Rabbi Oury Cherki
Is there such a thing as free will?
Translated from Hebrew. Published at the Noahide World Center website.
A. Freedom – A concept that is difficult to understand
One of the fundamental assumptions in ethics in general and in Judaism in particular is that man is free to act as he sees fit. That is to say, it is within his power to choose to do good or to do bad. It is based on this assumption that we deduce both the moral responsibility of the individual and the hope that he may rectify his life. This concept is generally called: free will.
Yet free will – or 'freedom' – is indeed a difficult concept to understand. When we assume that man has free will the simple meaning is that man is a willful creature and therefore can decide in an independent manner what actions he will take. But this assumption is problematic and hard to comprehend.
Man is subject to a world of strict rules. Apples always fall downward from a tree because of the law of gravity. If we look deeper in the body of man we find that he too exists by means of different bio-molecular reactions – just like the forces that act on the apple – which are just as permanent and unchanging. If we look even deeper, into the psyche of man, we find that the soul, too, has certain permanent functions. Man discovers laws no matter where he turns. Therefore, despite the basic positive sensation of free will that we each have, it becomes difficult to presume that in a world of ironclad regularity there should be one single creature that is not governed by the rules. This is especially so since that very creature is given over to a branching system of connections with other creatures. So, we come to propose the opposite – that man is in fact a programmed machine whose every psychological and physical function is subject to the powers of nature, and that all of the discussion of freedom and free will is mere illusion. Since 'man is the food that he eats', if his food is not free, why should he be free?
B. The attack on free will: Determinism
This assumption – that man is not free since he is subordinate to a certain set of laws – is accepted by many of today's leading world thinkers. These thinkers espouse what is called determinism [necessary causality]. They claim that everything in reality is caused by laws that force it to be as it is. The awakening of the will or of desire is also governed by strict causality, since these stem from the psychic structure of the individual and from the events that occur around him. Both are subordinate to fixed laws.
This idea has been clothed in different ways throughout history, from the concept of fatalism (from the Latin word fata or fatum meaning 'fate') in the Far East ("karma"), and ending with the Greek concept of "destiny" or "moira", Sunni Islam's "divine decree" and all of the different forms of astrology. Contemporary Western European civilization also exhibits a tendency to see certain behavioral principles as stronger than man's choice, and they view his behavior as being deterministic:
The socio-economic determinism or historicism that began with Hegelian philosophy and continued among the followers of Karl Marx claims that man's behavior is predetermined by his historical cultural setting, and more particularly by means of the economic class war. One who is born into the proletariat (the worker's class in industrial society) will be subject to attempts of enslavement on the part of the capitalists (the class that controls capital and means of production), since they will offer him expensive consumer goods that will force him to work extra hours in the factory, thereby increasing factory output and causing additional manufacture of consumer products – and all of this in order to fulfill the hopes of those who control the capital. According to the Marxist claim, one who belongs to the proletariat will buy cheaper goods in order to decrease his expenses and garner free time to contemplate the principles of the proletarian revolution that might bring about a proletarian dictatorship, thus flipping the socio-economic pyramid on its head. The proletarian will do all of this not from his own free will, but rather as a result of the class-war. That is to say, the individual's place in the war of classes determines his deeds and his own personal preferences.
Biological determinism claims that since the individual is born with a specific genetic code, his preferences, feelings, reasoning, and deeds are dictated by that code. This is astrology with a different type of star system – where the stars are to be found in the individual's D.N.A. – and from this too he can never be free.
Psycho-analytic determinism claims that there are many psychological factors that influence the individual's behavior in a decisive fashion, sometimes even without the individual's awareness. One might choose a certain thing in order to compensate some lack or trauma that he felt in the past, and he is not capable of choosing otherwise. Psychoanalytic analysis might provide him with information on his subconscious world, and perhaps even act as a form of 'justification' for his behavior.
Social- educational determinism stipulates that there are social structures that force behavioral norms on the individual. While one might convince himself that he chooses from his own free will to act according to society's laws, in actuality society forces these upon him. This type of social coercion penetrates very deep into the soul, to the point that the individual is convinced that his actions stem from his own choice.
The common denominator in all of these approaches – which can be found not only among the common folk but also among philosophers and scientists – is that they all assume that man's behavior is forced upon him. Will is an illusion, and in truth one's decisions are coerced.
[Note: Does determinism necessarily contradict the idea of free will? There are those philosophers who claim that even though the scientific picture of the world is totally deterministic, man still has freedom. To the contrary – in their opinion it is in fact the deterministic outlook that allows us to look at man as a creature with a contiguous 'personality' and to say that this personality stands behind his deeds in a fashion of cause and effect. Thus, we see the individual with a fixed and stable structure and the actions that he performs become connected in a clear and not a random way. It is best and possible to differentiate between two levels of the concept 'personality'. The first level (the usual meaning) can be found in the realm of character traits. Each individual has certain qualities that characterize him. Yet this cannot be completely permanent, as these are subject to change. The second level (the deeper one) points to the uniqueness of each individual, to his inner 'me'. At this level we find those preferences that belong in principle to the very special makeup of each and every individual. Still, despite the existence of these preferences, it could be argued that one's act of choosing is not done along the lines of this compelling internal pattern. Clarification of this matter is beyond the scope of this article.]
