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What Is Free Will?

Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Often enough, the question of whether Judaism upholds the idea of “free will” revolves around the Torah’s description of the key moments in the life of a non-Jew: the Pharaoh of Moses’ day.  In Midian, God informs Moses of His intention to harden the Egyptian ruler’s heart so that he will not let the people of Israel go. (Exodus 4.21) This might appear to settle the matter, but the exodus story itself shows that it wasn’t until after the fourth plague that  “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”  Prior to that, the text tells us, Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  According to Maimonides, this teaches that God directly intervened to override his “free will” as a punishment for his oppression of the Jews: “This too was done out of God's wisdom, to show him that if God chose to cancel his free choice, then He would do so.”  Other medieval commentators are bothered by the thought that Pharaoh was punished for a crime he did not voluntarily commit; thus, Sforno and Hizkuni maintain that God only enabled Pharaoh to bear the suffering of the plagues and did not determine his will.  Still, there is a basic agreement here: Either Pharaoh had free will, at least at the outset, or he was coerced.

Relevant Links
Who Says There Are No Coincidences?  David Glasner, Jewish Ideas Daily. In certain Orthodox circles, the idea that there are no coincidences has become a principle of faith.  But it contradicts a more fundamental Jewish doctrine: human free will.
Bait and Switch  Alvin Plantinga, Books and Culture. Atheist standard-bearer Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion.  Shame he doesn’t argue the case. 
Moral Matter  Iain Dewitt, American Interest. How much can neuroscience tell us about the human mind? 
A Philosopher in the Age of Science  Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, Prospect. “A Kant without hubris, a Wittgenstein without quietism, an unrelenting critic, gadfly and deeply original thinker, [Hilary] Putnam is one of the 20th century’s true philosophical giants.”

For many modern philosophers, however, the absence of coercion is not a sufficient condition but only a necessary condition for the existence of free will—an existence that they deny.  All events and actions have causes, they say, and all are therefore necessary.  Thomas Hobbes advances a  version of this argument in Leviathan, where he denies that man has  free will on grounds that his decisions and actions are determined by his appetites, which is to say his desires and aversions: “And therefore if a man should talk to me of a round quadrangle; or accidents of bread in cheese; or immaterial substances; or of a free subject; a free will; or any free but free from being hindered by opposition; I should not say he were in an error, but that his words were without meaning; that is to say, absurd.” 

Leibniz and Kant both sought to rebuff the threat of causal determinism.  Leibniz denied the relation of cause and effect, and indeed all other relations, maintaining that they are features of the perception of the world but not of its essence.  Now, this does not entirely solve the problem, because Leibniz complicates matters by arguing that all the actions of substances, including human actions, proceed from their natures; but he upholds the idea of free will on grounds that human nature, though pre-ordained by God, is not logically necessary.  Kant is, in a sense, even more extreme in his defense of free will, maintaining that causal determinism is refuted by the moral law: the existence of the moral law entails free will. 

These solutions are at odds with our ordinary conception of both human action and the physical world.  Yet it is hard to find a way out of this conundrum.  If we deny cause and effect, then all events—including human actions—become random.  That surely is not what we mean by “free will,” since it would seem to conflict with the observable regularity in human behavior and would sever the connection between deliberation and action.  The same problem results from maintaining causal relations in general but excepting human decisions from the causal paradigm; for if decisions are not events in the material world, then their relationship with the actions that apparently proceed from them cannot be a causal relationship.  Somehow, having free will is supposed to mean that human action is neither determined nor undetermined.  As David Hume put it, “ . . . necessity makes an essential part of causation; and consequently liberty, by removing necessity, removes also causes, and is the very same thing with chance.  As chance is commonly thought to imply a contradiction, and is at least directly contrary to experience, there are always the same arguments against liberty or free-will.”  It is difficult not to conclude with Hume that “free will” is fundamentally confused, in essence a chimera. 

