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on December 14, 2010
I couldn't wait to finish this excellent book so I could finally write a review and recommend it to anyone looking for a rational, evidence-based justification for meaning of life and ways to determine it.

Thagard first explains how minds (appear to) work, and why there is no need to appeal to any supernatural explanation to explain them. I had heard about neural networks, of course, (who hasn't? - I also took some college psychology classes and have read several books about psychology) but never really understood how this model actually explains our minds. This book explained the idea so well that this revelation alone would have been worth the read.

The second part of the book takes the concepts of the first part (minds are brains, free will is an illusion) and builds upon them to discuss the big questions of morality and the meaning of life. How can we be moral if there's no free will? How can there be any meaning in life if we haven't been created for a particular purpose?

To answer these questions, the author not only describes the scientific point of view (often describing competing theories), but regularly switches to normative philosophic arguments to show what we "ought" to value (e.g. why we should trust the scientific method, or why we should reject moral relativism). This combination of science and philosophy creates real synergy and succeeds in offering a very intellectually and emotionally satisfying account of the mind and meaning of life.

I read Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape just before this book and found its argument for a scientific basis for objective morality lacking. This book succeeded in showing - with lucid style and dispassionate (in a good sense!) argumentation - that we can find meaning in life without resorting to supernatural ideas.

I can't put in words how much I enjoyed reading this book and how much it has strung a chord. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. If you've ever pondered the questions mentioned above, do yourself a favor and read this book!
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on May 12, 2010
a book review by Dr. Michael Shermer

TWICE I HAVE SPOKEN at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. Twice I have begrudgingly agreed to the strictly enforced 18-minute talk format -- grumbling that "ideas worth spreading" (the TED motto) could not possibly be conveyed in such a constrained format. And twice have I been proven wrong. With discipline and diligence you really can say something of substance in a tight space, and more than 200 million downloads of endlessly entertaining and educational videos prove the principle of pithiness.

In The Brain and the Meaning of Life, philosopher, psychologist, and computer scientist Paul Thagard (University of Waterloo) has elegantly employed the pithiness principle. He offers a tightly reasoned, often humorous, and original contribution to the emerging practice of applying science to areas heretofore the province of philosophers, theologians, ethicists, and politicians: What is reality and how can we know it? Are mind and brain one or two? What is the source of the sense of self? What is love? What is the difference between right and wrong, and how can we know it? What is the most legitimate form of government? What is the meaning of life, and how can we find happiness in it? Thagard employs the latest tools and findings of science in his attempts to answer these (and additional) questions. He briefly reviews how others have addressed them in the past. And he discusses how a scientific worldview can inform one's analysis and in some cases fully answer the questions -- at least to the satisfaction of those of us who take a strictly materialist and naturalist perspective.

Yes, there is a point of view here, and well there should be. When Henry Fawcett commented to Charles Darwin that some scientists found Darwin too theoretical and believed that he should just let the facts speak for themselves, Darwin responded: "How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service" (1). Thagard's perspective is that of cognitive neuroscience. He wants to bore into the brain to add a layer of more objective analysis.

Take love, as Thagard does in a concise six pages. He notes that when you gaze upon the face of your lover, the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens -- both rich in dopamine receptors and associated with extremely positive feelings similar to those in cocaine addiction -- become quite active. He remarks how the hormone oxytocin increases feelings of attachment between people. These findings and numerous others that he mentions support his model of emotional consciousness, "emocon" (2). That conceptual model sketches how different areas of the brain "interact to produce emotions as the result of both cognitive appraisal and bodily perception." In it, external stimuli (such as the sight of your loved one) are input through the senses (sight, smells, touch) to the thalamus, which in turn stimulates both brain states and bodily states (increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and flushed skin, and so forth). A network of mutual interactions among the amygdala, the insula, and various parts of the prefrontal cortex integrates bodily perceptions and cognitive appraisal. Thus, the base emotions from the amygdala (lusty passion) are linked to the higher cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex (assessment of the relationship).

How does all this get coordinated into a single feeling that we call love? Our dualistic intuitions tell us that there must be a mind that knows what the brain is doing, or some brain module that coordinates all processes into a single self, or some sort of central processing homunculus that sits at a neural switchboard. Not so, says Thagard: "There is no central processor that coordinates all the results and yields a decision. Rather, the brain's reaction to a scary face or other sensory stimulus comes about through the dynamic interaction of external sensory perception, internal sensory perception, cognitive appraisal, and positive and negative valuation." But from where does the sense of a single entity arise? Reciprocal feedback systems: "Note that the connections between brain areas in the ... model are reciprocal, based on neural evidence that there is extensive feedback between neural populations in each pair of regions."

