THE NECESSITY OF FREE WILL


PART I

            Free will is necessary for responsibility. Without free will we would be as little responsible for what we do as animals or machines.

            Imagine: George is standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Fred sneaks up behind him and pushes him down the stairs, smashing a vase on the landing below. Who is responsible for the loss of the vase? Not George - he was pushed by Fred. George did not choose to smash the vase, so he is not responsible.

            Imagine: A hypnotist tells George he will close his eyes and jump down the stairs. Under the control of the post-hypnotic suggestion, George does so, landing on the vase. Again, George is not responsible - he did not choose.

            Now Imagine: Because of George's DNA, childhood, environment and culture,

 he becomes a person who smashes vases - WITHOUT ANY CHOICE.  His DNA and environment program him to do this, just like a machine. Again, since he does not choose, he is not responsible.

            It makes no difference whether the external cause is immediate or long-term - if George does not choose, he is not responsible.

            Without responsibility, the meaning of human life collapses. Morality applies to responsible choices. Without responsibility there is no good or evil, virtue or vice, justice or obligation. [George is not evil, unjust or vicious for breaking the vase.] And without morality, we would be reduced to the level of animals.

            And we know that that is not true - we are not like the animals in this way. When we see someone suffering, we know that we ought to help. If someone does not recognize this obligation, he is not fully human. If someone recognizes no obligation to keep his promises, or treat others fairly, or help  others find happiness, he is not fully human.

            This is not true for animals or machines. They do not recognize obligations - they do not recognize justice or fairness. And we do not expect them to do these things. But we do expect this of humans. The reason is that humans make choices. Choices can be responsible or irresponsible - they can be morally good or bad. Animals and machines do not make choices, so they are not responsible. That is why they are not morally good or bad.

            The Torah sees spiritual excellence as the purpose of life. Responsibility and morality are a large part of spirituality. [The story is told of a man whose humility was described to his spiritual mentor in these words: "He holds himself very small. It's just that he holds everyone else a little smaller!" That is not humility, and it is not spiritual. Spirituality cannot ignore how a person relates to other people.]

            The Torah sees spiritual excellence as becoming G-dlike. We are created in G-d's form so that we can come to resemble G-d. G-d's "characteristics" are described in moral terms: G-d is loving, kind, just, merciful and so on. For us to resemble G-d we too must work to create this moral character in ourselves. Since all morality depends upon choice - on free will - our free will is the key to our ability to resemble G-d.

            The Torah teaches that our actions have consequences. Good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished. The reward is joyful closeness to G-d. The punishment is distance from G-d, which is very painful. Now reward and punishment are only appropriate for choices. Remember George and the vase - punishing him for breaking the vase would be morally wrong. And rewarding a mother bear for protecting its cub would be morally empty. The bear deserves no reward, since the bear made no choice.  

            In sum - free will is necessary for responsibility and [therefore] for morality. All virtue, spirituality,

G-dlikeness and reward and punishment depend upon free will. Without free will, our humanity would be lost. Thus the Torah says: "See I have placed before you good and evil, life and death...therefore choose life!"

PART II

 If George does not choose, he is not responsible.

            Although the examples make this obvious, there are many who deny it. They hold that one can be responsible even if he makes no free choices, in the sense that we have defined freedom. In particular, they say that even if our DNA and environment completely determine everything we do, there is an important sense in which we are still "free" and make "choices" so that we can still be "responsible."

            Roughly, by "free" they mean "we are able to do what we choose," by "choices" they mean "what we do as a result of our character" and by "responsible" they mean "can be affected by praise and blame, reward and punishment." Then, they say, even if everything we do is programmed by our DNA and environment, still some of the things we do result from our ability to carry out  what is determined by our character [so they are "free choices"], and sometimes we can be affected by responses to what we do [se we are "responsible"].

            The root of the idea is this. Think of responsibility - indeed, all of morality - as how people behave. We perform actions, we evaluate them as responsible or not, good or evil, just or unjust and so on. And then there are consequences - praise or blame, reward or punishment, honor or shame.  What is the value of this behavior?

            They argue that the value lies in the effect it has on the rest of what we do. Responsibility makes our actions better. Praise and blame, reward and punishment give us incentives to do good rather than evil.

            Now, they point out, responsibility could have just this effect - it could improve our actions - even it everything we do is programmed by our DNA and environment. All we need to assume is that we are programmed to respond to this kind of incentive. Then, when the incentive is provided, we will respond accordingly.

            Here is an example. Imagine a hypnotist telling his subject, "when you wake up, every time someone tells you, you have done well, you will feel a new moderate desire  to do that sort of thing again." Now when we tell him "Well done!" when he gives charity, he will indeed be more likely to give charity in the future. So praising him will indeed improve his behavior, even though he has no freedom to choose.

