-To argue that supernatural beliefs can be removed (or "tamed") from Buddhism and still leave an elaborate enterprise relevant to modern life.
-To put Buddhist conceptions of virtue and happiness in dialogue with other types of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotelianism.
-To argue that claims of the superior happiness of Buddhists are both conceptually confused (because the Buddhist conception of happiness isn't equivalent to what you might think; it's not just a feeling, but definitionally requires attainment of Buddhist virtue) and unsupported by neurological evidence (the popular media have taken up stories of certain very limited experiments that have shown certain neural chracteristics in one or two Buddhists, but this is far from what is required; see this article for details).
He also describes Buddhists as the first phenomenologists, providing an extensive taxonomy of mental states according to their objects and how they feel to us, and this theme runs through our discussion with him. In the Abhidamma (a series of texts starting in the 3rd century B.C.E.; the excerpt I read on the episode can be found here), states of consciousness are not only described but evaluated as "wholesome" or "unwholesome," and this leads to the question of the phenomenology of values: Are ethical qualities actually read off of experience as the Buddhists claim, or do we have a theory first (passed down culturally) which we then use to interpret our experience?
Flanagan describes Buddhist epistemology as empirical and so potentially compatible with science. How does this relate to Buddhist phenomenology? Or to the metaphysics of emptiness as discussed previously in our Nagarjuna episode?
As Flanagan is a major figure in the philosophy of mind (he wrote Consciousness Reconsideredin 1993), we got him to extend this epistemic/phenomenology/philosophy of science discussion to cover the mind/body problem as well. He distinguishes between a "satisfactory" understanding of mind in terms of brain, meaning that we can not only point to neural correlates but say why some brain state will appears to us as a particular feeling state, and a "satisfying" understanding, which may be permanently elusive (as discussed in our philosophy of mind episode).
Since our interview with Flanagan resulted in a lot of long (and very helpful) monologues on his part, we continued the discussion without him in episode 54, considering more directly the extent to which it seems to us that one can engage in the kind of debates about virtue that Flanagan applauds without buying into Buddhism's supernatural aspects.
There are many conceptions of naturalism, and Flanagan's is one that merely denies supernatural explanations, which tend to dissolve into pseudoscience anyway if one tries to elaborate them enough: witness Descartes's attempt to discover a mechanism in the brain by which the immaterial soul could interact with the body, or in fiction, George Lucas's invention of the hideous midichlorians to explain how people interact with the otherwise mysterious Force.
Flanagan specifically argues against the kind of naturalism advocated by Sam Harris, whereby we could use brain scans to discover the neural correlate of happiness, which would then give us objective ethical maxims. Instead, the relation between "is" and "ought" is complicated; Flanagan comes down in the tradition of Aristotle and Hume/Smith (and more recently, Pat Churchland). On this view, virtue is certainly related to human well being and not entirely unanalyzable (as with G.E. Moore), but neither can it be directly read off of measurable facts.
In determining what human flourishing amounts to, both Buddhism and Aristotle devise conceptions of human nature based supposedly on careful observation. While Aristotle follows Plato in valuing human rationality, which for Aristotle means cool appraisal and avoidance of extremes, Buddhism (often) sees the intellect as a tool of human desire, which the fundamental cause of suffering. While Buddhism offers more therapeutic tools to deal with our human weaknesses, including how to be compassionate without destroying yourself, Aristotle seems stronger when it comes to issues of justice and politics.
I highly encourage you to listen to or watch this hour-long lecture in which Flanagan outlines his book in January 2012 for the London School of Economics and Political Science. Per usual, I find it helpful to put it on my iPhone and listen at double, or in this case 1.5X speed, which the iTunes U application now supports. The iTunes U link is here (you'll need to scroll down to posting date 1/11/12).
Another good introduction to him is this episode of The Secular Buddhist podcast that Flanagan is on.