I have two main worries, which are drawn from Nagel and Mackay for their expression, though I think I agree with neither of these philosophers. First I will sketch my idea about right and wrong, incase my question depends on it.

Let "value" be a good, a kind of, for the sake of argument, belief about the world and what in it is has worth; I'm sorry I know no way of defining value without circularity. Intuitively and nothing more, I don't think these beliefs can be strictly true or false, but that some of them seem to be absolute and independent of any context. These seem to me to include a prohibition against another holocaust, and on a different scale, small minded petty cruelty. Moreover, I think that from these absolute standards, we can derive further ones. Not mechanically, but in dialogue with other people; and I think that this process is self correcting not because being moral is rational, but that we find, in living with them, that some ideologies about morality and meaning lead to a better happiness; almost as if they were more consistent with our absolute standards.

  1. Nagel's view from nowhere. It seems that while I am still living and breathing and enjoying myself, my life has a certain currency, albeit a puny one in the context of all of humanity or existence. But once I've died and been forgotten, meaning can no longer depend on me or my small community; only it seems to me their place in the view from nowhere. And if that really is nowhere and time is infinite, how can anything still be valuable after the dissolution of myself?

  2. Mackay's queerness argument. Not only does time the universe and life dwarf me, but it is entirely free of value, because none of these entities can be a source of real independent value.

If value is neither real nor enduring, then is it bunk?

  • i think this Q needs to be fixed but i gtg
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 15:52
  • ...and as the random sea favours sand over rock just as evolution favours the randomly-mutated human species over many others, thus the thoughts of our minds are no more meaningful than the sound of the waves on the beach. I can't remember who I'm paraphrasing, but it was interesting, beautiful and amusing at the same time.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 16:40
  • i wanted to add a reference to the tractatus and the statement that the world of the happy is different to the sad. then in what sense is happiness good, if you can't convince the 'sad' that you have a point?
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 0:08
  • I think the edits much improve the question, but you still haven't explained what value or "currency" your life has even in the immediate frame of reference, or where that value comes from. Does it have value entirely because you (or your community) values it, or is something else at work here? Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 18:45
  • i think answering that question would be beyond me. and unnecessary if we both understand what value is
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 18:50

1 Answer 1


Let's address the first argument. I'm not overly familiar with Nagel, but (at least as you've characterized his argument) his contention seems to rest on the idea that being a small part of a large universe precludes meaningfulness in of itself. There are at least three counterarguments:

1) Consider a lengthy book, such as "War and Peace." The fact of there being a very large number of sentences in the book does not mean that any given sentence does not have meaning. It is also not clear that any individual sentence in "War and Peace" has less meaning than any individual sentence in a much shorter book.

2) Consider Borges' concept of the "Library of Babel" which contains all possible letter combinations. The vast majority of the library is indecipherable nonsense, but it is said that there is a book in the library which random chance has formed into an explanation of all the hidden secrets of the universe. If we accept this exactly as given, we see that the fact that there are very many superficially similar meaningless books in the library does not prove that a given book might not be supremely meaningful.

3) Consider a vast quantity --billions-- of carbon atoms. Arranged in one pattern they are soot, in another they are a diamond. The fact of them being identical and vastly numerous does not mean that they do not collectively form a meaningful pattern which might not be capable of being grasped by any given atom.

Taken as a whole, these metaphors demonstrate that neither the introduction of scale nor the fact of being one among many removes meaning from something that is meaningful. Nagel's argument is misleading --it first assumes meaninglessness, and then increases the impact of the perception of meaninglessness through the multiplying effect of scaling upwards.

  • it's not clear that the meaning of life is the same as appears in your examples
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 17:22
  • nagel's argument depends on there being a difference between internal and external standpoints. he does not assume meaninglessness except from the viewpoint of the universe, and so would not be "scaling upwards"
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 17:29
  • i appreciate the attempt to explain your opinion, and i should have linked to comments on his view from nowhere. but the issue is not if from the perspective of e.g. my community my life is less meaningful than it appears to me, but if the ultimate expression of that has authority
    – user6917
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 17:36
  • I'm not assuming any given meaning of life. The point of my counter-arguments is that IF there is a meaning of life at the small level, shifting the viewpoint to the large scale does not eliminate it. As far as "scaling up," what I meant is that the rhetorical power of the argument comes from the sense of scale, but the meaninglessness is assumed by the argument, independent of scale. To put it another way, Nagel overwhelms you with the immensity of the universe, but the conclusion doesn't actually follow the premise, at least as rendered in your OP. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 17:41
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    The missing piece here is to know what values you hold whose meaning you feel is defeated by Nagel's argument. My contention is that his argument doesn't do any actual work but it's hard to demonstrate that without knowing what it's being deployed against. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 17:54

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