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The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will

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Overview


Few concepts are more unshakable in our culture than "free will," the idea that individuals are fundamentally in control of the decisions they make, good or bad. And yet the latest research about how the brain functions seems to point in the opposite direction, with fresh discoveries indicating the many ways in which humans are subject to influences well beyond the control of the conscious self. In The Self Beyond Itself, acclaimed scholar Heidi M. Ravven offers a wide-ranging and bold argument for a new vision ...
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The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will

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Overview


Few concepts are more unshakable in our culture than "free will," the idea that individuals are fundamentally in control of the decisions they make, good or bad. And yet the latest research about how the brain functions seems to point in the opposite direction, with fresh discoveries indicating the many ways in which humans are subject to influences well beyond the control of the conscious self. In The Self Beyond Itself, acclaimed scholar Heidi M. Ravven offers a wide-ranging and bold argument for a new vision of ethics, one that takes into account neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, challenging the ways in which we view our actions—and, indeed, our selves.

In a work of breathtaking intellectual sweep and erudition, Ravven offers a riveting and accessible review of cutting-edge neuroscientific research into the brain’s capacity for decision-making—from "mirror" neurons and "self-mapping" to surprising new understandings of group psychology. The Self Beyond Itself also introduces readers to a rich, alternative philosophical tradition of ethics, rooted in the writing of Baruch Spinoza, that finds uncanny confirmation in modern science.

Illustrating the results of today’s research with real-life examples, taking readers from elementary school classrooms to Nazi concentration camps, Ravven demonstrates that it is possible to build a theory of ethics that doesn’t rely on free will yet still holds both individuals and groups responsible for the decisions that help create a good society. The Self Beyond Itself is that rare book that injects new ideas into an old debate—and helps us consider anew our understanding of ourselves and of our world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this stimulating treatise on ethics and psychology, Ravven (Jewish Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy, co-editor), a religion professor at Hamilton College, subjects the belief that humans choose freely between starkly opposed moral principles to a vigorous, wide-ranging critique. Starting with an account of moral behavior in the Holocaust, she moves on to a detailed contrast between the Christian doctrine of free will and a rival ethical tradition, stretching from Aristotle to Spinoza, that grounds human morality in nature and social influences. She connects these ideas to findings in cognitive psychology and brain science that undermine the picture of a rational self making free decisions and reveal the determining role of unconscious neural processes and the environment; these results suggest to her an alternative ethics that highlights the power of social relations and institutions in shaping individual choices. Ravven’s dense, scholarly, but very readable text intertwines history, philosophy, and science in insightful and provocative ways. She gives too short a shrift to the motivating force of explicit moral doctrine; despite its lack of realism, free-will dogma captures the moral imagination better than her “systems theory of moral agency” does. Still, she poses a powerful challenge to conventional notions of individual responsibility. (June 13)
From the Publisher

“As she delves deeply into the cognitive, cultural and philosophical sources of moral agency, Ravven takes careful note of the emerging brain sciences. . . .[A] must-read for anyone interested in the breadth and depth of our moral mentality.”
—Jaak Panksepp, Baily Endowed Professor in Animal Well-Being Sciences, Washington State University, and author of The Archaeology of Mind

“An intellectual hand-grenade, The Self Beyond Itself is a magisterial survey of how contemporary neuroscience supports a vision of human morality which puts it squarely on the same plane as other natural phenomena. . . . This book will spark fruitful debate and reminds us of the debt we owe Aristotle and Spinoza as we make sense of ourselves as part of the natural world.”
—William D. Casebeer, author of Natural Ethical Facts

“The most brilliant, original book on ethics in decades. Ravven’s immense erudition and sharp critical insights are extraordinary. This is a fascinating book for everyone concerned about education, politics, history, philosophy, religion, and the survival of human society.”
—Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College

“Shatters the many bubbles that contemporary philosophers have built around themselves. Its criticisms of free will are historically grounded and logically cogent; its alternative views of freedom and moral agency, drawing largely on Spinoza, are persuasive and much needed. This book will generate wide discussion in academic fields—and break new paths for society as a whole.”
—John McCumber, professor of Germanic languages, UCLA

“I began reading this book, because I had agreed to; I stayed because it riveted me. Not only is this a brilliant examination of ethical behavior in the light of history, social psychology, brain science, and philosophy, it is a powerful demonstration of what those disciplines are for. A new basis for the instilling of ethical behavior cannot be gainsaid after reading The Self Beyond Itself.”
—Daniel Boyarin, Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, University of California, Berkeley

“Fascinating, accessible, and engaging. . . . Ravven provides an alternative vision of human ethics, initially expressed in the naturalistic philosophy of Spinoza but also well supported by contemporary research in the cognitive sciences.”
—Wendell Wallach, Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

“Extraordinarily wide-ranging, fervently argued, and visionary. . . . Ravven’s book is an exemplary case of a public philosophy, or the use of different modes of reasoning to broaden political sensibilities and battle provincialism.”
—Jim Wetzel, Augustinian Chair, Villanova University

“A thought-provoking study about the most urgent moral questions.”
—Warren Zev Harvey, professor emeritus, Department of Jewish Thought, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“A perfect book for thoughtful people who wish they had taken (or wish they had paid attention in) a philosophy class in college. The real-life examples render the ideas very accessible and illustrate how our concepts of ‘self’ influence everything we do. Make it the gift you give your ‘self.’”
—P.H. Longstaff, professor, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Kirkus Reviews
Why do some people behave honorably and others badly? This has been a core question since the dawn of philosophy, and Ravven (Religious Studies/Hamilton Coll.; co-editor: Jewish Themes in Spinoza's Philosophy, 2002) discusses the possibilities. The popular answer, especially among nonphilosophers, is that we simply think matters over and behave. We have free will. Despite our upbringings, educations, hardships, group pressures and the limitations of our human brains, we choose our actions and must be held morally responsible for them. This turns out to be a remarkably parochial view that began with early Latin Christianity and quickly spread throughout the West but never caught on in other areas of the world, where fate, karma and other outside influences trump individual choice. No fan of free will, Ravven writes 10 densely argued but sometimes-accessible chapters that explore why humans act and how they justify themselves. It is often not a pretty picture. The mass shooting of Jews in Nazi-occupied Russia was carried out by ordinary German soldiers, not SS fanatics. All were told they could opt out with no penalties. A few did. Others could not stomach the killing and withdrew, but most carried on. They did not think, "what terrible things I am doing," but rather, "this is a miserable job!" These men clearly chose their actions, but it's a stretch to claim that they exercised free will. Scholarly essays packed with closely reasoned arguments from the author and fellow academics, plus extensive historical analyses of thinkers from Aristotle to Spinoza to Malcolm Gladwell. Patient readers with a taste for philosophy will find that reading this book is a stimulating experience.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595585370
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/28/2013
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 726,289
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Heidi M. Ravven is a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. A founding member of the Society for Empirical Ethics, she has published widely in interdisciplinary journals and is the co-editor of Jewish Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy. She lives in Cazenovia, New York.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2013

    This book is remarkable in so many ways. It is riveting, thought

    This book is remarkable in so many ways. It is riveting, thought provoking, and beautifully written, and it has led to any number of fascinating discussions among my friends. Kudos to Dr. Ravven for this much-needed and visionary book.

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