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.