“Como É Ser Um Morcego?”, pergunta o filósofo Thomas Nagel (por Eduardo Carli de Moraes)


Bat in Flower – A pollen-gilded bat emerging from a flower of the blue mahoe tree, in Cuba. Photograph by Merlin Tuttle, National Geographic.

“What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”

by Eduardo Carli de Moraes

In one of the greatest essays in his book Mortal QuestionsThomas Nagel invites us to reflect in a daring and innovative way, as awe-inspiring as the best Science Fiction films or novels. Forget about mankind for a while and try to identify yourself with the perspective of an animal that’s quite different from bipeds and primates such as ourselves. Put yourself inside the skin of a bat, but not only in a cartoonish or playful way (don’t even waste time pretending you are Bruce Wayne, wearing a black costume and a horned mask, patrolling Gotham City in search of criminals to crush).

Nagel is asking us to attempt to become a bat as it really is in Nature’s web of life: how does it feel to be such a creature?  What Nagel is proposing is an exercise in which a human mind tries to move away from its humanness, venturing outside the zone of familiarity, trying to really grasp what sort of experience it would be like to exist as a bat – or an eagle, or a worm. That ain’t easy, and “philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood.” (pg. 166)

This is not just a role-playing game (“let’s pretend we’re animals, let’s meow like cats!”), nor it’s a creative phantasy which attemps to imagine the future (similarly to what was crafted with such greatness by David Cronenberg‘s The Fly). What Thomas Nagel is after with his sci-fi way-of-thinking, as I’ll further attempt to explore, is an explanation for consciousness and its great diversity of manifestations. Reality contains objectively myriads of different organisms, with different perspectives and subjective experiences, and this field of study – Nature’s richness and diversity – may be explored not only by poets, mystics or people high on LSD, but also by philosophers, physicists, scientists, artists… Maybe we’ll become better humans if we try to understand better what is it like not to be human?

“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. (…) We may call this the subjective character of experience…” (p. 166)

 Those among you, dear readers, who are not poetically inclined, may deem as utter philosophical madness to refer to such a thing as “the subjectivity of bats” or the conscious experience of pigs. But it’s been for centuries the self-imposed task and delight of poets, mystics, shamans, artists, as well as many other human animals, to understand and try to verbalize what it means like to be an animal different than ourselves. William Blake, for example, had a fruitful relationship with flies, as you’ll see in the following poem, and he also sung with his lyre some quite fascinating stuff about dogs, horses and skylarks:


“Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance,
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing…”

* * * *

“A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misus’d upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing…”


Thomas Nagel is interested in exploring the idea of animals as beings who experience the world from a different perspective, from a subjective standpoint which differs greatly according to the organism’s complexity and to the various environments that it inhabits. For example, a polar bear and a huge whale like Moby Dick have very different conscious experiences because they’re living where they do: the first in freezing snowy temperatures, the latter beneath the oceans’s rolling waves. But let’s go back to Nagel’s bats:

“I assume all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. (…) Bats, although closely related to us, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Now we know that most bats perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion and texture – comparable to those we make by vision.” (pg. 168)


These fascinating and scary creatures, winged mammals who fly speedily in the air, even though they can’t see anything (thus the expression “blind as a bat”), have an existential experience which is quite hard for a human to imagine and that it’s impossible for us to really “live”. How is it like, subjectively, to fly around being a bat and using a sonar for sight? Does our imagination really permit us to truly experience Batness?

And how to avoid scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or from the Batman comics, from messing-up our experiment, by appearing on our Hollywood-colonized human-minds, everytime we think of men and bats?

Imagination is limited and usually binds us to a human perspective, argues Thomas Nagel, and to experience what truly is the subjective consciousness of a bat it’s not enough “that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.” (pg. 169) Now we’re getting closer to his point: Nagel wants to know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” (p. 169)

There seems to exist an abyss of ignorance separating each species, though they all belong to the one and the same Web of Life. We might call this the Abyss of Alterity, but maybe someone needs to be a poet or a mystic to grasp what that means. Thomas Nagel paints a portrait of such an abyss, one we are seldom able to cross, when he writes about men and bats: humans can’t know what it’s like to be inside the skin of a bat, and neither the bat has a clue about how the heck it feels to be a primate such as ourselves. Simply because there’s no bridge that can serve as a means of transportation, from human experience right into bat experience, and vice versa: “even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.” (p. 169)

Even an imagination so powerfull and daring as Franz Kafka’s could only reach an anthropomorphized report of what it meant for Gregor Samsa to discover himself living inside the body of a bug. However, for Gregor Samsa, a human mind and a human consciousness are still locked inside the beastly body that he wakes up, in Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, suddenly transformed into.

