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The Brain and the Meaning of Life Hardcover – 14 Feb 2010

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (14 Feb. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691142726
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691142722
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,686,878 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2011

"[Thagard] offers a tightly reasoned, often humorous, and original contribution to the emerging practice of applying science to areas heretofore the province of philosophers, theologians, ethicists, and politicians: What is reality and how can we know it? Are mind and brain one or two? What is the source of the sense of self? What is love? What is the difference between right and wrong, and how can we know it? What is the most legitimate form of government? What is the meaning of life, and how can we find happiness in it? Thagard employs the latest tools and findings of science in his attempts to answer these (and additional) questions."--Michael Shermer, Science

"A thoughtful and well-researched attempt to answer that most fundamental existential question: why not kill yourself? Or, to give it a positive spin, what gives life meaning? Thagard lays out detailed arguments that reality is knowable through science, that minds are nothing other than material brains and that there are no ultimate rights and wrongs handed down by a supernatural being."--New Scientist

"Thagard's 'neural naturalism' promises nothing short of a conceptual revolution, or better, a paradigm shift. His evidence-based strategy uses the data from psychology and neuroscience to expose empirically based answers to questions such as, What is the meaning of life? What ought one to do? . . . Thagard's reader-friendly text includes a glossary, endnotes, and extensive references."--Choice

"The name of this well-written and ambitious book understates the breadth of its scope. The book deals with the relation of modern neuroscience not only to the meaning of life, but also to ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. . . . The discussion is rich, unorthodox, and frequently exciting."--Iddo Landau, Metapsychology Online Reviews

"The book integrates decades of multidisciplinary research, but its clear explanations and humor make it accessible to the general reader."--Gaia Media News

"[R]eaders will find much of the author's advice to be beneficial. The book contains many good suggestions for making one's life better including advice on how to be happier and how to make good decisions, all based on solid research in psychology and neuroscience. For anyone who is curious about current research in these fields, Thagard's book provides an accessible introduction to important concepts and theories."--Margery Lucas, Society

"Thagard has published a string of distinguished books and papers on reasoning and scientific explanation, and was a pioneer in using cognitive science to study the way scientists think. The sections on reasoning bear the imprint of this work, and pack a lot of philosophy into a short span."--Dominic Murphy, Australian Review of Public Affairs

From the Back Cover

"The Brain and the Meaning of Life provides a highly informed account of the relevance of recent neuroscience to human life. It compellingly tells how humans, as biological creatures in a physical world, can find meaning and value."--William Bechtel, University of California, San Diego

"Engagingly written for general readers, Thagard's book provides a nice description of current knowledge about the brain and explains how brain research bears on philosophical issues."--Gilbert Harman, Princeton University

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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By SRattan on 23 May 2010
Format: Hardcover
It is a nicely written - though at times a bit dragging - book about identifying what are the biological and psychological needs of human beings, and what are the tools to fulfill them, specially in the case of psychological needs, since those are the ones which raise the question of what is the meaning of life. Acronyming his ideas, the psychological need is CAR and the tools to pursue that (meaning the meaning) are WoPL. You will have to read the book to decipher what they mean - otherwise it is like telling you that the butler did it... I think the book could have been titled "The Brain Makes the Meaning of Life" - well, that is what I have done on the cover of my copy of the book - cutting off "AND" and writing "MAKES".
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3 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Transformations on 5 Oct. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Paul Thagart attempts at the grand theory of everything in terms of meaning by superficially covering very little, leaving the reader wondering what new novel insights have been given instead of rehashing previous ideas in a new superficial neuro-science clothed package.

The most difficult area attempted at was justifying an objective moral epistemology & ontology based on the doctrine of metaphysical naturalism. Whilst P.Thagard mentions the difficulty of going from an "Is" description to an "ought" prescriptive ethics [as Hume laid out] he does precisely this fallacy.
He's arguments are somewhat circular and would not be very convincing for any readers who are aware of the philosophical issues raised in meta-ethics.
The target audience for this book seems to be the public who may have only a brief outline of the difficult issues involved.

Essentially the attempt is made to justify objective human needs being competence, autonomy and relatedness and that these can be instantiated via the acts of "love, work and play" - and that this is the meaning of life, all ethics and "its all OK, we dont need to commit suicide" in answering Albert Camus Nihilistic question of why not commit suicide.
(The advice being seek a psychiatrist and some prescribed medication if attempting to answering Albert Camus philosophical question as "yes - suicide is worthwhile, how do we go about it")

THe key point is that the appeal to these psychological needs (relatedness, autonomy, competence - RAC)are hardly new ideas and would fit virtually any philosophy whether naturalistic, idealist neo-platonic, pagan, theisic, dualistic, monistic or whatever.
Also what exactly makes these psychological needs so "objective" ???
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
70 of 82 people found the following review helpful
eSkeptic review by Dr. Michael Shermer 12 May 2010
By Mark G. Roberts - Published on
Format: Hardcover
a book review by Dr. Michael Shermer

TWICE I HAVE SPOKEN at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. Twice I have begrudgingly agreed to the strictly enforced 18-minute talk format -- grumbling that "ideas worth spreading" (the TED motto) could not possibly be conveyed in such a constrained format. And twice have I been proven wrong. With discipline and diligence you really can say something of substance in a tight space, and more than 200 million downloads of endlessly entertaining and educational videos prove the principle of pithiness.

