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The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (Bradford Books) Paperback – February 13, 2009

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Product Details

  • Series: Bradford Books
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: A Bradford Book; Reprint edition (February 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262512483
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262512480
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #576,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Flanagan brings his down-to-earth, ever-engaging style to the deep quandary of the human condition: how to flourish as material beings in this material world. Eschewing spiritualist notions of 'enchantment', he argues passionately that 'empiricism is the best source of true wisdom about our nature and our situation.' In his inimitable way he takes on evolution, brain science, philosophy of mind, and the Abrahamic religions to develop a Buddhist-inspired vision of 'Eudaimonics': the art of human flourishing. The Really Hard Problem will appeal to philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, religionists, and others open to materialist efforts to bridge the science/religion divide.

(Gillian Einstein, Associate Professor, Departments of Psychology, and Public Health Science, University of Toronto)

Ironically, contemporary philosophy almost never asks the philosophical questions that matter most deeply to our everyday lives. In fact those meaning of life questions have been deliberately avoided. Now, Owen Flanagan brings his trademark clarity, breadth of scientific knowledge, and wit to bear on questions that have seemed too big for analytic philosophy -- what is the relation between religion and science, and what can we do to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives in a material world defined by scientific inquiry? He includes an exceptionally well-informed and thoughtful account of the Buddhist tradition, and empirical findings from 'positive psychology', as well as philosophical arguments. This book is a distinctive and compelling combination of skeptical rationality and gentle affirmation of the enchantment of the everyday.

(Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley)

Science tells us that we're imperfect products of biological trial and error, reconstituted remnants of exploded stars, and likely to be gone in the time it takes the Universe to make a cup of coffee. Some people find this unsettling, but Flanagan thinks we can handle it. With an open mind, good humor, encyclopedic knowledge, and philosophical tenacity, Flanagan tackles the Big Question: Can we find Meaning and Truth at the same time? Great reading for Homo sapiens.

(Joshua Greene, Department of Psychology, Harvard University)

Owen Flanagan explores the questions that matter most to us -- life's magic, mystery, and meaning -- in the most engaging, even entertaining, style. By expanding philosophy from a Eurocentric bias to include views from the East, Flanagan finds fresh answers to perennial questions. The Really Hard Problem is a delight.

(Daniel Goleman, Psychologist, and Author of Social Intelligence)

We should be grateful to Flanagan... for he conducts his inquiry with erudition, calm open-mindedness, cautious optimism, and ingenuity.

(Daniel C. Dennett The Philosophical Review)

The book sparkles with thought and a likeable humour.

(Steven Poole The Guardian)

Owen Flanagan has written an important book. A broad tradition in philosophy, starting at least with Socrates, continued by Plato and down the centuries, asks, 'What is a good life?'. English-speaking philosophy has largely ignored what Socrates and Plato started. Flanagan writes passionately that we find meaning in a space of science, arts, politics, ethics, and spirituality. We seek eudaimonia. He reopens the English-speaking mind.

(Stuart Kauffman, MacArthur Fellow, Founding Director of The Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, The University of Calgary)

With his characteristic wit, wisdom, and wide-ranging knowledge, Flanagan shows how ethics, brain science, philosophy of mind, and traditions of contemplative self-cultivation together can promote human flourishing and the search for meaning. Flanagan takes on the big questions and his answers to them deserve to be read by all.

(Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, and author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind)

About the Author

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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Customer Reviews

