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Jan 20 2012

The Choices We Make

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After the impact of six plagues, Pharoah had no choice. He would have had to give up. The commentaries (Ramban and Seforno) say that when G-d told Moshe that “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase my signs in my wonders in the land of Egypt” [7:3], He was restoring Pharoah’s free will, Pharoah’s ability to choose to deny the obvious.

Just a few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, wrote in USA Today that “there is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.” [Credit to Rabbi Avi Shafran for pointing out this article, in Ami Magazine.]

I pointed out that Coyne is an evolutionary biologist, because it is relevant to the conclusions he has reached. If one believes that our brains are nothing more than a collection of molecules in a “meat computer” (his words), then it is inevitable that the operations performed by that brain are not something we can control. As Coyne writes, “true ‘free will,’ then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works.”

He then immediately proceeds to describe several corollaries of his conclusion. He discusses how this ought to change the criminal justice system, in that a “regular” criminal is really no more responsible than those found not guilty by reason of insanity. But even before he gets there, the very first conclusion he reaches is that religion makes no sense, primarily because it teaches the idea of reward and punishment. Since we don’t have free will, it makes no sense to imagine that someone would be punished for evil behavior.

This, of course, is circular reasoning. Coyne begins from the assumption that there is no afterlife, and uses this to “conclude” that the idea of reward and punishment in that afterlife makes no sense. The Torah teaches that G-d enables us to choose, to give us free will, even though it may not make sense “naturally.”

The philosophical challenge — how we can “control” our brains when there is no natural method for doing so — is not foreign to Judaism. The Torah does teach that our choices are predetermined, in that G-d, being above time, already knows what choices we will make. He knows all of human history from beginning to end, and how each of our choices did, do, and will fit into His master plan for the world.

That is the same conundrum, but it cannot be used to exempt ourselves from responsibility for our actions. On the contrary, we recognize that we were granted free will, even if, with our limited capacity, we don’t understand precisely how that is possible. The Torah requires that we make the effort to improve ourselves, rather than pretend that our actions are beyond our control.

13 comments

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  1. Wayne Talbot

    Jerry Coyne seems to ignore the obvious. If he is right, then we have no reason to listen to him since he has no control over his beliefs, thoughts, or words. He is just responding to his “meat computer” and thus can make no claim that he is right and others wrong.
    What is it about evolutionary biologists, and evolutionists in general, that blinds them to the obvious?
    And in an unashamed plug through self-interest, my book “The Dawkins Deficiency” refuting Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth” is being released on 1st March, but you have my permisssion to redact this last paragraph from the comment if published.
    Blessings on your mission in G-d’s service.

  2. David Russell

    Shalom Shabbat Rabbi Menken and reader,
    I find interesting this article and topic of free will and making choices that will ultimately improve oneself. I often have to ask the L-rd to be my shepherd in the choices made in the little and big things of daily life. There are occasions where I become short-sighted but am thankful for the gift of repentance which will then allow one to return as it were to square 1 with the Almighty. I pray to always have an appetite and desire to follow His guidance and know the crown of life awaits those who are found faithful. Thanks for letting me share my insights.

  3. Mark Snyder

    When I read about G-d already knowing our predetermined choices that we will make in the future, and how God has a “Master Plan”, I can’t help but wonder how to reconcile this with all of the terrible misery, suffering, disease, trauma, and death occuring all over the world every second of everyday due to causes that are NOT attributed to man’s free will such as from genetic defects, disease, earthquakes, tsunammis, etc.
    What kind of supposed all-knowing all-powerful loving caring benevolent G-d would allow such terrible suffering and misery (not due to mankind’s actions) under his watch?
    Giving an answer such as “G-d works in mysterious ways” and “who are we to question G-d to any satisfaction. It seems more like a lame response to a question that really does not have any satisfactory answer. Any words of wisdom to share with me about this ultimate question of questions? Sincerely, Mark

    1. Rachelle Baruch

      Someone once described it to me with the story of watching an ant cross a tabletop. You can see the ant and the tabletop – you see the limitations, the boundaries, the obstacles and the possibilities for the ant. You know what it will need to do to get across the table top. You know what it can’t do (it’s unlikely to hop across the table or ride a unicycle – it’s not within its possibility). You can interfere and make it go your way, or you can recognize that it has a number of options, all of which you can see because you have the larger view, but which the ant cannot see. Ultimately the ant has a free will to go whichever way it can as long as there’s no interference. As far as the bad stuff goes, I guess there are some things we can’t reconcile. Would you interfere if a fly came down and tried to eat the ant, and by what right? Maybe it would be the right thing to do, maybe not. It’s a thought…I think we don’t always know what’s best , even if it seems horrific or unbearable at the time. We know what hurts. I say – Yes, scream and yell and plead your case about it to Hashem. But blame? Blame is another story.

