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

Paul Thagard 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, 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.

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

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5 thoughts on “Review of Paul Thagard’s, “The Brain and the Meaning of Life”

  1. Great post! What he says makes a lot of sense to me, and explains what is probably the best we can do with “meaning” for life. I still bet that, if life thrives with future super-technologies, it will branch out into a universal orgasm, a la the Hedonistic Imperative, without individualized persons, but just giant masses of “feeling-good-stuff.” Is that really meaningful? Maybe not, but it will be awesome.

  2. I think you may be right and I like the idea of being a drop in the ocean of being or a photon in a ball of light (or something like that.) Others will no doubt fear the notion of the collective. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

  3. I’ve wondered about this as well. I’ve come to think that one of the most difficult technological and cultural challenge facing humanity will be how to preserve and balance this sense of individuality while enabling us to benefit from collective association of consciousness. Of course, it may be that we’ll have no desire to be our individual selves because they cannot contain the awesome consciousness of the collective. Much like how in our own bodies we would not want to be any individual cell because the whole enables so much more.

  4. Many thinkers have suggested we are something like cells in the body of the universe/multiverse. This seems at the same time humbling and ennobling. To think how small we are, yet at the same time we are a part of everything. The more I reflect, the more I like this idea. Why not be part of the global brain and then the cosmic brain. In eastern religions this is the ultimate insight “thou art that,” as the Hindus say–you are it! you are god! Deep metaphysical questions here but I think there might be a way to be part of the collective and individual. Like I said in the previous response “when the raindrop falls into the ocean does it still exist?” Surely the answer is, yes and no.

  5. Mr. Kip Werking

    did you mean “orgasm” or “organism?” If you meant “organism” that’s the greatest Freudian slip of all time! But I think you did mean orgasm, a la the “hedonistic imperative.”

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