I found Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions1 a great read. At just a smidge over 200 pages, it’s pithy, asks many of the Big Questions, and quickly sets out good arguments for his position on each, without getting bogged down in explaining absolutely everything. I figured it might be fun to note my thoughts on the first couple chapters (the ones on death and absurdity), especially where I differ from Nagel, as a way of better interacting with the ideas presented.
I was amazed that in the span of ten pages, Nagel was able to so extensively outline death as deprivation, the asymmetry of pre-birth and post-death, and the irrelevance of inevitability to the badness of certain states of being (or non-being). The philosophical questions surrounding death are among those I find most interesting, and I’ve written about them a bit before. Not only are these questions interesting to ponder, but I also believe that getting them sorted in my head would change not only my level of anticipatory fear/peace/etc., but perhaps also change the way I live my life. I don’t think death is what makes life important; life does that on its own. But the facts of death certainly make life come into sharper focus, at times.
One question I sometimes like to ask myself is “what was I experiencing during the 1960s?” (I’m not sure why this is the decade I subconsciously picked, but it seems to reoccur.) My grandparents can tell of their adult experiences during this time. My parents had some perhaps pre-sentient experience, as well as some memorable bits of childhood. But I had nothing. At least, I don’t remember having anything. Nagel fluently outlines that asking questions like this imply an “I” with which I might not-experience. Instead there’s probably more of a not-I doing the not-experiencing. And to be frank, that doesn’t make sense to me whatsoever.
Nagel’s approach to deprivation seemed pretty standard. After touching on the Epicurean lack of an experiencer (to experience being dead), I found the most illuminating example to be that of an intelligent adult encountering an accident that rendered them into an infant-like state. That person doesn’t feel their own deprivation (they have the mind of an infant now, and are happy merely being well-fed). However, just because the person is unaware of the loss doesn’t mean a loss hasn’t occurred. There is something to the idea of “what might otherwise have been”.
His main argument on the difference of pre-birth and post-death states has to do with the idea that each of us couldn’t really have been born at a much different time (due to certain biological facts), whereas it’s easy to imagine death occurring multiple decades in either direction from when it actually does. While I find this to ring true, I also think there’s something of a more-fundamental difference between past and future at work here. When I hear of past tragedies, about all I can do is shrug and say “that’s tragic”. I don’t find myself making plans to right those wrongs. This could be summed up as “what’s done is done”. I’ve already undergone the period of pre-birth, so to speak, so now don’t have to worry about it anymore. However, looking towards the future, it does seem that there are various possibilities, with some better than others, and I can take some actions to ever-so-slightly nudge the universe in the right direction. (This view brings up questions about free will, determinism, and the philosophy of time, but I scarcely have a coherent view on any one of those topics, let alone all of them combined.) In short, the future is the only chunk of time for which I have any hope of its going differently. So death in the future may have a different character than pre-birth in the past.
I also agree with Nagel’s presented view on inevitability—if we lived in a world where every day at noon everyone inevitably felt a sharp pain for a few seconds, the inevitability of the suffering does nothing to diminish its impact. It is still worse to be in a noon-pain world than a world without noon-pain. (Nagel outlines this as six months of sheer agony just before death, so I’m being generous.) Maybe there are human reasons to treat death differently than, say, certain kinds of avoidable pain, because of its inevitability, but I don’t think the plain fact that something is unavoidable (or that something happens to everyone) makes it any less bad.
Labeling life as “absurd” is kind of a strange thing to do. Absurd compared to what? Could there possibly be a universe where life was not absurd?
Nagel presents one concept of non-absurdity as the idea that what we do now should still be echoing a million years from now. Under some views, for life to have capital-M Meaning, its effects must be permanent. It’s very hard for me to imagine a world where everyone’s life could have this kind of meaning, unless we count the sheer fact that your life necessarily contributed to the true history of the universe, or something. This usually isn’t the kind of Meaning people want, I think.
There’s one example of the life of a mouse which was great. Presumably, a mouse doesn’t introspect or find its condition absurd. It just goes about living its life without questions or qualms. It’s only the additional human capacity to step outside of the just-living-life mode that leads us to find our lives absurd. I don’t think Nagel makes the point strongly enough, but it can’t be that the mouse’s life is not also absurd. It’s just that the mouse has no reason to think it so. It’s too busy living. There are definitely times when I fall into each of these modes: introspectively finding life absurd and largely pointless, and then vigorously going after the points of life in which I find meaning, without constantly (only intermittently!) dragging myself down with thoughts of the absurdity of what I’m doing.
Unlike Camus, I don’t think the philosophical question of whether to commit suicide is all that important, or relevant to the absurd, and I disagree with Nagel’s brief positioning of it as “escape”. Where is its committer escaping to? It’s not as if being dead in an absurd universe makes that universe less absurd. I do agree with Nagel (and disagree with Camus) on absurdity itself not really presenting a problem to be solved. I don’t find absurdity nearly as pressingly concerning or disappointing as death. I would be perfectly content to go on living my absurd life in a deathless world, I think. And I don’t think absurdity arises merely from the fact that life ends. As Nagel points out, wouldn’t an absurd life lived infinitely long just lead to infinite absurdity?
I found Nagel’s suggestion that we should perhaps “approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair” rather amusing.
Thomas Nagel (1979). Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press.↩︎