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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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Few concepts are more unshakable in Western culture than free will, the idea that people are fundamentally free to make good or bad decisions. Scholar Heidi M. Ravven throws a wrench into this conventional view, calling free will a myth that reflects the still-powerful influence of Christian theology on our popular thinking. The Self Beyond Itself offers a riveting and acce Few concepts are more unshakable in Western culture than free will, the idea that people are fundamentally free to make good or bad decisions. Scholar Heidi M. Ravven throws a wrench into this conventional view, calling free will a myth that reflects the still-powerful influence of Christian theology on our popular thinking. The Self Beyond Itself offers a riveting and accessible review of modern neuroscientific research into the brain's capacity for decision-making — from mirror neurons and self-mapping to surprising new understandings of the dynamics of group psychology. Ultimately, this research points to the profound, virtually inescapable social influences on moral choices. Ravven shows 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. Drawing especially on the work of Spinoza, she introduces readers to a rich philosophical tradition that finds uncanny confirmation in modern neuroscience. Highly readable and wide-ranging, The Self Beyond Itself injects the full weight of philosophy and modern science into our current, stale discourse on right and wrong.


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Few concepts are more unshakable in Western culture than free will, the idea that people are fundamentally free to make good or bad decisions. Scholar Heidi M. Ravven throws a wrench into this conventional view, calling free will a myth that reflects the still-powerful influence of Christian theology on our popular thinking. The Self Beyond Itself offers a riveting and acce Few concepts are more unshakable in Western culture than free will, the idea that people are fundamentally free to make good or bad decisions. Scholar Heidi M. Ravven throws a wrench into this conventional view, calling free will a myth that reflects the still-powerful influence of Christian theology on our popular thinking. The Self Beyond Itself offers a riveting and accessible review of modern neuroscientific research into the brain's capacity for decision-making — from mirror neurons and self-mapping to surprising new understandings of the dynamics of group psychology. Ultimately, this research points to the profound, virtually inescapable social influences on moral choices. Ravven shows 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. Drawing especially on the work of Spinoza, she introduces readers to a rich philosophical tradition that finds uncanny confirmation in modern neuroscience. Highly readable and wide-ranging, The Self Beyond Itself injects the full weight of philosophy and modern science into our current, stale discourse on right and wrong.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Fred Kohn

    As a Spinoza admiring pantheist, this book was native soil for me. Nevertheless I was reluctant to give it five stars because it was devilishly difficult to read. The author approaches her main conclusion, the myth of free will, from three very different angles: psychology, philosophy, and neurobiology. This is quite a different and much more powerful approach than the plethora of books that critique free will solely or primarily from a philosophical perspective. The leaps in perspective in this As a Spinoza admiring pantheist, this book was native soil for me. Nevertheless I was reluctant to give it five stars because it was devilishly difficult to read. The author approaches her main conclusion, the myth of free will, from three very different angles: psychology, philosophy, and neurobiology. This is quite a different and much more powerful approach than the plethora of books that critique free will solely or primarily from a philosophical perspective. The leaps in perspective in this book made it seem as though the author was straying from the main topic in many places, nevertheless in retrospect I can't think of how the book could be improved very much; except perhaps in putting the section of philosophy first rather than in the middle. So: read this book, slowly if you have to, and be patient as the author brings her argument to fruition. Just in case you don't have that patience, here is a brilliant portion of the conclusion: "It was Spinoza's brainstorm that the the moral path was not from selfish isolated individualism to altruism via a free will, but instead from a diffuse localism in which self and environment were merged to an expansive identification with worlds and environments further and further afield yet having combined to produce this unique 'me'"

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Prescott

    The book has a lot of interesting information about recent research into cognition, evolution and neuroscience. Her understanding of Augustine and most of western philosophy is a caricature. Her ethic is without a trace of personal moral responsibility and is hopelessly naive.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Frank Spencer

    The idea is that ethics is better understood as responding to the situation as opposed to using free will to make the best decision. Evidence is brought to bear from current cognitive science and from analysis of the history of understanding of moral reasoning. Spinoza's theory of ethics is explained. Lessons from the Holocaust, the Milgram and Zimbardo studies, extended mind/self, and neuroplasticity are brought to bear. Some ideas about ethics are listed, such as: cultivation of beauty and the The idea is that ethics is better understood as responding to the situation as opposed to using free will to make the best decision. Evidence is brought to bear from current cognitive science and from analysis of the history of understanding of moral reasoning. Spinoza's theory of ethics is explained. Lessons from the Holocaust, the Milgram and Zimbardo studies, extended mind/self, and neuroplasticity are brought to bear. Some ideas about ethics are listed, such as: cultivation of beauty and the beautiful life harmony and balance in self and relationships moral principles that are innate ideas universal sentiments of sympathy habits developed through repetition and experience moral obligation to principles I learned a lot by reading this book. Heidegger isn't mentioned. Both his ideas about self-in-world and his reaction to the situation during the Holocaust are relevant, to be sure. Several of the thinkers in Thinkers and Thinking http://www.amazon.com/Thinkers-Thinki... are mentioned, including Arendt, Augustine, and Avicenna. Richard Taylor wrote a book on virtue ethics, if you've become interested in that http://www.amazon.com/Virtue-Ethics-P... Happy reading!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bill Churchill

