Nagel’s example of the infant and the brain-damaged man

Wesley asked:

Explain Nagel’s example of the infant and the brain injured man.

Answer by Nathan Sinclair

I assume you mean Nagel’s imaginary example of a person who suffers brain damage and is turned into a ‘big baby’ (this is found in Nagel’s essay ‘Death’ in Mortal Questions).

In the example someone painlessly suffers an injury which leaves them with the mental life (desires, beliefs, attitudes etc) of a 3 year old baby. Before the injury their life was pleasant enough, the injury itself was painless (suppose it happened while unconscious), and after the injury the person is cared for, they are treated well and their desires are met about as well as most three year olds, their nappy changed, food provided, interesting toys to play with and pleasant and attentive carers.

The point is that at no stage does the person suffer an unpleasant experience, but Nagel expects that we will find such an injury to be a disaster for the person who suffers it. If this is correct then there are bad (and presumably good) events that can happen to people that do not involve good and bad experiences, or indeed any non-relational properties – thus you can’t tell just by how someone is in isolation how well or badly off they are, you have to include their.relationships to other people and things, even relationships which they are unaware of.

In short, what they don’t know (or mind) can hurt them.


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