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Is Neuroscience the Death of 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.” Many neuroscientists are employing a flawed notion of free will. Such proclamations make the news; after all, if free will is dead, then moral and legal responsibility may be close behind. Indeed, free will matters in part because it is a precondition for deserving blame for bad acts and deserving credit for achievements. Here, I’ll explain why neuroscience is not the death of free will and does not “wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility,” extending a discussion begun in Gary Gutting’s recent Stone column. Leif Parsons We should be wary of defining things out of existence. So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will?

The Denial of Free Will in Hasidic Thought According to some Hasidic thinkers, human free will is an illusion; God causes all human actions. According to medieval mystic Isaac Luria, God needed to contract before creating the world. We Also Recommend Some Hasidic thinkers conceive of this as an "epistemic" contraction, a withdrawal in the realm of knowledge and perception, which caused the perception that God is separate from the world--which, as discussed in this article, has ramifications for the free will debate. 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. There Is Nothing Separate From God According to the Ari, prior to Creation "all was filled from the undifferentiated light of the Einsof (the 'Infinite' [i.e. But this was not the real truth. Schneur Zalman uses the metaphor of the rays of the sun coming from the sun to illustrate his epistemological interpretation of the "contraction."

Hardened Hearts: Some Explanations Medieval commentators suggested justifications for God's hardening Pharaoh's heart. In several places, the Bible reports that God hardened human hearts (most notably, Pharoah's), apparently stripping these agents of free will and manipulating their choices. There are a number of problems with this: 1) Why would God do this? 2) How could God hold a hardened agent responsible for his actions? A "solution" to [the philosophical problems raised by God's hardening of hearts] must satisfy two criteria. Reinterpretation of the Term Some exegetes, including Saadia Gaon (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, IV:6) and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (chapter 36 of his Akedat Yitzchak), deny that the term "hardening of the heart" has anything to do with interference in motivational systems. The Modest Solution Further, because releasing the Israelites would have taken place only under pressure of the plagues, Pharaoh would not have genuinely repented had he succumbed to the plagues' pressure. Dr.

The Free Will Problem: Medieval Solutions In the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers struggled to reconcile God's knowledge of the future with human choice. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press. A problem that exercised the minds of the medieval Jewish philosophers was that of reconciling God's foreknowledge with human free will. We Also Recommend 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 Gersonides, unwilling to compromise in any way human free will, posits as a solution (The Wars of the Lord, iii. 6) that God does not know beforehand how a man will behave in particular circumstances. Solution #2: Humans Have No Free Choice Solution #3: Divine and Human Knowledge Are Incomparable

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)." We thus find a series of human events explicated by Scripture through the notion of psychic invasion. Conversely, God does not permit Abimelech, king of Gerar, to sin with Abraham's wife Sarah (Genesis 20:6). Living With the Contradiction On the other hand, the Deuteronomist emphasizes the crucial significance of human choice and its consequent culpability when it has gone astray (Deuteronomy 30:19‑20). In light of the scriptural emphasis on divine intervention, it is not difficult to see how Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic writings came to emphasize the decisive importance of God's prior gift of wisdom for the determination of human character. A similar dilemma confronts us in the Qumran [Dead Sea] Scrolls. Dr.

Hardened Hearts: Removing Free Will The Bible records several problematic instances of God hardening human hearts, seemingly stripping them of free will. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from "Freedom, Repentance, and Hardening of the Hearts: Albo vs. Maimonides," published in Faith and Philosophy (1997, 14:4). 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). Interfering With Free Will To harden someone's heart is, apparently, to interfere in the person's motivational system so as to cause the person to act in a way different than he or she would have otherwise acted. We may call this the "free will deprivation problem." Is Free Will a Supreme Value? Did you like this article? Please consider making a donation today. Dr.

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 discussion below begins in the Middle Ages and then goes back in time to discuss talmudic ideas. The author does this because the questions surrounding divine providence are more explicit in medieval sources. The Hebrew term for divine providence, hashgahah, 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. General and Special Providence The abstract discussions of the medievals were largely around the scope of divine providence. Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed (3:17‑18), defends both types of providence but limits special providence to human beings and even then believes that it is only extended to individuals who lead intellectual and pious lives. Rabbi Dr.

Free Will Problem in Judaism Our experiences indicate that we have free will. We Also Recommend 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. Early in the Bible, for example, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be oppressed as slaves in a foreign land; God will punish their oppressors, however, and Abraham's children will leave with great wealth and return to the land of Canaan (Genesis 15). In the book of Exodus, God repeatedly hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he will not release the Israelites from slavery. The medieval philosophers struggled with how to reconcile divine providence--known as hashgahah--with human choice.

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 are 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. The Free Will Problem There are theological problems with the idea of human free will. There is also a philosophical problem, which derives from the conception of God as omnipotent and omniscient: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God must know what we will do before we do it. Modern science has raised yet another problem. Responding to the Free Will Problem Biblical and rabbinic literature don't systematically analyze philosophical issues, including the concept of free will. Did you like this article?

Becoming Free in Judaism From the beginning of biblical time, man has struggled to break his binding ties in order to become free, independent, and fully human. Excerpted from You Shall Be As Gods with permission of the publisher (Henry Holt and Company). Man is seen as being created in God's likeness, with a capacity for an evolution of which the limits are not set. We Also Recommend "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." What is the nature of this human evolution? Incestuous Bondage Its essence lies in man's emergence from the incestuous ties to blood and soil into independence and freedom. Adam and Eve at the beginning of their evolution are bound to blood and soil; they are still "blind." Social Bondage The next step in the process of liberation from incestuous ties is found in the beginning of the national history of the Hebrews.