In The Brain and the Meaning of Life, philosopher, psychologist, and computer scientist Paul Thagard (University of Waterloo) has elegantly employed the pithiness principle. He offers a tightly reasoned, often humorous, and original contribution to the emerging practice of applying science to areas heretofore the province of philosophers, theologians, ethicists, and politicians: What is reality and how can we know it? Are mind and brain one or two? What is the source of the sense of self? What is love? What is the difference between right and wrong, and how can we know it? What is the most legitimate form of government? What is the meaning of life, and how can we find happiness in it? Thagard employs the latest tools and findings of science in his attempts to answer these (and additional) questions. He briefly reviews how others have addressed them in the past. And he discusses how a scientific worldview can inform one's analysis and in some cases fully answer the questions -- at least to the satisfaction of those of us who take a strictly materialist and naturalist perspective.

Yes, there is a point of view here, and well there should be. When Henry Fawcett commented to Charles Darwin that some scientists found Darwin too theoretical and believed that he should just let the facts speak for themselves, Darwin responded: "How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service" (1). Thagard's perspective is that of cognitive neuroscience. He wants to bore into the brain to add a layer of more objective analysis.

Take love, as Thagard does in a concise six pages. He notes that when you gaze upon the face of your lover, the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens -- both rich in dopamine receptors and associated with extremely positive feelings similar to those in cocaine addiction -- become quite active. He remarks how the hormone oxytocin increases feelings of attachment between people. These findings and numerous others that he mentions support his model of emotional consciousness, "emocon" (2). That conceptual model sketches how different areas of the brain "interact to produce emotions as the result of both cognitive appraisal and bodily perception." In it, external stimuli (such as the sight of your loved one) are input through the senses (sight, smells, touch) to the thalamus, which in turn stimulates both brain states and bodily states (increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and flushed skin, and so forth). A network of mutual interactions among the amygdala, the insula, and various parts of the prefrontal cortex integrates bodily perceptions and cognitive appraisal. Thus, the base emotions from the amygdala (lusty passion) are linked to the higher cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex (assessment of the relationship).

How does all this get coordinated into a single feeling that we call love? Our dualistic intuitions tell us that there must be a mind that knows what the brain is doing, or some brain module that coordinates all processes into a single self, or some sort of central processing homunculus that sits at a neural switchboard. Not so, says Thagard: "There is no central processor that coordinates all the results and yields a decision. Rather, the brain's reaction to a scary face or other sensory stimulus comes about through the dynamic interaction of external sensory perception, internal sensory perception, cognitive appraisal, and positive and negative valuation." But from where does the sense of a single entity arise? Reciprocal feedback systems: "Note that the connections between brain areas in the ... model are reciprocal, based on neural evidence that there is extensive feedback between neural populations in each pair of regions."

Whether or not reciprocal feedback systems can properly account for such subjective qualia states as love (or for the "self ") is highly debatable. Still, Thagard is to be commended for proposing a testable hypothesis and providing evidence in support of it that can be easily accessed by both scientists and general readers. On the subjective feeling of happiness, for example, he cites data gathered by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky on what makes people happy (3). Many things do, among them: expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, avoiding overthinking and social comparison, practicing acts of kindness, nurturing social relationships, developing strategies for coping, learning to forgive, increasing flow experiences (in which one is absorbed in an activity), savoring life's joys, committing to your goals, practicing religion and spirituality, and taking care of your body through physical activity. Thagard is mildly dismissive of religion and spirituality, but he need not be -- just broaden the category to include any activity that generates a sense of awe and transcendence. (For me, that comes from visiting astronomical observatories, fossil quarries, or geological formations, all of which lead to the contemplation of deep time and the humbling sense of insignificance before the vastness of the cosmos.)

