Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Brain Surgery and Free Will” Parashat Shoftim 5776

An article that I recently read made quite an impression on me. The title of the article is “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will”. The article[1] first appeared in Atlantic Magazine in June and it’s spreading like wildfire over the internet. It is authored by Stephen Cave, the Executive Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.

The article pulls no punches. Almost from the outset it states its conclusion: “What is new… is the spread of free-will skepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream. The number of court cases, for example, that use evidence from neuroscience has more than doubled in the past decade – mostly in the context of defendants arguing that their brain made them do it. And many people are absorbing this message in other contexts, too, at least judging by the number of books and articles purporting to explain “your brain on” everything from music to magic. Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The skeptics are in ascendance.

The rest of the article addresses the implications of man-without-free-will, including crime and punishment (Can a person be punished for his misdeeds when he has no control over his actions?) and living in a society where people do not take responsibility for their actions (Studies have shown that people with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a friend than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, they were less likely to give charity or to lend someone a mobile phone. Further studies have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships).

Interesting stuff, indeed, but it is completely and entirely at odds with one of the most basic tenets of Jewish faith: Hashem created man with free will. If man does good (as defined by the Torah) then he will be rewarded and if he does evil then he will be punished. Take away free will and reward and punishment become irrelevant. As we have recently entered the month of Elul, a month in which we prepare ourselves for the High Holidays, it might be a good idea to take a closer look as to how free our will really is.

The most prevalent evidence against the existence of free will lies in experiments performed in the 1980’s by a Jewish physiologist named Benjamin Libet. Libet ran a very simple experiment: A subject was attached to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that monitored his brain activity. Then the person was asked to raise a finger – any finger, whenever he wanted. He was also to note the moment when he decided to act. Libet found that electrical activity in the brain began to increase more than 200 milliseconds (nearly a quarter of a second) before the person made his choice. Libet called this phenomenon the “Readiness Potential (RP)”. Further testing showed that the RP could occur more than one second before an action was performed. The existence of the RP seems to demonstrate that the subconscious is involved long before our conscious free will enters the picture. More recent testing using fMRI[2] has verified Libet’s results. While Libet’s results and the conclusions that can be drawn from them are constantly being questioned by neuroscientists, the potential of the RP to detract from free will is genuine.

Another problem with free will lies in “Determinism”. As neuroscientists gradually uncover the mechanisms through which the brain operates, human thought is becoming increasingly understood as a function of electrons and chemicals. Neurons send signals through chemical pathways that can be inhibited or excited. These reactions might be highly complex but they are turning out to be quite predictable. And this leads us to “Laplace’s Demon”. Pierre-Simon Laplace suggested in 1814 that if a demon knew the location and momentum of every particle in the universe with infinite precision, then this demon could predict where they would be at any moment in the future and everything in the future could be predetermined. Modern Quantum Physics and Chaos Theory have thrown a wrench in the works by proving that the knowledge that the demon must possess is impossible to attain, but it doesn’t mean that the outcome isn’t predetermined, it just means that a human being can’t predict the outcome[3]. Returning to Cave’s article, “The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.”

Given that the 2016 Olympics have just concluded, I think it’s fitting that to address this assault on free that we turn to the world of sports. Another fascinating article I recently read brings some examples on how athletes must use their brains in order to succeed in their sports. One example had to do with marksmen, people who fire rifles with extreme precision over large distances. How do they achieve such incredible accuracy? Studies have shown that marksmen have achieved an uncanny ability to “enter the zone” by entering a state of mental rest before taking a shot. In one study elite air-pistol shooters and non-athletes each fired off rounds while their EEG was recorded. The study revealed that elite athletes had greater alpha waves, brain waves that are usually associated with wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. A similar pattern seems to hold true in golf: When expert and novice golfers were asked to visualize their strokes while attached to an fMRI, the neural networks governing emotion were only active in the novices. “The cognitive and emotional areas of the brain quiet down; muscle memory and learned instinct take over.”

Another example pertained to figure skaters who pirouette at more than 1200 revolutions a minute. A person spinning this quickly typically experiences nausea caused by his vestibular system, pools of fluid in the ear used to maintain balance. At high rates of rotation the vestibular pools slosh, and the brain interprets this as nausea. Yet for some reason skaters do not suffer at all. Something enables them to ignore the signals that would make anybody else want to vomit. “A study in ballet dancers, also expert spinners, provides some insight into what’s going on in the brain. A group of dancers were spun on a chair in a dark room and asked to turn a handle in time with their perceived rotation. When neuroscientists peered into the dancers’ brains with fMRI, they found less gray matter in the very areas of the cerebellum that get input from the vestibular system. The cerebellum is a fist-sized bundle of nerves at the nape of the neck that processes sensory feedback and uses it to fine-tune physical movements. The cerebellums of pirouetting ballet dancers and spinning figure skaters have likely adapted to ignore what is, for them, the counterproductive feeling of dizziness.”

These two examples show that in order to excel, a person must reprogram himself. He must relearn new instincts. He must teach himself how subconsciously react. This is where we retake control of our free will. If the subconscious mind controls the conscious mind, then we are required to make an all-out assault on our subconscious. We must change the way our brains work. We are not speaking metaphorically here – we are pruning neurons and moving around grey matter. But to make real changes in our brains we must make real changes in our lives. And not just once or twice. Like Olympic athletes, we must engage in an exhaustive training regimen that covers what we eat, what we say, and what we think. To earn our freedom we must go for the gold.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.


[2] fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is a modern technique that measures three-dimensional blood flow in the brain. fMRI is used to determine which part of the brain is being used at any time.

[3] This is an important point that can be used to resolve the Free Will vs. Divine Knowledge debate, but that is a topic for another shiur.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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