            This position is popular because many people believe that we really are completely programmed by our DNA and environment. The position in the article would then lead to the conclusion that we have no responsibility. That conclusion is absurd. So they seek to avoid that conclusion by changing the concepts of "freedom" and "responsibility". The justification for changing the concepts is that with the new concepts, we still accomplish the purpose of responsibility - improving actions.

            [Some argue in addition that the concepts of freedom and responsibility used in the article have their own difficulties. they see the new concepts as superior in avoiding those difficulties. This note will not address those difficulties.]

            This will not work. The key point is this. There is a world of difference between a principle, an idea, a concept having value or fulfilling a purpose on the one hand, and being true on the other. Many false ideas have value. Plato taught that people in the ideal republic should be led to believe that souls are made of different metals, and the metal of your soul determines your role in society. Plato says that although the idea is completely false,  it will lead to cooperation and contentment.

            Let us grant the argument that "freedom" and "responsibility" will serve the purpose of improving action. That does not mean that they are true. The examples in the article still show that if we are programmed from the outside - if we do not make really free choices - then we really are not really responsible. It might still be true that there is a value is pretending we are responsible, but that is not the same as the real thing.

            Thus the position in the article stands - free will requires choices made by the person, not caused by external forces.

 

Animals and machines do not make choices. 

            Strictly speaking, they do not make FREE decisions. This is clear for machines, at least the machines we know to date. They do exactly what we program them to do [unless they break]. We can fully predict what they will do before they do it.

            Animals are more complicated. We do not know exactly how they work, and we cannot always predict exactly what they will do. Why then do we say that they do not make free choices?

            The answer is this. When we examine how WE make choices, we see marks of our freedom that we do not see in animals. When we make a choice, at least sometimes we go through  stages. First we gather information about the alternatives. Then we evaluate the consequences of each alternative. We may then delay the decision in the hope that new information will turn up, or we will find a more realistic evaluation. Then we make the decision. When we do so, we are aware that we could have decided otherwise. We USE the information and evaluation in MAKING the decision. We are not COMPELLED to follow them - at lest that is how we feel.

            When we examine animals acting, we find no evidence of any of these stages. We do not see them aware of alternatives at all. We do see hesitation and puzzlement, but the attitude seems to be "What to do?" rather than "Shall it be A or B or C?" At least, we have no evidence of an animal in the latter position. And we certainly have no indication that animals evaluate information. Even more obvious is the fact that we have no evidence whatsoever that the animal feels that it could have done otherwise. 

            Thus the marks of freedom are entirely missing from animals. But is it not still possible that they are free, even though we do not know it? Yes, it is possible - but so is are leprechauns and the Loch Ness monster! It is enough for us that there is no positive reason to regard animals as making free decisions.

            And this is reflected in our attitude towards animals - we do not hold them responsible for what they do. Freedom is the pre-condition of responsibility. The fact that we do not hold animals responsible is a reflection of our feeling that animals are not free.

            How do we know that we are not just very complicated animals? It is important to understand exactly what is being asked. Remember - we have the marks of freedom. We recognize alternatives, we gather information, we evaluate, we decide - conscious of being able to decide otherwise. Now the question at the beginning of the paragraph proposes that ALL THIS IS ILLUSION. We only SEEM to be free. Really, we are just as determined as animals and machines.

            We should resist this question. We do not owe a proof that what is obvious to everyone is really true. Yes, it is possible that what everyone thinks is true is in reality a mistake. But the mere possibility of mistake does not mean that we have any positive reason to think it really is a mistake. No, we ought to question the question: we should ask those who put the question, "Do you have any reason for thinking that what we all believe IS an illusion?" If they do not, they are relying merely upon the possibility of mistake. That is not a reason to give up - nor even to seriously question - what we all believe to be obviously true.

            The only reason ever given for thinking that our marks of freedom are an illusion is that it is obvious that were are purely material objects. We are conceived and born just like animals. We eat, sleep, perceive, move and die as do animals. Thus, it is said, we should regard ourselves as animals. Since we deny freedom to animals, we should admit that we too have no freedom.

            This argument is less than compelling. When we assert our freedom, we are not denying that we are born, that we eat, sleep and so on.  We are not denying that we are animals - we are denying that we are ONLY animals. The Torah teaches  that in addition to an animal body, we have a divine soul. It is the combination of soul and body that gives us freedom. Thus the similarities we share with animals do not imply that we are not free.

            Finally, what of machines in the future? Suppose they are programmed to recognize alternatives, gather information, evaluate consequences, and say that they could have done otherwise. Shall we then say that they are free?

