For many Americans, the notion of free will is fundamental to our sense of self and to our understandings of moral responsibility and the social order. The key idea is that we—as rational human selves—are somehow beyond the call of nature, nurture and our present situation. We take it for granted our choices can be fully ours, and that they can fully originate from the “inside.”
Philosophy professor Heidi Ravven sets out to debunk this belief in her new book The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will (2013, The New Press). According to Ravven, free will is a Western cultural myth, one that is out of step with both contemporary science and alternative cultural traditions.
Ravven is a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy with interests in Jewish and feminist thought. Much of her work focuses on extending the ideas of 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
She will be reading from her book at Buffalo Street Books on Wednesday, Sept. 18, beginning at 6 p.m.
The Self Beyond Itself is broad-ranging and densely argued, encompassing such diverse fields as intellectual and political history, philosophical ethics, social psychology, neuroscience and systems theory. The gracefulness of her synthesis is remarkable.
She examines the deep historical roots of free will in American culture, tracing it back to the nation’s Protestant foundations and forward to the revival of “character education” in recent decades as a popular—if problematic—means of moral teaching of the young.
From there, Ravven pulls back further to examine the broader scope of Western Latin Christianity, tracing a powerful lineage of theological and philosophical thought from Augustine (in the 4th and 5th centuries) to such canonical modern philosophers as Descartes and Kant. Such thinkers posited an autonomous, disembodied self or faculty as the source of moral agency—a legacy that continues to influence many contemporary approaches to ethical theory.
She traces an alternative, more naturalistic, tradition of ethics: from Aristotle and other classical thinkers, to the medieval Arabic falsafa (philosophers), and on to Spinoza in the early modern era.
Ravven devotes a particularly fascinating chapter to unearthing moral lessons from the Nazi Holocaust, examining they ways in which perpetrators and rescuers alike were crucially shaped by their group identities and shared beliefs.
Uncannily parallel lessons are drawn from an overview of classic work in social psychology. Studies as such as those of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo—the latter with his notorious Stanford Prison Experiment—demonstrate a disturbing capacity on the part of apparently normal test subjects to engage in cruelty under deviant situations.
Ravven devotes much of the second half of her book to an extensive and critical review of recent literature on neuroscientific and evolutionary approaches to moral psychology. She casts a skeptical eye on those that hypothesize innate (“hard-wired”) moral faculties or rules, preferring to appeal to more general purpose evolved capacities for emotion and social bonding and the ways these flexible capacities are shaped by our upbringing and our situated-ness in the world.
Much of her book has a cautionary, sobering tone. But the final two chapters point in more hopeful direction, taking on an often-buoyant quality as Ravven paints a picture of freedom without free will. She links Spinoza with contemporary ideas in cognitive science and the theory of complex systems.
Ravven joins a growing band of thinkers developing conceptions of the human self that acknowledge its neural and biological basis without limiting its boundaries to the human skull. (The philosopher Alva Noë, whom Ravven cites approvingly, is a personal favorite of mine.)
The self, she argues, is a self-beyond-itself—absent any sharp boundary—stretching to incorporate its physical, social and cultural environments. True freedom, according to her, is to be found not by striving for some (probably mythical) absolute autonomy but rather by educating ourselves more broadly in the ways of the world so that we are not imprisoned by our parochial world-views.
The Self Beyond Itself is a demanding but broadly accessible read, one that will appeal to general readers and specialists alike interested in questions about the human self and human morality.