Whether or not reciprocal feedback systems can properly account for such subjective qualia states as love (or for the "self ") is highly debatable. Still, Thagard is to be commended for proposing a testable hypothesis and providing evidence in support of it that can be easily accessed by both scientists and general readers. On the subjective feeling of happiness, for example, he cites data gathered by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky on what makes people happy (3). Many things do, among them: expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, avoiding overthinking and social comparison, practicing acts of kindness, nurturing social relationships, developing strategies for coping, learning to forgive, increasing flow experiences (in which one is absorbed in an activity), savoring life's joys, committing to your goals, practicing religion and spirituality, and taking care of your body through physical activity. Thagard is mildly dismissive of religion and spirituality, but he need not be -- just broaden the category to include any activity that generates a sense of awe and transcendence. (For me, that comes from visiting astronomical observatories, fossil quarries, or geological formations, all of which lead to the contemplation of deep time and the humbling sense of insignificance before the vastness of the cosmos.)

Toward the end of The Brain and the Meaning of Life, Thagard dares to employ an objective standard to answer the question "What kind of government should countries have?" Because he gives the topic less than three full pages, political scientists will certainly feel that their field has been shortchanged. And while I agree with his conclusion that the current form of government most likely to satisfy human needs is "a liberal democracy operating in a capitalist economic system," I take issue with his subsequent qualification, "with substantial state support for education, health care, and other egalitarian social requirements." Nonetheless, I applaud Thagard's approach of bringing to bear on the question two data sets: the United Nations Human Development Index (which rates 177 countries on how well they provide their citizens with "a long and healthy life, education, and a decent standard of living") and yearly surveys, since 1981, of subjective well-being (happiness). Iceland, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland appeared near the top in both lists. It is true that two data sets do not a political science make, but Thagard's concluding remarks in this section are a model of scientific caution and skepticism: "We should also not rule out the possibility that some form of government not currently practiced might actually be better for meeting vital human needs than those now in operation. Perhaps future social experiments will find creative new ways of governing states that will be more effective than those now observed." Although we cannot implement such experiments in the name of science, if they do happen, scientists should be the first in to record the results.

1. Letter, C. R. Darwin to H. Fawcett, 18 September 1861;
2. P. Thagard, B. Aubie, Conscious. Cogn. 17, 811 (2008).
3. S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach
to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, New York, 2008).
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on December 20, 2010
Professor Thagard has done a fine job of bringing together various research to support a hypothesis that love, work, and play are the basic elements of meaning in life.

Of course you still know little about meaning if you don't study and understand how he supports his conclusion. This is where Mr. Thagard messes things up a little. Much of the book is a repudiation of philosophical theories. This content would be fine of course in an academic paper but I found it is distracting in this book. I have nothing against picking on philosophers who base their work on speculation but I would have preferred this effort to be in later chapters instead of sprinkled throughout the book. They keep diverting a reader's attention from the well constructed flow.

I have studied the human relationship to meaning for decades but especially in the past dozen years. Thagard's hypothesis fits in nicely with what I've found if you take the definitions of love, play, and work liberally as he does. People can attach meaning to pretty much anything physical or non-physical. That they do that through love, work, and/or play is new to me but so far I've found the hypothesis works to explain what is happening in the real world - including religion.

For an explanation of love, work, and play in a religious context think of "Protestant work ethic", "Love one another", and the numerous fun activities and songs hosted by most religious groups.

Mr. Thagard is very clear about what issues are not yet supported by enough research. He doesn't have all the answers. However, as many of us know, the gaps in knowledge are closing fast. It is difficult to see at this time that closing those gaps will make a material difference in Thagard's conclusions. We seem to be close to game over.

At the time of this review there is an extensive review of the book by an obvious theist. He's upset that the religious concept of Free Will is under attack and that our concept of mind is actually within a physical brain. He looks to religion to explain what is now mostly explained by rational research. He also practices "religion of the gaps" - trying to use the remaining unanswered questions to justify his beliefs.

I understand his frustration but really folks, we've been in this situation at least hundreds of times in the past 400 years of scientific reasoning and research methods and theist opinions consistently fail to explain the real world -- including how non-theists have lots of meaning and morality in their lives. Thagard's work covers all the bases to the extent of existing research. However, there are still a few gaps left in the research and theists try hard to use those gaps to discredit scientifically supported hypotheses.