In a recent article in Jewish Ideas Daily, David Glasner says that Alvin Plantinga has found a way out of this problem.  Plantinga—a rare species, both an analytic philosopher and a Christian—has mounted defenses of free will from several angles.  From the perspective of the problem of evil, he has argued that it may be impossible for an omnipotent and omniscient God to create a world in which man is not free and prevented from sinning.  He has also sought to challenge the determinist assumption that all events have causes that are also events.  Plantinga is a proponent of agent rather than event causation, arguing that we ought not to look for the prior event that causes an action but should rather see the agent himself as the cause. Insofar as there is a metaphysical solution to the problem of “free will,” Plantinga has made some of the best modern contributions. 

There is, however, an alternative approach, that of the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and some of his disciples.  Wittgenstein challenged a key premise of the argument against free will—namely, the statement that actions are events. He maintained that our ordinary-language descriptions of conscious human action rely on the conflation of intention and action: 

Consider the following description of a voluntary action: “I form the decision to pull the bell at 5 o'clock; and when it strikes 5, my arm makes this movement.” —Is that the correct description, and not this one: “. . . and when it strikes 5, I raise my arm”? —One would like to supplement the first description: “And lo and behold! my arm goes up when it strikes 5.”  And this “lo and behold!” is precisely what doesn't belong here.  I do not say “Look, my arm is going up!” when I raise it.”

A later Wittgensteinian, Frederick Stoutland, amplified this point, observing that a simple action often involves in a number of bodily movements.  For example, when an agent swings a stick, he will move not only his arm but also his head and feet and his other arm.  What individuates the action, such that a number of movements are deemed one action, is a description in terms of the intention of the agent: the agent intends to swing the stick and the other movements are just corollaries.  This illustrates that our descriptions of actions are psychological rather than physical.  Now, this does not mean that there is not an adequate causal explanation of all the myriad physical, and, indeed, neural events involved in swinging a stick. Rather, it means that our standard explanations of human behavior in terms of reasons and intentions are not—and cannot be reduced to—physical explanations.  Thus, to see the term “free will” as a descriptive term in an empirical sense is a category error.  Its context is not descriptive but normative: It is a feature not of our efforts to explain the world but of our moral reactions, judgments, and attitudes. 

On this analysis, the extent to which we consider ourselves free at any given moment is a matter of intent and self-evaluation.  When someone denies his own freedom, it might be a reaction to an act that a person wishes he had not committed: It would be a means of consolation.  By contrast, someone who has been relieved of a great burden might declare his newfound sense of freedom.  Moreover, to see oneself as free is to adopt a certain attitude toward the future.  Using a strikingly Jewish analogy, Wittgenstein compares life to a path along a mountain ridge: If a person slips, one might say, “How could he help himself!”  That reaction, argues Wittgenstein, is what a denial of “free will” consists of: It is an expression of human limitation.   

This approach to free will is not entirely foreign to Jewish tradition.  In his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus, Nahum Sarna parses God’s apparent coercion of Pharaoh to mean that Pharaoh had previously determined his own character: He had made up his mind that he was immune to persuasion, that he could not change.  Yet were the Israelites so different?  Despite the miracles they witnessed in Egypt and in the desert, the generation of the Exodus never ceased complaining about lack of water and desirable food, and accused Moses of bringing them into the desert to die.  They longed for Egypt, and worshipped its gods even after they had witnessed Revelation.  Not without cause does God describe them as an am k'sheh oref, a stiff-necked people: they were not prepared to cast off the Egyptian paradigm and adopt an entirely new identity as a nation in covenant with God.  That determination against change amounts, in Wittgensteinian terms, to a denial of free will. 

But if we fully embrace our free will, if we see limitless possibilities to change, the challenge is then to change no further—to stay the course chosen by God, and not stray after our baser desires.  Thus, in their Messianic visions, the prophets seem to idealize a world in which we will no longer be prone to temptation and will be immune from the freedom to sin.  As God declares through Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you.  Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.” (Ezekiel 46: 26-27) 

Judaism upholds the idea of freedom not as an end in itself but as a means to the end of honoring our covenant with God.  To be malleable enough to accept God's commandments, recognizing free will may be helpful; but to be resolute enough not to turn against them, it might also be helpful at times to see our characters as fixed. 

