we should
behave towards one another? Damned curious, isn't it? Downright annoying, if you're inclined towards materialism, rather than Faith. For Mr. Nagel, as a matter of fact, it seems almost terrifying:
Even without God, the idea of a natural sympathy between the deepest truths of nature and the deepest layers of the human mind, which can be exploited to allow gradual development
of a truer and truer conception of reality, makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable. The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something
fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous, I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines,
social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something
much deeper--namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most
intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want
there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous
overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by
apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.
You can imagine how much fun the rest of the book is as he's forced to deny that moral reasoning arises as a mere function of evolution and tries to defend the idea of objective morality without
recourse to God--a project that's proven no less futile than the whole attempt to free reason from
subjectivity in the first place. Just this last chapter makes it worth reading the book
However, we are left with a question, that I've to admit vexes me greatly: if, at the end of the day, we're all willing to throw up our hands and accept such things as existence and reason on the basis
of faith alone and, if we do believe in objective morality but can't found it except upon God, then why not accept this too...on faith?