Toward the end of The Brain and the Meaning of Life, Thagard dares to employ an objective standard to answer the question "What kind of government should countries have?" Because he gives the topic less than three full pages, political scientists will certainly feel that their field has been shortchanged. And while I agree with his conclusion that the current form of government most likely to satisfy human needs is "a liberal democracy operating in a capitalist economic system," I take issue with his subsequent qualification, "with substantial state support for education, health care, and other egalitarian social requirements." Nonetheless, I applaud Thagard's approach of bringing to bear on the question two data sets: the United Nations Human Development Index (which rates 177 countries on how well they provide their citizens with "a long and healthy life, education, and a decent standard of living") and yearly surveys, since 1981, of subjective well-being (happiness). Iceland, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland appeared near the top in both lists. It is true that two data sets do not a political science make, but Thagard's concluding remarks in this section are a model of scientific caution and skepticism: "We should also not rule out the possibility that some form of government not currently practiced might actually be better for meeting vital human needs than those now in operation. Perhaps future social experiments will find creative new ways of governing states that will be more effective than those now observed." Although we cannot implement such experiments in the name of science, if they do happen, scientists should be the first in to record the results.

1. Letter, C. R. Darwin to H. Fawcett, 18 September 1861;
2. P. Thagard, B. Aubie, Conscious. Cogn. 17, 811 (2008).
3. S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach
to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, New York, 2008).
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
There is meaning in life without a soul or free will, and we can find it 14 Dec. 2010
By Jeroen Versteeg - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I couldn't wait to finish this excellent book so I could finally write a review and recommend it to anyone looking for a rational, evidence-based justification for meaning of life and ways to determine it.

Thagard first explains how minds (appear to) work, and why there is no need to appeal to any supernatural explanation to explain them. I had heard about neural networks, of course, (who hasn't? - I also took some college psychology classes and have read several books about psychology) but never really understood how this model actually explains our minds. This book explained the idea so well that this revelation alone would have been worth the read.

The second part of the book takes the concepts of the first part (minds are brains, free will is an illusion) and builds upon them to discuss the big questions of morality and the meaning of life. How can we be moral if there's no free will? How can there be any meaning in life if we haven't been created for a particular purpose?

To answer these questions, the author not only describes the scientific point of view (often describing competing theories), but regularly switches to normative philosophic arguments to show what we "ought" to value (e.g. why we should trust the scientific method, or why we should reject moral relativism). This combination of science and philosophy creates real synergy and succeeds in offering a very intellectually and emotionally satisfying account of the mind and meaning of life.

I read Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape just before this book and found its argument for a scientific basis for objective morality lacking. This book succeeded in showing - with lucid style and dispassionate (in a good sense!) argumentation - that we can find meaning in life without resorting to supernatural ideas.

I can't put in words how much I enjoyed reading this book and how much it has strung a chord. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. If you've ever pondered the questions mentioned above, do yourself a favor and read this book!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Excellent analysis of research to date 20 Dec. 2010
By James Preston - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Thagard has done a fine job of bringing together various research to support a hypothesis that love, work, and play are the basic elements of meaning in life.

Of course you still know little about meaning if you don't study and understand how he supports his conclusion. This is where Mr. Thagard messes things up a little. Much of the book is a repudiation of philosophical theories. This content would be fine of course in an academic paper but I found it is distracting in this book. I have nothing against picking on philosophers who base their work on speculation but I would have preferred this effort to be in later chapters instead of sprinkled throughout the book. They keep diverting a reader's attention from the well constructed flow.

I have studied the human relationship to meaning for decades but especially in the past dozen years. Thagard's hypothesis fits in nicely with what I've found if you take the definitions of love, play, and work liberally as he does. People can attach meaning to pretty much anything physical or non-physical. That they do that through love, work, and/or play is new to me but so far I've found the hypothesis works to explain what is happening in the real world - including religion.

For an explanation of love, work, and play in a religious context think of "Protestant work ethic", "Love one another", and the numerous fun activities and songs hosted by most religious groups.

Mr. Thagard is very clear about what issues are not yet supported by enough research. He doesn't have all the answers. However, as many of us know, the gaps in knowledge are closing fast. It is difficult to see at this time that closing those gaps will make a material difference in Thagard's conclusions. We seem to be close to game over.

At the time of this review there is an extensive review of the book by an obvious theist. He's upset that the religious concept of Free Will is under attack and that our concept of mind is actually within a physical brain. He looks to religion to explain what is now mostly explained by rational research. He also practices "religion of the gaps" - trying to use the remaining unanswered questions to justify his beliefs.

I understand his frustration but really folks, we've been in this situation at least hundreds of times in the past 400 years of scientific reasoning and research methods and theist opinions consistently fail to explain the real world -- including how non-theists have lots of meaning and morality in their lives. Thagard's work covers all the bases to the extent of existing research. However, there are still a few gaps left in the research and theists try hard to use those gaps to discredit scientifically supported hypotheses.