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Jan on March 18, 2013 at 5:07 am (Reply)
The conclusion places the previous comments in perspective. I note 'free will' does not occur in the Torah, possibly because it is rather restrictive in describing the complexites of humans relationships with each other (which might be somewhat more to the point now than the relationship with the Unseen). Rather freedom is spoken of in relationship to service (the word 'free' is related often in the Torah to a Hebrew being let go from service to a fellow Hebrew). I note a comment as a result of the failure to let servants go, "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6). Human oppression is more likely to be gained than lost. In the case of Pharaoh: should we make a big deal if the Creator moved his heart in a few instances for the release of slaves? There was no evidence of medling in day-to-day matters. The huge question, the flip side of free-will (which is a question for men not being in need of freedom, not burdened by survival) - is how each may learn to not oppress others, and exploit and make servants of them. How do we give freedom to each other?
Paul Marks on March 18, 2013 at 10:00 am (Reply)
As usual Ludwig Wiggenstein is a very bad guide to a philosophical matter. He is just as bad a guide to political matters - as for example, his going to the Soviet embassy and trying to move to the Soviet Union telling them "I think Trotsky was right" shows. Wiggenstein was not being ironic or making some other form of humourious statement - he was pro Soviet and did not even understand that being pro Trotsky would get a person executed under the rival socialist Stalin.

On the matter of agency (free will) the mountain path example is a bad one - a better example is not asking "could he have helped himself" when someone slips, but asking "did he make a choice" if a person JUMPS OFF the mountain.

Determinism holds that the choice to jump of the mountain is an "illusion" and that jumping off the mountain is a predetmined act going back (by a cause of cause and effect) to the start of the universe (the Big Bang - or whatever). Those who believe in agency (that humans are "beings" - free will "agents") hold that the choice to jump off the mountain is just that, a CHOICE (that the person could have done otherwise than they did).

Wittengenstein is of no help in this dispute. But his followers tend to hold him in almost religous awe and, therefore, are unlikely to admit that. For example, when the Oxford philosopher Harold Prichard dragged himself from his death bed (he was very ill and soon to die) to go to a lecture by Wittengenstein, he asked the "great man" some basic questions about his talk. Wittengenstein failed to answer the questions in a rational way - so one might think this would give his followers some pause for thought.....

However, it did not - all the followers of Wittengnstein did was to attack Harold Prichard for daring to ask "disrespectful" questions at all. And to sneer at the (dying) man for being "rude" - Prichard had coughed during the lecture.

A dying man may have a choice over whether or not he goes to a lecture, but he has very little choice over whether he coughs once there.

That is the difference between agency (the choice to go to the lecture) and nonagency (the coughing at the lecture).

