Judaism, Science, and Moral Responsibility edited by Yitzhak Berger (The Orthodox Forum: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) (Paperback) Do human beings have free will? Are they genuinely responsible for their actions? These questions have persisted throughout the history of philosophy, but in the twenty-first century they have become more sharply and clearly defined than ever. Indeed, a vivid and mighty tension impacts today's intellectual struggles over free will. On the one hand, the rapid advances of several empirical disciplines, notably neuropsychology and genetics, threaten our instinctive affirmation that free will and moral responsibility exist. On the other hand, the depth and force of our instincts—our powerful intuition that there is free will, that there is moral responsibility—present, for most people, an almost impenetrable barrier against the sweeping denial of free will suggested by empirical research. The chapters in this volume address this tension from a dual vantage point. While drawing heavily upon traditional Jewish texts and teachings, they also offer a blend of scientific, philosophical, psychological, and social insights into this most mystifying of topics. In addition, they illuminate the concept of repentance, a transformation of character that ranks in much of Jewish literature as the highest expression of free will.
CONTRIBUTORS: Yitzhak Berger, Rivkah Teitz Blau, Shalom Carmy, Michelle Friedman, Basil Herring, Robert Pollack, David Shatz, Haim Sompolinsky, Moshe Halevi Spero, Rachel Yehuda
Excerpt: Do human beings really have free will? Are they genuinely responsible for their actions? These questions have persisted all through the history of philosophy, but in the twenty-first century they arguably have become defined more sharply and clearly than ever. Indeed, today an especially vivid and mighty tension underlies intellectual struggles over free will. On the one hand, the rapid advances of several empirical disciplines, notably neuropsychology and genetics, threaten our instinctive affirmation that human free will and moral responsibility exist. For these disciplines maintain that all events, including those we refer to as human choices, are determined—preordained, as it were—by prior physical states. To be sure, in times past determinism was discussed and often endorsed, but the thesis lacked the massive empirical support it enjoys today. At the same time, the depth and force of our instincts—our powerful intuition that there is tree will, that there is moral responsibility—present, for most people, an almost impenetrable barrier against the sweeping denial of tree will suggested by empirical research.
The contemporary battles over free will and responsibility, then, are largely between those who come down on the side of empirical research and those who champion our intuitions. But in the process of debate, philosophers and scientists who ponder free will have posed an array of fascinating questions. Is determinism truly total, or can we identify "gaps" in the causal chain of events in the human brain that allow a role for free choice? Might we carve out a middle ground that accepts both free will and determinism—that is, might freedom prove compatible with a deterministic view of the world? In an indeterminist world (a world in which not all events are determined) could we provide a coherent explanation of how we make moral choices? And so forth.
Recent remarks of two important players in the debate exemplify the intensity of our resistance to the empirical assault on free will. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen, while arguing that free will is compatible with neither determinism nor indeterminism, humbly sums up with the following: "I conclude that free will remains a mystery—that is, that free will undeniably exists and that there is a strong and unanswered prima facie case for its impossibility" [italics added].' So free will, it would appear, cannot exist—and yet it must. Somewhat analogously, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, who has shown that our awareness of decisions arises only after the neural states responsible for them, nonetheless proposes that we possess the ability, via a "conscious veto," to alter our apparently determined course of action. Libet concludes:
The intuitive feelings about the phenomenon of free will form a fundamental basis for views of our human nature, and great care should be taken not to be¬lieve allegedly scientific conclusions about them that actually depend upon hid-den ad hoc assumptions.... My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the nondetermined sense, is then that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than its denial by deterministic theory.'
If our natural sense of freedom is strong, commitment to religious principles only adds to our conviction of its centrality. The Torah insists that human beings are faced with a choice between good and evil, life and death, and that they are to "choose life"—that is, perform God's commandments (Deut. 30:19). Moses Maimonides (1138—1204) took this stark presentation of alter-natives to signify the existence of a free choice between options and the existence of responsibility as well. Some thinkers who believe in determinism might advocate an end to ascriptions of moral responsibility on the grounds that these ascriptions are indefensible; but in the Bible it is God who holds people responsible for their actions, and His judgment is presumed to be infallible. From a religious standpoint, then, there is moral responsibility, and from this it follows that there is free will.
The viability of belief in free will and moral responsibility in our age was the subject of the fourteenth annual conference of the Orthodox Forum, held in March 2002. The papers in this volume are based on the proceedings of that conference and represent collectively a blend of scientific, philosophical, psychological, and social insights into this most mystifying of topics.