  4. Richard Coleman

    Rabbi, you explain the concept of free will better than many Christian preachers do. IF there is no afterlife in Heaven or Hell, then it makes no sense to even try to live by the word of G-d. It would be pointless to struggle here on Earth.

  5. Rona

    I have no trouble understnading the concept of free will. As you said Hashem knows the past, present and future all at once. He already knows the choices we will make. But we do not know what he knows. Just becasue he knows them does not in any way take away our making those choices. In an example using the human mind that is not precisely the same because it is the human mind not hashems. Let us say we see a baby taking his first steps. That baby is choosing to try to walk. we know, albeit not absolutely, but as well as a human mind can know that the baby will fall after a few steps. Our knowledge of that doesn’t stop the babby from choosing to try to walk. The Gemarah really says it best. everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven. So Hashem knows you are going to take a certain job verses another one., you don’t know what he knows so to you it is your choice. But in the choice to do mitzvos or to sin Hashem leaves it to you since you are rewarded or punished for those acts. This is my take on free will.

  6. DrJLD

    This is an OLD argument in neuroscience…goes back to the earliest musings about the brain and free-will.

    The argument presented does not mention the environment, in which we have latitude about what will come into our brains. How we use the information consciously is also different from automatic processing in the subconscious (some 90% of our daily brain use). But, anything novel, has consequences, requires judgment, etc., uses conscious thought. Someone has to silence the thoughts that come up in order to use automatic processing. The criminal is responsible.

    That you would print such elderly prattle is too bad, and speaks to society’s small amount of knowledge about the brain…or any other scientific problem.

    His view claims very few real professionals as adherents. I have been doing this for more than thirty years, and have yet found no reason why the criminal is not responsible…unless there is a severe concomitant mental disorder that interferes with normal brain functioning (personality disorders do not count).

  7. Chaim Yehuda

    I find no contradiction between human kind having free will and Hashem knowing what our choice will be.

    We have the ability to apparently make choices of what to do, or not do, in many situations each day.To our knowledge and intellect, we can either surrender to anger, fear, hedonism and the like, or we can try to choose what seems best for the most, in each situation.

    That Hashem knows what will be does not remove the struggle we go through in selecting our behavior(s).

  8. Dr.Billy Levin

    “Coyne is an evolutionary biologist” but in my humble opinion no expert in human brain functions and human behavior.Wether evolutionc is real or not is unimportant. Cognative brain function is very real. Roger Sperry recieved the Nobel Prize for elucidating human brain functions. Two hemispheres each with their own specific talents. These abilities depending on which hemisphere is dominant will dictate how we hear, understand, accept, and do for ourselves and for others. If we inherit a dominant right brain we will natuarally be hasty, impulsive, practicle and a talant to do illogically without too much thought. With an inherited left brain dominance, we tend to be more conservative, logical, inhibited , listening and thinking before doing. Right brain dominance has musical, artistic talent but a built in trouble-maker. Some will have more talent for doing the right thing and some unfortunately the dubious talent for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. However, we always have a choice!

  9. Libby

    Rabbi Menken,
    Thank you allowing me the opportunity to express my views. Scientists have now concluded that the pre-frontal lobe does not full develop until, on the average, around 25 years of age. This is the area of reasoning. To make solid choices comes, but we are not born with this ability to make good, solid choices. The Torah teaches us that our parents are responsible for our behavioral choices when we are young. They are responsible for setting limits and holding us accountable for our behavioral and moral choices. Those parents who take their job seriously may be blessed with children who become adults who make good choices toward righteousness. If they do not, they will be forever haunted with children who become adults who disregard consequence when they make choices. Then there are children who grow into adults who have their own views regardless of their upbringing… like Jacob and Esau… same pregnancy, same birth, same parents, same upbringing… totally different.. and why is that? One can conclude based on their own religious training..

  10. kge

    According to Jerry Coyne, then, he had no choice but to make his comments, readers no choice but the read them, the printers to print them, and those of us who suspect they’re nonsense, no choice but to suspect so, so to as applies to those who applaud them. I guess they have meaning, or no meaning, depending upon the particular swirl of molecules that are swirling within various brains. What could motivate writing such a thing? And why bother taking anything seriously, including Jerry Coyne is his assertions are true?

  11. Rachelle Baruch

    It seems that unless we can climb to the heights where we will see and understand the inter-connectedness of everything, and the place of our own will and its significance and impact within the ultimate ‘bigger’ (giant) picture, then apart from being an exercise in understanding and appreciation for the sake of doing the right thing, pondering whether or not we really have control can quickly turn into a power struggle that ultimately we are sure to lose. What really matters is what we do and what that is connected to. Anything else seems like a very risky game where time is the price we pay for playing.

  12. Curt Howell

    So … fantastic article! I would be careful about using the word predetermined, however, when considering our actions. We have free will granted by Hashem. Hashem, who stands outside of time while, while knowing the outcome of our free will consideration is not causing the same. This is our free will..

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