The Self Beyond Itself

An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will

A groundbreaking book on how new developments in neuroscience challenge our basic assumptions about morality

“Why be ethical? For freedom’s sake; for joy, for pleasure, for a sense of living on in the universe of which one is a tiny, local expression; and for an enhanced sense of agency in a dangerous, unpredictable, and ephemeral existence. . . . Opening oneself to being more broadly acted upon by the world in order to discover oneself within it surely as a basis for acting more broadly within it is a paradoxical route to freedom.” —from The Self Beyond Itself

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.


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

News and Reviews

Tablet Magazine

Heidi Ravven discusses the myth of free will and The Self Beyond Itself on the Vox Tablet podcast

Washington Independent Review of Books

Washington Independent Review of Books reviews The Self Beyond Itself

Goodreads Reviews