The theist reviewer believes that we need gods for morality. He has clearly missed out on the huge amount of research that supports another more compelling view that fits the real world. For example, he conveniently omits the results from dozens of research reports that some 96% of the prison population in the U.S. are now and were religious when they committed their crimes. While there is little evidence that religion causes crime (sorry atheists) there is no evidence to support that religion has morality benefits any greater than secular communities. This topic is discussed elsewhere in detail so I'll avoid it here but Thagard's work is supportive of that overwhelming evidence.

My favorite analogy about our minds being material within brains is the simple case of dementia and brain injuries. As the brain deteriorates humans clearly lose parts of their minds. (Same with chemical imbalances.) So when we die and our brains do the ultimate deterioration why are we supposed to suddenly have whole minds again? Theists, there is a pattern here that is a big gap in your hypothesis.

I'll favor Thagard's hypothesis unless a better explanation comes along - and that is also his view.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon March 17, 2011
The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard

"The Brain and the Meaning of Life" is an ambitious book about answering some of the most important philosophical questions. Mr. Thagard makes use of research from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to come up with evidence-based answers to such questions. This 292-page book is composed of the following 10 chapters: 1. We all Need Wisdom, 2. Evidence Beats Faith, 3. Minds Are Brains, 4. How Brains Know Reality, 5. How Brains Feel Emotions, 6. How Brains Decide, 7. Why Life is Worth Living, 8. Needs and Hopes, 9. Ethical Brains, and 10. Making Sense of It All.


1. An accessible, well-written book with a touch of humor that tackles some of the most important philosophical questions, such as: What is reality? Why is life worth living? What is reality and how can we know it? What makes actions right or wrong?
2. Great use of the most current scientific evidence and theories to answer the aforementioned profound questions.
3. A very fair and reasonable approach throughout the book. The author does a wonderful job of conveying what we do know versus what remains to be known, in other words a sound scientific approach.
4. An enlightening book indeed. Lucid arguments backed by sound scientific research and Mr. Thagard has the innate ability of pulling everything together in a coherent manner.
5. Why evidence-based arguments are superior to faith-based arguments, an excellent chapter.
6. Compelling defense of why "inference to best explanation" is the best approach to determine the best explanation.
7. How science works.
8. A sound materialist approach to the brain. The mind is what the brain does.
9. Fascinating tidbits and facts throughout.
10. There is no scientific evidence for the soul, "soul" get used to it.
11. We admit enough to say state that conscious experience within the scope of causal explanation is still provisional but plausible. Science is indeed driven by doubt.
12. Mind-brain identity hypothesis stands out.
13. Inferences as neural processes.
14. Brain functions in perception supports constructive realism over empiricism and idealism.
15. Scientific theories as a more reliable guide to reality.
16. Great quotes abound. "Wisdom without knowledge is empty, but knowledge without wisdom is blind."
17. The EMOCON (emotional consciousness) Model illustrated.
18. The concepts of goals like you've never seen before.
19. How decisions occur without free will. The Brain Revolution explored.
20. The meaning of, love and play.
21. Psychological needs as biological needs.
22. Interesting take on morality.
23. How a naturalistic system of evidence-based philosophy is highly coherent with scientific information.
24. Great notes and glossary.
25. An extensive bibliography worthy of this excellent book.


1. Theists and some philosophers may take offense to the attacks on their views.
2. The author does an excellent job of conveying his worldview in an accessible manner but let's face it some concepts are complex no matter how you slice and will require further reading.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a very satisfying and enlightening read. Mr. Thagard provides compelling arguments for his theories and along the way debunks inferior philosophies. If you are looking for a book that gives you the meaning in life in a reasoned manner this is clearly it. I can't recommend this book enough and hoping that Mr. Thagard provides a follow up in the future when more evidence is known. Bravo!

Recommendations: "Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris, "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Supersense" by Bruce M. Hood, "The Third Basic Instinct..." by Alex S. Key and "The Myth of Free Will" by Cris Evatt.
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on November 24, 2015

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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on October 24, 2010
Thagard brings his rich understanding of cognitive neuroscience and his background in academic philosophy to bear on these fundamental questions: what is reality? how do we know reality? why is life worth living? and what makes actions right or wrong? Answering these questions, he maintains, is essential to the pursuit of wisdom: knowledge about what matters, why it matters, and how to achieve it. Thagard argues that what matters is love, work, and play, and that these goals are the meaning of life because they satisfy vital human needs.