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I am very doubtful about this claim.
P. Gangopadhyay
This book will surely be a milestone in the ongoing (perhaps never-ending) endeavor to find "meaning in a material world."
Joe Karma
Much later in the book from the premise, there is something of a definition in the discussion of areas.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Curtain on July 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Owen Flanagan's new book, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, offers a synthesis of ancient wisdom traditions with the best of contemporary science, ethics, and epistemology. The amalgamation is a delightful and thought-provoking survey of what it means for humans to flourish. Flanagan explains why what we know from today's best science should leave us genuinely hopeful for a sketch of best-practices for living full, ethically committed lives. Written in a clear, dryly witty style, The Really Hard Problem speaks to lay readers and theorists alike. I worked through the book over the course over three days, often stopping to read passages aloud to my partner and take notes about how humans should understand themselves in the world. If you're interested in a fruitful, spiritually-expansive dialogue between science and wisdom traditions, then I recommend this book highly. It's simply terrific.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Joe Karma on November 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Contrary to popular conceptions about "spirituality," Indian religion and philosophy are closely related to the Indic natural sciences (i.e. mathematics and astronomy). Around the sixth century BCE, philosophical works were produced that examined the position of living beings, and the universe, as a "natural phenomenon" (Warder, 1970). Many of these thinkers maintained that life evolved out of natural laws, and was not subject to the control of gods -- or a God. Their diverse systems of thought ranged from philosophical materialism to im-materialism; however these philosophers were united by a common goal -- the search for meaning and happiness. One of the more famous individuals to emerge from this era of Indian history was the Buddha. It is little wonder that the contemporary philosopher, Owen Flanagan, has taken a serious interest in the rich philosophical literature of Buddhism, and its most visible spokesperson -- the Dalai Lama.

Flanagan's new book, THE REALLY HARD PROBLEM: MEANING IN A MATERIAL WORLD, is the product of many years of research in both Western and Eastern philosophy of mind. While he champions certain elements of non-Western thought, he never strays from his foundational commitment to naturalism. The purpose of his project is clearly pragmatic in its multidisciplinary approach and its aim to promote "human flourishing." Resurrecting the language of Aristotle, Flanagan refers to this as "Project Eudaimonia.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bob J. Baker on August 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Really Hard Problem
by Owen J. Flanagan

Without god, angels, fairies or devils, demons or trolls, how can we become enchanted (again) or terrorized, for that matter, in our purely natural mundane world? Well, look around--there's secular mystery aplenty (& terror sans devil, for that matter).

In showing the harmfulness of "positive illusions, he offers each of us, as a potential eudaimon, various "Spaces of Meaning" to explore, one of which is a real world spiritually--a humanist appreciation, & connection with our natural world, its intricate laws & the limitless cosmos.

Other needed Spaces include Science, Art, Technology, Politics & Ethics. With an eye to locating within them their respective Truths, Beauties & Goodness, we must inhabit--study, learn, enjoy, practice--all of these spaces at appropriate times, singly or in combination in due measure if we are to become a complete human beings in a well lived life.

Despite it seriousness this is a good-humored book, but rather difficult reading for me. Be prepared, you of a similar sort, to look up some hard words & even check your Plato. Professor Flanagan, an accomplished lecturer, has a witty winning way with which he convincingly dispenses with supernatural notions embedded in our language & behavior. The old enchantment dazzled but hid the truth from us. Experimental data aplenty is included to support his conclusions. Life is more wonderful, more rewarding, more "enchanting" without its superstition, without its good or bad bogeymen.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Hogendoorn on November 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Owen Flanagan endeavours to find meaning in a material world - no less. And what a quest it is! Never mind his conclusions, Flanagan's book trumps the not-so-intelligent works of design theorists by its sheer breadth of argument, imaginative approach and evocative style, empowering its readers to summon up their own wisdom in answering the one really hard question that life has in store for us: supposing that consciousness is nothing but an emergent property of a functioning brain, what does that mean? Who else would have the philosophical wherewithal to draw on the Dalai Lama's interlocutory exploration of Western science to shed light on our own culture's tentative grappling with the findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology? Flanagan's graceful treatment of the Dalai Lama's so-called caveat - not finding something does not prove it does not exist - is a first, as is his discussion of this modern Tibetan philosopher's stance on the neuronal-correlates-of-consciousness view. Any reader who prefers to think for himself of herself about the meaning of life - instead of being lectured on it ex cathedra - should read Owen Flanagan's work.
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