There used to be an old saying among pious Jews: “If you ever want to know the way God wants us to behave, see what everyone is doing and do the opposite.”
In their desperation to ignore the possibility of a God or spiritual entity, scientists have squeezed themselves into very tight spots and have proposed crazy theories. The following are two examples of ridiculous positions scientists have taken and how they stand in stark opposition to the position of our Holy Torah, our Torah of Ultimate Truth.
Two recent books explore whether humans have control over their personalities, actions, and fates.
“Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will,” by professor of genetics and neuroscience Kevin J. Mitchell, and “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” by biology and neurology professor Robert M. Sapolsky
Sapolsky’s “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” uses a variety of fields, from neurobiology to social, behavioral science, and psychology, to conclude that we don’t have free will. For him, “We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to this moment.”
He employs this generalist approach on purpose: In his view, examining the debate from only one discipline can allow claims of free will to slither in through the cracks of other, unexamined disciplines. Only by tackling the debate from multiple disciplines can one systematically dismantle arguments for free will’s existence
Throughout the first half of his book, Sapolsky takes us on a tour of the myriad ways we don’t have control over who we are or what we do. He points to the 4 million spots in a DNA sequence that code for the active genes in our brains — 4 million pieces of individual variability over which we have no say. He cites one study that shows that if a judge is hungry, he or she is far less likely to grant a criminal parole.
This by the way should not preclude a person who knows they have free choice to override and take control over their bias if and when inspired by the compass of our Torah.
He also delves deeply into the pre-frontal cortex, or PFC, the area of the brain that is in charge of forming what we would refer to as grit and willpower, and makes the case that everything from significant stressors experienced by your mother while you are in utero to the environment in which you spent your adolescence shapes this region. “Whether you display admirable gumption, squander opportunity in a murk of self-indulgence, majestically stare down temptation or belly flop into it, these are all the outcome of the functioning of the PFC,” he writes.
In the 1960s, an MIT weather scientist ran a predictor computer program with a slightly wrong number. Unexpectedly, rather than causing a slight shift in the prediction, that tiny error wreaked havoc. This accident gave rise to chaos theory, which postulates that contrary to those dry old laws of physics, some unpredictability exists in the universe. For free-will proponents, these findings were a boon. If the universe behaves unpredictably at times, that strikes a blow against determinism, meaning that free will could potentially exist.
Sapolsky walks us through these arguments, as well as other pro-free will concepts, including quantum indeterminacy, which challenges the idea that the universe is deterministic, and emergent complexity, the idea that reductive, discrete parts of a system (say, neurons) can produce stunningly complex results without a master plan, which challenges the idea that you can predict what an organism will do based on examining the antics of its constituent neurons.
Sapolsky concludes that even though all these concepts challenge claims that the universe is deterministic, they do nothing for the pro-free will camp. We have no free will, period. As ridiculous as that sounds that is his position.
Mitchell’s “Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will” reaches a different conclusion than Sapolsky’s, from basically the same natural processes and free will isn’t something to wedge around physical determinism. Instead, free will is part of the physical laws of the universe. In other words, although evolution produces it somehow, this creates our own (limited) personalities!
In Mitchell’s telling, single-celled organisms distinguished themselves from their non-living counterparts billions of years ago by starting to “do things for reasons.” He does not explain how this came about, it just happened!
Originally, these organisms’ actions were simple. They would make decisions based on whether resources were more plentiful on a certain rock. As the millennia passed, movement and sensation made life more complicated, and organisms began engaging in a sophisticated feedback loop where they interacted with their environment and internalized the consequences of their actions over time.
While this may sound somewhat cognitive, it’s all merely natural processes.
In the course of this narrative, Mitchell introduces us to creatures such as the hydra. This simple freshwater polyp does not have a brain. However, it can still in his strange words, make decisions such as moving towards light, regulating whether to eat something, and leaving waters that are too hot or cold, and C. elegans, a worm higher up the evolutionary chain that exhibits the ability to learn.
