Owen Flanagan is becoming my new favorite writer on the subject of Naturalism, particularly Buddhist Naturalism. Unlike Sam Harris, Flanagan takes seriously the problem of human meaning and does not reduce everything to deterministic physics and neuroscience.

“I am interested in whether for us contemporary folk there is a useful and truthful philosophy in Buddhism, among the Buddhisms, that is compatible with the rest of knowledge as it now exists and specifically, because this is always a problem for spiritual traditions, whether Buddhism can be naturalized, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible, and that does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense, sometimes moral evil as well, in the name of tolerance, or, what is different, high spiritual attainment that warrants teleological suspension of the ethical in the hands of fanatics of all stripes.” — Owen Flanagan

Flanagan is the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University. Flanagan has done work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of social science, ethics, contemporary ethical theory, moral psychology, as well as on Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self. Flanagan has written several books on Naturalism and Buddhist Naturalism (in order of publication):

  • The Science of the Mind (MIT Press, 1984; 2nd edition, 1991)
  • Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology (MIT Press, 1990)
  • Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism (Harvard University Press, 1991)
  • Consciousness Reconsidered (MIT Press, 1992)
  • Self Expressions: Mind, Morals, and the Meaning of Life (Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • The Nature of Consciousness (MIT Press, 1998)
  • Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind (Oxford University, 1999)
  • Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology, and the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (Basic 2002)
  • The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (MIT Press 2007)
  • The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (MIT Press 2011)

Ted Meissner interviews Flanagan on Buddhist Naturalism. What I love in this interview is that his tone of voice signifies that he is not personally invested in Buddhism, because he can both praise and critique it in a calm, non-defensive way:


A summary of The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized

Can there be a Buddhism without karma, nirvana, and reincarnation that is compatible with the rest of knowledge?

If we are material beings living in a material world—and all the scientific evidence suggests that we are—then we must find existential meaning, if there is such a thing, in this physical world. We must cast our lot with the natural rather than the supernatural. Many Westerners with spiritual (but not religious) inclinations are attracted to Buddhism—almost as a kind of moral-mental hygiene. But, as Owen Flanagan points out in The Bodhisattva’s Brain, Buddhism is hardly naturalistic. In The Bodhisattva’s Brain, Flanagan argues that it is possible to discover in Buddhism a rich, empirically responsible philosophy that could point us to one path of human flourishing.

Some claim that neuroscience is in the process of validating Buddhism empirically, but Flanagan’s naturalized Buddhism does not reduce itself to a brain scan showing happiness patterns. “Buddhism naturalized,” as Flanagan constructs it, offers instead a fully naturalistic and comprehensive philosophy, compatible with the rest of knowledge—a way of conceiving of the human predicament, of thinking about meaning for finite material beings living in a material world.

Here is Flanagan on human flourishing, based on his work in The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, talking about ‘neuro-existentialism’:

[from the website the Information Philosopher] Flanagan sees two visions of mind, variations on the ideas of Wilfrid Sellars (who set his student Robert Kane, to work on the problem of free will 50 years ago). Sellars’ manifest image and scientific image have become Flanagan’s humanistic image and scientific image. Like Sellars, Flanagan is a compatibilist though he preferes “neocompatibilist.”

(selection from Flanagan’s book, The Problem of the Soul):

This book is about the conflict between two grand images of who we are: the humanistic and the scientific. The humanistic image says that we are spiritual beings endowed with free will—a capacity that no ordinary animal possesses and that permits us to circumvent ordinary laws of cause and effect. The twentieth-century philosopher Roderick Chisholm sums up the main idea this way: When we act freely we exercise “a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain things to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.” The scientific image says that we are animals that evolved according to the principles of natural selection. Although we are extraordinary animals we possess no capacity that permits us to circumvent the laws of cause and effect. The question is this: Which is it? The two images, at least as depicted in these terms, are incompatible. The answer can’t be both. Or, if it is, there is a lot of explaining to do.We want to see ourselves truthfully, and we also want our stories to depict life as if it really means something. But we live in a world in which two distinct self-images, vying for our allegiance, disagree about human nature and about the ground of meaning. One image says humans are possessed of a spiritual part—an incorporeal mind or soul—and that one’s life and eternal fate turn on the state of this soul. The other image says that there is no such thing as the soul and thus that nothing—nothing at all—depends on its state. We are finite social animals. When we die, we—or better: the particles that once composed us—return to nature’s bosom, not to God’s right hand. The humanistic image, embraced by most laypersons, scientists, and intellectuals, claims to be uplifting and inspiring. We create ourselves by exercising our free will. If we will well, when we die we reap eternal reward. From the perspective of the scientific image, this idea is extremely implausible, excessively flattering, and self-serving. If it provides meaning, it does so at cost to the truth.

But the scientific image, from the humanistic perspective, is dehumanizing— it drains life of meaning. Life has no transcendent purpose, and the quest to live morally becomes just one among several quirky features of our kind of animal. Defenders of the scientific image claim that their image need not be seen as depressing or inhospitable to a dignified, moral, and meaningful life. Humanists are skeptical. It is part of the humanistic perspective to deem science, especially the mental and human sciences, as a threat. Science is reductive and materialistic, and it offers no resources to help us find our way in the high-stakes drama that is life.

Perhaps the truth about human nature is eternally incompatible with an uplifting story about the meaning of life. The truth can sometimes be painful. Perhaps honestly acknowledging the truth about human nature would necessarily undermine any sense of purpose and meaning, and bring ennui and nihilism in its train. We tell our children stories about Santa Claus and tooth fairies. These stories are false, but they please the kids. Could we be acting like grown-up children who fabricate false stories for our own comfort, for the sake of meaning? Possibly. Some defenders of the scientific image think this is exactly the case.

But there is another possibility. Perhaps the mythic stories we are used to telling about our nature are beloved not because they are indispensable to a meaningful life but only because we have been historically conditioned to think so. Perhaps, too, there is sufficient room in the scientific image for mind, morals, and meaning that it can preserve much of what it means to be a person. If this is so, then the stark inconsistency between the two images is—at some level at least—more apparent than real. This is what I think.

In my experience, most defenders of the scientific image either ignore the dominant humanistic image or deem it silly and misguided, while defenders of the humanistic image simply assert that the scientific image is de-meaning. But both images share a common aspiration: to maintain a robust conception of what it means to be a person, a being possessed of consciousness, with capacities for self-knowledge and the ability to live rationally, morally, and meaningfully. No advocate of the scientific image has yet made an adequate effort to explain carefully, patiently, and explicitly how the scientific image can do this. That is the task I set for myself.

“The problem of the soul” is a shorthand way of referring to a cluster of philosophical concepts that are central components of the dominant humanistic image. These concepts include, for starters, a nonphysical mind, free will, and a permanent, abiding, and immutable self or soul. It is the survival of these concepts that ordinary people fear are at risk from scientific progress, and this fear is at the root of the deep-seated resistance to the scientific image. Ordinary, intelligent people have a (somewhat inchoate) view that nothing less than the meaning of life turns on how these concepts fare. If the nonphysical mind, free will, and the soul are not real things but are mere appearances, then, well, it is the end of the world—at least the end of the world as we know it.


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