The Examined Life

by Robert Nozick

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The Examined Life

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2128

Robert Nozick, whose works include Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) and Philosophical Explanations (1981), is a philosopher who writes not only for his colleagues but also for the general reader. In The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, he addresses a variety of perennial human concerns: love, sex, death, the meaning of life, and much more. Each brief chapter focuses on a specific topic, but the book is not merely a collection of self-contained essays; certain themes and ways of approaching fundamental questions are developed.

In “Dying,” Nozick’s own “guess” about what death would be like if—and he stresses the “if”—it is not extinction is that it might be like the meditative states of Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Another possibility is that survival after death is a “temporary echo” of the life it succeeds. Or perhaps each person spends eternity in the “most real state” achieved during his or her life. Nozick raises none of these possibilities with any apparent conviction.

More intriguing if not more convincing is the thought that a computer program someday will be able to capture the essence of a life and make it available to later generations. Would this be a kind of immortality? “If ‘your’ programs were implanted into an organism, and experiences then induced in it, wouldn’t it be you who had these experiences? Future civilizations then might be the eventual creators of heaven and hell, parceling out just deserts.”

Nozick’s final suggestions about how to live—based on a “three-quarters” conviction that “we are wholly finite” —include determining the best conception of immortality and living our lives as far as possible in that mode. Perhaps we should modify this notion and aim at a restricted goal, living as if a small part of our being, at least, were eternal and thereby attaining “the dignity of eternity, if not the fact.”

The most appealing suggestion in this chapter comes at its close. Why not, toward the end of life, live it with more abandon, running serious risks in ventures of charitable import? Nozick is eloquent in his last word on dying:Such a path will not be for everyone, but some might seriously weigh spending their penultimate years in a brave and noble endeavor to benefit others, an adventure to advance the cause of truth, goodness, beauty, or holiness—not going gentle into that good night or raging against the dying of the light but, near the end, shining their light most brightly.

In “The Nature of God, the Nature of Faith,” Nozick states his own agnosticism, defining the religious sensibility today as simply the acceptance of God as a ”possibility.” He analyzes the concept of God this way:God is (1) the most perfect actual being (2) who is very high on the scale of perfection, “perfect enough” to be God, and (3) whose perfection is vastly greater than that of the second most perfect actual being, and (4) who is in some way most importantly connected to our universe, perhaps as its creator (though not necessarily ex nihilo) or perhaps in some other way.

It is not reasonable that God will send any dramatic sign of his existence for it is hard to conceive of anything that would be permanently convincing, and so it is unfair to expect that humans will ever come up with satisfying proof of God’s existence. We are left, then, with faith, the only basis for which is a trust in our own deepest experiences. On this point, Nozick asserts significantly that “Our fundamental connection to the world is not explanatory, but one of relation and trust.” The best course of...

(This entire section contains 2128 words.)

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action seems to be to proceed with faith in one’s experience, offering a tentative affirmation but maintaining an openness to further experience and remembering that others’ deepest experiences may not corroborate one’s own.

In “Emotions,” Nozick links emotions to the intrinsic value of phenomena external to us. Emotions become a means of validating the things that we experience. Value judgments for Nozick are not subjective: Things are objectively more or less valuable depending on the degree of “organic unity” they reveal. Emotions are “our internal psychophysiological response to the external value, a response that is specially close by being not only due to that value but an analog representation of it.” (Nozick devotes an appendix to amplifying the analog metaphor, summed up in his succinct note that “The model depicts a continuous process or dimension in the world by corresponding continuous changes in itself.”) Emotions are, then, analog responses to objective values which derive from high organic unity, and the subsequent close unity of the valuable thing and the emotional response to it results in more value. Moreover, our emotions enhance our power to create value, and they give substance to our selves. To feel more deeply is to be more real. “Emotions do not simply feel good; intense and fitting emotions make us more.”

The chapter on “Happiness” spells out the first two of eight “reality principles” that Nozick formulates over the course of these essays. The first, which was defined by Freud, urges renunciation of immediate pleasure for a more satisfying eventual reward. (One might consider, for example, being last on earth so as to be first in heaven.) The ensuing discussion ponders the problems of evaluating pleasures and concludes that a pleasurable experience is one that is desired for its own “felt qualities.”

Beyond these felt qualities, we have other ways of judging things. Nozick adduces a thought experiment to make this point: a hypothetical experience machine that would provide all of the felt pleasures of one’s choice, with no awareness that the experiences thus enjoyed were inauthentic. Nozick does not think that many people would choose the experience machine for the rest of their lives. “Few of us really think that only a person’s experiences matter. We would not wish for our children a life of great satisfactions that all depended upon deceptions they would never detect.”

What we really want, beyond pleasurable experience, Nozick suggests, is an “actual connection with reality.” A sharp focus on the external world is an end, not a means to more pleasure, and Nozick calls this focus the second reality principle. It is precisely this that the experience machine cannot provide. Moreover, one’s freedom would seem to be strictly limited on the experience machine. None of these drawbacks argues against ever plugging into the machine, which might offer useful benefits, but they do say that the heedless quest for experience should not go on at the expense of one’s grasp of external reality.

