Even though each philosophical topic identifies an important area of existence, understanding of certain themes is a basis for person’s self-determination and harmonic interaction with the world. They include the perception of knowledge and the way people obtain it, free will, and life’s meaning. These issues significantly influence the choices a person makes in life and his or her behavior. Hundreds of philosophers developed their approaches to the solutions of these problems. The theories are contradictive: different thinkers introduce opposing opinions and arguments in response to the same topics. Therefore, philosophy does not give a clear answer to fundamental questions but offers several variants. Nagel is one of the thinkers who suggested looking at the concepts under consideration from different perspectives and analyze them critically. After reading Nagel’s work, it becomes clear that among the variety of answers, the correct is the one that gives exhaustive arguments to the mind of a person.
How do we know anything?
The question of knowledge origin does not often come to a person’s mind. Constant interaction with the world supplies an individual with a large amount of information, which converts into knowledge and experience. As new information constantly surrounds people, the acquisition of new knowledge is a common process in everyday life. Therefore, there are no questions in person’s mind about the origin of knowledge and the way of obtaining it. However, contemplation about this issue may have an unexpectedly strong effect on the understanding of life. The common explanation of how humans know something is through receiving information from the external world and its processing in the brain. However, some philosophical approaches challenge this theory.
Solipsism states that everything outside person’s imagination does not exist. The representatives of this philosophical movement developed an idea according to which all events, creatures, and the whole surrounding world are not an external world but just a figment t of a person’s imagination. For instance, if one’s friends were solipsists, hardly could he or she prove them that he or she exists in reality. They would believe that he or she was just the product of their imagination. This philosophical position has not many followers as it is difficult to believe in the existence of the only mind in the world and perceive everything else as the product of imagination. Despite its contradiction, solipsism is one of the possible ways to understand the reality. There is no way to prove that the entire world is not the world but someone’s imagination. On the other hand, there are no arguments to break down this position to the full extent. However, acceptance of this view leads to the radical changes in perception of reality. That is the reason why there should be arguments which clearly demonstrate the reflection of this theory in practice and do not leave unanswered questions.
Skepticism proposes a less radical interpretation of the external world. According to it, the only point on which an individual relies is personal feelings and impressions which may be either true or not. Subsequently, the world a person lives in may either exist or not. For instance, while reading this paper, a skeptic would not be sure whether it is a real object of the external world or the product of the fantasy. Both variants are possible. This approach is easier to accept as it leaves the probability of world’s existence. However, it gives too abstract explanation of reality. Such an approach does not encourage an individual to search for the evidence of external world or think seriously of this question. The point of this position does not lead to any conclusion about the external world and encourages a person to leave aside this question and continue living in existential ambiguity. Moreover, skeptics claim that the mind is the only thing that exists.
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However, to prove that the world does not exist, there should be an observer who concludes it. If a person is capable of seeing only personal impressions or feelings, there is no way to explore the external prove and subsequently state that it does not exist. For instance, before claiming that there is no pen on the table, a person should observe it and, with the help of the brain, come to this conclusion. Therefore, the use of mind and observation of the external world’s events are irreplaceable tools for making claims. The analogy with a pen should be applied to the claim about the absence of the external world that the skeptics made. Therefore, this position has many logical gaps, which create questions concerning the interconnection between person’s mind and the external world.
In contrast to there theories, Descartes proposes an idea of the approach to existence, which leads to the clear understanding of person’s existence. “Cogito ergo sum” is probably one of the most famous Descartes’ expressions. The reason for it is the value of this statement for the philosophical concept of person’s existence. The saying implies two conclusions. The first is that the process of thinking is a dynamic one, which proves the fact of substance’s existence. However, according to Descartes, not the fact of thinking proves the existence of the mind and the physical body. The moment when a person observes his or her process of thinking is the moment when the existence of both mind and its observer reveals.
After identification of interrelation between mind and physical body, another logical question arises. What determines the behavior of a person? People are concerned whether an individual is objectively and personally responsible for the taken actions. That is why a question of free will is one of the central in philosophical discussions. One of the basic concepts of free will is determinism. The point of this approach is that everything that happens could not have been different as it was already determined by the cause of previous events which, in their turn, were also determined. Therefore, a person who thinks that he or she could have taken steps differently is wrong as the choice he or she made is not actually a choice but an action determined beforehand. At some point, this theory reflects the reality. The person always makes choice relying on his or her experience, outlook, moral values, preferences, and needs. For instance, the decision to help a person in a difficult situation is not a decision of a moment. On the contrary, it is a choice, which references to moral values, principles, and interests of the exact person. These aspects determine what actions the person takes in such a situation. Therefore, each choice is a matter of actions, which influenced it.