 Thomas Nagel knows perfectly well that one can’t become a bat after being born a monkey, a wolf, a bacteria or a human being, but he also states that human imagination fails to give us any true depiction of the specific subjective character of the experienced subjectivity of creatures of other species  – “it’s beyond our ability to conceive.” (p. 170)

This sets, methinks, epistemology in new grounds and adds a new chapter to the history of Skepticism in philosophy. Nagel’s highly skeptical conclusion – we’ll never really experience what it’s like to be an animal different than the animal we are – also spreads into his consideration of human affairs, where similar abysses of mutual ignorance also exist. For example: “The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.” (p. 170)

If we’re ever to meet extra-terrestrial organisms – be they iron-headed Martians, bizarre aliens from Titan, or other weird creatures from a far-away galaxy… – the same problem would certainly arise: the aliens wouldn’t have a clear perception of what it is like to be a human. Similarly, it would remain as an obstacle for dialogue with the aliens the fact of our human difficulty – or even incapacity –  to truly understand what it is like to be a bat or a whale, a butterfly or an eagle, a worm or a Martian.

Subjectivity, thus, is so highly varied in its manifestations, in its different incarnations, that we must revise our concepts and renew our vocabulary: “subjective” shouldn’t mean only “the personal self”, but some sort of existential perspective that exists in myriads of different ways according to the varied organisms and environments. This “enormous amount of variation and complexity” can be partially explained by Darwin’s theory of Evolution, but what Thomas Nagel seems to be pointing out is this: reality is too complex, its multiplicity is too great, for a mind such as ours, with a language such as we have developed so far, to truly understand it. We’re incapable of an understanding that embraces all subjective conscious experiences of all living beings. This is one of the main problems Nagel’s philosophy deals with, especially in the excellent and mind-boggling philosophy-ride of his book View From Nowhere.

The View From Nowhere

Buy The View From Nowhere at Amazon

“The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature.” (pg. 170)

Some sort of disconnection between the human animals and the Animal Kingdom as a whole seems to arise, Thomas Nagel argues, from our mind’s incapacity to truly understand any subjective experience that differs too much from ours. This can’t be explained only by biology, by processes of Natural Selection, because Culture intervenes and imposes its systems, its symbols, its values.

In a civilization, for example, where in thousands of supermarkets one can buy the meat of recently killed animals, already packed, frozen and wrapped in plastics, people tend to dissociate their minds from any sort of empathy with pigs, cows or chickens. When it’s barbecue time and the dead bodies of recently killed animals are being grilled, people tend to never think about the slaughterhouses. People rarely pay any mind to what life feels like, when lived subjectively, when the organism’s existential locus, imposed by humans, is a condemnation to be slaughtered for meat.

Great masses of humans, then, devour tons of meat in their barbecues, in their day-to-day lifes they erect myriads of fast-food joints, staining the landscape with McDonald’s-like signs and ads, without caring about the lives of creatures they deem as unimportant matter. They don’t give a damn about what sort of existence the animals that ended up on their plate, or inside the Big Mac, have lived through from birth to bacon.

“This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of representation on the other. (…) Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in human language. (…) The more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise. (…) A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena, though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lightning, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.  (…) Although the concepts themselves are connected with a particular point of view and a particular visual phenomenology, the things apprehended from that point of view are not: they are observable from the point of view but external to it; hence they can be comprehended from other points of view also, either by the same organisms or by others. Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision. And, in understanding a phenomenon like lightning, it is legitimate to go as far away as one can from a strictly human viewpoint.” (NAGEL, Mortal Questions, p. 173)

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Buy Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel at Amazon.

Thomas Nagel on Death (a chapter from “Mortal Questions”, 1979, Cambridge University Press)



by  Thomas Nagel

from Mortal Questions

(New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1979) pp. 1-10.


If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.

There is conspicuous disagreement about the matter: some people think death is dreadful; others have no objection to death per se, though they hope their own will be neither premature nor painful. Those in the former category tend to think those in the latter are blind to the obvious, while the latter suppose the former to be prey to some sort of confusion. On the one hand it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain. On the other hand it may be objected that death deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.

Since I want to leave aside the question whether we are, or might be, immortal in some form, I shall simply use the word ‘death’ and its cognates in this discussion to mean permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival. I want to ask whether death is in itself an evil; and how great an evil, and of what kind, it might be. The question should be of interest even to those who believe in some form of immortality, for one’s attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one’s attitude toward death.

If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of. I shall try to deal with the difficulties surrounding the natural view that death is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains. We need not give an account of these goods here, except to observe that some of them, like perception, desire, activity, and thought, are so general as to be constitutive of human life. They are widely regarded as formidable benefits in themselves, despite the fact that they are conditions of misery as well as of happiness, and that a sufficient quantity of more particular evils can perhaps outweigh them. That is what is meant, I think by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, it added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.

I shall not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others, or its objective value, but only the value that it has for the person who is its subject. That seems to me the primary case, and the case which presents the greatest difficulties. Let me add only two observations. First, the value of life and its contents does not attach to mere organic survival; almost everyone would be indifferent (other things equal) between immediate death and immediate coma followed by death twenty years later without reawakening. And second, like most goods, this can be multiplied by time: more is better than less. The added quantities need not be temporally continuous (though continuity has its social advantages). People are attracted to the possibility of long-term suspended animation or freezing, followed by the resumption of conscious life, because they can regard it from within simply as a continuation of their present life. If these techniques are ever perfected, what from outside appeared as a dormant interval of three hundred years could be experienced by the subject as nothing more than a sharp discontinuity in the character of his experiences. I do not deny, or course, that this has its own disadvantages. Family and friends may have died in the meantime; the language may have changed; the comforts of social, geographical, and cultural familiarity would be lacking. Nevertheless those inconveniences would not obliterate the basic advantage of continued, thought discontinuous, existence.

