The Free Will Problem: Early Solutions

Biblical and rabbinic sources stress both divine determinism and human freedom.

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The solution to the apparent contradiction confronting us is to be found in the realization that the freedom which the ancients generally ascribed to humanity was of a relative rather than of an absolute kind. The Stoic view serves as a good illustration of a relative free will theory of the causal type.

The Stoics [a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium c.300 BCE] believed unflinchingly in a universal causal chain called Heimarmene. That which is apparently uncaused is so only from the point of view of our limited range of knowledge. Man's entire deliberative process is therefore also subject to the causal nexus.

But an important distinction is then drawn between Heimarmene, which constitutes the proximate cause of human action [i.e. the determined occasion of an activity that is out of human control], and our inner psyche, which constitutes the principal cause of such action [which is unique to each person and subject to his or her will]. This distinction emphasizes our relative autonomy. Ultimately, all the factors in the process of human deliberation are determined, but the Stoic joyfully and enthusiastically embraces his destiny, content with the capacity consciously to share in the processes that initiate action.

In short, within the framework of a theory of relative freedom (or "soft determinism," in the phrase of William James), the concepts of determinism and predestination may freely coexist with that of voluntarism. God can be envisaged as predetermining human nature to include the power of deliberative choice, though as human nature's sovereign author he also determines its mode of operation and consequently all that results from it.

It did not particularly bother most ancient writers, however, that God was thus ultimately responsible for human moral delinquency and the punishments that followed it. They simply accepted this hard reality as part of the divine mystery. It was only under the impact of extraordinary catastrophes that their concepts of freedom and predestination became unglued and required new and more subtle interpretations to put them together again.

The Rabbinic View

Having outlined the ancient perspective on human freedom, we may now readily ascertain the rabbinic view. Following in the footsteps of Mosaic Scripture, the rabbis wished only to emphasize human moral responsibility without compromising the all‑determining power of divine providence. To this end they taught a doctrine of freedom roughly equivalent to the relative free will theory found in ancient Greek philosophy.

They were fully alert to the ultimate divine determination of human character, and they did not attempt to diminish its essential mystery. A late midrash, for example, put the following critique into the mouth of Cain: "Master of the world, if I have killed him [Abel], it is thou who hast created in me the Evil Yetzer [drive]…It is Thou who has killed him" (Tanhuma Genesis 9b).

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Dr. David Winston

Dr. David Winston is Professor Emeritus of Hellenistic and Judaic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.