Ontology & Free Will
Ontology & Free Will
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. Is free will an illusion? Some leading scientists think so. For instance, in 2002 the psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote, “It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do… It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.”
Understanding why God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. We Also Recommend Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Does One Crime Justify Another?
Science and Free Will
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order. On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle.
Divine Providence According to some thinkers, God only watches over people in a general way; according to others, divine providence extends to the minute details of life. The Jewish Religion: A Companion The Hebrew term for divine providence, , was first used by the medieval Jewish theologians who, under the influence of Greek philosophy, preferred abstract terms to denote ideas found in concrete form in the Bible and the rabbinic literature.
Our experiences indicate that we have free will. When we do a particular action, we have the sense that we have chosen that act from an array of alternatives. However, there are theological, philosophical, and scientific reasons to think that this sense of choice is illusory. The idea that God controls the world, determining the trajectory and details of its history, is strong in Judaism and is one of the theological issues that contributes to the Jewish problem of free will. Free Will Problem in Judaism
The Bible records several problematic instances of God hardening human hearts, seemingly stripping them of free will. On several occasions in the Bible, God "hardens the heart" of individuals. "Victims" of divine hardenings include the Egyptian king Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17, and arguably 14:5, 18), the Moabite king Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30), and the army of Canaan in the time of Joshua (Joshua 11:20). Proverbs 21:1 informs us, indeed, that "the heart of a king is in the Lord's hands like streams of water; He will turn it to whatever He wants"; and without referring to hardening per se, the prophet Elijah insinuates that God has led the hearts of the sinning Israelites astray (I Kings 18:37). Interfering With Free Will Hardened Hearts: Removing Free Will
Medieval commentators suggested justifications for God's hardening Pharaoh's heart. A "solution" to [the philosophical problems raised by God's hardening of hearts] must satisfy two criteria. It must be philosophically cogent; but it also must be compatible with, if not directly supported by, the Bible's narrative and terminology and concepts found in other parts of Jewish tradition. Reinterpretation of the Term Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations
Free Will in Judaism 101 If humans do not have free will--the ability to choose--then actions are morally and religiously insignificant: a murderer who kills because she is compelled to do so would be no different than a righteous person who gives charity because she is compelled to do so. Jewish tradition assumes that our actions significant. According to the Bible, the Jews were given the Torah and commanded to follow its precepts, with reward and retribution to be meted out accordingly.
From the beginning of biblical time, man has struggled to break his binding ties in order to become free, independent, and fully human. Man is seen as being created in God's likeness, with a capacity for an evolution of which the limits are not set. "God," a Hasidic master remarked, "does not say that 'it was good' after creating man; this indicates that while the cattle and everything else were finished after being created, man was not finished." It is man himself, guided by God's word as voiced by the Torah and the Prophets, who can develop his inherent nature in the process of history. What is the nature of this human evolution? Becoming Free in Judaism
Responding to the Free Will Problem in Judaism If humans are to be held responsible for their actions, they must have free will, the ability to choose right from wrong. However, ideas about God's providence and foreknowledge and scientific notions of biological and psychological determinism create problems for the presumption of human free will. How have Jewish texts and thinkers responded to these problems? The Bible does not engage this issue in a philosophical manner. It asserts God's active role in the world as well as the possibility of human choice, without reconciling the two.
Modern thinkers have addressed the free will problem by questioning the authority of science, acknowledging the limits of freedom, and asserting the transcendent importance of choice. Medieval Jewish thinkers were concerned with reconciling the contradictions between human free will and divine providence and foreknowledge. Modern Jewish thinkers, on the other hand, have been primarily concerned with the challenges to free will posed by the natural and social sciences. The Free Will Problem: Modern Solutions
Psychological Determinism and Free Will Can we choose our way? The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology It is not the free‑will model but determinism [i.e. the denial of free will] which dominates scientific conceptions of man. Thoughtful psychologists and social scientists know that there will always remain significant domains of human behavior that are unpredictable and beyond external control. The number of factors that influence us are large and their interactions complex; there are also practical and ethical limitations on studying them scientifically.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers struggled to reconcile God's knowledge of the future with human choice. The Jewish Religion: A Companion A problem that exercised the minds of the medieval Jewish philosophers was that of reconciling God's foreknowledge with human free will. This problem, called the problem of "knowledge versus free will," can be baldly stated. If God knows, as presumably He does, long before a man is born how he will behave throughout his life, how can that man be blamed and punished for his sinful acts and praised and rewarded for his virtuous acts? Solution #1: God Has No Foreknowledge The Free Will Problem: Medieval Solutions
According to some Hasidic thinkers, human free will is an illusion; God causes all human actions. There were at least two distinct clusters of ideas in Hasidism congenial to the denial of free will in one form or another, and which historically exerted pressure in that direction. The first was the Hasidic interpretation of the (Divine "contraction") in the kabbalistic thought of Isaac Luria, [known as] the "Ari." The Denial of Free Will in Hasidic Thought
The Free Will Problem: Early Solutions Biblical and rabbinic sources stress both divine determinism and human freedom. "There was no other way of expressing the uncanny, overpowering, 'demonic' character of the power of sin, than by seeing this too as a work of Yahweh [God], even if one executed in anger (J. Köberle)."
Argument from Free Will