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The Brain and the Meaning of Life

The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Brain and the Meaning of Life
    Book Description:

    Why is life worth living? What makes actions right or wrong? What is reality and how do we know it?The Brain and the Meaning of Lifedraws on research in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to answer some of the most pressing questions about life's nature and value. Paul Thagard argues that evidence requires the abandonment of many traditional ideas about the soul, free will, and immortality, and shows how brain science matters for fundamental issues about reality, morality, and the meaning of life. The ongoing Brain Revolution reveals how love, work, and play provide good reasons for living.

    Defending the superiority of evidence-based reasoning over religious faith and philosophical thought experiments, Thagard argues that minds are brains and that reality is what science can discover. Brains come to know reality through a combination of perception and reasoning. Just as important, our brains evaluate aspects of reality through emotions that can produce both good and bad decisions. Our cognitive and emotional abilities allow us to understand reality, decide effectively, act morally, and pursue the vital needs of love, work, and play. Wisdom consists of knowing what matters, why it matters, and how to achieve it.

    The Brain and the Meaning of Lifeshows how brain science helps to answer questions about the nature of mind and reality, while alleviating anxiety about the difficulty of life in a vast universe. The book integrates decades of multidisciplinary research, but its clear explanations and humor make it accessible to the general reader.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3461-7
    Subjects: Psychology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Chapter One we all need wisdom
    (pp. 1-12)

    Why don’t you kill yourself? Albert Camus began his bookThe Myth of Sisyphuswith the startling assertion “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” A French novelist and philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, Camus said that judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. If life is meaningless, there is no point to pursuing traditional philosophical questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, and morality.

    Why life is worth living is indeed an urgent question, but it is rarely the...

  6. Chapter Two evidence beats faith
    (pp. 13-41)

    When you have a medical problem, where do you look for information that might help you deal with it? Perhaps you consult a medical expert such as your family doctor, or maybe you go looking on the Web to see what practitioners of alternative medicine have to say about it. Or else you might ask a religious leader to whom you look for medical as well as spiritual guidance. My preference in medicine as well as philosophy is to look for scientific evidence rather than religious faith or a priori reasoning, but what justifies this preference? Isn’t it just a...

  7. Chapter Three minds are brains
    (pp. 42-66)

    Your brain is a mass of cells inside your skull and weighs around 1.4 kilograms, or 3 pounds. Common sense insists that your mind, with all its amazing powers of thinking and feeling, cannot just be your brain. The contrary belief that minds are souls is firmly held by the large majority of people who belong to theistic religions, and by many philosophers since Plato and Descartes. They allow that the mind may be closely associated with the body and especially with the brain, but insist that mind and brain are not the same because they have different properties. Your...

  8. Chapter Four how brains know reality
    (pp. 67-93)

    The comedian Lily Tomlin said that reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs. Some philosophers also have a low opinion of reality, seeing it as a mere construction of people’s minds or social contexts. In contrast, this chapter argues that the things investigated by science exist independently of our minds, construed as brains. Using perception and inference, brains can develop objective knowledge of reality, including knowledge relevant to assessing the meaning of life.

    The previous chapter’s conclusion that minds are brains has major implications for two central philosophical questions: what is reality, and how do we know...

  9. Chapter Five how brains feel emotions
    (pp. 94-118)

    Here is a story that may have an emotional effect on you. Mother Superior calls all the nuns together and says to them: “I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent.” “Thank God,” says an elderly nun at the back of the room, “I’m so tired of chardonnay.” Most people react to this joke with pleasurable surprise, including laughter. This chapter will try to explain the neural basis of this and other emotional reactions that are integral to appreciating the meaning of life.

    Here are some facts you probably didn’t know. Tirana is...

  10. Chapter Six how brains decide
    (pp. 119-141)

    The hardest decisions that people face during their lifetimes include choosing a career, changing jobs, retiring, getting married, getting divorced, and having a baby. Mathematical decision theory ought to help with such difficult choices, but here is a story about Howard Raiffa, one of the founders of the field. It concerns a conversation he had with Ernest Nagel, a distinguished philosopher of science and expert on probability theory. I can’t remember who first told me this story, but when I recounted it at Tel Aviv University years ago, a member of the audience said afterward that he had been a...

  11. Chapter Seven why life is worth living
    (pp. 142-167)

    Albert Camus did not kill himself. I started chapter 1 with his startling statement that suicide is a philosophical problem, part of the question of why life is worth living. Camus wrote that statement in his late twenties, but he never attempted suicide and died in his mid-forties when a car driven by a friend crashed into a tree. His wife, however, did try to kill herself, suffering from depression caused in part by his infidelities. Camus himself led a rich life, with a family that included two children, strong friendships, affairs with young actresses, and great professional success as...

  12. Chapter Eight needs and hopes
    (pp. 168-182)

    In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones sang: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you might find / You get what you need.” Most people want success at love, work, and play, but do they really need it? Our merely wanting something does not show that it deserves to be wanted. People often have frivolous desires acquired from social contagion or advertising—for example, wanting the latest gadget or fashionable clothes. To provide a solid answer to the question of why life is worth living, we need to establish that some goals really are...

  13. Chapter Nine ethical brains
    (pp. 183-208)

    Suppose you work for your country’s main security agency and you have apprehended a man who you strongly suspect is involved in a terrorist conspiracy. You have some reason to believe that other members of his group are planning a major attack that will cost many lives, but the man refuses to identify them despite extensive interrogation. Your moral dilemma is whether you should torture the terrorist in order to extract from him information that might prevent a major disaster.

    Now you have to make a decision that is not just about satisfying your personal goals. Rather, you have to...

  14. Chapter Ten making sense of it all
    (pp. 209-230)

    In one of my favorite jokes, a man goes into a movie theater and is surprised to see a woman enter with a dog. When the movie starts, the dog watches it, laughing at the funny parts, crying at the sad parts, and bouncing up and down at the exciting ending. When the movie finishes, the man chases after the woman and says: “Excuse me, I was amazed that your dog actually seemed to be enjoying the movie.” The woman responds: “I was surprised too—he hated the book.” Like most jokes, this one is funny because it sets up...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 231-250)
  16. Glossary
    (pp. 251-254)
  17. References
    (pp. 255-270)
  18. Index
    (pp. 271-274)