Rather like the difference between the choice to walk along a mountain path (or choosing to jump off the path), and the nonchoice of slipping while walking on the path.
JAK2 on March 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Reply)
Go to study neurosciences and we will talk about free will when we know what we are peaking about...
All that "philosophical" stuff seems ridiculous, already with the actual very limited, however yet, great knowledge of the brains functioning....
madel on March 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm (Reply)
The concept of free will is developed in the Torah early on, specifically in the story of the Garden of Eden and God's response to the action of Adam and Eve, justifying their expulsion and barring their return. More importantly, the Biblical Hebrew used to convey the generally interpreted word "hardened" also could mean "honored," as used in the 5th of the 10 "commandments," and thus produce the interpretation that God honored Pharoah's free will.
Michael Tupek on March 19, 2013 at 9:50 am (Reply)
@madel. It is always irresponsible to dislocate a word from its context. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart cannot mean to "honor" his heart since Yahweh prophetically goes on to disclose his purpose to display his plagues until he is done demonstrating his power over the Egyptian deities. Such sure determinations cannot be guaranteed if Yahweh merely “honored” Pharaoh’s free will passively, like a mere observer. Also, the wider context of the rest of scripture corrects the sense and proves, both positively and negatively, how God can direct the will of any one for his purposes, in such passages as Exod 3: 20 – 22, Deut 2: 30, Deut 29: 4, Deut 30: 6, 2 Sam 12: 7 – 12, Ps 106: 46, Ps 119: 32, Prov 21: 1, Isa 63: 17.
Since mankind rebelled against God in the garden, we are now all born with an evil nature (Gen 6: 5, Ps 14: 2 – 3). We are free agents in that we can will to do something freely only as long as we are allowed to pursue our desires. But we only desire God-dishonoring interests unless and until God graciously changes our hearts to love and fear him (Deut 30: 6). My book discusses these concerns, “Torah of Sin and Grace.”
Ed Beaugard on March 19, 2013 at 10:06 am (Reply)
@Paul Marks,

As a Wittgensteinian mystic, I was a little dismayed to read your ad hominem attack on Ludwig Wittgenstein(LW). You are right about people who follow his "philosophy", I do hold him in almost religous awe, but there's also Keynes, Moore and Russell, about whom I have similar feelings, and especially Keynes whom I venerate even more than Wittgenstein, if that were possible. The fact that some people feel this way shouldn't be held against Wittgenstein or used to discredit him, in my opinion.
Sadly, I don't have the time to unravel the arguments in this interesting article, but it seems that LW's view about free will, as described by Mr. Gordon, is plausible. However, you didn't really respond, as far as I can tell.
I'm more of a Tractatus man, and I'm guessing that the Wittgenstein quote is from the Philosophical Investigations. However there is in the Tractatus this passage:

"5.6.34 This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is at the same time a priori.
Whatever we see could be other than it is.
Whatever we can describe at all could be other than it is.
There is no a priori order of things."

This seems to me to contain the germ of the idea of LW's that is discussed in this article. That is, the state-of-affairs(the order of the world) is entirely accidental, and "free will" belongs to psychology, not ethics or philosophy.

In conlusion(Ha ha):
These types of philosophical problems involve extremely subtle and complex arguments that need very close attention, not personal attacks on people you may not like. Yes, Wittgenstein was loopy when it came to politics, and fortunately, thanks to his friends I guess, he never did anything extremely foolish as far as I know. But Karl Popper was an extremely unpleasant person as well, would you attack him in the same way as you did Wittgenstein?
    sgordon on March 19, 2013 at 10:23 pm (Reply)
    You are correct in saying that the quotations that I chose come from Wittgenstein's later work; the first, on voluntary action, appears in the Investigations while the second, about the mountain path, is to be found in the posthumously published collection entitled Culture and Value. However, in the case of the will, there is a rare continuity between the Tractatus and Wittgenstein's later period; for the idea that the exercise of the will is a feature of an agent's understanding of his relationship with the world is originally stated in the Tractatus: "If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts – not what can be expressed by means of language. In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is different from that of the unhappy man." (6.43)

    Interestingly, Wittgenstein's close friendship with Keynes was something else that survived the former's philosophical volte-face. This is curious because Keynes' architectonic, centralizing, systematic approach to economics seems a world apart from the organic, localized, and particularistic view of language that formed the basis of Wittgenstein's later philosophy. One might have thought that the later Wittgenstein would have found more in common philosophically with his cousin, and Keynes' nemesis, Friedrich Hayek; but, based on Hayek's recollections of their occasional encounters, Wittgenstein was never interested in finding out.
      Ed Beaugard on March 24, 2013 at 12:14 am (Reply)

