The Really Hard Problem

The Really Hard Problem

Meaning in a Material World

By Owen Flanagan

A noted philosopher proposes a naturalistic (rather than supernaturalistic) way to solve the "really hard problem": how to live in a meaningful way—how to live a life that really matters—even as a finite material being living in a material world.

Bradford Books





A noted philosopher proposes a naturalistic (rather than supernaturalistic) way to solve the "really hard problem": how to live in a meaningful way—how to live a life that really matters—even as a finite material being living 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.

Bradford Books imprint


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262062640 304 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 1 fig, 6 tbls illus.


$21.95 T ISBN: 9780262512480 304 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 1 fig, 6 tbls illus.


  • 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


  • 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

  • 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