Free Will Is Granted. (Or is It?)

NASA image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, sometimes referred to as the “Eye of God” nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt University)

According to tradition, God knows everything that will happen. But, even so, somehow, human beings are free to make choices that will shape their own future. How do we know this is true?  Because the Talmud says so: Everything is foreseen, yet free will is granted. (AVOT 3:19)

Seriously, though, to anyone who uses English in an ordinary way, these two claims are contradictory, which, according to logic, means one claim must be false. In reflecting on this contradiction (what theologians call a paradox), even the great Maimonides is perplexed. In the Mishne Torah (Hil’ Teshuva 5:5) he offers that there are countless points of religious law that depend on this statement, but that resolving the contradiction is a process “longer than the land and wider than the sea.”

Indeed, if there is no free will, then the concept of ethical conduct is at risk. I remember that one of my Talmud teachers began his course by saying that God gave the Jews two great gifts: Torah (which he defined, interestingly, as human creativity) and Free Will, which enabled us to choose to follow the divine commandments. We observe the mitzvot consciously and purposefully, or we don’t really observe them at all. Moreover, if humans weren’t able sometimes to choose evil, then how could we account for all the evil in a world under the control of a good and omnipotent God?

Consider all the instances in the Bible when prophets and judges (starting with the dying Moses) predict that Israel will abandon God and pay a severe price for it—which invariably happens. If mankind were not able to choose evil, what would we make of this endless suffering and death of God’s favorite people?  Even those mystical Jews who believe that our destinies were written into a script by an all-knowing God allow some room for improvisation on that script.

None of this, however, satisfies a rational critic. Either the future already exists or we create the future with our unconstrained choices and actions. One or the other must be false. To counter the problem, our sages use the fallacy of equivocation, deliberately changing the meaning of a word to avoid a problem. So, we are told that God’s “knowledge” is not like our knowledge and that God’s “future” is not like our future, which, again, to a rational critic is no more convincing than the explanation that the “daylight” that shone on earth for two days before the sun was created was a special kind of divine light. (If we don’t know what is meant by “God’s knowledge,” how can we make claims about it?)

The Impossibility of Free Will

While I am accustomed to people disagreeing with me, I am surprised by the vehemence I encounter when I propose that free will is an illusion. Not only does such an idea undermine most models of ethical choice, it assaults our sense of self and personhood. But to believe in free will, one must believe that the mind is somehow separate from the body (a “ghost in the machine”) and that it works independently of the laws of physics. And, to put it simply, most people educated in philosophy and science — especially neuroscience — just don’t believe that.

The arguments against free will are in two categories: philosophy and neuroscience.

The philosophical argument is straightforward: The brain is subject to the laws of cause and effect. Spinoza puts the matter simply:

In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity…

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.

To put it even more succinctly, Schopenhauer tells us that we “can do what we will, but cannot will what we will.” That is, any act of apparent decision is so shaped by predispositions, biases, conditioning and even biological imperatives, that the feeling of choice must be illusory. Indeed, even the ability to break free from one’s programming is an ability that must have been present before the breaking free, thereby causing it to happen.

In recent decades, neuroscientists have shown experimentally that there is activity in the nervous system BEFORE the subject is aware of deciding or choosing. Further, it is possible to cause a subject to make a particular choice by stimulating a particular part of the brain, and the subject then reports that the choice was free and unconstrained! (For an extended discussion, read Sam Harris, Free Will.)

The Moral Dilemma

But if it is true that people who act ethically or in concert with the commandments are merely responding in ways they have been programmed to respond — that neither they nor those who act “wickedly” could have acted otherwise — how is it fair to praise or blame those who act correctly or incorrectly?  How can we fairly punish or imprison those whose actions were determined by their nervous systems under the influence of biophysics?

The answer is that it is NOT fair, but there’s nothing we can do about it. The universe and its laws are indifferent to the fate of humankind and the irresistible forces that move our brains are no more concerned with our well-being than the forces that cause mutation of cells or supernova explosions. Astrophysics and Evolution are omnipotent — but mindless and amoral.

Of course, no one has to believe that. They can, if they prefer, make up stories about benevolent forces that guide the universe or non-material souls that think and decide and even survive the death of the body. But I believe a more correct assessment is found in this little poem by Piet Hein:


Nature, it seems is the popular name
for milliards and milliards and milliards
of particles playing their infinite game
of billiards and billiards and billiards

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