PGS Dialogue: Paul Thagard, author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life. In this installment of PGS Dialogue, PUP Cognitive Science Editor Eric Schwartz speaks with Thagard about how a book that was initially conceived as an assessment of current research in neuroscience shifted to tackle one of the largest philosophical questions — what is the meaning of life?

How did you arrive at your field of research?
I did my PhD in philosophy of science, focusing on the reasoning processes used by scientists in discovering and evaluating theories. Shortly after, I encountered cognitive science and realized that its ideas and methods could be used to study reasoning in science and many other domains of human thinking including law and medicine. Later, because of a student’s interest in empathy, I started to work on emotion as a cognitive process, which led me to increasing concern with the neural mechanisms that underlie human thinking. In 2006, I decided to write an accessible book that discussed the philosophical and psychological implications of current research in neuroscience, which became The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

What is the most surprising finding in your research?
Originally, I planned the book to concentrate on issues about the nature of mind and knowledge, but quickly decided that I also needed to address the fundamental question of what makes life worth living. Perhaps the most surprising finding based on psychological and neurological evidence is rejection of the popular view that pursuing happiness is the fundamental purpose of life. I argue instead that the meaning of life is love, work, and play, which serve to satisfy vital human needsfor relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Happiness can result from such pursuits, but a meaningful life does not depend on it.

Where do you see your work leading you in the future?
My next book will be called something like: Mind, Brain, and Social Change: Building Cognitive Social Science. The basic idea is to revitalize the social sciences by showing how psychological and neural processes are relevant both to explaining social change and to bringing it about.

Paul Thagard has written two other books for Princeton University Press: Conceptual Revolutions and How Scientists Explain Disease.

Thagard is a regular blogger at Psychology Today. His blog is called Hot Thought.

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