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In addition, there is another aspect of determinism. Acceptance of this concept means refusal from any responsibility for the person’s actions. Neither good nor bad actions should be evaluated as they are just the result of some circumstances and conditions. At this point, determinism proposes perception of an individual and his or her life as an independent process, which may not undergo any influence, or person’s attempt to change something. For example, a bride supposes that on the wedding day, she may answer either yes or no. However, determinism presumes that her answer could not have been different from what she actually said as it had been determined beforehand. The recognition of determinism deprives a person of the ability to believe in personal strength to create the future and dream about something new. The source of person’s inspiration has a tight connection with his or her belief in ability possibility to influence the world. Presuming that all the ideas, thoughts, and feelings are not unique and independent processes but just a routine cause of circumstances would make it impossible of a person to have high ambitions and discover great things.
Another important issue in determinism is that according to its idea, all people are simply programmed to act a certain way, and their behavior does not depend on the party of communication. Acceptance of such an idea could lead to the deterioration of interpersonal relations between people or deprive them of important feelings such as sympathy, love, gratitude, and others. Therefore, determinism makes the life not a unique, unpredictable and full of sense phenomenon but just a sequence of predetermined events, what discourages a person to take an active part in it. As it was mentioned above, certain situations indeed influence the choices which a person makes.
However, the opportunities to change the choice exist and depend on the person’s readiness to develop skills for this purpose. Thus, Harry Frankfurt distinguishes two terms: free will and free action. The thinker believes that the sense of free will is to act not the way the human’s animal nature requires but how the rational one tells him or her to do. As it is possible to refuse from something desirable but not necessary, there is a free will which allows doing it. An example is the refusal from desirable chocolate for the sake of healthy and slim body. Therefore, determinism is present in any situation; however, a person still creates his or her fate by making everyday choices. They influence the future. Nevertheless, it is hardly possible to accept the passive role of a person in determining the future.
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The meaning of life
Once the issues with the existence of the world and personal will are clear, the following question arises: What is the sense of it all? It is rather difficult not to answer it, but it requires facing the bitter truth. The truth is that there is no sense in person’s daily actions that constitute most his or her life. However, there other ways to interpret the existence.
At first sight, it may seem that though it is not easy to find the sense in the life of an average person, it is possible to do that for prominent members of society such as politicians, scientists and others. According to social opinion, there is no doubt concerning the significance of such people’s lives as they make a big contribution to the improvement of different spheres. For example, a person who invents the pills for treatment of incurable disease will be recognized as one of the greatest people in the world. Meanwhile, the significance of this person is artificial as the whole universe does not care about this invention. It has importance only for the people around the inventor. However, in the philosophical context, the question remains the same: what is the point of their actions in the global sense, out of the framework of society? It becomes evident that there is hardly a global sense in the achievements of social leaders as they do not influence the whole universe or change the global order of things. Even if they do, their effect on society is temporary. After such conclusions, it is necessary to choose, at least, some variant, which will be acceptable as an answer to the question regarding the sense of life. The easiest way is to admit that there is no sense at all and keep living a usual life. However, people inclined to spiritual and intellectual self-development will not be able to accept such a thesis.
Another variant is a religious concept which offers God as a major goal and the reason for everything. On the one hand, the idea that life on the Earth and all that happens is a preparation for eternal life with God solves many issues and gives answers to the majority of questions. On the other hand, after the first wave of appeasement with this theory, a thinking person will have a number of other questions. For instance, how the God may be the sense of everything if there is no determined sense of his existence. There is also another variant: it is possible to accept the meaninglessness of life and change one’s attitude to it that is not to take events, people and oneself too seriously. Nevertheless, it seems not easy to do that even though some sarcasm in the perception of life may make it better.
Still have any questions?
An approach that reflects the life in the most realistic way is nihilism. One of the brightest representatives of this movement, Albert Camus, claims that the absence of the higher divine power and harmonic meaningful universe deprives life of any sense. Therefore, nihilism admits that existence of God would make sense to life but rejects his existence. Nowadays, religion remains one of the strongest determinants of a person’s way of life, and it gives the sense of life for millions of people. On the other hand, those individuals who connect their sense of life with religion live in illusion as there is no evidence of God’s existence. Therefore, sense and meaning of life may be found in different sources or not be found at all. Attitude to this issue is a problem, which each individual solves alone.
In conclusion, the discussed above questions are the topics that inevitably influence the life of any person. The answer to them requires deep analysis and ability to take a stand concerning the subject discussed. However, knowledge of different approaches to the same problem and their comparison assist significantly in the formation of personal opinion about the issues. Therefore, the aforementioned philosophical topics are the ways to make a person investigate his or her inner world and find the answers to the questions discussed.