It is possible in some sense to accuse all the approaches that negate the idea of free will that they release man from responsibility for his actions. Only if one can truly choose between 'A' and 'B', can he be held accountable for answering why he chose 'B'. But, if he is forced to choose 'B' then all responsibility is lifted from his shoulders. Since it requires a great sense of responsibility to stand behind every preference and decision, people find it difficult (psychologically) to accept the idea that the individual's behavior stems from continuous acts of choosing.
As opposed to these approaches, the Torah of Israel turns towards man as a free being, and the sages of Israel tended to emphasize the freedom that man enjoys. We must clarify how and in what manner this freedom is possible.
C. Contempt for freedom: Declaration of human rights
In order to avoid mistakes we must first look at a concept that seems similar to the idea of free will – 'the right to freedom' that appears in the Declaration of Human Rights. It is accepted in modern civilization that man has certain rights, and the first right in democratic society is the right to freedom. There is absolutely no connection between the 'right to freedom' and 'free will', for the right to freedom is a legal right that allows every man to do as he wishes (within the limits of the law), yet it does not determine why one may want to do what he wants. Here all of the deterministic approaches that stipulate that one wants because he is forced to want enter the picture. Moreover, specifically because man is not free he must be left with the 'right to freedom' in a legal sense – for if one is predetermined to do a certain act it is wrong for the law not to permit it. One cannot be punished for acting according to his nature. It might be said that in most instances the thought that grants the 'right to freedom' stems from the assumption that man is not free.
D. Man's soul is free
Let us return to the matter of man's body and the apples that he eats. The statement 'man is actually the food that he eats' sounds like an exaggeration, for man has a sense of freedom whose source is difficult to explain. If one looks not at nature in order to learn about his qualities, but rather deep inside himself, he will arrive at a different conclusion: While nature indeed acts as a machine, the human soul is not constrained by cause and effect. The Talmud in the tractate Shabbat (109a) states about man's soul: "it is free".
According to this understanding, it could be said that man essentially lives on the border between two worlds – a world that is all freedom,and a world that is all rules.
Throughout history we find several attempts to solve this complexity. We can summarize them in four alternatives:
There are those who claim that while man is indeed free, in actuality all of existence is free. This is the claim of the early pagan world, which judges the external world according to the inner world. According to this line of reasoning, man cannot decide that the apple is not free; the apple, too, has its own will, and it is its will to always fall downward.
There are those who argue the opposite. Some of the scientists of the 19th century – the positivists – claimed that the human sense of freedom is an illusion, and that man is totally subject to the rule of the laws of nature. What is common between these two approaches is that they both strive for unity – either all of creation is free or all of creation is not free.
An additional claim is that of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed that divinity is the sum total of all of the descriptions of divinity. Freedom, which is allotted by the religious intuition to G-d, is in the end really enslaved to the natural order- which is the general combination of everything. From his writings it seems freedom is none other than a noble illusion, and it belongs, mainly, to G-d. Yet since, according to his approach G-d Himself is a part of nature, this is really just a polite way of saying that there is no such thing as freedom.
The prophets of Israel, however, and in their wake our sages, teach that nature is included within G-d and G-d cannot be included within nature. Indeed, there are laws of nature, but these laws are part of the freedom of the Holy One Blessed Be He. G-d is the source of freedom, and he wanted to have regular rules in the world.
E. Where is choice found?
The sages of Israel, then, argue a hefty claim: man is totally free. What he chooses to do truly stems from his own free will, and he is therefore accountable for his deeds. Certainly many factors are forced on the individual: his genetic structure, his place of birth, the historical period in which he lives, and even the inclinations of his soul. Yet, these are only the opening factors for life in general and for each situation in particular. When our Sages say that man is free they mean to say that he is free to decide how he wishes to react to those given factors. His reaction is not known ahead of time and is always given over to his own hands. All of the different given factors cannot bring about a specific preset reaction.
F. G-d as the source of choice
We are still left with a question concerning the source of man's freedom. It is clear that the source of freedom cannot be found in nature, since, as we saw, it is ruled by laws. It might be said that the source of man's freedom is his soul, and the freedom of the soul comes from G-d. In a different way, it may be understood that G-d has total free will, and he granted part of that to man so that man will choose for G-d. Therefore, when one utilizes his ability to choose freely, he connects himself to that factor which is outside of Nature – G-d – and to the freedom which He grants.