If we turn from what is good about life to what is bad about death, the case is completely different. Essentially, though there may be problems about their specification, what we find desirable in life are certain states, conditions, or types of activity. It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good. But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or nonexistent, or unconscious, that is objectionable.1 This asymmetry is important. If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life. It is good of which Bach had more than Schubert, simply because he lived longer. Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust. If death is a disadvantage, it is not easy to say when a man suffers it.

There are two other indications that we do not object to death merely because it involves long periods on nonexistence. First, as has been mentioned, most of us would not regard the temporary suspension of life, even for substantial intervals, as in itself a misfortune. If it ever happens that people can be frozen without reduction of the conscious lifespan, it will be inappropriate to pity those who are temporarily out of circulation. Second, none of us existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune. I shall have more to say about this later.

The point that death is not regarded as an unfortunate state enables us to refute a curious but very common suggestion about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead. It is alleged that the failure to realize that this task is logically impossible (for the banal reason that there is nothing to imagine) leads to the conviction that death is mysterious and therefore a terrifying prospective state. But this diagnosis is evidently false, for it is just as impossible to imagine being totally unconscious as to imagine being dead (though it is easy enough to imagine oneself, from the outside, in either of those conditions). Yet people who are averse to death are not usually averse to unconsciousness (so long as it does not entail a substantial cut in the total duration of waking life).

If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes. We must now turn to the serious difficulties which this hypothesis raises, difficulties about loss and privation in general, and about death in particular.

Essentially, there are three types of problem. First, doubt may be raised whether anything can be bad for a man without being positively unpleasant to him: specifically, it may be doubted that there are any evils which consist merely in the deprivation or absence of possible goods, and which do not depend on someone’s minding that deprivation. Second, there are special difficulties, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all. there is doubt both to who its subject is, and as to when he undergoes it. So long as a person exists, he has not yet died, and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death, if it is a misfortune, can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject. the third type or difficulty concerns the asymmetry, mentioned above, between out attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. How can the former be bad if the latter is not?

It should be recognized that if these are valid objections to counting death as an evil, they will apply to many other supposed evils as well. The first type of objection is expressed in general form by the common remark that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. It means that even if a man is betrayed by his friends, ridiculed behind his back, and despised by people who tread him politely to his face, none of it can be counted as a misfortune for him so long as he does not suffer as a result. It means that a man is not injured if his wishes are ignored by the executor of his will, or if, after his death, the belief becomes current that all the literary works on which his fame rest were really written by his brother, who died in Mexico at the age of 28. It seems to me worth asking what assumptions about good and evil lead to these drastic restrictions.

All the questions have something to do with time. There certainly are goods and evils of a simple kind (including some pleasures and pains) which a person possesses at a given time simply in virtue of his condition at that time. But this is not true of all the things we regard as good or bad for a man. Often we need to know his history to tell whether something is a misfortune or not; this applies to ills like deterioration, deprivation, and damage. Sometimes his experiential state is relatively unimportant — as in the case of a man who wastes his life in the cheerful pursuit of a method of communicating with asparagus plants. Someone who holds that all goods and evils must be temporally assignable states of the person may of course try to bring difficult cases into line by pointing to the pleasure or pain that more complicated goods and evils cause. Loss, betrayal, deception, and ridicule are on this view bad because people suffer when they learn of them. But it should be asked how our ideas of human value would have to be constituted to accommodate these cases directly instead. One advantage of such an account might be that it would enable us to explain why the discovery of these misfortunes causes suffering — in a way that makes it reasonable. For the natural view is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed — not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy.

It therefore seems to me worth exploring the position that most good and ill fortune has as its subject a person identified by his history and his possibilities, rather than merely by his categorical state of the moment — and that while this subject can be exactly located in a sequence of places and times, the same is not necessarily true of the goods and ills that befall him. 2

These ideas can be illustrated by an example of deprivation whose severity approaches that of death. Suppose an intelligent person receives a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant, and that such desires as remain to him can be satisfied by a custodian, so that he is free from care. Such a development would be widely regarded as a severe misfortune, not only for his friends and relations, or for society, but also and primarily, for the person himself. This does not mean that a contented infant is unfortunate. The intelligent adult who has been reduced to this condition is the subject of the misfortune. He is the one we pity, though of course he does not mind his condition. It is in fact the same condition he was in at the age of three months, except that he is bigger. If we did not pity him then, why pity him now; in any case, who is there to pity? The intelligent adult has disappeared, and for a creature like the one before us, happiness consists in a full stomach and a dry diaper.

If these objections are invalid, it must be because they rest on a mistaken assumption about the temporal reelation between the subject of a misfortune and the circumstances which constitute it. If, instead of concentrating exclusively on the oversized baby before us, we consider the person he was, and the person he could be now, then his reduction to this state and the cancellation of his natural adult development constitute a perfectly intelligible catastrophe.

