In one of the most emotive reactions to a presidential election on record, a spontaneous grass-roots movement swelled into marches by millions of demonstrators worldwide following President Trump’s inauguration. What does this reflect?

Do these protesters, who are now strategizing to create a concerted political force for mid-term US elections in 2018, reflect free will decision-making? This isn’t an absurd question.

There are prominent scientists, such as American physiologist Benjamin Libet who claim that we have no free will. They view decision-making as an automated neurological response to external stimuli.

Dr. Stephen Cave, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, England, discussed the implications of a society who does not believe in free will in the June 2016 The Atlantic:  

“It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”

“ 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.”

“This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?”

Dr. Cave cited research from Kathleen Vohs, (University of Utah) and Jonathan Schooler (University of Pittsburgh) that when people believed they had no free will, they are more likely to behave immorally. Additional studies by Roy Baumeister (Florida State University) discovered that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to help a classmate than those whose belief in free will was stronger. Later studies by Baumeister correlated reduced belief in free will with stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. Other researchers determined that a weaker belief in free will is associated with poor academic performance, reduced creativity, higher conformity, less willing to learn from mistakes, and less appreciative of others.

Dr. Cave’s analysis showed that the implications of a deterministic outlook are unhealthy for society. In fact, even those who maintain that there is determinism such as Saul Smilansky (University of Haifa), advocate “illusionism, the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend” to counterbalance its negative consequences.

Judaism takes an unequivocal position against a deterministic or fatalistic view of man and considers free will as our defining attribute. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD (On Spirituality, p. 267) addresses the debate between determinism and free will:

Some philosophers deny that man has freedom of choice, and contend that a person has a number of impulses and ideas, some of which are in conflict, and that his behavior is determined by whichever impulse or idea happens to be the strongest. They say that because man is aware of the struggle within himself he has an illusion that he is making a choice, whereas the choice is really being made for him. Judaism categorically rejects this concept which, by denying free will, essentially reduces man to an animal level, with the only distinguishing feature being that man is conscious of the struggle between the opposing forces within him. Freedom of choice is a fundamental axiom of Judaism. In fact, Judaism teaches that although God is in control of everything in the universe, He has divested himself of control over man’s decisions, and does not intervene in man’s moral or ethical choices.

Consequently, Judaism clearly views the anti-Trump protesters (as well as his supporters) as acting with free will.

Free will is one of the key themes in this week’s parsha, Va’eira. God sends Moshe and Aaron to warn Pharaoh in advance of each of the first seven plagues to free Bnei Yisroel from Mitzraim. Since Pharaoh refused to send out the Jewish people after each of the first five plagues, God then withdrew Pharaoh’s free will and sent the remaining five plagues. One might assume that free will is an uncompromising God-given right. Could God suspend someone’s free will under special circumstances?

Two Morasha shiurim address free will. The first class discusses the nature, importance and dynamics of free will. The second class seeks to understand how man can have free will in light of God’s omniscience, omnipotence and Divine Providence, as well as various qualifications to the principles of free will. Free will and Pharaoh is also discussed in the second shiur below.

Free Will I : The Nature, Importance and Dynamics of Free Will

Free Will II: Is There Free Will in Light of God’s Omnipotence, Omniscience & Divine Providence?


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