The essays in the first half of this volume take up the challenge, from a traditional Jewish perspective, of delineating the parameters of human freedom and deepening our understanding of its workings.
In the opening essay, Haim Sompolinsky presents a version of the scientific challenge to the standard religious conception of human freedom, that is, what is known as incompatibilist free will' This most common understanding suggests that the individual decides on a course of action not otherwise determined by prior physical states.
Sompolinsky takes us through recent brain research, demonstrating that what we perceive as the process of conscious decision-making relies over¬whelmingly upon the physical workings of the brain. Research on patients having undergone split-brain procedures, for example, suggests that "reason¬ing, will, and the generation of actions can be fractured and compartmentalized within the brain," and that "cognition and volition are rooted in discrete brain structures." If there remains a role for choices that are not neurobiologically determined, this would require an independent will to operate on the quantum level, where one finds physical indeterminacy. And indeed, chaos theory suggests that it cannot be ruled out that small quantum fluctuations af¬fected by the individual's will might tip the balance of a borderline decision in favor of one alternative or another.
Nevertheless, Sompolinsky argues that if "mental forces result in event probabilities in the brain that are different from those predicted by the known physical laws, these violations of the laws should be readily detected and verified by ordinary scientific observation." Such violations of probabilistic laws stand against current scientific evidence. Furthermore, incompatibilist free will requires either a mental state that has emerged from the brain having a causal effect on the brain itself, or an independent metaphysical entity acting on the brain. Sompolinsky argues that any such entity or state affecting the brain, or for that matter, any discovered violation of known probabilistic laws, should, in any case, be cast in terms of a revision of our conception of the physical laws governing nature. He proceeds, also, to contest the notion that an "emergent" mental state could have independent causal power: in allegedly analogous cases—for example, where the "emergent" solidity of a wheel generates rotation—it is really the condition of the molecules themselves that causes the result, nothing more. In this view, then, only compatibilist versions of free will "do not run counter to scientific ideas or findings," for in these versions, the will does not choose between alternatives otherwise undetermined by physical laws.
Robert Pollack states straightforwardly that genetic specificity is an incomplete determinant of behavior: "synaptic connections—the basis of all mental activity later in life—cannot have all been specifically encoded by our genomes." Thus, "human genomes do in fact allow free will."
The inadequacy of genetic makeup in determining individual behavior prompts Pollack to warn against utilizing genetic information "as an excuse for setting aside religious values." In this context, he raises the need to work with every individual regardless of mental capacities in an effort to maximize his/her potential. Furthermore, in minimizing the centrality of DNA in our evaluation of individuals and groups, Pollack argues that Jews should not view themselves in terms of genetic uniqueness: while Maimonides speaks of the "Crowns" of royalty and priesthood as inherited, the "Crown of Torah" is "set aside, waiting for every Jew." It is, then, the individual who may strive for elevation and through teaching and learning—not by appeal to the DNA of the group.
Pollack proceeds to take issue with James Watson's call for utilizing genetic analysis to reduce "the differences in human beings" in order to create "a so¬ciety in which we can effectively view all individuals as truly equal." "Our future," writes Pollack, "lies not in minimizing our differences, but in cherishing them" He concludes by calling for "religiously informed, sensitive" policies in contemporary medicine that respect the individuality and autonomy of pa¬tients, and work toward helping people in need, "one person at a time."
David Shatz's essay responds to the challenge outlined by Sompolinsky. Initially, Shatz offers that even if neuroscience suggests that all that exists are material entities, belief in a non-material soul and in free will could be defended by an appeal to faith. But even independently of such an appeal, the fact that science has no place for an entity or phenomenon of type X (specifically, non-material ones) does not entail that there are no entities or phe¬nomena of type X—only that such entities and phenomena do not enter into scientific theories, due to methodological constraints scientists adopt. Similarly, God could not enter into a scientific theory, because He is a non-material being and science does not utilize non-material explanations; but a religious scientist will believe, legitimately, that He exists. Finally, some philosophers even today (admittedly a small minority) think that belief in a soul can be supported by evidence.
Despite his resistance to materialism and his belief in free will, Shatz does not think that the contemporary scientific picture is totally alien to Judaism. In the main body of the paper, he bids us to consider how far Judaism is willing to go in accepting materialism and in denying free will—can it affirm these theses in part, and if so, at what stop must it get off the train? In response to this question, Shatz points to such precedents as views that attribute sin to the biological "part" of a human being, Hasidic views that deny the existence of free will, views like Nahmanides' that downplay the value of free will, the medieval assertion that astrology determines human behavior, and compatibilist views (prevalent in medieval times) which maintain that an action can be both free and determined. All of these approaches suggest considerable room for either materialistic explanations of actions, a denial of free will, or are conciliation between free will and determinism. Even so, Shatz points out some flaws in adopting certain of these precedents.