This case should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to nonrelational properties ascribable to him at particular times. As it stands, that restriction excludes not only such cases of gross degeneration, but also a good deal of what is important about success and failure, and other features of a life that have the character of processes. I believe we can go further, however. There are goods and evils which are irreducibly relational; they are features of the relations between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances which may not coincide with him either in space or in time. A man’s life includes much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life. These boundaries are commonly crossed by the misfortunes of being deceived, or despised, or betrayed. (If this is correct, there is a simple account of what is wrong with breaking a deathbed promise. It is an injury to the dead man. For certain purposes it is possible to regard time as just another type of distance.). The case of mental degeneration shows us an evil that depends on a contrast between the reality and the possible alternatives. A man is the subject of good and evil as much becomes he has hopes which may or may not be fulfilled, or possibilities which may or may not be realized, as because of his capacity to suffer and enjoy. If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us.

When a man dies we are left with his corpse, and while a corpse can suffer the kind of mishap that may occur to an article of furniture, it is not a suitable object for pity. The man, however, is. He has lost his life, and if he had not died, he would have continued to live it, and to possess whatever good there is in living. If we apply to death the account suggested for the case of dementia, we shall say that although the spatial and temporal locations of the individual who suffered the loss are clear enough, the misfortune itself cannot be so easily located. One must be content just to state that his life is over and there will never be anymore of it. That fact, rather than his past or present condition, constitutes his misfortune, if it is one. Nevertheless if there is a loss, someone must suffer it, and he must have existence and specific spatial and temporal location even if the loss itself does not. The fact that Beethoven had no children may have been a cause of regret to him, or a sad thing for the world, but it cannot be described as a misfortune for the children that he never had. All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born. But unless good and ill can be assigned to an embryo, or even to an unconnected pair of gametes, it cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune. (That is a factor to be considered in deciding whether abortion and contraception are akin to murder.)

This approach also provides a solution to the problem of temporal asymmetry, pointed out by Lucretius. He observed that no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding his own birth, and he took this to show that it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss. That is not true, however, and the difference between the two explains why it is reasonable to regard them differently. It is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died then, he would be alive. Therefore any death entails the loss of some life that its victim would have led had he not died at that tor any earlier point. We know perfectly well what it wold be for him to have had it instead of losing it, and there is no difficulty in identifying the loser.

But we cannot say that the time prior to a man’s birth is time in which he would have lived had he been born not then but earlier. For aside from the brief margin permitted by premature labor, he could not have been born earlier: anyone born substantially earlier than he would have been someone else. Therefore the time prior to his birth prevents him from living. His birth, when it occurs, does not entail the loss to him of any life whatever.

The direction of time is crucial in assigning possibilities to people or other individuals. Distinct possible lives of a single person can diverge from a common beginning, but they cannot converge to a common conclusion from diverse beginnings. (The latter would represent not a set of different possible lives of one individual, but a set of distinct possible individuals, whose lives have identical conclusions.) Given an identifiable individual, countless possibilities for his continued existence are imaginable, and we can clearly conceive of what it would be for him to go on existing indefinitely. However inevitable it is that this will not come about, its possibility is still that of the continuation of a good for him, if life is the good, we take it to be. 3

We are left, therefore with the question whether the nonrealization of this possibility is in every case a misfortune, or whether it depends on what can naturally be hoped for. This seems to me the most serious difficulty with the view that death is always an evil. Even if we can dispose of the objections against admitting misfortune that is not experienced, or cannot be assigned to a definite time in the person’s life, we still have to set some limits onhow possible a possibility must be for its nonrealization to be a misfortune (or good fortune, should the possibility be a bad one). The death of Keats at 24 is generally regarded as tragic; that of Tolstoy at 82 is not. Although they will be both be dead for ever, Keats’ death deprived him of many years of life which were allowed to Tolstoy; so in a clear sense Keats’ loss was greater (though not in the sense standardly employed in mathematical comparison between infinite quantities). However, this does not prove that Tolstoy’s loss was insignificant. Perhaps we record an objection only to evils which are gratuitously added to the inevitable; the fact that it is worse to die at 24 than at 82 does not imply that it is not a terrible thing to die at 82, or even at 806. the question is whether we can regard as a misfortune any limitations, like mortality, that is normal to the species. Blindness or near-blindness is not a misfortune for a mole, nor would it be for a man, if that were the natural condition of the human race.

The trouble is that life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us. We are already able to appreciate them, as a mole is not able to appreciate vision. If we put aside doubts about their status as goods and grant that their quantity is in part a function of their duration, the question remains whether death, no matter when it occurs, can be said to deprive its victim of what is in the relevant sense a possible continuation of life.

The situation is an ambiguous one. Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would be good to live longer. Suppose that we were all inevitably going to die in agony — physical agony lasting six months. Would inevitability make that prospect any less unpleasant? And why should it be different for a deprivation? If the normal lifespan were a thousand years, death at 80 would be a tragedy. As things are, it may just be a more widespread tragedy. If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.

