Review of Paul Thagard’s, The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard (1950 – ) is professor of philosophy, psychology, and computer science and director of the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. His recent book, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (2010), is the first book length study of the implications of brain science for the philosophical question of the meaning of life.

Thagard admits that he long ago lost faith in his childhood Catholicism, but that he still finds life meaningful. Like most of us, love, work, and play provide him with reasons to live. Moreover, he supports the claim that persons find meaning this way with evidence from psychology and neuroscience. (He is our first writer to do this explicitly.) Thus his approach is naturalistic and empirical as opposed to a priori and rationalistic. He defends his approach by noting that thousands of years of philosophizing have not yielded undisputed rational truths, and thus we must seek empirical evidence to ground our beliefs.

While neurophysiology does not tell us what to value, it does explain how we value—we value things if our brains associate them with positive feelings. Love, work, and play fit this bill because they are the source of the goals that give us satisfaction and meaning. To support these claims, Thagard notes that evidence supports the claim that personal relationships are a major source of well-being and are also brain changing. Similarly work also provides satisfaction for many, not merely because of income and status, but for reasons related to the neural activity of problem solving. Finally, play arouses the pleasures centers of the brain thereby providing immense psychological satisfaction. Sports, reading, humor, exercise, and music all stimulate the brain in positive ways and provide meaning.

Thagard summarizes his findings as follows: “People’s lives have meaning to the extent that love, work, and play provide coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding brain-based emotional consciousness of satisfaction and happiness.”[i]

To further explain why love, work, and play provide meaning, Thagard shows how they are connected with psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our need for competence explains why work provides meaning, and why menial work generally provides less of it. It also explains why skillful playing gives meaning. The love of friends and family is the major way to satisfy our need for relatedness, but play and work may do so as well. As for autonomy, work, play, and relationships are more satisfying when self-chosen. Thus our most vital psychological needs are fulfilled by precisely the things that give us the most meaning—precisely what we would expect.

Thagard believes he has connected his empirical claim the people do value love, work, and play with the normative claim that people should value them because these activities fulfill basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Our psychological needs when fulfilled are experienced as meaning.

Summary – Love, work, and play are our brains way of satisfying our basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In the process of engaging in these activities, we find meaning.


[i] Paul Thagard, The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 165.

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