Eitan Hersh, Associate Professor of political science at Tufts University is alarmed that a potentially influential force in American politics is shirking their responsibility with detrimental consequences. Writing in the current edition of The Atlantic, Hersh argues that whereas many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics, the reality is that they are more like sports spectators, “mostly consuming political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs.”
Rather than marshalling their resources to “influence how the government operates… their style of politics is a parlor game in which they debate the issues on their abstract merits.” Hersh labels them political hobbyists and posits that they “have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors.”
Does this 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 G-d 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 political hobbyists as acting with free will. And so does Eitan Hersh:
“College-educated hobbyists can engage in real politics, too. They’ll need to figure out what needs are unmet and how they can serve them. They’ll need to find local organizations in which they can serve. More fundamentally, they’ll have to figure out which communities they’re willing to fight for. As things stand, their apathy suggests that they already have figured that part out.”
Free will is one of the key themes in this week’s parsha, Va’eira. G-d 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, G-d then withdrew Pharaoh’s free will and sent the remaining five plagues. One might assume that free will is an uncompromising G-d-given right. Could G-d 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 G-d’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