Free Will and its Deniers

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.

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. Philosophy professor Michael Silberstein points out that all physical systems that have been investigated turn out to be either deterministic or random. Either alternative is inconsistent with free will.

Hallett is right that 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. (“The heart wants what it wants,” said Woody Allen of his affair with his lover’s 17-year-old adopted daughter.)

Life without the sense “that 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 before,” wrote William James, would lose all its “sting and excitement.”

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 may have chosen to leave the ways of his father’s hassidic court. But he was being a loyal Jewish son, when he told an interviewer that free choice is humanity’s “greatest gift,” a gift that itself makes life worth living.

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. Man differs in myriad 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.

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. Only man designs tools to achieve particular purposes. Only man creates physical images to recall past events or to contemplate future possibilities. And only man buries his dead, and is moved by a lifeless form to contemplate something beyond the physical universe. “Metaphysics arises from graves,” Jonas informs us.

Nor can the workings of the mind 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 Prof. Silberstein speaks, allow us to predict future events. 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 – someone who has chosen a life at odds with his entire education and upbringing?

In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides describes an act of complete repentance: “He had forbidden relations with a woman, and after a period of time, he finds himself alone with her. His love for her is unabated; he is undiminished in his physical capacities… Yet he separates himself and does not sin.” Everything remains the same, except for the choice of the actor involved. Who has not experienced a comparable internal struggle and, hopefully, a similar triumph?

None of this is to argue 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 unique 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.

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

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.”

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16 Responses

  1. Will Choose says:

    I recently heard a sermon discussing the Times piece referred to and dismissing hormones as a factor in decision making. The term used by the speaker was “pseudo-science.”

    But doesn’t free will require homeostasis? Can a human being seriously damaged by extremely excessive physical or hormonal damage be expected to exercise free will? Is such a person not in the category of shoteh and to be regarded as not in control of his decisions. The Times has also lately pointed out that smokers with a particular brain injury will no longer smoke.

    Clearly, the subject of free will ought not to be demeaned any more by oversimplification than by absolute denial.

  2. Toby Katz says:

    “Mark Hallett, a neurological researcher, informs Overbye that free will is nothing more than an illusion”

    Oh well don’t you know — he HAD to say that!

    I’d like to ask Hallet whether he had any choice whether or not to write a book. Then I’d like to ask him whether he would mind if someone else plagiarized his book, and whether he would sue such a person for damages. After all, the plagiarist doesn’t have free will either, why should he be punished for something he couldn’t help?

  3. Ahron says:

    “I’d like to ask Hallet whether he had any choice whether or not to write a book….”

    Lol! I’m really smiling because a Princeton graduate I know was in a psychology class where the professor advanced a doctrine similar to that of Mr. Hallet above. My friend suggested to the professor that the professor herself, then, must have no choice or input into the words she herself was using or the subject she was teaching. The professor looked incensed and responded with an inflamed glare and an icy retort of: “Thank you Mr. Levy–that’s quite enough!”

    Disturbed by the professor’s anger–and knowing well what would likely be in store for him for the rest of the semester–my friend promptly headed for the registrar’s office and switched classes.

    Some people do not like being confronted with the mirror of their own beliefs! Or maybe some beliefs just don’t stand up very well to their own reflection.

  4. Shtriemel says:

    “why should he be punished for something he couldn’t help”

    Because if people are punished for doing these things their natural instinct will tell them not to do it again. Other humans will take note of the award vs. punishment involved in plagiarizing and won’t imitate this bad behavior.

    Why, is it too simple to grasp?

  5. Barzilai says:

    In response to Shtreimel: Punishments that are imposed as a deterrent are often less severe than punishment for repugnant and depraved behavior. When it can be shown, in the case of vile and shocking crimes, that a defendant’s circumstances have inexorably led to his depravity, his punishment is often less severe. Removing the moral component of the criminal justice system would be a profound change.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Somehow, I just had to write this comment.

  7. hp says:


    You’re oversimplifying behaviorism ala Skinner to the extreme. We are ALL motivated by the concept of reward and punishment. This doesn’t negate free choice. I don’t have to give you examples- you can do that yourself. Out of your free choice, if you’re motivated to do the ‘research’, that is.

  8. bg says:

    I think there is a mistake notion that free will is 50/50 (although there are some Rishonim who indicate as such). For Mr. Overbye, a piece of chocolate cake is irresistable; for others, not so much. Every person has different desires and differents tests. Only G-d can discern how much that person has to struggle with overcoming his desires. Also, early decisions that might have been 50/50 (like taking your first smoke) may make later decisions harder and harder (the second time sinning makes it seem permissable). I don’t think any of those scientists were claiming that people have absolutely no choice, but rather there are some decisions that have less free will than others.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    “why should he be punished for something he couldn’t help”

    Lacking free will, we can’t help punishing the criminal 😉

  10. katrina says:

    I read somewhere that technically the only real free choice we have is the choice to fear G-d

  11. Micha Berger says:

    Frankly, free will is hard to define. It’s neither deterministic, since that would deny freedom, nor is it random, since that would deny will. We do not simply mean that people are simple causal machines, but on the plane of their souls rather than their brains. That too would raise questions about Divine Justice. The sinner was still simply made that way. Nor can we divorce the brain altogether, as we know of people who have been brain damaged whose decision-making abilities were impaired.

