Thomas Nagel quotes:

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  • Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time.

  • Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable.

  • Common sense doesn't have the last word in ethics or anywhere else, but it has, as J. L. Austin said about ordinary language, the first word: it should be examined before it is discarded.

  • If we tried to rely entirely on reason, and pressed it hard, our lives and beliefs would collapse - a form of madness that may actually occur if the inertial force of taking the world and life for granted is somehow lost. If we lose our grip on that, reason will not give it back to us.

  • I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion. That world view is ripe for displacement....

  • There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality.

  • The point is... to live one's life in the full complexity of what one is, which is something much darker, more contradictory, more of a maelstrom of impulses and passions, of cruelty, ecstacy, and madness, than is apparent to the civilized being who glides on the surface and fits smoothly into the world.

  • The existence of conscious minds and their access to the evident truth of ethics and methematics are among the data that a theory of the world and our place in it has yet to explain.

  • Absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.

  • Altruism itself depends on a recognition of the reality of other persons, and on the equivalent capacity to regard oneself as merely one individual among many.

  • every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view.

  • I conceive ethics as a branch of psychology.

  • Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.

  • Nature is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds; and it is such as to be comprehensible to such beings. Ultimately therefore such beings should be comprehensible to themselves.

  • Both theism and evolutionary naturalism are attempts to understand ourselves from the outside

  • The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future--though all three, the consciousness, the knowledge, and the choice, are dispersed over a vast crowd of beings, acting both individually and collectively.

  • The human will to believe is inexhaustible

  • A person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous, unkind, vain, or conceited, but behave perfectly by a monumental act of the will.

  • A theory of motivation is defective if it renders intelligible behaviour which is not intelligible.

  • Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed.

  • equally real at all stages of his life; specifically, the fact that a particular stage is present cannot be regarded as conferring on it any special status.

  • Everyone is entitled to commit murder in the imagination once in a while, not to mention lesser infractions.

  • Everything, living or not, is constituted from elements having a nature that is both physical and nonphysical--that is, capable of combining into mental wholes. So this reductive account can also be described as a form of panpsychism: all the elements of the physical world are also mental....

  • fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism--something it is like for the organism.

  • Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.

  • I should not really object to dying were it not followed by death.

  • 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, I 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.

  • If a psychological Maxwell devises a general theory of mind, he may make it possible for a psychological Einstein to follow with a theory that the mental and the physical are really the same. But this could happen only at the end of a process which began with the recognition that the mental is something completely different from the physical world as we have come to know it through a certain highly successful form of detached objective understanding. Only if the uniqueness of the mental is recognized will concepts and theories be devised especially for the purpose of understanding it.

  • If I thought that everything I did was determined by my circumstancse and my psychological condition, I woudl feel trapped.

  • If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it's ridiculous t otake ourselves so seriously.

  • If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

  • If you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.

  • I'm not sure I understand how responsibility for our choices makes sense if they are not determined.

  • It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.

  • It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are supposed to abandon this na├»ve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.

  • It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and naturally, hope there is no God. I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

  • It seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.

  • Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

  • Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.

  • Materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.

  • Once we have taken the backward step to an abstract view of our whole system of beliefs, evidence, and justification, and seen that it works only, despite its pretensions, by taking the world largely for granted, we are not in a position to contrast all these appearances with an alternative reality. We cannot shed our ordinary responses, and if we could it would leave us with no means of conceiving a reality of any kind.

  • Once we see an aspect of what we or someone else does as something that happens, we lose our grip on the idea that it has been done and that we can judge the doer and not just the happening.

  • Perhaps the belief in God is the belief that the universe is intelligible, but not to us.

  • Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.

  • Reason is universal because no attempted challenge to its results can avoid appealing to reason in the end-by claiming, for example, that what was presented as an argument is really a rationalization. This can undermine our confidence in the original method or practice only by giving us reasons to believe something else, so that finally we have to think about the arguments to make up our minds.

  • The external view [of agency] forces itself on us at the same time that we resist it. One way this occurs is through the gradual erosion of what we do by the subtraction of what happens.

  • The great cognitive shift is an expansion of consciousness from the perspectival form contained in the lives of particular creatures to an objective, world-encompassing form that exists both individually and intersubjectively. It was originally a biological evolutionary process, and in our species it has become a collective cultural process as well. Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.

  • The inclusion of consequences in the conception of what we have done is an acknowledgement that we are parts of the world, but the paradoxical character of moral luck which emerges from this acknowledgement shows that we are unable to operate with such a view, for it leaves us with no one to be.

  • The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes

  • The problem is one of opposition between subjective and objective points of view. There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality. But often what appears to a more subjective point of view cannot be accounted for in this way. So either the objective conception of the world is incomplete, or the subjective involves illusions that should be rejected.

  • To look for a single general theory of how to decide the right thing to do is like looking for a single theory of how to decide what to believe.

  • We are an episode between two oblivions.

  • What is it like to be a bat? What is it like for a bat to be a bat?

  • What we take ourselves to be doing when we think about what is the case or how we should act is something that cannot be reconciled with a reductive naturalism, for reasons distinct from those that entail the irreducibility of consciousness. It is not merely the subjectivity of thought but its capacity to transcend subjectivity and to discover what is objectively the case that presents a problem....Thought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker's beliefs, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which he belongs. (p. 71)

  • Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.

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