65 Thomas Nagel Quotes About Life, Self Analysis & Human Nature

Thomas Nagel Quote

In this post, we’ll delve into the world of Thomas Nagel quotes who is well-known for his contributions to moral philosophy, political philosophy, and the philosophy of mind.

Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher born on July 4, 1937. Nagel has held prominent positions in academia, including teaching at New York University (NYU) and the University of Oxford.

One of Nagel’s most influential works is the essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” published in 1974. In this essay, he explores the idea of subjective experience and argues that understanding the consciousness of other beings is challenging due to the subjective nature of their experiences.  He says that each conscious being has a unique way of experiencing things, and that’s a crucial part of being aware.

His book “The View from Nowhere,” published in 1986, is another significant work in which he discusses topics related to objectivity, subjectivity, and the nature of reality. He has also written extensively on ethics, including his influential book “Mortal Questions” (1979), which covers a range of philosophical issues, including moral philosophy and the meaning of life.

Let’s read some of the most famous Thomas Nagel quotes about life, philosophy, self analysis and more.

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Life

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it’s ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously.”
2. “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.”
3. “Even if life as a whole is meaningless, perhaps that’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps we can recognise it and just go on as before.”
4. “Life may be not only meaningless but absurd.”
5. “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.”
6. “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.”
7. “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.”
8. “These essays are about life: about its end, its meaning, its value, and about the metaphysics of consciousness. Some of the topics have not received much attention from analytic philosophers, because it is hard to be clear and precise about them, and hard to separate from a mixture of facts and feelings those questions abstract enough for philosophical treatment.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Self Analysis

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality.”
2. 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.”
3. “Our idea of the things that exist is just our idea of what we can observe.”
4. “Objectivity of whatever kind is not the test of reality. It is just one way of understanding reality.”
5. “I believe that the methods needed to understand ourselves do not yet exist. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing him, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular action in the circumstances inevitable.”
6. “I’m not sure I understand how responsibility for our choices makes sense if they are not determined.”
7. “There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality.”
8. “To put it schematically, the claim “Everything is subjective” must be nonsense, for it would itself have to be either subjective or objective. But it can’t be objective, since in that case it would be false if true. And it can’t be subjective, because then it would not rule out any objective claim, including the claim that it is objectively false.”
9. “What is it like to be a bat? What is it like for a bat to be a bat?”
10. “If sub species 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.”
11. “To deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.”
12. “Everyone is entitled to commit murder in the imagination once in a while, not to mention lesser infractions.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Human Nature

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “The human will to believe is inexhaustible.”
2. “Absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.”
3. “Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.”
4. “Human life is full of effort, plans, calculation, success and failure: we pursue our lives, with varying degrees of sloth and energy … It would be different if we could not step back and reflect on the process, but were merely led from impulse to impulse without self- consciousness. But human beings do not act solely on impulse. They are prudent, they reflect, they weigh consequences, they ask whether what they are doing is worth while. Not only are their lives full of particular choices that hang together in larger activities with temporal structure: they also decide in the broadest terms what to pursue and what to avoid, what the priorities among their various aims should be, and what kind of people they want to be or become. Some men are faced with such choices by the large decisions they make from time to time; some merely by reflection on the course their lives are taking as the product of countless small decisions.”

Thomas Nagel Wisdom Quotes 

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in million years nothing we do now will matter.”
2. “I should not really object to dying were it not followed by death.”
3. “If you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.”
4. “Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.”
5. “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.”
6. “The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons – the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not-are the starting points of our skepticism.”
7. “Impressions and appearances that do not correspond to reality must be contrasted with others that do correspond to reality, or else the contrast between appearance and reality is meaningless.”
8. “The way the world is includes appearances, and there is no single point of view from which they can all be fully grasped.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Universe

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “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.”
2. “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.”
3. “Perhaps the belief in God is the belief that the universe is intelligible, but not to us.”
4. “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”
5. “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.”
6. “There may or may not be an external world, and if there is it may or may not be completely different from how it seems to you—there’s no way for you to tell. This view is called skepticism about the external world.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Self 

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “The most radical conclusion to draw from this would be that your mind is the only thing that exists.”
2. “In every area of thought we must rely ultimately on our judgments, tested by reflection, subject to correction by the counterarguments of others, modified by the imagination and by comparison with alternatives.”
3. “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.”
4. “The place at which the contrast between forms of intelligibility is most vividly presented is in the understanding of ourselves.”
5. “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.”
6. “A person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous, unkind, vain, or conceited, but behave perfectly by a monumental act of the will.”
7. “If I thought that everything I did was determined by my circumstances and my psychological condition, I would feel trapped.”
8. “Our idea of the things that exist is just our idea of what we can observe.”
9. “The question is there, whether we answer it or not.”
10. Persons and other conscious beings are part of the natural order, and their mental states are part of the way the world is in itself.

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Theism

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world. If God exists, he is not part of the natural order but a free agent not governed by natural laws. He may act partly by creating a natural order, but whatever he does directly cannot be part of that order.”
2. “Theism does not offer a sufficiently substantial explanation of our capacities, and naturalism does not offer a sufficiently reassuring one.”
3. “Both theism and evolutionary naturalism are attempts to understand ourselves from the outside.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Science 

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “Physical science has progressed by leaving the mind out of what it tries to explain, but there may be more to the world than can be understood by physical science.”
2. “I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
3. “If we continue to assume that we are parts of the physical world and that the evolutionary process that brought us into existence is part of its history, then something must be added to the physical conception of the natural order that allows us to explain how it can give rise to organisms that are more than physical. The resources of physical science are not adequate for this purpose, because those resources were developed to account for data of a completely different kind.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Mind & Consciousness

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “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.”
2. “The existence of conscious minds and their access to the evident truths of ethics and mathematics are among the data that a theory of the world and our place in it has yet to explain.
3. “Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable.”
4. “The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness.”
5. If you can’t prove that anything exists outside you own mind, is it all right to go on believing in the external world anyway?
6. “Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.”

Thomas Nagel Quotes About Evolution 

Thomas Nagel Quote

1. “The evolutionary story leaves the authority of reason in a much weaker position. … Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.”
2. “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.”
3. “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.”
4. “For all I know, most practicing scientists may have no opinion about the overarching cosmological questions to which this materialist reductionism provides an answer. Their detailed research and substantive findings do not in general depend on or imply either that or any other answer to such questions. But among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.”
5. “Everyone acknowledges that there are vast amounts we do not know, and that enormous opportunities for progress in understanding lie before us. But scientific naturalists claim to know what the form of that progress will be, and to know that mentalistic, teleological, or evaluative intelligibility in particular have been left behind for good as fundamental forms of understanding.”

These Thomas Nagel quotes greatly shed light on his work as his writings often engage with fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness, morality, and the nature of human existence.

His work has had a lasting impact on contemporary philosophy, and he is considered one of the leading figures in analytic philosophy. 

Which of these Thomas Nagel quotes are your most favorite?

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