Thereafter, he turns to the strengths and weaknesses of compatibilism. While he thinks the weaknesses are significant, the fact that compatibilism salvages free will and was accepted by medieval Jewish philosophers (in a form different from today's) gives some motivation for seeking to dispel the objections to it. But since compatibilism and incompatibilism both confront significant challenges, in the end Shatz admits to being mystified by what free will is. If we do not know what it is to have free will, we cannot decide whether we have it.
For Shalom Carmy, free will, in our culture, is impossible without a lively imagination of what it may be like to exercise free will. It is therefore desirable to explore the existential dimensions of freedom and determinism. The attractiveness of freedom is rooted in the introspective conviction, in prevalent beliefs about responsibility and in the experience of creativity. Determinism is attractive because it fits human beliefs about scientific system. It is also thought to promote psychologically and, to some people, morally desirable goals such as the avoidance of anxiety, avoidance of guilt and tolerance of one's own, and others' deficiencies: some maintain that if we don't know that an act is free, it is morally safest to view it as determined, though, in Carmy's view, this position does not stand up to inspection. Lastly, determinism captures the introspective conviction of being unfree.
Philosophical questions about the conceptual coherence of free will, writes Carmy, lead to the conclusion that the fluent experience of freedom escapes systematic exposition because of its inherently self-referential nature. This makes it crucially important to provide suitable models and metaphors for freedom; otherwise one would have no idea what it's like. One such model views freedom in terms of an effort of will that overcomes resistance. Another comprehends freedom along the lines of artistic creativity. The latter does better in capturing intuitions about the unpredictability and mystery of freedom, and even succeeds in explaining cases where freedom is associated with effort. Creativity is particularly important in connection with personal relations, where creative response to the other, and not only effort of will, is necessary for wholesome moral action.
Carmy regards R. Dessler's and R. Kook's treatments of free will as the most significant in twentieth-century Jewish thought. Detailed philosophical and literary examination reveals R. Dessler's affinities to Kantian thought, with its emphasis on moral responsibility, and to aspects of the effort model with corresponding difficulties in dealing with moral luck and with the traditional belief that reward and punishment are not completely determined by effort. R. Kook's discussion, by contrast, is oriented toward the creativity model.
While this model is not geared to the judicial problem of responsibility, it can provide insight in this area too.
Recovery of a living sense of freedom is facilitated by appropriate attention to language as illustrated by close reading of passages in Dreiser, Henry James, and psychotherapeutic literature. It likewise requires experiences of competent willing and honestly earned confidence in one's agency. Lastly, if belief in freedom is not to become a ceremonial vacuity, we need a realistic, concrete sense of its limitations, of human vulnerability and creatureliness. Such an outlook sustains a robust religious sense of self, confident enough to with-stand the pressure of ideological conformity and to maintain the dignity of private individuality.
The next section of the volume concerns the proper religious-communal response to problematic behaviors where it is suspected that the violator's free will is constrained. Basil Herring catalogues the near-universal affirmation of broad free will in rabbinic and post-rabbinic Jewish thought and emphasizes its centrality in the fundamental religious imperative of overcoming moral failure and achieving personal redemption. Not only "individual self-discipline;" but "enlightened communal censure, social rejection, and institutional education" all must play a role in sublimating "forbidden . . . urges, no matter how widespread or condoned they may be within the larger societal sphere?' Nevertheless, "the rabbinic tradition also recognized certain limits and constraints on human behavior that, while not ultimately removing freedom of choice and its consequences, greatly complicate and diminish human freedom." For such circumstances, Herring coins the term "choice-diminished behavior" (CDB).
Behavior that is immoral remains so even if choice-diminished, and where it is harmful to others, Herring affirms that "there ought to be no tolerance or leniency." Where there is no direct harm to others, in contemporary societal settings—particularly in cases of CDB—"a carefully constructed case can be made favoring restraint and caution" on the part of the community. For individuals who engage in problematic CDB, Herring advocates allowing particpation in synagogue life, provided that "public health, personal dignity, and communal decorum" are maintained, and that there is no public expression in religious-communal settings of behavior that violates religious principles. Even where these criteria might justify communal sanctions, a balanced judgment must be made as to whether or not this would be appropriate and beneficial in the long term. Furthermore, any policy of communal sanctions must avoid arbitrary selectivity in its application. Herring proceeds to observe that in school settings, where "character formation" is a basic objective, there are cases in which "serious sanctions" might be appropriate even where the behavior is not harmful to others, but he delineates a series of sensitive concerns in the development and implementation of any such policy.