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Other perspectives:

:: Thomas Nagel: digressões… ::

(The View From Nowhere, 1986)
– trad. Silvana Vieira; revisão Eduardo Gianetti –
ed. Martin Fontes


Entrar numa grande biblioteca é ao mesmo tempo fascinante e desolador: todo aquele imenso conhecimento ali reunido, e uma vida tão curta para explorá-lo! Quantas vezes já não passeei pelas prateleiras da Biblioteca Florestan Fernandes, na FFLCH, me sentindo tão diminuto quanto se estivesse diante do mar, ao pôr-do-sol, esmagado pela beleza e pela grandeza do que me é tão superior! Nem é preciso que tombem as estantes sobre a minha carcaça para que eu me sinta… esmagado. De quantos anos eu precisaria para explorar 10% que fosse desta grandiosa herança humana ali reunida? Pelo menos uns 800 anos (quem sabe 8.000…), e com a condição inalcansável de ter um cérebro que não se desgastasse, uma memória que não declinasse, neurônios que não morressem… Ah! mas pobres de nós, cujos miolos, depois de seis ou sete décadas de trabalho ou de preguiça, viram repasto para os vermes!

É preciso, pois, selecionar bem os pouquíssimos livros que teremos chance de ler neste tico de vida que nos é dado antes do Sono Do Qual Não se Acorda… E este sempre me pareceu um problema humano subestimado: como separar o joio do trigo, o lixo da jóia, no vasto acervo da cultura? No meu caso, creio que nunca soube proceder senão pulando de amores em amores. Um livro que eu amava me indicava um outro (ou vários…) que eu talvez fosse apreciar, numa teia de conselhos que me guiava neste labirinto: partindo de Sponville, por exemplo, visitei Montaigne, Spinoza, Lucrécio, Simone Weil, Alain, Jankélévitch… — autores por quem meu primeiro mestre não disfarçava sua dívida e admiração, e que eu também acabei por adotar como alguns dos prediletos do meu coração. E agora, partindo do que me aconselha outro dos que admirei bem cedo, cheguei a Thomas Nagel: através de Eduardo Gianneti.

“Em enquete do caderno Mais! [11/4/99], que pedia a alguns dos principais intelectuais brasileiros que listassem os 10 mais importantes livros do século 20, Eduardo Giannetti pôs Visão a partir de Lugar Nenhum, de Thomas Nagel, no topo, à frente de clássicos como O Mal-Estar na Civilização, de Freud, e A Ética Protestante e o Espírito do Capitalismo, de Max Weber.” Descobrir que Nagel estava tão alto na consideração daquele que é um dos filósofos brasileiros que eu mais respeito foi aquilo que me decidiu a enfrentar a leitura (árdua mas valiosa) deste recente clássico filosófico, The View From Nowhere, lançado em 1986.

Gianneti, que tem uma das prosas filosóficas mais apuradas do Brasil (que prazer literário eu tirei da leitura de Auto-Engano ou Felicidade, livros não só muito inteligentes mas maravilhosamente bem-escritos!),  confessa sentir-se “diminuído” quando lê Nagel. “Ele me parece de uma clareza, consistência, rigor e elegância que eu jamais vou alcançar. Ele realmente me oprime, mas ao mesmo tempo me instiga, me provoca a ser melhor”, confessa meu xará. “Acho Nagel o mais importante filósofo vivo hoje no mundo.”

Descobrir que a Martins Fontes lançou por aqui uma prendada edição do livro de Nagel foi mais um sinal de que a obra tinha seu valor e carecia ser urgentemente devorada. Ainda mais por ter sido inclusa na preciosa coleção “Mesmo Que o Céu Não Exista”, que reúne alguns dos mais brilhantes filósofos contemporâneos da tradição materialista (Comte-Sponville, Marcel Conche, Michel Onfray…).

Feita esta introdução dos caminhos que me levaram ao livro (a cada encontro, uma via…), vamos ao que andei matutanto e refletindo a partir desta instigante (e recomendadíssima) leitura…

:: Decifra-me ou devoro-te! ::

:: COSMOS ::

There is no refuge from change in the cosmos”
Carl Sagan

Nos últimos tempos, mergulhei de cabeça em duas séries de TV antigas que me cativaram, maravilharam e fizeram refletir um bocado: O Poder Do Mito (que contêm 6h de entrevistas concedidas por Josephn Campbell a Bill Moyers sobre “temões” como mitologia, sabedoria e o sentido da vida…) e Cosmos (“Épico Científico” de Carl Sagan em 13 fascinantes episódios!). Já não sei decidir quem destes dois instigantes mestres tem mais a nos ensinar, se Sagan ou Campbell. Mas ainda bem que não precisamos escolher um e excluir o outro: ouçamos (e sejamos alunos…) de ambos! Pois um dos maiores privilégios daqueles que assumem na terra a humilde condição de aprendizes-da-vida (e na-vida!) é o fato de nada impedir que aprendam de vários professores. E que possam aprender até mesmo das estrelas que não falam e dos espaços escuros entre elas: “the great dark between the stars”, aquele misterioso negrume que deixava Pascal apavorado mas que parece chamar Sagan com a força encantatória de uma esfinge imensa…

