Mortal Questions

By Thomas Nagel
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This is a wonderful book, also a series of chapters on different themes to do with life and death. He has a wonderful essay on equality, a great essay on war, and essays on consciousness as well, which is what makes living things different from dead things. What I love about Nagel is his ability to identify what really matters about a subject, and to write about it without getting caught in too much nitty-gritty detail.

 

Experts who have recommended this book

In an interview on Ethical Problems

Interview Extract:

Next up is Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions.

This is a wonderful book, and completely different from Singer’s, although it’s also a series of chapters on different themes to do with life and death. He has a wonderful essay on equality, a great essay on war, and essays on consciousness as well, which is what makes living things different from dead things. What I love about Nagel is his ability to identify what really matters about a subject, and to write about it without getting caught in too much nitty-gritty detail. He’s a beautiful writer, and this and his subsequent book The View From Nowhere are two of my favourite philosophy books.

Nagel introduces in this book something that is completely counterintuitive until one thinks more deeply about it, namely panpsychism – the idea that inanimate objects might have atoms in which there is a conscious element. That sounds very weird until you think about human beings. We are created out of physical stuff, so where does the magical stuff of consciousness come from? Perhaps the answer is that the little bits of stuff which we thought was physical also contains within it some of this subjectivity, even if at a subatomic level. That seems crazy, but when you think about it, it has some plausibility to it.

Nagel has also written a lot about altruism. Wouldn’t the most moral solution to the trolley problems be to throw oneself onto the tracks?

That’s a very good question. The reason why you can’t throw yourself is because you’re not fat enough. That’s why the fat man has to be fat. The correct solution to the problem is to jump yourself and not kill anybody, but you can’t do that in this case, because you’re not fat.

Because you don’t eat meat, having read Peter Singer.

Quite possibly.

Read full interview

About David Edmonds

David Edmonds is an award-winning radio feature maker at the BBC World Service. He studied at Oxford University, has a PhD in philosophy from the Open University and has held fellowships at the universities of Chicago and Michigan. He is also a senior research associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Edmonds is the author of several books, and with Nigel Warburton he produces the popular podcast series Philosophy Bites