Vox Tablet

What Spinoza Knew and Neuroscience Is Discovering: ‘Free Will’ Doesn’t Exist

In a new book, Heidi Ravven draws on philosophy, history, and neuroscience to argue that ethical behavior comes from looking outward, not within

July 1, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

Questions of character shape public discourse. From Paula Deen to Edward Snowden—the choices people make and actions people take raise questions about free will, personal responsibility, and morality. And yet, researchers in sociology, psychology, and neuroscience are increasingly asserting that the independent self that we are all so attached to doesn’t really exist. What’s more, there are philosophical traditions dating back to Aristotle, Maimonides, and Spinoza that may offer more useful ways of thinking about how to foster ethical behavior and moral societies.

In The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, Heidi Ravven, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, examines these questions. She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry on the podcast to discuss how the myth of free will took hold, what Spinoza had to say about it, and why if you want to be a moral person, the last thing you should do is surround yourself with like-minded people. [Running time: 24:52.]

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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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