The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World

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MIT Press, Feb 13, 2009 - Philosophy - 304 pages
A noted philosopher proposes a naturalistic (rather than supernaturalistic) way to solve the "really hard problem": how to live in a meaningful way—how to live a life that really matters—even as a finite material being living in a material world.

If consciousness is "the hard problem" in mind science—explaining how the amazing private world of consciousness emerges from neuronal activity—then "the really hard problem," writes Owen Flanagan in this provocative book, is explaining how meaning is possible in the material world. How can we make sense of the magic and mystery of life naturalistically, without an appeal to the supernatural? How do we say truthful and enchanting things about being human if we accept the fact that we are finite material beings living in a material world, or, in Flanagan's description, short-lived pieces of organized cells and tissue?

Flanagan's answer is both naturalistic and enchanting. We all wish to live in a meaningful way, to live a life that really matters, to flourish, to achieve eudaimonia—to be a "happy spirit." Flanagan calls his "empirical-normative" inquiry into the nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing eudaimonics. Eudaimonics, systematic philosophical investigation that is continuous with science, is the naturalist's response to those who say that science has robbed the world of the meaning that fantastical, wishful stories once provided.

Flanagan draws on philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and psychology, as well as on transformative mindfulness and self-cultivation practices that come from such nontheistic spiritual traditions as Buddhism, Confucianism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, in his quest. He gathers from these disciplines knowledge that will help us understand the nature, causes, and constituents of well-being and advance human flourishing. Eudaimonics can help us find out how to make a difference, how to contribute to the accumulation of good effects—how to live a meaningful life.


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An academic philosopher discusses finding meaning in a material world. The assumption at the beginning is that humans are a transient collection of neurochemicals, and that all consciousness is ... Read full review

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The book teaches about some religion fundamentalism giving quotes from holly books. Something similar can be heared in the movie "The Root of All Evil? Part 2: The Virus of Faith. (Richard Dawkins, 2006)". For example, see two paragraphs from the book: [1.] The Qur'an implores the true believer in Allah this way: "Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate." (9: 73, see also 9:123) Regarding martydrom, the Qur'an says: "God has given those that fight with their goods and their persons a higher rank than those who stay at home. God has promised all a good reward; but far richer is the recompense for those who fight for Him.... He that leaves his swelling to fight for God and His apostles and is then overtaken by death shall be rewarded by God.... The unbelievers are your inveterate enemies." (4:95-101) [2.] "Suppose a loved one suggests that you give up belief in the God of Abraham and follow the Buddha's path?" Deuteronomy advises: "You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God." (13:8-11). The literal interpretation of this text is unambiguous. 


A Threat from the Human Sciences?
The Comparative Consensus
Buddhism and Science
4 Normative Mind Science? Psychology Neuroscience and the Good Life
5 Neuroscience Happiness and Positive Illusions
6 Spirituality Naturalized? A Strong Cat without Claws

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About the author (2009)

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of Consciousness Reconsidered and The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.

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