Am I My Brain?

The View from Nowhere

by Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 244 pp., $19.95

The thought often strikes people when they are in their teens: it is most unlikely that the truth about the universe, or about the right way to live, is just what I happen to believe. It would be unbelievable good luck if the god my church taught me about actually existed, or if the ideas I have absorbed about democracy, feminism, or racism could not be improved on. Part of growing up is to see that, even if our beliefs are partly true, they do not correspond in a simple way to the world. Although I may aspire to make my beliefs as objective as possible, they are subject to the distortions of my particular perspective—my desires, interests, values.

There are two ways to respond to this thought, apart from ignoring it. One is to give up trying to be objective. Perhaps there is no objective truth, or if there is, we cannot know it. So one can say that my beliefs are as good as anyone else’s. This response is particularly common in the case of political beliefs. As George Orwell saw, it is a dangerous response, permitting every kind of propagandist his distortions. It survives only by deadening all critical thought. To hold views that we have no reason to think are more likely to be true than any others is hardly satisfying for most of us. And if you see your “beliefs” in this way, it is not clear that you really hold them.

The other response is to look for some way of correcting one’s beliefs through adopting a more objective perspective. We may try to look at the arguments for and against the existence of God with the eye of a logician. Or we may try to sift evidence about, say, the Nicaraguan conflict with the skeptical detachment of a historian. Perhaps most of all, we may absorb some of the methods of science, looking for evidence against a belief, and relating our confidence in it to the amount and quality of the supporting evidence.

In the search for more objective beliefs, science causes the greatest upheavals. We all know how far it has changed our understanding. As a route to increasingly objective beliefs, it is also the most hopeful, because of its inbuilt tendencies to connect statements with evidence. The development of more powerful instruments of analysis and observation, and the institutionalized pressure to see if results can be repeated, or better explained, make it harder for mistaken beliefs to survive.

But there is a deeper worry about objectivity: Kant’s thought that even science may not show us the world as it really is, because, as Thomas Nagel puts it, “we can conceive of things only as they appear to us and never as they are in themselves: how things are in themselves remains forever and entirely out of the reach of our thought.” Perhaps scientific observation is itself distorted by the nature of our sensory apparatus. It may be that we can…

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