The Really Hard Problem by Owen Flanagan

Modern science proceeds on the basis that we live in a material world, and its methods of investigation have been spectacularly successful on this basis. It’s somewhat embarrassing, then, that the interior world of consciousness has so far eluded the categories of natural science. This is the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness, summarised here How, then, can we make sense of the magic and mystery of life without an appeal to the supernatural? How do we say truthful and enchanting things about being human if we believe we are finite material beings or, in Owen Flanagan’s ( description, short-lived pieces of organized cells and tissue?

Flanagan’s answer is entirely naturalistic, yet he tries to preserve the enchantment. We all wish to live in a meaningful way, to live a life that really matters, to flourish, to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ (happy fulfilment) 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, and religion 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 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.

If you hadn’t sensed there’s a problem, lucky you. If you are unsettled by the implications of materialism (or physicalism) this is something to get you thinking. Check if this philosopher’s answer to the problem of human meaning is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at

304 pages in MIT Press

First published 2007

ISBN  978-0262062640

Professor Owen Flanagan

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