            No, we shall not. The reason is that it is not enough to SAY it. It must also be true. A parrot can be trained to say "I love you." That does not mean he loves you! As long as the machine is programmed to respond, it will not matter what the responses are. If there should be something that has all the marks of freedom, and is not programmed to respond, and still qualifies in some sense as a machine, then perhaps we will have to consider whether it is free. But we have no idea whatsoever what such a thing would be like. So we cannot now judge such a possibility.

G-d's "characteristics" 

            There is a deep problem concerning the idea of divine "characteristics." Traditionally, G-d is viewed as beyond all human understanding. Our concepts do not grasp G-d and our language does not describe G-d. This is part of what we mean when we say that G-d is "infinite" - beyond any limitation or description.

            Of course, Jewish sources contain very many "descriptions of G-d" - kind, merciful, just, all powerful,  knowing all and so on. If   G-d cannot be conceived or described, what is the meaning of those words?   The traditional answer is that they describe what G-d DOES, not what G-d IS. "Kind" describes the care G-d takes of the creatures of the world; "merciful" describes G-d's patience in not exercising strict justice; "just" describes G-d's giving what is deserved, and not overlooking failure forever; "all powerful" describes the absence of any limitation on G-d's power to act; even "knowing all" must be translated into a description of action - that everything that happens is coordinated with everything else so that everything fits together perfectly.

            So our picture is this. Our world is not self-supporting. It is sustained by something beyond itself. What that something is we do not know. But we have some idea of what that something does. This idea came to us via revelation - we did not arrive at it on our own. All our so-called "descriptions of G-d" are really descriptions of the activity of this "something" of whose nature  we have no idea at all.

            So what do we mean when we say that we should become like G-d? We should do what G-d does - we should imitate G-d's actions. We should create in ourselves the characteristics that lead us to act as G-d acts. But we should not interpret that as possessing character similar to G-d's "character" since, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as

G-d's "character." 

Therefore choose life!  

            It may seem that there is a contradiction between recognizing free will on the one hand, and G-d commanding us what we are to do on the other hand. If free will means that we make our own decisions, how can we be required to do what G-d tells us to do?

            This question results from a confusion between the POWER to decide on our own, and the AUTHORITY to decide as we please. The former is a ability - we are not compelled by an external power to act - we act on our own. The latter would mean than we are beyond critique - that our decision is right for us merely because we made it.

            These two ideas are related to G-d's commandments in different ways. The POWER to act does not contradict the obligation to fulfill      G-d's commands. The power is precisely the ability to obey or to disobey - to fulfill or violate the obligation. The Torah does assert that we have this power, and that is perfectly consistent with G-d commanding us what we ought to do.

            The AUTHORITY would indeed contradict the obligation to follow   G-d's commands. If you are the highest authority on your own decisions, then even G-d cannot dictate what you ought to do. But the Torah does not assert that we have any such authority. Thus there is no contradiction in the position of the Torah.

            It is worth noting that even in general philosophical terms, the idea of such an authority is very problematic. If you are the highest authority concerning your own decisions, then you cannot make a mistake - nothing outside of you can serve as a criterion of correctness for your decisions.

             But we do recognize the possibility - and, indeed, the reality - of mistake. First, we often change our minds. We feel later that we made a wrong decision. This means that we have made at least one mistake. [Either the earlier decision was wrong, or the later judgment is wrong.] 

            The later judgment is usually based upon greater experience, greater sensitivity, greater depth of understanding, all of which come with greater age. That is why we are confident that we are right now in thinking that the earlier decision was wrong. But now it could happen that another person has been through experiences very similar to mine - similar to the experiences upon which I am basing my decision now. Suppose he says to me: "I know how you feel. I have been there! In your position, I felt just as you do. But since then I have come to see things better. And I know that you too will change your mind in time." Might he not be right? Might I not learn from experience that when he says this he is usually right? And if so, would it not be appropriate to accept his judgment over my own?

            For example suppose I decide to do A in order accomplish B - A is my means of achieving B. Suppose you know that in fact A will not contribute to achieving B at all. Then you know that my decision is a mistake. When you explain to me that A will not help achieve B then I too will understand that it is a mistake.

            Finally, let us suppose that he was where I am now, and felt as I do now, and then had experiences which changed his mind. And let us suppose that I am not going to have those experiences. I am too poor, or too unhealthy, or it is now war time, or whatever. So I will not come to feel differently. But I have good reason to think that it is only my poverty of experience that prevents my change of feeling. Would I not then have good reason to accept his judgment?

            Continuing the previous example, suppose that the reason A will not contribute to B is very complicated. Suppose it is beyond my intelligence to understand it. Still, knowing that you have greater intellect than I, it would be appropriate for me to accept it from you and change my mind about my decision.

            We see that it is certainly possible to criticize a decision - the agent is not the highest authority. Thus the authority that would contradict G-d's commandments is open to philosophical objection, in addition to the fact that the Torah rejects it.        


www.DovidGottlieb.com