      Thanks for replying, and thanks for the references.
      6.42 is, for what it's worth, one of my favorite passages in the Tractatus, but I only have a vague sense of what Wittgenstein is saying. It's not clear to me what LW means by the "limits of the world", for example. It would seem to be the opposite, that the exercise of the will creates new facts or states-of-affairs in the world, but DOESN'T alter the limits of the world, what can be expressed by language.(I wish I had the time to read into this more).
      Unfortunately, I don't agree with your description of Keynes' economics at all, and I don't see Wittgenstein as "particularist" or "localized" in his views about anything in any of his work. What do you mean by "architectonic"? and "systematic"? Hayek was "systematic" in his writings about politics and economics, wasn't he? Hayek, or anyone else who writes about these things, was trying to give an account of the world. How is The Road to Serfdom not "systematic"?
      To get a different view of Keynes, I would highly recommend Robert Skidelsky's biography.
      So, Wittgenstein met Hayek, that must have been a fine how-d'you-do.
        sgordon on April 3, 2013 at 8:01 am (Reply)
        I don't mean that Hayek was unsystematic in his writing; I mean that Hayek thought that it was impossible to construct a system that would satisfy economic demand better than the price mechanism, which is merely the aggregate of individual transactions. By contrast, Keynes held that economic prosperity was best served through manipulation of the market, both fiscally, by governments, and monetarily, by central banks. The idea that the market can be restrained, ordered, and controlled by central government I would describe as architectonic.

        As to Wittgenstein, his later philosophy, which defines terms and behaviours according to the particular and various language-games in which they were employed, I would describe as localized. Indeed, he describes his later method as such in the Investigations: he compares it to mapping a terrain, whereby one traces paths across it, and every so often two paths intersect; or categorizing books in a library, where success consists in occasionally finding two books that have enough in common to be placed side by side. He contrasts this with building upwards from the terrain: his aim is not to construct a metaphysical system from first principles, like Leibniz, but to survey ordinary language to resolve certain independent confusions. This therapeutic method distinguishes Wittgenstein's later work from both analytic and "Continental" philosophy today.
          Ed Beaugard on April 6, 2013 at 12:52 pm