Picking up on Herring's call for no tolerance of behavior harmful to others, Rivkah 'Feltz Blau forcefully urges the religious community to adopt policies toward abusers of children that reflect a no-nonsense approach: "Once a per-son has abused a youngster, he cannot serve in any position that will present him with another opportunity." Because of the effects of abuse, "the potential further damage to children in the event that even a one-time abuser is allowed to continue working with them is incalculable." The indifference even of bystanders, not to mention the community leadership, is a form of complicity, and the abuser's other accomplishments must be seen as irrelevant.
To confront the problem systematically, Blau advocates the establishment of "a review board consisting of trained professionals" to investigate all accusations. This method provides a range of benefits for parents, children, employers, and the accused. In addition, it should be part of children's education "to recognize abusive behavior, to resist it, and to report it." The elimination of "surprise and secrecy from the abuser's arsenal" will contribute to the containment of this intolerable behavior, however "choice-diminished."
The volume's final section concerns self-improvement and teshuvah. The essay by Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda focuses in particular on similarities and differences between psychotherapy and the process of teshuvah (repentance). Both involve the alleviation of emotional pain and are systems for change, but there are other similarities as well as contrasts. (1) In both psychotherapy and repentance, we can identify an authority who stimulates change. But whereas in repentance the locus of authority is God, to whom one relates out of love and/or fear, in psychotherapy the locus of authority is the patient—since psychotherapists maintain that a patient should not change just "for the therapist." (2) In both instances, transference takes place. (Transference is the process by which the patient or potential penitent invests the therapist, or rabbi, or even God with a constellation of feelings whose origins are based on earlier relationships.) (3) Psychotherapy aims, in the first in-stance, at relieving pain. TL'shuvah, however, aims in the first instance at changing behavior to conform to halakhah, with relief of pain only a secondary benefit. (4) Judaism believes that good behavior provides greater insight, while in classic psychotherapy (as opposed to cognitive behavior therapy), the reverse is the case—greater insight motivates correct behavior.
Friedman and Yehuda illustrate their points with three case studies. Ultimately they argue that familiarity with psychotherapeutic techniques and processes can facilitate the teshuvah process, and conversely, an understanding of teshuvah can enhance the psychotherapeutic process. Rabbis and mental health processionals must therefore understand each other's principles. However, behavior that is acceptable to a psychotherapist may not be acceptable to a rabbi, because the rabbi relates to halakhah and not only to the patient's suffering.
Moshe Halevi Spero analyzes the process of change inherent in teshuvah, informed by a broad spectrum of philosophical and psychological literature as well as by primary and secondary sources within the Jewish tradition. In this "postmodern inquiry," Spero challenges simplistic conceptions of "return" to a prior state, calling attention to the elusiveness of the concept of the self as a rigidly bounded entity, the limitations of memory, the paradoxical nature of time, and the inadequacies of the medium of language. It becomes necessary, in light of this challenge, to formulate a new approach to teshuvah that circumscribes the "impossibilities" that emerge from a more crude understanding.
Spero expounds on the theory that there is initially no differentiation between the self and anything it experiences: the self attains identification through a process of "negativization," which enables "discrete perceptions of self" and "other." A gap thus emerges between the self and the other, and any longing for the other as originally experienced will fall short, as it can exist now in the mind only through symbolic representation, itself dependent upon the limited vehicle of language. Yet in linguistic expression there lies desire, "attempting to escape and seek fulfillment." And indeed, in the "linguistically moderated rituals of teshuvah," there "comes a searching of the deepest elements of the human mind for that fundamental flaw or moment of severance from which emanates a cry that gradually took the concrete form of alienation, mistrust, apathy, and sin, but also potentially expresses the search for the original union." And while the original union cannot itself be fully retrieved, teshuvah entails a process of "refinding" and "reapproximating" this prior state by means of mental, language-based representation. On the basis of his analysis, Spero advances novel understandings of numerous aspects of teshuvah delineated in classical sources, including the distinction between teshuvah rneiahavah and teshuvah mi-yir'ah, and the efficacy of teshuvah besha'ah chat, in the process providing ingenious interpretations of several aggadic tales of individuals engaged in the teshuvah process.
insert content here