The Examined Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2128 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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.