Material Guy

The Really Hard Problem
Meaning in a Material World
Owen Flanagan
MIT Press, $27.95, 288 pp.

Philosophers of mind these days don’t usually have much to say one way or the other about religion. This is because most of them think that a complete inventory of what there is in the world yields only physical entities (they are physicalists), and that there are no supernatural entitites—no gods, no God, no demons, no angels (they are naturalists). These commitments make them likely to judge religious supernaturalism and dualism false and therefore without philosophical interest, should they get around to thinking about the matter at all. But in this engaging and lucid book, Owen Flanagan, a philosopher of mind at Duke University, shows that it is possible to be both a neurophysicalist and to take religion half-seriously. He gives a lot of mostly approving words to Buddhism of the Tibetan Gelug variety, and has interesting asides on Catholicism, too, though of a more negative kind. He pays attention to these things because he wants to provide a physicalist account of what it is to be human, which does not rule out questions about meaning and purpose. And he finds Buddhism especially useful for this task.

But if you’re a naturalist and a physicalist, how can you reasonably talk about meaning without relapsing into talk of mysterious nonphysical entities like God, demons, thoughts, and souls? This is the really hard problem of the book’s title. The answer, according to Flanagan, is “eudaemonistic scientia,” which means...

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About the Author

Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University.