Nozick identifies three types of “happiness emotion”: “first, being happy that something or other is the case (or that many things are); second, feeling that your life is good now; and third, being satisfied with your life as a whole.” His discussion makes several valuable points. A happy life, for example, must have other components besides happiness, for “Happiness rides piggyback on other things.” A positive attitude, a “happy disposition,” is probably a vital prerequisite of a happy life and will encourage “continuing feelings of happiness.” Nozick’s last word on happiness is inspiring: “What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to—and then to give it that response.”

The “Stances” of chapter 14 are the egoistic, the relational, and the absolute. The egoistic stance locates value within the self, judging the value of things according to how they benefit the self. External things are valued because the self acquires them; created things are valued because of the sense of accomplishment they confer on the creative self; and loving someone is valued because the act identifies you as a loving person. In the relational stance, value emerges from the self’s relationship with something external. Helping someone gets its value from the relationship of helping, not from being seen as enhancing the helper or improving the lot of the helped person. Again, as in the egoistic stance, the self is prominent but not entirely solipsistic. In the absolute stance, however, the self recedes and value shifts outward to the things themselves. Their value is independent of us and we seek these things for their own sake. “Like a baby monkey clinging to its mother’s fur, we latch on to what is valuable and ride along.”

Nozick does not advocate wholehearted adoption of any one of these stances. The egoistic stance, for example, ignores the necessity that what is valuable be general and available to others. “Whatever standard someone adopts, he must acknowledge that this gives importance to the lives of others, or else undercut his view of his own life’s importance.” Nozick prefers a system in which the goals of each stance are weighted to provide a fourth, “combined” stance.

In a later chapter, “Darkness and Light,” Nozick acknowledges that the combined stance is an “artificial merging,” and he offers a modification of it. He had earlier (in “Being More Real”) identified our reality with our values and the “vividness, intensity, and integration with which we embody them” and suggested that our reality is “what survives our death.” His modification of the notion of the combined stance is derived from this definition: His advice is to follow the “ethic of Light”; that is, become a vessel for the transmission of truth, goodness, beauty, and holiness. To do so will integrate the stances, and it will also make reality positive by eliminating the problem caused by the fact that his definition of reality allowed almost anything—evil and pain, for example—to make one more real by its vividness and intensity. The ethic of light integrates the stances with the positive content of truth, goodness, beauty, and holiness.

“Darkness and Light” completes a sequence of meditations on value, meaning, and reality, the centerpiece of which is an elaborately conceived “matrix of reality” spelled out in detail in five pages of illustrative polyhedrons. The reader will want to peruse the figures in conjunction with study of the text, but it is fruitless to attempt any reasonable summary of the whole scheme.

In “Theological Explanations,” Nozick considers some perennial problems of philosophy. He quickly disposes of several common explanations of evil. That evil is merely a lack of goodness is not “very plausible,” and to argue that we must experience evil as a divine being’s way of instructing us “raises a very serious question about why we weren’t skipped in certain grades.” It only raises other problems to argue (as John Milton did in Paradise Lost) that the option of evil is vital to man’s free will. As Nozick notes, “a theorist who explains evil via free will has to hold not only that free will is good and worthwhile, but that it is far and away more valuable than the next best alternative.” (Nozick adds that maybe the purpose of free will does not lie in its value for us but that God made our behavior unpredictable for his own diversion—we become “God’s television serial.”)

Nozick arrives at five criteria for a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. First, God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness must be reconciled with the existence of evil. Second, the explanation must be one that we could honestly offer to a suffering person. Third, the answer is somehow analogous to the question of why our parents were not always perfect. Fourth, as the Cabala teaches, evil in this world should not leave God “untouched”; its effects should be manifested in the divine realm. Fifth, the divine being must be worth being the source of a religion and not be “a detached metaphysical theory.”

These ruminations on evil lead Nozick to a “special problem,” an accommodation of the Holocaust into any convincing theodicy. Nozick’s chapter “The Holocaust” will no doubt produce many rejoinders from philosophers, for his thesis is that history took a new turn in Hitler’s Germany. He is explicit. “Humanity has lost its claim to continue.” The Germans “have ruined the reputation of the human family.” It is not “that the species deserves to be destroyed; it simply no longer deserves not to be.” For Christians, the two great events of history were the Fall and the resurrection of Christ, but the Holocaust is a “third momentous transformation.” The “saving message” of Christ is no longer operative, and “in this sense, the Christian era is closed.” Humanity must now do for itself what Christ was supposed to have done.

Nozick is a fluent writer whose meditations are always worth pondering. If his points are not always made with the electrifying courage of “The Holocaust,” his voice is always civilized and, at times, even inspiring.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, October 1, 1989, p.1454.

Library Journal. CXIV, December, 1989, p.127.

The New Republic. CCI, November 6, 1989, p.122.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, October 29, 1989, p.15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, October 13, 1989, p. 34.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, November 19, 1989, p.4.