Carl Sagan e Joseph Campbell, me parece, são ambos mestres na arte do maravilhamento. Eles chaqualham nossa apatia esparramando diante de nossas consciências uma procissão de mistérios. “Há mais estrelas no universo que grãos de areia em todas as praias do planeta Terra…”. Sagan nos convida para olhar para cima: não para louvar um Deus que estaria sentado em sua nuvemzinha, gerenciando sua obra, mas para que tomemos ciência da incomensurável grandeza do Mistério que temos diante de nossas consciências. Como não se assombrar com a vastidão de tudo e a pequenez de cada um de nós, seres humanos, como que esquecidos como um trapo num canto remoto de uma das bilhões de galáxias que compõe isto que nenhuma palavra ou conceito explica: o “Universo”, o “Ser”,  o “Todo”… (Ah, miséria das palavras!!!)

Partir na jornada de decifração dos enigmas do cosmos é também partir numa jornada de auto-conhecimento: o que somos nós nesta misteriosa maquinaria cósmica? Como pôde acontecer esta espantosa coisa que é existir um Universo assim tão imenso e, dentro dele, contidos nele, criaturas tão estranhas e desnorteadas como nós?!?

Estes dias deparei com um assombro semelhante no livro de Thomas Nagel que estou lendo, o Visão a Partir de Lugar Nenhum (The View From Nowhere, lançado pela Martins Fontes):

“Eras se passaram sem que existisse algo como eu, mas graças à formação de um organismo físico particular, num lugar e tempo particulares, repentinamente passei a existir, e existirei enquanto esse organismo sobreviver. No fluxo objetivo do cosmos, esse evento subjetivamente estupendo (para mim!) mal chega a produzir uma leve ondulação… Somos todos sujeitos do universo sem centro… sou um sujeito que pode ter uma concepção do universo sem centro na qual Thomas Nagel não passa de um pontinho insignificante que facilmente poderia nunca ter existido.”

Até os que sabem mais não sabem muito. O Universo – eis talvez a principal “moral da história” para quem assiste Cosmos… – prossegue sendo um gigantesco mistério.

* * * * * *


Não acho que seja lá muito proveitoso rotular um ser humano com “etiquetas intelectuais”, rótulos classificatórios… Por isto vou tentar não cometer nenhum tipo de reducionismo preguiçoso ao lidar com a figura de Carl Sagan, imprimindo nele um “carimbo” para melhor identificá-lo no meu mumificado mundinho mental ressecado… Quero uma mente desperta, que nada tenha de burocrática, e o próprio Sagan é exemplo vivo de que este estado de lucidez de consciência só se conquista quando evitamos ceder às tendências preguiçosas de nossos cérebros acomodatícios e olhamos nossos entornos com a curiosidade viva e espantada de uma criança – ou de uma criatura que acabou de chegar do espaço…

Sagan, pra mim, é antes de tudo uma pessoa que procura despertar nos outros um “senso de maravilhamento”. A sense of wonderment. Apesar de ser possível interpretar sua “atitude” como a de um cientista muito “convencido” e seguro de si que fala com a duvidosa autoridade de quem pensa ter descoberto todas as respostas, isto seria uma falsa imagem. Acompanhar Sagan através da série é descobrir um homem que observa o Cosmos com um olhar assombrado, boquiaberto, plenamente ciente de que há profundos mistérios irresolvidos e outros ainda sequer sondados…

O que Sagan mais quer é que a gente se deslumbre —- e um programa de TV como o Fantástico, que eu assistia direto quando pivete, antes de ter chegado à conclusão de que a Rede Globo era uma ofensa ao meu cérebro, deve muito ao “espírito” de Sagan (apesar de carecer de 90% de seu insight e talento). O principal efeito que Sagan procura gerar em nossas consciências com seu Cosmos não é a submissão a teorias que ele nos imporia como verdades inegáveis, mas sim um espanto deslumbrado diante do novo, do inefável, do imensurável, do nebuloso, do misterioso, do enigmático e do sublime…

Em vários momentos da série  isto chega a beirar o piegas, o kitsch, o corny… Em seus momentos menos inspirados, Sagan pode até aparecer a um espectador mais irônico como um caricato abraçador-de-árvores, que fica dando beijinhos nas rosas e falando hipponguices de eco-chato: um cara assim, meio Greenpeace e P.V., que talvez nutra simpatias pelo hare krishna e pelas músicas do George Harrison que contêm cítaras… Estou chacoteando, mas juro que é com carinho…

É que, por mais que eu o admire, não consigo conter minha ironia quando, em vários momentos, irrompe aquela bizarra trilha-sonora meio new age, meio Kitaro e Enya (blargh!), tudo rodeado por um colorido artificialesco que lembra O Mágico de Oz e os primórdios da computação gráficaMas não dá para exigir de um cientista que possua bom gosto estético, certo? Mas suas duvidosas escolhas estéticas não são desprovidas de uma certa magia: pois Sagan parece não se deslumbrar somente com o Universo, mas também com a magia do cinema, por vezes tentando assumir na tela uma atitude de Indiana Jones ou Luke Skywalker da vida-real… Infelizmente, Sagan não é nem metade tão bom ator quanto é bom pensador. Mas ao menos isto deixa Cosmos com um certo sabor humorístico involuntário que é um de seus charmes. E não falta charme mesmo nas cenas mais “metidas a bonitinhas” onde vemos borboletinhas pousando em rosas, vaga-lumes piscando na noite como pequenas estrelas aladas ou dandelions soprados pela brisa matinal… É, confesso, um guilty pleasure irresistível.

