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Hardcover | $29.95 Trade | £20.95 | ISBN: 9780262062640 | 304 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 1 fig, 6 tbls illus.| September 2007
Paperback | $17.95 Trade | £12.95 | ISBN: 9780262512480 | 304 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 1 fig, 6 tbls illus.| February 2009

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The Really Hard Problem

Meaning in a Material World


If consciousness is the "hard problem" in mind science—explaining how the amazing private world of consciousness emerges from neuronal activity—then the "really hard problem," writes Owen Flanagan in this provocative book is explaining how meaning is possible in the material world. How can we make sense of the magic and mystery of life naturalistically, without an appeal to the supernatural? How do we say truthful and enchanting things about being human if we accept the fact that we are finite material beings living in a material world, or, in Flanagan's description, short-lived pieces of organized cells and tissue?

Flanagan's answer is both naturalistic and enchanting. We all wish to live in a meaningful way, to live a life that really matters, to flourish, to achieve eudaimonia—to be a "happy spirit." Flanagan calls his "empirical-normative" inquiry into the nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing eudaimonics. Eudaimonics, systematic philosophical investigation that is continuous with science, is the naturalist's response to those who say that science has robbed the world of the meaning that fantastical, wishful stories once provided.


Flanagan draws on philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and psychology, as well as on transformative mindfulness and self-cultivation practices that come from such nontheistic spiritual traditions as Buddhism, Confucianism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, in his quest. He gathers from these disciplines knowledge that will help us understand the nature, causes, and constituents of well-being and advance human flourishing. Eudaimonics can help us find out how to make a difference, how to contribute to the accumulation of good effects—how to live a meaningful life.

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.


"The book sparkles with thought and a likeable humour.", Steven Poole, The Guardian

"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


"In The Really Hard Problem, Owen Flanagan explores the eternal question of meaning with his characteristic brilliance, keen insight, scrupulous intellectual integrity, and an attitude of 'joyful optimistic realism.' With an uncompromising dedication to discovering truth and an undistorted view of the world, he offers an intriguing approach to leading a life of greater meaninga journey that does not require charting a course for speculative supernatural worlds, but rather one which ultimately leads to an understanding of how we have all we need to be happy and to flourish, while remaining grounded right at home in our natural world. The Really Hard Problem makes a significant contribution to our understanding about human happiness, flourishing, and what it is to lead a meaningful life."
Howard Cutler, Doctor of Psychiatric Medicine, and co-author (with the Dalai Lama) of The Art of Happiness

"Owen Flanagan has written an important book. A broad tradition inphilosophy, starting at least with Socrates, continued by Plato and down thecenturies, asks, "What is a good life?". English-speaking philosophy haslargely ignored what Socrates and Plato started. Flanagan writespassionately that we find meaning in a space of science, arts, politics,ethics, and spirituality. We seek eudaimonia. He reopens theEnglish-speaking mind."
Stuart Kauffman, MacArthur Fellow, Founding Director of The Institute forBiocomplexity and Informatics, The University of Calgary

"In an era when extremists are hogging the microphone, we need Owen Flanagan more than ever to help us understand the deep compatibility of the human quests for scientific truth and spiritual meaning. Flanagan is one of the few modern philosophers who deserves to be called wise."
John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism, and Director of the Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology

"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

"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 philosophicalquestions that matter most deeply to our everyday lives. In fact thosemeaning of life questions have been deliberately avoided. Now, Owen Flanaganbrings his trademark clarity, breadth of scientific knowledge, and wit tobear on questions that have seemed too big for analytic philosophy—whatis the relation between religion and science, and what can we do to leadfulfilling and meaningful lives in a material world defined by scientificinquiry? He includes an exceptionally well-informed and thoughtful accountof the Buddhist tradition, and empirical findings from 'positivepsychology', as well as philosophical arguments. This book is a distinctiveand compelling combination of skeptical rationality and gentle affirmationof the enchantment of the everyday."
Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley

"Owen Flanagan explores the questions that matter most to us—life's magic, mystery, and meaningin 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

"Science tells us that we're imperfect products of biological trial anderror, reconstituted remnants of exploded stars, and likely to be gone inthe time it takes the Universe to make a cup of coffee. Some people findthis unsettling, but Flanagan thinks we can handle it. With an open mind,good humor, encyclopedic knowledge, and philosophical tenacity, Flanagantackles 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