    I can think of ways to define it (none of which would fit in this comment format) as well as the relationship between soul, mind and brain, but I do not think that most people have a clear picture of what it is they are supporting or denying when they debate the topic.


  12. Micha Berger says:

    BTW, there are physical systems that are neither deterministic nor random. But again, I have no idea how to present that much information theory in the length of a blog comment.

    As a teaser: Prof Moshe Koppel discusses (in his book “Metahlakha”) patterns of output that can only be produced by infinite algorithms. It is an algorithm, so it’s not random; however, since the necessary algorithm constantly grows in complexity as you explore more of the data (at a rate slower than the length of the data), it is not finite like a program and therefore is not deterministic.


  13. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “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…”

    Rav Dessler notes as well the other side of the coin. He writes that anyone who has experienced self-control, even once, can use that experience to perceive free-will; experiencing a phenomenon can be more powerful than philosophizing about it. There can be a number of examples to choose from, that are within the point of perfect equipoise(“nekudas habechirah”), if one follows the advice of the Chovos HaLevavos, to consider the smallest victory over the evil inclination as a major accomplishment.

    For example, Dennis Overbye can think of those past times when he in fact has given up the chocolate in favor of greater good(I assume he has done so!), although that act is not in the realm of mitzvah/aveirah in the strictest sense. Possibly, he might then appreciate that despite that a person’s current mindset is indeed influenced by antecedent causes outside of one’s control, one still has the choice to think or not to think , to be aware, or to be in denial of one’s inner and outer worlds, including the world of the spirit.

    There are actually many daily opportunities for self-awareness, and to then actively use one’s volition to affect thought and behavior. As psychologist and philosopher Nathaniel Branden has written, “A thousand times a day we must choose the level of consciousness at which we will function “.

  14. One Christian's perspective says:

    I think man has the ability to chose but he never makes his choice from a neutral position, if he did, he might never make a choice. I think instead we make choices according to our true nature and that nature consists of what we worship,believe, are enslaved by or addicted to (see this as an idol). John Calvin said “our hearts are idol factories”. Sadly, I must agree. I have the capacity to make an idol out of anything…….even things that are truely Bible study. My idol today is the treasure that I seek above G-d. My will has been corrupted by pride and unbelief. I wonder if even Adam and Eve had free will. Before they had intimate knowledge of evil they knew G-d and His will. They had one command to obey. Given a choice to obey G-d or not and gain wisdom for themselves, they chose to not believe G-d and gain for themselves what G-d would have given them had they asked Him. I guess, I am saying I think we have the will to choose but it is never free. I am trying to understand Rav Dessler’s position but it is confusing to me.

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I have the capacity to make an idol out of anything…….even things that are truely Bible study. My idol today is the treasure that I seek above G-d. My will has been corrupted by pride and unbelief. ”

    It is true that there are often subconscious motives involved in engaging in good behavior; a choice to do a good deed may be an unconscious way of satisfying a personal or egotistical need. Nevertheless, one can progressively become aware of those motives, and refine the goodness inherent in such choices(“lishmah”).

    As far as Rav Dessler’s exact position, I only recall the part in volume I, which is discussed by Rabbi Rosenblum; I know that he discusses the topic of free will versus determinism in a later volume as well.

    The part of Rav Dessler’s thesis in Volume I which needs further clarification is the moral culpability for points of free-will which are not at perfect equipoise(ie, in man to G-d areas, as opposed to crimes). As I recall, some writers concluded in the Jewish Observer that Rav Dessler’s intention was not to limit responsibility for man to G-d behavior, but rather, I imagine to merely say that the level of difficulty in choice affects the reward and punishment for deeds.

    While I think most Torah thinkers, current and past, would also hold that Rav Dessler’s intention was not to deny responsibility in the average case, I think that one has to study carefully the text of the Michtav Meliyahu. Rav Dessler, for example states, that a person is responsible for future acts resulting from a sin which lowered the level of equipoise, as in the point of “naseh lo k’hetter”; so perhaps one can’t know exactly where one’s responsibility ended.

    Personally, I agree that one can not automatically conclude that a person has absolutely no responsibility for a particular act, in a given point in time. At the same time, chazal tell us “do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place”. In other words, unless one is a judge for a criminal case(or a dayin in times of the Beis Hamikdash for certain man to G-d sins), one can not conclude conclusively to what exact degree someone is responsible for particular behavior; that is only known by G-d. Perhaps, as above, one may extend this reasoning to judging one’s own level of free-will as well.

  16. Moty says:

    I once heard from a famous Rav that “Isn’t it funny how the free-will deniers seem proud to show their views and the reasoning behind them?”. This Rav pointed out that they all seem to be saying “Look at me – I came up with these thoughts and/or determined them to be true all by myself! How proud I am to have done something that was (NOT) predetermined!”

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