The theist reviewer believes that we need gods for morality. He has clearly missed out on the huge amount of research that supports another more compelling view that fits the real world. For example, he conveniently omits the results from dozens of research reports that some 96% of the prison population in the U.S. are now and were religious when they committed their crimes. While there is little evidence that religion causes crime (sorry atheists) there is no evidence to support that religion has morality benefits any greater than secular communities. This topic is discussed elsewhere in detail so I'll avoid it here but Thagard's work is supportive of that overwhelming evidence.

My favorite analogy about our minds being material within brains is the simple case of dementia and brain injuries. As the brain deteriorates humans clearly lose parts of their minds. (Same with chemical imbalances.) So when we die and our brains do the ultimate deterioration why are we supposed to suddenly have whole minds again? Theists, there is a pattern here that is a big gap in your hypothesis.

I'll favor Thagard's hypothesis unless a better explanation comes along - and that is also his view.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating! 17 Mar. 2011
By Book Shark - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard

"The Brain and the Meaning of Life" is an ambitious book about answering some of the most important philosophical questions. Mr. Thagard makes use of research from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to come up with evidence-based answers to such questions. This 292-page book is composed of the following 10 chapters: 1. We all Need Wisdom, 2. Evidence Beats Faith, 3. Minds Are Brains, 4. How Brains Know Reality, 5. How Brains Feel Emotions, 6. How Brains Decide, 7. Why Life is Worth Living, 8. Needs and Hopes, 9. Ethical Brains, and 10. Making Sense of It All.


1. An accessible, well-written book with a touch of humor that tackles some of the most important philosophical questions, such as: What is reality? Why is life worth living? What is reality and how can we know it? What makes actions right or wrong?
2. Great use of the most current scientific evidence and theories to answer the aforementioned profound questions.
3. A very fair and reasonable approach throughout the book. The author does a wonderful job of conveying what we do know versus what remains to be known, in other words a sound scientific approach.
4. An enlightening book indeed. Lucid arguments backed by sound scientific research and Mr. Thagard has the innate ability of pulling everything together in a coherent manner.
5. Why evidence-based arguments are superior to faith-based arguments, an excellent chapter.
6. Compelling defense of why "inference to best explanation" is the best approach to determine the best explanation.
7. How science works.
8. A sound materialist approach to the brain. The mind is what the brain does.
9. Fascinating tidbits and facts throughout.
10. There is no scientific evidence for the soul, "soul" get used to it.
11. We admit enough to say state that conscious experience within the scope of causal explanation is still provisional but plausible. Science is indeed driven by doubt.
12. Mind-brain identity hypothesis stands out.
13. Inferences as neural processes.
14. Brain functions in perception supports constructive realism over empiricism and idealism.
15. Scientific theories as a more reliable guide to reality.
16. Great quotes abound. "Wisdom without knowledge is empty, but knowledge without wisdom is blind."
17. The EMOCON (emotional consciousness) Model illustrated.
18. The concepts of goals like you've never seen before.
19. How decisions occur without free will. The Brain Revolution explored.
20. The meaning of, love and play.
21. Psychological needs as biological needs.
22. Interesting take on morality.
23. How a naturalistic system of evidence-based philosophy is highly coherent with scientific information.
24. Great notes and glossary.
25. An extensive bibliography worthy of this excellent book.


1. Theists and some philosophers may take offense to the attacks on their views.
2. The author does an excellent job of conveying his worldview in an accessible manner but let's face it some concepts are complex no matter how you slice and will require further reading.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a very satisfying and enlightening read. Mr. Thagard provides compelling arguments for his theories and along the way debunks inferior philosophies. If you are looking for a book that gives you the meaning in life in a reasoned manner this is clearly it. I can't recommend this book enough and hoping that Mr. Thagard provides a follow up in the future when more evidence is known. Bravo!

Recommendations: "Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Supersense" by Bruce M. Hood, "The Third Basic Instinct..." by Alex S. Key and "The Myth of Free Will" by Cris Evatt.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Powerful perspective 24 Oct. 2010
By Thomas Atwater - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thagard brings his rich understanding of cognitive neuroscience and his background in academic philosophy to bear on these fundamental questions: what is reality? how do we know reality? why is life worth living? and what makes actions right or wrong? Answering these questions, he maintains, is essential to the pursuit of wisdom: knowledge about what matters, why it matters, and how to achieve it. Thagard argues that what matters is love, work, and play, and that these goals are the meaning of life because they satisfy vital human needs.

Inspection of his table of contents reveals the systematic manner in which Thagard develops his argument. His writing style is clear, informed, well-documented, persuasive, and engaging. The book concludes with reports of or proposals for relevant research on politics, creativity, the nature of mathematical knowledge, and cosmology.

Thagard's book should be read by all students of "human nature," and beyond that, anyone interested in developing a scientifically and philosophically informed world view. It should be especially useful for any undergraduate considering majoring in philosophy.
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