In his painting, The School of Athens, Raphael represents with characteristic gestures of Plato and Aristotle the directions of their philosophical schools. Plato points upwards to the idealistic good, which indicates a vertical direction of thought. Aristotle points with his stretched hand to the world, which indicates a horizontal direction of thought.

Beyond the Animal in Man: Free Will vs. Determinism

Picture of Yonasan Rosenblum

Yonasan Rosenblum

Yonasan Rosenblum is Director of Jewish Media Resources, an organization dedicated to furthering the public’s understanding of Torah Judaism. In addition to his regular writing for venues including Yated Ne’eman, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action, Mishpacha Magazine, and Hamodia. He served for a decade as director of Am Echad, a media resource for foreign journalists in Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures, including Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, Rabbi Mosher Sherer, Mike Tress, Rabbi Meor Schuster, and Rav Noach Weinberg (forthcoming). He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, Yale Law School, and the Ohr Samayach yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"Can the workings of the mind really be reduced to the rules of the physical universe, or the mind conflated with the electrical impulses of the brain. The laws of the physical universe, of which Silberstein speaks, allow us to predict future events. According to Judaism, there can be no parallel charting of a human life. What, for instance, would be the parallel in the laws of the physical universe to the phenomenon of the ba'al teshuva (returnee to Judaism) -- someone who has chosen a life at odds with his entire education and upbringing?"

The belief in man’s elevation over the animals is under assault in the West. Denial of free will — and with it the possibility of morality — is central to that attack. If man does not possess the freedom to choose, he is no more morally culpable for his actions than a lion for eating its prey. At the end of the day, he is just another animal whose actions are determined by his instincts.

In his Discourse on Free Will, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler describes how the area of free will differs for each and every person, based on education and other factors, and how it shifts constantly. It is only possible to speak of the exercise of free will, he writes, at that point where a person’s apprehension of the truth, i.e., what is right, is in perfect equipoise with a countervailing desire. Precisely at that point, nothing besides the person himself determines the outcome.

Rabbi Dessler employs the spatial metaphor of a battlefield to capture the process. The point at which the battle is joined is the point of free will. Behind the battle line is captured territory — the area where a person feels no temptation to do other than what he perceives as right. And behind the enemy lines are all those areas in which a person does not yet have the ability to choose.

The battlefront moves constantly. With every victory — every choice to do what is right — a person advances. And he retreats with every defeat. Pharaoh provides the paradigm of the latter. By repeatedly hardening his heart, he finally lost the capacity to exercise his free will.

In a contemporary context, Rabbi Dessler remarked that those who deny the possibility of free will do so because by failing to develop their own will power through the positive exercise of their free will they have lost their freedom.

“You deny free will because you are in fact unfree; you have enslaved yourselves to the evil within you.”

Writing recently in The New York Times, Dennis Overbye takes off from his inability to resist molten chocolate cakes on the dessert menu to consider a “bevy of experiments in recent years suggest-[ing] that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions… frantically making up stories about being in control.”

Mark Hallett, a neurological researcher, informs Overbye that free will is nothing more than an illusion, a sense that people have. Hallett is right; no one consistently experiences life as lacking all choice — even Overbye could resist the chocolate cake if the reward were great enough or the punishment immediate enough. 

Many, however, find it convenient from time to time to use the compulsion defense to avoid the moral censure of their own conscience or of others. As 19th century American historian, philosopher, and psychologist, William James wrote:

“When we come to the chapter on the Will, we shall see that the whole drama… the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life, depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.”

Philosophy professor Michael Silberstein writes that all physical systems that have been investigated turn out to be either deterministic or random; and either alternative, he claims, is inconsistent with free will.   He imagines the universe would evolve, with more and more complicated forms emerging from primordial quantum muck as from an elaborate computer game, 

“Opinions vary about whether it will ultimately prove to be physics all the way down, total independence from physics, or some shade in between, and thus how free we are. There’s nothing in fundamental physics by itself that tells us we can’t have such emergent properties when we get to different levels of complexities.”

Early Modern Philosophy divided itself into two schools: rationalism and empiricism. Much like philosophical reasoning itself, the divide stems from the minds of the ancient Greeks. Plato, pictured on the left pointing upward, was a rationalist idealist philosopher: he believed ideas to be the sources of our knowledge. Aristotle, pictured on the right with his hand outstretched in front of him, is the father of practical empiricism: he believed that sense experience was the source of our knowledge.

English philosopher and physician, John Locke, was one of the most influential and important proponents of liberal ideology and modern state functionality. Lke Aristotle, Locke was an empiricist. He was first to suggest that human beings, as human beings, have a set of inalienable rights. These rights, paraphrased in the American Constitution, are “life, liberty, and property.” A central idea of Lockean thought was his notion of the Tabula Rasa: the “Blank Slate.” He believed that all human beings are born with a barren, empty, malleable mind; every facet of one’s character is something observed, perceived, and learned via the senses. 

Biologically, the Tabula Rasa favors nurture in the “nature versus nurture” debate. Philosophically, it allows for the concept of free will. Later thinkers would interpret the idea into their own works—Freud, for example, fervently believed in the Tabula Rasa. Freud depicted personality traits as being formed by family dynamics (i.e. Oedipus complex). His theories imply that humans lack free will, but also that genetic influences on human personality are minimal. In Freudian psychoanalysis, one is largely determined by one’s upbringing.

Can the workings of the mind really be reduced to the rules of the physical universe, or the mind conflated with the electrical impulses of the brain. The laws of the physical universe, of which Silberstein speaks, allow us to predict future events. According to Judaism, there can be no parallel charting of a human life. What, for instance, would be the parallel in the laws of the physical universe to the phenomenon of the ba’al teshuva (returnee to Judaism) — someone who has chosen a life at odds with his entire education and upbringing?

One must consider the possibility that the human mind is not a tabula rasa, as Chomsky’s work on linguistic structures and Piaget’s on the stages of moral reasoning suggests. Indeed, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows in Stumbling on Happiness all the ways that we make systematic mistakes when we project ourselves into the future.

That is not to say that the range of our choice is unlimited. Each of us is a product of his education. And each of us is born with a personality, as any parent of more than one child knows. Nor is the exercise of our choice random. If people did not find themselves repeating familiar behavioral patterns, no one would ever go to a therapist.

Fortunately, those who treasure their sense of themselves as choosing beings need not concede that our choices are illusory or that man is nothing more than an animal driven by instinct. Hans Jonas points out in Tool, Image, and Grave: On What is Beyond the Animal in Man three ways in which man is distinguished from animals:

  1. Only man designs tools to achieve particular purposes.

  2. Only man creates physical images to recall past events or to contemplate future possibilities.

  3. Only man buries his dead, and is moved by a lifeless form to contemplate something beyond the physical universe.

Man differs in a myriad of ways from every member of the animal kingdom. Only man can imagine a variety of future possibilities and guide his actions in accord with those imagined futures. The Torah identifies the act of moral choice with life itself: 

“I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and curse; choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

True life is to be able to choose the blessing over the curse. Isaac Bashevis Singer got it right when he told an interviewer that free choice is humanity’s “greatest gift,” a gift that itself makes life worth living.

(Adapted from Aish.com)

Share It!

Get The Daily Elul Challenge In Your Inbox