The Free Will Problem: Modern Solutions

Modern thinkers have addressed the free will problem by questioning the authority of science, acknowledging the limits of freedom, and asserting the transcendent importance of choice.

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Medieval Jewish thinkers were concerned with reconciling the contradictions between human free will and divine providence and foreknowledge. Modern Jewish thinkers, on the other hand, have been primarily concerned with the challenges to free will posed by the natural and social sciences. 

Physics and Ethics are Distinct Discourses

For Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), the scientific paradigm of mechanistic causation, which affirms that every event in the physical world must have a cause, was troubling when juxtaposed with the notion of human choice. Applying this paradigm to human activity, it would seem impossible that humans could either make free decisions or act without reference to a previous mechanical cause.

Following Immanuel Kant, Cohen resolves this problem by questioning the status of the mechanistic causation so central to the worldview of the physicist. He suggests that mechanistic causation is merely a methodological assumption of the physicist, a descriptive tool that the physicist uses to explain phenomena.

two paths divergingCausation is of use in describing the interaction of billiard balls and even atomic particles, but we need different tools to describe human actions, particularly those with a moral colouring. According to Cohen, ethical thought has its own set of methodological concepts. Central to this is the idea that human beings can make choices.

Thus the ethical system of thought is distinct from the system of thought employed to investigate the natural sciences. According to Cohen, the framework of science and the framework of ethics illuminate distinct aspects of human experience.

Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1992), a follower of Cohen in many regards, continued to push the discourse on free will in this direction, but he was able to further undermine the omniscience of physics in light of new scientific findings. Soloveitchik pointed to emerging discontinuities between biology, chemistry, and physics as challenging the authority of the physicist and his mechanistic causation.

Perhaps more importantly, modern quantum physics has revealed that what is actually happening at the sub-atomic level is not mechanistic in any traditional sense. Without the presumption of simple causation, a major obstacle to our self-conception as free decision-making individuals is removed.

Choice is Required, But Not Guaranteed

Other thinkers have not been convinced by this approach to the free will problem. While acknowledging limits in the nature of our knowledge about physics, they have felt that advances in cognitive science have made it impossible to view the brain as anything but a mechanical system.

One such thinker was Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), a Jewish philosopher and neuroscientist. Leibowitz suggests that the laws of Judaism reflect a conviction that the human power to choose is weaker than is generally supposed. Humans need a challenging image and directive to avoid slipping into the mindless chasing of psychological and material needs. Judaism challenges humans with laws and imperatives because it requires people to choose, not because it guarantees that choice is within their reach.

Free Will Doesn’t Really Exist, But That's OK

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) developed a similar approach and pushed it even further. Although he is not usually treated as a "Jewish thinker" per se, recent scholarship has traced rabbinic strands in Wittgenstein's thought. In addition, Wittgenstein referred to himself as a Jewish thinker and was deeply conscious of both his Jewish origins and the Jewish nature of his thinking.

For Wittgenstein, the answer to the free will problem lies in a fundamental re-analysis of the relationship between the self (the enduring aspect of one's person), the will (the element of a person which effects worldly action), and the world.

We tend to think that the self does not belong to the physical world, and that it possesses and controls the will. Wittgenstein attempts to demonstrate that it is, in fact, the will that is responsible for the self, and that we should view our selves as merely parts of the workings of the world, and our lives and actions as continuous with that world. We do not own or possess our actions, they simply happen. In this sense, there is no free will, but there is also no problem of free will, because there is no distinct self to be constrained.

Freedom is an Existential Possibility

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) adopts an approach to freedom that might be seen as building on Wittgenstein's model while making more concessions to our needs as human agents. Heschel also rejects the self, but does so from an ethical standpoint instead of a philosophical one.

Heschel believed that modern beings had come to view themselves as a bundle of mechanical and biological processes. To liberate or redeem oneself from this view involves altering this self-perception and then setting one’s sights on some higher, humane purpose.

For Heschel, freedom is not a scientific fact, but an existential possibility, something we may find ourselves capable of, a new dimension of our lived experience.

Freedom is a Challenge

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) rejected anti-scientific interpretations of free will and worked to interpret freedom in a manner still relevant to Jewish striving.

Traditionally, freedom was understood as an ability that humans have, something we must make use of. Kaplan reconfigures this and suggests that freedom is a challenge to restrain oneself. Humans, he thinks, exist in tension between positively realizing individuality and negatively slipping into self-worship. Freedom challenges us to negotiate this tightrope and hold back from egotistic pride or an excessively domineering spirit. This restraint engenders a free-spirited feeling, which is more important than any scientific question of cause and effect.

The Imperative of Choice

Martin Buber's (1878-1965) existentialist philosophy emphasizes the gravity of human individual choices as the most central component of our lived experience. Although he is aware of the tendency to point to events and frameworks as setting conditions for action, he thinks that when we reflect on the choices we make these soon become much more important and significant.

In other words, he sees the free will problem as a question of focus. We can shirk our responsibility and pretend not to be able to make choices, to be living a predetermined life. But once we correct our attitude and emphasize the possibilities in front of us, the idea that we do not choose them simply loses its hold. The problem of free will fails to get a footing, and we are confronted by the awesome imperative of choice and our profound ability to change.

The Problem of Freedom is Eternal

Modern Jewish thinkers have made contributions from a host of different angles, but the problem of free will has never given philosophers rest. Perhaps this is not only necessary, but desirable. If we are to properly and responsibly live our lives, freedom is something we must forever be struggling with, remembering, and acting upon.

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Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner lives and writes in London. He has studied Talmud, Jewish Thought, and General Philosophy at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Cambridge University, and the University of Warwick.