    A great work. It goes into the myths surrounding "Self" and "Free Will," and how these notions became a driving aspect of western thought. We take "Self" and "Free Will" for granted in most of the world--but these notions don't fully hold up under careful scrutiny. I love books, (like this one), that illuminate reality by slaughtering the sacred cows of prior understanding. This is a good read. A great work. It goes into the myths surrounding "Self" and "Free Will," and how these notions became a driving aspect of western thought. We take "Self" and "Free Will" for granted in most of the world--but these notions don't fully hold up under careful scrutiny. I love books, (like this one), that illuminate reality by slaughtering the sacred cows of prior understanding. This is a good read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Viki Sonntag

    The ambition was there but the execution was murderous. I ended up feeling Ravven was an Augustinian, not good, in either her account or mine.

  6. 5 out of 5

    RustyShack

    Poor organization/concept.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cathy Hasty

    This is a challenging and intriguing read which challenges the pervasive assumption of individual "free will," particularly in the face of group pressures. Her illustrations and summaries of research in the first part of the book are particularly interesting. The book bogged down in the middle for me and it would require more attention than I want to give it right now. Instead I'll attend a lecture on the same topic and continue to decide what I think on this important topic. Washington Indepen This is a challenging and intriguing read which challenges the pervasive assumption of individual "free will," particularly in the face of group pressures. Her illustrations and summaries of research in the first part of the book are particularly interesting. The book bogged down in the middle for me and it would require more attention than I want to give it right now. Instead I'll attend a lecture on the same topic and continue to decide what I think on this important topic. Washington Independent Review of Books; Reviewed by Beth Kingsley June 14, 2013 "This assumption that morality means individuals making self-determined independent choices, argues Ravven, is a relic of the Augustinian dominance of Western thinking rather than a necessary way of thinking about human agency. St. Augustine, the hugely influential 4th- and 5th-century theologian considered a father of the (Western) Christian church, proposed that human nature consists of two aspects, physical and spiritual. The spiritual person residing within the physical body could exercise an independent free will. His ideas echoed powerfully down through the ages. The author describes an alternative philosophical tradition, rooted in Greek thinking and opposed to the dualist Augustinian worldview. Ravven explores in depth the philosophical theories of the 17th-century thinker Baruch Spinoza, which provide a fully developed view of moral psychology that seems remarkably prescient in light of recent discoveries in the cognitive neurosciences. Ultimately, Ravven describes a concept of moral agency that does not rely on a freely willed choice to follow prescribed rules. After demonstrating that moral agency is not, as we may wish to think, a function of objectively assessing a situation and making a reasoned choice to act, she offers an alternative Spinozan vision that relies on understanding that one's self is a part of and arises out of the world; that the context in which we exist is not separate from but, in important ways, a part of the emergent self."

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Scott

    Despite some problematic assertions and offering up studies like Milgram which were highly problematic as evidence for groupish tendencies to override the individual, I enjoyed this book. I did not come away with a new view of free will nor am I willing to jettison the concept entirely but this was definitely food for thought on the idea of free will and moral responsibility. Also, it was nice to see how some of Durkheim's ideas grew from Spinoza and undoubtedly Maimonides as well. Despite some problematic assertions and offering up studies like Milgram which were highly problematic as evidence for groupish tendencies to override the individual, I enjoyed this book. I did not come away with a new view of free will nor am I willing to jettison the concept entirely but this was definitely food for thought on the idea of free will and moral responsibility. Also, it was nice to see how some of Durkheim's ideas grew from Spinoza and undoubtedly Maimonides as well.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Conway

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mitchell Kanashkevich

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ben Marler

  12. 5 out of 5

    Butch

  13. 4 out of 5

    Manfred Kuehn

  14. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jim

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Samuelson

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mark Andre

  18. 4 out of 5

    Loretta Huston

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bkeairns

  20. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Kasenberg

  21. 4 out of 5

    Vox Nemo

  22. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Gertler

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ofer Engel

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jane

  25. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  26. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Payne

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  29. 5 out of 5

    John

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kulwarn Parmar

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