Já os efeitos de computação gráfica, para nós da era de Avatar e da trilogia Toy Story, são aquela “tosqueira” que dos anos 1970 e 80 que hoje lamentamos (“tão primitivos! E tão feiosos!”, seria tentado a queixar-se um amante dos eye-candys da nossa atual Sociedade do Espetáculo circa 2.010…). Mas não acho que estraguem o caldo. Ao contrário: o conteúdo, de longe, compensa pelas limitações da forma.

Pois não há como negar que a série é, em geral, muitíssimo bem-sucedida em elucidar para o espectador de modo cativante, compreensível e sedutor várias dos mais importantes empreendimentos científicos da jornada humana, do átomo de Demócrito ao heliocentrismo de Copérnico, do mapeamento das órbitas planetárias de Kepler à decifração do Genoma humano, do evolucionismo de Darwin à relatividade de Einstein…

Em seus melhores momentos, Carl Sagan parece alçar-se ao nível de alguma das maiores mentes do Iluminismo francês, como uma espécie de Voltaire norte-americano, capaz de ferinas ironias e aparentemente apto a reter em sua mente um conhecimento tão vasto que mereceria um adjetivo bem à la Diderot e D’Alembert: “enciclopédico!”

Mas há outras sociedades que, bem mais que a sociedade francesa circa-1789, que Sagan parece ver com extrema simpatia quando faz um “passeio histórico” pelo passado humano. As civilizações que ele parece descrever com maior carinho são aquelas da Grécia pré-socrática, entre 400 e 200 a.C., quando viveram e pensaram Demócrito, Tales de Mileto, Anaxágoras e tantos outros precursores da ciência moderna; a Alexandria durante os anos de profundo cosmopolitismo e discussão científica e filosófica, antes da queima da Grande Biblioteca; e a Holanda do século 17 – aquela de Rembrandt, Vermeer, Huysgens etc.

* * * * * *


The cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements were made in red giants and supernovas and then blown off to space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Our sun is probably a 3rd generation star. Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the sun and the Earth was synthesed in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals, were all made thousands of light-years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society and we ourselves are built of star stuff…”

A série tenta dar respostas sensatas e ponderadas para muitos temas de vasto interesse popular (e que encheram por décadas as páginas de revistas como a Superinteressante, a Galileu e a Mundo Estranho, que muito devem ao “espírito” de Sagan, ainda que também deixem a desejar em termos de aprofundamento…): da possibilidade de uma viagem no tempo aos OVNIs, da origem da vida à composição química das estrelas, de futuras missões inter-estelares a cálculos sobre o número de civilizações inteligentes possíveis no Universo, a série não se recusa a averiguar hipóteses. E até afirma que é verdade certas “coisas” de deixar bestificado de espanto qualquer um de nós: somos, afinal de contas, feitos de poeira estelar! Nenhum dos átomos que compõe nossos corpos, nenhum dos átomos que compõe tudo o que existe neste planeta, foi gerado por aqui mesmo. Tudo o que conhecemos é construído com “tijolinhos” gerados nos bilhões de úteros das estrelas e depois esparramados pelo vasto, escuro e frio espaço…

We’re all stardust, harvesting star light!

Mas nem tudo é poesia e alumbramento nesta jornada: a série foi produzida com a adrenalina dos tempos de crise e em muitos momentos nota-se uma certa “tensão” no ar, natural de um seriado concebido e gravado nos anos 70, não muitos anos depois da Crise dos Mísseis em Cuba que ameaçou esquentar a Guerra Fria, pondo assim em risco a sobrevivência de todo o planeta. Cosmos é um seriado assombrado pelo fantasma do Apocalipse Nuclear. De modo que soa às vezes como uma espécie de “levante” de um grande cientista norte-americano que ergue-se, soando barulhentos alarmes, como se quisesse impedir que Hiroshima se repita. Em certo sentido, é como se seguisse o conselho de Theodor Adorno de que a educação depois do Holocausto deveria ter uma de suas tarefas cruciais “evitar que Auschwitz se repita”. Sagan protesta com veemência, p. ex., contra o trilhão de dólares anuais que o mundo, em sua época, dedicava a gastos militares. E nossa época não está muito diferente, como sabe qualquer um que consulte as verba$$$ suntuosas que os EUA dedicam ao militarismo.

Sagan foi também um destes que embarcou na onda da “globalização” de um modo festeiro e utópico, supondo de modo talvez otimista em excesso que a fraternidade humana estaria sendo construída pelas facilitações tecnológicas na comunicação e no transporte que possibilitam nosso atual estado de inter-conexão global. Elogia o cosmopolitismo e a abertura a outras culturas e tradições, como quem bem sabe que somos todos uma só espécie sobre um planeta que, quando visto do espaço, não possui fronteiras.