Organisms, Mitchell says, are patterns of processes that detect and react to internal and external stimuli as they seek to persist. As a microbe actively explores its environment, impinging molecules are processed internally as information about sustenance or danger, providing the organism with “reasons” to initiate an approach or avoidance. “In reality,” he explains, “these organisms integrate multiple signals at once, along with information about their current state and its recent history, to produce a genuinely holistic response that cannot be deconstructed into isolated parts.”
Again, how exactly these organisms can “reason” or what sets the rules and laws they obey to act the way they do is left to our imagination!
If microorganisms can act as agents, then much more complex organisms, such as humans, must have an even greater scope for agency. Mitchell describes the structure of human brains in great detail, showing how patterns of neurons instantiate meaning as they respond to sensory stimuli and each other. Thus emerges top-down causation—what happens when patterns at a higher hierarchical level exert causal influence over a lower level by changing the context within which the lower-level actions take place.
“The choices the organism makes based on parameters set at high-level filter down,” Mitchell writes, “to change the criteria at lower levels, thereby allowing the organism to adapt to current circumstances, execute current plans, and achieve current goals. In this way, abstract entities like thoughts, beliefs, and desires can have causal influence in a physical system.”
Mitchell argues that as life became more complex, evolving past the worm and the polyp, creatures started exhibiting dynamism and agency, and the meaning that organisms ascribed to action, thoughts, and experiences became the most important aspect of cognition. Finally, this evolution led us to humans, who possess a complex suite of brain systems that work together to perceive and integrate our perceptions of the world around us, making decisions, integrating the decisions, thinking about our thoughts about those decisions, and even imagining the results of those decisions. Although there may have been no God or deliberate plan for this process to evolve as a way to model our cognitive activity, it “accidentally” freed our minds and transformed it into something we can call free will, albeit one that was still subject to many limitations of nature and nurture.
Although “somehow” nature produced a form of self-cognition through “some” evolutionary process, this is still very much part of our physical existence and does not consider any kind of soul or internal spiritual identity.
Mitchell concedes that humans do not have complete and total freedom. On the contrary, he believes that “selfhood entails constraints,”. He agrees that we are shaped by our evolution, genetics, and the random variability and environmental factors that develop our brain into its particular organ. But, crucially, in his view, that doesn’t make us automatons. Once we evolved metacognition, we lost the ability to claim that our actions were entirely disconnected from any notion of moral responsibility. Accordingly, we should continue praising people for their achievements and punishing them for their sins, since, Mitchell writes, “Brains do not commit crimes: people do.”
In the past, the prevailing view in physics was that the world is fully deterministic, without room for free will. But Mitchell considers quantum physics, which comes to the rescue of free will, because it “seems to have some fundamental indeterminacy right at the heart of it.” Today, Mitchell says, the prevailing view in physics is that “the indeterminacy observed in the evolution of quantum systems is real and fundamental.”
Mitchell himself hypothesizes, as a form of mental gymnastics, that some people possess more free will than others. “If people don’t have free will over how much free will they have, then do they possess free will at all?”
So, according to Sapolsky, we are all automatons, and the statement by Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” is, in truth, an illusion. It would seem, according to Sapolsky, that there would be no compelling reason for someone not to commit suicide. There is no greater meaning in living, and or of life.
Mitchell wildly imagines humans as the product of some pretty smart self-propelled evolving universal system in all atoms (might as well say it’s God, no?), which he never explains where that is from or how it itself operates, developed to the highest level in a human being. Essentially, humans are no better than blades of grass, accidentally developed to be intuitive.
No soul, no afterlife, and no God as the reason anything operates by the laws it follows. We are all just lucky happenstance who ended up as creatures with some sort of free will with no particular purpose or metaphysical meaning.
I will now share with you the perspective of our Holy Torah and the Jewish tradition. The principle of free choice occupies a very important place in the books of our tradition.
Free Choice is the big difference between the human race and the rest of creation. Free choice and free will come from the soul a veritable portion of God, inside us, a dimension higher than our natural bodily limitations, and therefore, can rule and influence the mind and the body from that higher perch.
Animals act according to their instincts. Animals and all other created beings have no control over their actions and/or behavior.
