“What Does It all Mean?” by Thomas Nagel


This brief book, which intends to provide a very short introduction to philosophy, ends with a chapter on The Meaning of Life and concludes with the sentence, “Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.” This will surely be off-putting to most people, who just cannot imagine the possibility that life as a whole, and their lives in particular, might not have a meaning. If so, why bother to live? What’s the point? A possible answer to this, according to Nagel, is, “There’s no point. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything at all. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”

At the outset, I must say that this book is not for anyone who is religious and believes that all philosophical questions are answered by God, that God provides meaning to our lives, that we have souls that are immortal, that there is a heaven to which souls go to after they leave their physical bodies, that we are just instruments in God’s hands, that he is looking out for us, and that our lives have a higher purpose which comes from God. This kind of faith can provide an enormous amount of emotional support throughout life’s trials and tribulations, and people who have this faith are to be envied, but sadly, you cannot force yourself to believe in God any more than you can force yourself to like something you don’t.

Having recently lost someone very dear to me, I skipped to the chapter on Death. So much of what Nagel captures in this chapter resonated with me, especially the idea that there really is no reason to be afraid of death since we did not exist before we were born and will similarly cease to exist after we are dead. So why is non-existence scary? I had prided myself on having this brilliant insight long before I read this book, and while my “delusions of grandeur” have been deflated, I am gratified to see that this idea has also been recognized by others, as was evidenced in this book. Nagel, in particular, captures it very eloquently. Of course, he is talking about how people feel about their own death rather than how people feel about the death of their loved ones. Grief is a part of human make-up, and it would have been helpful to understand what philosophy has to say about it.

I did not find all the chapters as brilliant and compelling as Death and The Meaning of Life. For instance, there is a chapter on Free Will which sort of drags on, is very abstract, does not have any specific conclusion, and on the whole was not particularly insightful. Others in the same vein were the earlier chapters in the book on subjects such as knowledge and knowing, what words mean, and the connection between the body and the mind. On the other hand, the chapter on Free Will provides a good segway into discussing moral questions of Right and Wrong and Justice. If there’s so much in our lives that we cannot control (and some would argue that our sense of controlling anything whatsoever is a complete illusion), does it make sense to talk about morality and punish those who are “immoral”? It’s an ethical dilemma society as a whole has to deal with. There are no easy answers to any of these questions.

What Does It All Mean? is definitely a book that makes us think, and if we are open, to make us question the many assumptions we have about life in general, and our lives in particular.

What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy
Author: Thomas Nagel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1987

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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