Defende o método da ciência, segundo o qual “a única verdade sagrada é que não existem verdades sagradas”. Lança sua abominação sobre o obsceno número de armas nucleares nos arsenais de tantas nações, sobre a desnecessária matança das baleias e contra o deflorestamento, e já insistia desde então nos perigos do aquecimento global e do Efeito Estufa. E nos mostrou muito bem, no caso de Marte e Vênus, que desgraceira pode decorrer da gente zoar com nossa camada de ozônio…

Não fala em Gaia, mas a deusa está presente por toda parte.

* * * * *

IV. Blues for a Blue Planet

Há, sim, algo de potencialmente deprimente nesta viagem de descoberta. Na vasta imensidão do Universo, somos algo inegavelmente minúsculo. A astronomia esmaga qualquer pretensão humana de gigantismo: somos anões num planeta medíocre de uma galáxia qualquer. Não há nenhuma evidência confiável de que alguma espécie de outra civilização de outro planeta tenha entrado em contato conosco: por enquanto, não encontramos nada que negue a hipótese de que estamos sozinhos. Nossos telescópios vasculham cada centímetro cúbico dos céus, com criaturas por detrás das lentes sedentas por diálogo, e as estrelas prosseguem em silêncio. É o que apavorava Pascal: “le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie…”. É o “silêncio das estrelas” de que se lamenta Lenine numa de suas mais melancólicas canções: “amanheço mortal…”

Cosmos fala pouco sobre a morte, como quem por polidez evita um tema penoso. Mas, ao falar sobre o universo e sua grandeza quase inimaginável, faz com que nos confrontemos com o fato irrecusável da pequenez e da fragilidade da raça humana. Ao mesmo tempo que nos abre frente aos olhos um imenso leque de façanhas que esta mesma espécie conquistou: não há em nenhum outro canto do Universo conhecido nada que se assemelhe a nós. Não conseguimos, por enquanto, nos deparar com outros seres conscientes habitando este cosmos tão repleto de “coisas” que existem em total ignorância de si mesmas, inconscientes de sua própria existência.

Tudo indica que fomos só nós, nesta imensidão da matéria, que “despertamos”. E talvez seja algo muitíssimo raro isto que aconteceu neste planetinha: a matéria chegando a uma organização tal que fez surgir a Consciência. É sinal que a matéria tem espantosas propriedades, já que nos gerou, a estas espantosas criaturas que somos!

O córtex cerebral não é menos fantástico que uma galáxia distante. E pensar que há mais neurônios dentro da cabeça de cada um de nós do que há grãos de areia em todas as praias do planeta Terra! Temos um imenso universo dentro do crânio. Um universo capaz de consciência de si mesmo, o que o universo lá fora não é capaz de alcançar, ao que parece… É que a consciência tinha que começar em algum lugar? Pois bem: talvez sejamos este começo, o que já é missão nobre.

E que faz com que seja importantíssimo não deixar que esta chama se apague. Bilhões de anos foram gastos neste “produto” espantoso da Natureza: matéria viva e consciente. E agora temos em mãos a sombria e inquietante possibilidade de jogar isto fora e desfazer uma obra-prima da Dança Cósmica…

A Dança de Shiva

Somos minúsculos, é verdade, mas também somos raros. Somos pequenos, é verdade, mas para cada uma das células que nos compõe talvez sejamos do tamanho de uma galáxia, e tão misteriosos e incompreensíveis quanto…

E somos, é claro, o único ponto em todo o Ser onde há busca pela verdade, pela compreensão, pelo sentido. É claro que Carl Sagan não nos explica qual é o “sentido do Universo”: seria muito megalomaníaco e francamente antipático se sustentasse ter a solução para este profundo enigma. É óbvio que a Ciência não tem uma resposta para isto, o que salva a Filosofia de cair na inutilidade, e a reabilita para os séculos porvir.

Afinal de contas, a tentação de abraçar a hipótese de um deus prossegue, já que parece necessário que algo tenha sido o Primeiro Motor ou o Criador de toda esta miríade de galáxias – a watch implies a watchmaker. Mas o fato da humanidade ter inventado a hipótese Deus me parece apenas uma tentativa simplória de tentar dar conta de um mistério que ainda estamos longe de desvendar. Àqueles que se sentirem tentados a abraçar a confortável hipótese de um deus criador de tudo depois de assistirem Cosmos, sugiro que antes tem um passeio por outra grande mente científica de nosssos temops: Richard Dawkins, o grande desilusionista… Sim: de onde diabos “saíram” todas as estrelas, planetas, buracos-negros, tudo que existe? O que é o diabo deste “espaço” (aparentemente infinito…) onde tudo isso bóia, viaja e existe? Quem foi que colocou em movimento esta incessante correnteza cósmica que não conhece um só segundo de remanso? De onde saiu toda essa matéria, todos esses átomos, toda essa luz? Sempre existiu ou um dia começou? Tem sentido ou somente existência? É eterno ou conhecerá um dia o nada?

Tudo, ainda, profundos mistérios. E vasto alimento para o nosso espanto.