Sunday, September 09, 2012

Book Excerpt - The Brain and the Meaning of Life

This looks like an interesting book in the ongoing debate over the brain, neuroscience, philosophy, and the meaning of (or that we ascribe to) life. There is a link below for a preview of the first chapter (a PDF file).

The Brain and the Meaning of Life
Paul Thagard

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Title of 2011
296 pp. | 6 x 9 | 12 line illus. (prices below via Amazon)
Princeton University Press

Chapter 1 [in PDF format]

Description of the book from the publisher:
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 Life draws 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 Life shows 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.

Paul Thagard is professor of philosophy and director of the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo, Canada. His books include Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition and How Scientists Explain Disease.


"[Thagard] 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." - Michael Shermer, Science

"A thoughtful and well-researched attempt to answer that most fundamental existential question: why not kill yourself? Or, to give it a positive spin, what gives life meaning? Thagard lays out detailed arguments that reality is knowable through science, that minds are nothing other than material brains and that there are no ultimate rights and wrongs handed down by a supernatural being." - New Scientist

"Thagard's 'neural naturalism' promises nothing short of a conceptual revolution, or better, a paradigm shift. His evidence-based strategy uses the data from psychology and neuroscience to expose empirically based answers to questions such as, What is the meaning of life? What ought one to do? . . . Thagard's reader-friendly text includes a glossary, endnotes, and extensive references." - Choice

"The name of this well-written and ambitious book understates the breadth of its scope. The book deals with the relation of modern neuroscience not only to the meaning of life, but also to ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. . . . The discussion is rich, unorthodox, and frequently exciting." - Iddo Landau, Metapsychology Online Reviews

More reviews


Preface xi
Acknowledgments xv

Chapter 1: We All Need Wisdom 1
Why Live? 1
Sources of Wisdom 3
Philosophical Approaches 5
The Relevance of Minds and Brains 6
Looking Ahead 8
Conclusion 12

Chapter 2: Evidence Beats Faith 13
Faith versus Evidence 13
How Faith Works 14
How Evidence Works 20
Evidence and Inference in Science 23
Medicine: Evidence or Faith? 27
Evidence, Truth, and God 32
A Priori Reasoning and Thought Experiments 35
Conclusion 40

Chapter 3: Minds Are Brains 42
The Brain Revolution 42
Evidence That Minds Are Brains 43
Evidence for Dualism? 54
Objections to Mind-Brain Identity 59
Who Are You? 63
Conclusion 64

Chapter 4: How Brains Know Reality 67
Reality and Its Discontents 67
Knowing Objects 69
Appearance and Reality 72
Concepts 76
Knowledge beyond Perception 81
Coherence in the Brain 85
Coherence and Truth 90
Conclusion 92

Chapter 5: How Brains Feel Emotions 94
Emotions Matter 94
Valuations in the Brain 95
Cognitive Appraisal versus Bodily Perception 98
Synthesis: The EMOCON Model 100
Emotional Consciousness 105
Multilevel Explanations 108
Rationality and Affective Afflictions 111
Conclusion 116

Chapter 6: How Brains Decide 119
Big Decisions 119
Inference to the Best Plan 121
Decisions in the Brain 123
Changing Goals 126
How to Make Bad Decisions 133
Living without Free Will 137
Conclusion 140

Chapter 7: Why Life Is Worth Living 142
The Meaning of Life 142
Nihilism 143
Happiness 146
Goals and Meaning 149
Love 152
Work 158
Play 161
Conclusion 165

Chapter 8: Needs and Hopes 168
Wants versus Needs 168
Vital Needs 169
How Love, Work, and Play Satisfy Needs 171
Balance, Coherence, and Change 176
Hope versus Despair 177
Conclusion 182

Chapter 9: Ethical Brains 183
Ethical Decisions 183
Conscience and Moral Intuitions 184
Mirror Neurons 188
Empathy 190
Moral Motivation 192
Ethical Theory 195
Moral Objectivity 201
Responsibility 204
Conclusion 206

Chapter 10. Making Sense of It All 209
Connections Made 209
Wisdom Gained 213
What Kind of Government Should Countries Have? 215
How Can Creative Change Be Produced? 217
What Is Mathematical Knowledge? 221
Why Is There Something and Not Nothing? 224
The Future of Wisdom 226

Notes 231
Glossary 251
References 255
Index 271
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