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The Brain and the Meaning of Life 8: Needs and Hopes


Wants vs. Needs

To provide a solid answer to the question of why life is worth living, we need to establish that some goals really are valuable, not just that many people value them (2157).

This chapter argues that needs provide the crucial connection between subjective values and objective ones. Love, work, and play are not arbitrary wants, but are closely tied with vital human needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy (2159).

Vital Needs

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have proposed a powerful theory of human motivation postulating three fundamental psychological needs that they call competence, autonomy, and relatedness (2177).

This is where things get a little tricky. Thagard wants to say that certain goals (love, work, play) are more meaningful because they satisfy needs, needs being things that people must have, lest they be harmed. Isn’t Thagard basically saying that life’s meaning is satisfied by avoiding harm? It seems like he is taking a very circuitous route to a questionable conclusion, one that he seemed to want to avoid in denying happiness as the source of life’s meaning.

How Love, Work, and Play Satisfy Needs

the psychological notion of autonomy as people acting in accord with their own interests and values fits perfectly with my neural theory of decision making, because interests and values are represented in brains by activities of neurons. You act autonomously whenever your decisions are based on your own goals (2231).

The needs of the self are constituents of states of the world and the self without which the self is harmed (2243).

Love, work, and play are goals whose pursuit contributes centrally to the meaning of life because their achievement satisfies vital needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy (2245).

Similarly, if psychology can tell us that the vital needs of human beings include relatedness, competence, and autonomy; and if neuropsychology and sociology can reveal that love, work, and play are the best practices for satisfying these needs; then these practices are normatively justified as sources of objective meaning in people’s lives (2256).

Note: Thagard has still not bridged the is ought gap, but promises to do so in chapter 10.

Balance, Coherence, and Change

Hope versus Despair


this chapter does have implications for what to do if you feel that your life is futile and lacking in meaning. Set yourself reasonable goals concerning love, work, and play; and expend time, energy, and money in pursuit of them (2346).

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