In contrast, man acts in line with his power to control his mind and desires and has full control over his behavior. The free choice given to every person is a major element in the Torah of Israel, and many of our great Sages included it in the list of the tenets of the faith.
In his book “Yad Hachazakah -The Strong Hand”, Maimonides says the following. “Permission is given to every person: if he wants to incline himself to a good path and be righteous – the permission is in his hand, and if he wants to incline himself to a bad path and be wicked – the permission is in his hand. It is written in the book of God our Holy Torah “God said, look, man has become unique in the lower world since he has the ability of knowing good and evil.”
It is written, “Behold, I set before you this day,” meaning that the authority is in your hands, and whatever man desires to do, he does, whether good or bad. From this point of view, the Torah says, “If only their hearts would remain like this, fearing me and keeping my commandments….” The Creator does not compel human beings and does not decree that they should do good or bad; how a person behaves is in their own hands. We will, however, know without a doubt that the choices and behavior of man are entirely in the hands and purview of man.”
In this spirit, our Sages also say: “Everything is foreseen, and yet permission is given.” And “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of God.” In “Fear of God,” all moral decisions man must make or refrain from making are included.
“Everything is in the Hands of Heaven” refers to all worldly matters. Whether the person is smart or foolish, tall or short, rich or poor, it is also possible for a person to have a nature that makes it easier for him to observe a mitzvah or, on the contrary, never a nature that compels him.
Maimonides writes, “If God had decreed for man to be righteous or wicked, or if there was something that draws man, as a result of his nature, to the path of the paths, or the science of the sciences, or a particular character, or to particularly forced deeds, as the foolish ones have articulated, how could He command us to “Do this and do not do that”? “Improve your ways, do good, and do not follow your wickedness,” when he has already doomed the person from the beginning of one’s creation, or his born predisposition forces him to something he cannot be moved from?
What place would there be for the entire Torah? Which law or judgment can be held against the wicked or rewarded to the righteous? “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” –
In addition, our sages write that the belief in free choice is necessary for the basics of “human” conduct. Maimonides writes, “If man were forced in his actions… why all the study, education, and apprenticeship since it is impossible for a person, due to external factors—according to those who think so—not to do a certain act, not to know a certain wisdom, and not to have an unknown character? And then the reward and the punishment would be complete injustice.”
Rabbi Yosef Albo writes: “Free choice is the beginning of all human interactions and human assurances that establish civil normality.”
Maimonides asks, “Lest you say: And the Holy One, blessed be He, knows whatever will be, and before it will be He knew it would be righteous or wicked. If He knew that someone would be righteous – it is impossible that he would not be righteous, and if you say that he knew that he would be righteous and it is possible that he would be wicked, then God would be lacking in His knowledge.
Know that the answer to this question is “longer than the span of the land and wider than the sea.” How many great principles and high mountains depend on this principle of free will? You need to know and understand what I am saying:………. And just as there is no power in man to achieve and find the truth of the Creator, as it is said: “For man will not see me and live,” there is no human power to achieve and find the mind of the Creator.
The prophet said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” A mere mortal does not have the power to know how the Holy One, blessed be he, knows all the creatures and actions.
According to the Torah, we have full control over our moral decisions. The outcome is in the hands of God, and as far as everything outside of our moral choices—health, wealth, the weather, etc.- is all in God’s domain, sometimes influenced by our prayers and good deeds.
A person has a soul, an independent entity operating within the body. It exists before the person is born, travels through life, and then reaps the benefits or consequences in this world, but mainly in the world to come because of the choices made during their lifetime.
Once, the Baal Shem Tov students were sitting with their teacher, and a Gentile chariot driver stuck his head into the house of study and asked for help to get his horse and wagon out of the mud. Not being interested in being disturbed away from their teacher, they said, “We cannot help.”
The chariot driver responded, “You can. It is just that you don’t want to.”
God gave each of us the power and capacity to take charge and make the right choices in accordance with our Torah. Otherwise, all the expectations of the Torah would make no sense. It is never “impossible” to carry out our commandments since He always provides the strength to deal with the challenges He places before us. “You can; it’s just that you don’t have the will to do so.”