Inspection of his table of contents reveals the systematic manner in which Thagard develops his argument. His writing style is clear, informed, well-documented, persuasive, and engaging. The book concludes with reports of or proposals for relevant research on politics, creativity, the nature of mathematical knowledge, and cosmology.

Thagard's book should be read by all students of "human nature," and beyond that, anyone interested in developing a scientifically and philosophically informed world view. It should be especially useful for any undergraduate considering majoring in philosophy.
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on September 10, 2010
Thagard takes philosophy and makes it practical. That is what philosophy was originally developed to do.

Out of all the many meanings a human can pursue, he focusses attention on just a few: meanings based on human needs.

Therefore, one need not despair. The situation is not hopeless.

Some of us need such clear guidance desperately.

Now we can access it here in this book.

If you care to validate the claims made in terms of even more extact analysis, consult Matter and Mind: A Philosophical Inquiry (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science).

For more on the influence neurotransmitters have on thinking, check out The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History.
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on June 9, 2016
Great book!
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on July 20, 2010
We have heard stories of the "mad scientist", and perhaps now we can speak of "mad scientism". It concerns scientists and their contemporary emulators like philosophers who insist beforehand that all reality must be material, admitting no distinct entity like consciousness or the spiritual, with particular dread of the supernatural.

Professor Thagard is an intense practitioner of scientism. He rejects not only a God and immortality, but also free will, found incompatible with a mechanistic brain, which he identifies with mind. The brain is of course dominant in the book's title, and, if I be allowed the pun, I question how well equipped with it the author is, let alone with wisdom, about which he tries to lecture the reader beginning with the first chapter (p.1).

He argues (p.120) that "free will is an illusion we can do without", saying subsequently that the chapter is concerned "with the normative question of how people ought to make decisions". If there is no free will, what is the point to "normative", "ought to", or "decisions", considering we have no choice in these matters? This contradiction occurs throughout the book, with many other illogicalities. He incessantly falls back on scientific particulars observed in the brain, connecting them with conscious events in the effort to demonstrate that conscious events are identical with the connected brain particulars. He and his colleagues do not claim to have established that identity, but hope springs eternal. But one may ask: what would establish the identity? All one can find is more detailed association of brain occurrences with conscious events. Their appearances are not the same, and they can only by fiat be decided to be the same.

Comparisons are made with such as "water [as] H2O" (p.43) or atoms, that we "once defined in terms of indivisibility, but [which] now we divide...into myriads of subatomic particles" (p.36). The last comparison is nonsense. If atoms are defined as indivisible, then they cannot be divisible. What happened was a redefinition, not an elucidation. The case with water concerns physical, 3-dimensional, objects, identified in various ways: seen from different angles, composed of certain material, and so on. But consciousness is distinguished from its objects by consisting of its ingredients and no more.

With the author's presumed absence of any reality outside the material one, he aims to substitute any hope for, for instance, an afterlife with a "meaning" of life, as also given in the book's title. It is not clear what his meaning of "meaning" is here. The word usually concerns linguistic content, and used elsewhere it becomes obscure. The author appears to look for some justification for living, offering some odd proposals. He is in the entire book stuck on the triad of love, work and play as the "meaning", which appears quite shallow. We seem to have deeper motives behind, at least, work and play. Might it be attaining happiness? But no. He discards happiness as a goal, considering it merely "a product of goal satisfaction" (p.146). Goodbye "pursuit of happiness". Apparently he wants to substitute "meaning" for "happiness" to dissuade one from hoping for more than a mundane life.

The author nonetheless struggles with the role of morality in a world barren of clear moral guidance. Striking is his distorted sense of proportion, evidently due to an extreme political bias in the direction of "political correctness". He ad nauseam holds up alleged "torture" as somehow the ultimate in immorality, with particular reference to the supposed torture of men held in connection with terrorism. He cites the known dilemma when one evil can only be prevented by another, presumably lesser, evil. This, however, deals chiefly with saving some life in compensation for some other. A lesser evil than death is hardly balanced opposite death. Even so there have been non-murderous crimes much more horrible than the infliction of displeasure or even pain our author views myopically as inadmissible "torture" in order to save many lives.
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on February 27, 2010
Found it boring. Nothing super interesting or novel- can be boiled down to "the most important areas in your life should be love work and play" or something along those lines. Just my opinion.
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