Nagel’s nowhere man seeks free-will and moral responsibility

I’ve picked-up where I left off with Thomas Nagel’s View From Nowhere, having put it aside to deal with some domestic priorities and then being captivated by Rebecca Goldstein’s latest.

So back to Nagel. After some good stuff about his problems with the unsatisfactory incompleteness of reductionist objectivity generally, he embarks on a review of various modern philosophical view points grappling with the subjective-objective dualism in various forms; idealisms, Kantian transcendental-realism, Wittgensteinian word-games, and so on. True to form, he opines:

I change my mind about [x]
every time I think about it,
and therefore cannot offer any view
with even moderate confidence.

Specifically here [x] is free-will / autonomy, but this is very much Nagel’s style – to claim progress only in identifying problems with accepted “objective” views, but feigning that he has no alternative to offer. Understandably, those “philosophy-jeerers”, who are his real targets, simply point to the lack of progress with philosophical answers as justification for their charge of irrelevance. Anyway, having now established that the exclusion of the subjective causes problems for explanations of free-will and ethical responsibility, he continues:

[The] sense of an internal explanation [for my autonomous action] exists – an explanation insulated from the external view which is complete in itself and renders illegitimate all further requests for explanation of my action as [simply] an event in the world. As a last resort, the libertarian might claim that anyone who does not accept an account of what I was up to as a basic explanation of action, is a victim of a very limited explanation of what an explanation is – a conception locked into the objective standpoint and which therefore begs the question against the concept of autonomy. Why aren’t these autonomous subjective explanations really just descriptions of how it seemed to the agent – before, during and after – to do what he did; why are they something more than impressions?

Of course they are at least impressions, but we take them to be impressions of something, something whose reality is not guaranteed by the impression. Not being able to say what something is, and at the same time finding the possibility of its absence very disturbing, I am at a dead end.


I have to conclude that what we want is something impossible, and that the desire for it is evoked precisely by the objective view of ourselves that reveals it to be impossible.


the interaction between objectivity and the will yields complex results which cannot necessarily be formed into a unified system. This means that the natural ambition of a comprehensive system of ethics may be unrealisable.

I’m much impressed again, as I was with Goldstein earlier, that Godel is telling us something here. If we exclude the subjective – to preserve objective consistency in our epistemology and ontology – we must accept an incomplete model of ethics. ie a realistic world model (including ethics as well as ontology and epistemology) must include or integrate the subject, not treat it as the other half of a dualism, the awkward part, best attacked with spurious charges of moral relativism, etc.

Particularly notable also that he exemplifies the “libertarian” as a victim of inadequate understanding. One of my issues with humanism in its more strident forms is the easy scientistic acceptance of determinism, with free-will as “an illusion”, combined paradoxically with the active personal interest in righting all forms of humanitarian wrongs against individual freedoms. Either humans have potential freedom, constrained by the misguided power of responsible others, or they don’t. Which is it?

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