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The Brain and the Meaning of Life
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 23 May 2010
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
on 5 October 2010
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" ???- clearly some people don't need these "psychological needs" to the same degree for a meaningful life !!! - eg Kurt Godel was a genius in terms of mathematical logical competence but not exactly great in the relationships side (and perhaps by averaging out "balancing" these needs would have diminished the genius & unique abilities)
I'm sure readers can think of dozens other examples in areas where psychological needs vary for different individuals and perhaps tribes & cultures.
THese "psychological needs ideas" are not new and the choice of work, play and love is somewhat vague - there are vast volumes of psychology books these days & from antiquity each with their recommendations on the most appropriate psychological needs eg Abraham Maslow's Needs hierarchies, Manfred Max-Neef fundamental human needs theory to Aristotles Nicomachian Ethics and the thoughts of the stoic philosophers, taoists and so on.

Then the attempt is made to ground these psychological needs in terms of neuroscience - and this is were I think P.Thagards thesis becomes a bit muddled. The neuroscience findings (fMRI scans and cognitive theoretical models of brain functioning)are descriptive and how does he then try to turn these into prescriptive "deontological" type ethical "laws" (dare I say command assertions ! )
How does this follow ?
If most of us had the brain wiring of psychopaths who did this research, does it follow we ought to be cruel to each other ?
What if as psychopaths we felt our psychological needs being fulfilled by such acts of cruelty ? We related to our psychopath friends, even loving them, have autonomy and were very competent at our work of bullying and being cruel to others in what was considered as recreational play ???

On another note the arguments against a priori philosophizing were superficial and weak, they were not dealt with very well and analytical type philosophers would be tragically very upset (I mean instantiate negative cognitive appraisal)
Specifically many philosophers of mathematics & logic would not agree to the outcomes P.Thagard asserts - and these issues are treated in a few paragraphs ! (Even if P.Thagard was correct the lay reader would get the impression that these topics in philosophy are settled or anyone who disagrees with naturalism is a crazy bogus superstition peddler.)

Then there is P.Thagards rejection of free will - this section could have been improved considering P.Thagards position doesnt seem to be as extreme as Daniel Dennet (epiphenominalism) or Susan Blackmore's. Again for the lay reader this section is misleading giving the impression the issues involved have been resolved and anybody believing in free will must belong to the fundementalist creationist category. Clearly there are philosophers of eminent mind, even those taking a naturalistic approach who defend free will perception such as John Searle whose views need to be equaly considered i.e P.Thagard seems to be asserting rather than debating and if we disagree then its a matter of "the authority of the cognitive neuroscientists" (who's opinions do vary on these matters - even though most tend to be physicalists)

The section on goals and decision making "inference to the best plan" was pretty basic and could be found in any self help book on goals, self actualization, NLP etc - P.Thagard himself writes that "this is not a self help book" - so I will not write any more about this.
However ! The very idea of "inference to the best plan" in terms of goals and decision theory is very strange, especially for someone who denied free will ? Who is going the inference ? Who is deciding what the best plan is ??? Is it some Homuculous buried deep inside the folds of that soggy grey matter ? Little was mentioned about the difficulties involved in resolving these issues.

On a positive note hopefully people can get in touch with the issues involved in different disciplines from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, ethics and semantics. The very nature of harmonizing these topics is one of the greatest challenges in the universe therefore perhaps my review is a bit harsh - so I added an extra bonus star.
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