          Of course you can use whatever words you like. I'm pointing out that, assuming you like Wittgenstein, that he would never use words like "architectonic", "localized", or "particularist" to describe his own or anyone else' views. Of course, I don't know Philosophical Investigations that well so maybe he did, but I doubt it.
          And, I know you won't agree, but Hayek constructed a system, so he was "systematic" and "architectonic" just as much as Keynes.
          I don't agree with your characterization of Keynes at all, it's completely mistaken, it is in fact, quite wrong.
          sgordon, you have dwelt too long in the land of Hayek and I suspect, Rand(?). It's uncanny how much your writing reminds me of the post-modernists and deconstructionists.
          What beautiful metaphors Wittgenstein came up with: the map, and his way of categorizing books.
madel on March 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm (Reply)
Michael, you make my point. Surely G-d, omnipotent and omniscient, can "harden" someone's heart, but the focus of the article is on freewill, Pharoah, and the plagues. At the inception of the Moses/Pharoah contest, Moses himself berates G-d for bringing more suffering on the Israelites with Pharoah's ordering them to gather their own straw for their quota of brickmaking. The gist of Moses's argument is the very one you bring...G-d, all-powerful as you are, why don't you MAKE Pharoah (i.e., manipulate his freewill to) release us from bondage, and G-d's response is that by honoring Pharoah's freewill (i.e., intransigence), I will show the whole world who is THE G-d. So it seems to me that throughout the plagues, G-d is merely "honoring" Pharoah's propensity to intransigence (i.e., freewill) all the way to the 10th plague, when Pharoah, under the weight of Egypt in shambles, finally gives in to Moses's "Let my people go." And then, still "honoring" Pharoah's heart (i.e., freewill), G-d delivers a coup de grace at the Reed Sea, knowing omnisciently that Pharoah couldn't stand to let the people go who were building his "store cities" free of charge. My point in this discourse has been solely to disabuse the mainstream commentary, which, to a man over the ages, has interpreted the Biblical Hebrew to diminish the freewill so foundational to Torah when a logical reading can readily be made that at any point in the happening of the 10 plagues, G-d was NOT going to manipulate Pharoah's freewill to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt earlier than Pharoah would of his own accord.
    Michael Tupek on March 20, 2013 at 2:13 pm (Reply)
    Madel, I see what you are trying to say but I would not argue it according to your interpretation of qashah as “honoring.” The scriptures consistently use it to mean “to harden / to make strong / to make obdurate, etc.” For example, in Ps 95:8, is Israel warned not to honor their neck, or to not harden it, so as to disregard God’s word?
    Also, if God wanted to merely allow/honor Pharaoh’s stubbornness throughout the ten plagues, does he then disallow/dishonor it after they are finished, in causing Pharaoh to finally release the Hebrews?
    Rather, when God hardens someone’s heart, it is actually a negative action. That is, God allows the sway of an evil heart to have its way. But whenever he wants something good to be done by a sinner, he secretly and positively influences/compels that heart to do so. This is how God can be sure that Pharaoh will indeed let Israel go after the ten plagues, and how he can indeed determine that Egypt will freely give of their valuables when they do leave.
    As an evangelical Christian, I disagree with the rabbis that the Torah teaches an absolute free will for Adam’s descendants (autonomously able to choose good or evil), nor do I agree that there is the dichotomy of the yetzer-hara and the yetzer-hatov. Only God is good, and the only influencer of good actions by sheer sovereign grace.
      Michael Tupek on March 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm (Reply)
      madel, I finally see where khabad is used (not until Exod 9:7) and why you insist that Pharaoh was "honored." It was poor of you to mislead us all by saying that khabad was the (only) word used. It is one of three terms used to express hardening of the heart, and the obvious legitimate nuance of khabad in this case is "to make heavy, insensible, dull," and not "honored" in this passage. Do you seriously think the nuance of honor overthrows both the previous terms and the force of the context?!
madel on March 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm (Reply)
Michael, the root of the Hebrew word in issue is kh-b-d, which is the same root as in "khabed et avicha v'et imecha...honor your father and mother.
    Michael Tupek on March 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm (Reply)
    Madel, I do not understand why you insist that the root is khabod, when my Hebrew Bible and Lexicon say it is qashah? Also, the one other word used, in Exod 4:21, is chazaq ("to make strong, grow firm," hence resolute) is both complementary and exegetical regarding the qashah term.
eli silas on March 22, 2013 at 4:09 am (Reply)
I believe that "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked." (Deut 10.16) is one of those enigmatic sphinxes wrapped in a riddle that directly addresses the duality of Free Will.
My interpretation of that SOD: You have Free Will if you exercise Free Will; the only limits on Free Will, even if you are a slave, is the limit you wish to put on it.
Hence, now, at Passover, we look back at the mass circumcisions of the first 7 days of Nisan in Egypt and we see the greatest testing of Free Will ever exercised. After all the Plagues, Signs and Wonders we are left with the same choice: To circumcise and go into the great unknown, or not to circumcise, stay where one is, and hope that Moses is wrong!
charmign on March 25, 2013 at 5:47 am (Reply)
Free will is vanity on stilts - stick with the neuroscience
Madel on March 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm (Reply)
Michael, the principal (most often appearing during the plagues) Hebrew root that translations use to express "hardened" in conjunction with "lev/lebo" (heart/his heart) is KH-B-D. In many of the uses, the translation is "made his heart stubborn" whether by G-d's or Pharoah's own doing. All I've been saying is that if G-d's "hardening or making stubborn" Pharoah's heart leads to a major confrontation with the issue of man's free will, then why not seek an alternate reading that does not. And when Pharoah is clearly intransigent ON HIS OWN, why not merely use the translation of "honor" to establish that G-d has taken a "hands off" approach to Pharoah's attitude rather than forcing him to let the Israelites go, thereby "honoring" Pharoah's prediliction rather than contavening it.

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