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The Brain and the Meaning of Life - Book Review

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book, but rather to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life. In this review, we will examine some of the main topics, which include the meaning of life, free will, and happiness.

About the book: The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard was first published in 2010. The book is unique in that it explores the meaning of life through the lens of neuropsychology. With that said, it takes a very empirical approach to the subject and starts out by going over the scientific method. For those with a science background, getting through the first few chapters may be a bit tedious, while for others who are strongly religious may be slightly offended by the scientific approach.

However, it should be noted that the author is very polite in his religious and faith-based rebuttals. Thagard does not appear to have a particular agenda against faith or religion; rather, he makes a compelling argument that, through the lens of neuropsychology, faith and religion are not the right approach to answering the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

The meaning of life: In the opening chapter, Thagard notes that Martin Seligman (Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania) has remarked that the three great realms of life are love, work, and play. Throughout the book, Thagard builds upon this and supports the idea:

“A more nuanced summary would be better: 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.”

Many individuals go through what is known as a midlife crisis. Thagard remarks that as we approach the middle of our lives, it is important to find a balance between the three great realms. Children, career, fantasy sports, health, Netflix, etc., may pull us in different directions—and if we veer too far in any direction, we may just find ourselves on the edge of a cliff, experiencing an existential crisis. So he argues that balance above all is important, and he goes further by documenting different parts of the brain that warrant different responses and reasons for needing this balance.

In this argument, Thagard does well at providing supporting evidence, given what science knows about the brain today. Balancing love, work, and play would appear to be rational, albeit often easier said than done.

On free will: One mistake that the author may have made is his assumption that people either have or do not have free will. That is, he argues that free will is only an illusion and argues that what we do is the result of chemical and physical stimuli in or on the brain, as opposed to the idea that the mind and brain are separate. His mistake is not necessarily reasoning that there is no separation between the mind and brain; rather, his mistake is assuming that there is either free will or no free will.

Thagard neither considers nor discusses the possibility of limited free will. For example, by definition, God has 100% free will—to create the universe and its people, or to destroy it all in less than a heartbeat. It would not be reasonable to assume that people also have 100% free will. People may have limited free will, such as, say, 5% free will and 95% response to external and internal stimuli. A person may choose to go right or left but may not be able to choose to fly upwards.

Naturally, some people may further be limited by various handicaps. Take the case of Terri Schiavo (which the author argues as proof people having no free will, and no separate between mind and brain), who at the end of her life unfortunately had 0% free will. Now take the case of the billionaire Bill Gates, who with all of his resources can essentially do anything he wants within legal boundaries. Bill Gates does not have 100% free will, but falls somewhere between that of a god and that of a person with severe brain damage. People with Alzheimer’s have declining mental functionality and, hence, naturally have less free will than, say, their grandchildren.

In short, even if it is reasoned that there is no mind outside of the brain, it would be incorrect to conclude that free will does not exist. Rather, the question should be examined closer. It is reasonable to assume that free will is something that developed throughout the evolutionary process—just as eyesight, consciousness, intelligence, and other novelties matured in the process.

Happiness: Thagard reasons that happiness is not necessarily the meaning of life. Rather, he reasons that an individual can be happy without a meaningful existence. He further notes, “You can have happiness without much meaning, and meaning without much happiness; so happiness is not the meaning of life.” In this respect, Thagard is probably right. Happiness does not always equate meaningfulness. Thus, as noted before, one can suddenly wake up midway through life and realize that binge-watching Netflix—although often quite enjoyable—does not equate with something meaningful.

Overall, Thagard’s book is interesting but a bit dry in many places. At times, the scientific arguments are a bit basic, and at other times they are too in-depth for the layperson. This is understandable for a popular science book, as the author must write to a general audience that comes from all types of backgrounds.

We rate the book the following:

Overall - 6

Meaning of Life Relevance - 6

Uniqueness – 5

What did we miss? Do you agree with the author that the meaning of life is love, work, and play?

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