What Is Free Will?

By Simon Gordon
Monday, March 18, 2013

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.

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. 

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/whatisfreewill

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