Freedom Worth Having

We all believe that many of the things we do are up to us. Our decisions make the difference. They determine the success or failure of our lives. If we do something without free will — if we are pushed by an external force which compels us — then we feel we are not responsible.

But do we really have free will? There are some concepts within Judaism, and some scientific and philosophical beliefs, which seem to say humans do not possess free will. Let us briefly consider a few of these challenges.

The Challenge: “Free will means I make my own decisions. But Judaism teaches that God commands us what we must do. Following God’s commands means that I am not making my own decisions; i.e., I really do not have free will.”


The Response: There is a difference between the power to act on your own, with no external force forcing you, and the authority to do what you please with no rules or values to limit your choices. Let’s call the first “free will power,” and the second “free will authority.” God’s commandments do not take away free will power. Proof: many believers manage to disobey God’s commands! Furthermore, we all manage to do what we know is bad for ourselves — bad for our health, our relationships, our studies, and so on. Merely knowing what must be done does not take away free will power. God’s commands do take away free will authority, but Judaism welcomes that result. We could put it this way: we have the free will power to be good or evil. We do not have the authority to define good and evil as we please.


The Challenge: “Judaism teaches that God created the world. That means He determined what will happen in it. Everything that happens is fated, predestined. That means God’s power really makes everything happen. That is the external force pushing us. So we do not even have free will power.”


The Response: God created the world, and He created in it the power of free will. He did not predetermine this part - the free will part - of the world (and related parts). He gave us the power to determine it. When you read statements in Jewish sources which sound as if a human action is predetermined, if you check carefully you will see that this is a misunderstanding. For example, we are told that forty days before a child is formed in the womb, a heavenly voice declares that this child will marry So-and-so. Does this mean that our marriage choice is fated? We are also informed that during the days of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, we are forbidden to make any voluntary celebrations except for an engagement. Why is that the exception? Because if you and your future spouse are willing now, clinch it now, since in two weeks something may change and you will miss the opportunity. Obviously the marriage choice is not fated — it could work out in different ways. Judaism rejects the idea that human actions are fated.


The Challenge: “God knows the future. That means before I act God knows what I will do. Then I really do not have the possibility of doing anything else. So I really do not have a choice.”


The Response: Although this is a difficult question, Jewish sources have no less than four different answers! But none of them is simple. Here I will briefly describe two of them.


1. God is above time. So He can see the whole of time, including what I call the future. He sees what I do. But watching me act does not make me act. His knowledge is the result of my action, which is the result of my choice. It does not limit my choice.


2. Strictly speaking, we cannot describe God at all. He is beyond all conception and understanding. When we seem to be describing God, we are really talking about His actions — how He shows Himself to us, not how He really is. Here is a parallel: Imagine asking someone two hundred years ago what he knows about wood. He answers that wood is flammable, it floats, it comes from trees, takes certain coloring agents, is flexible, and so on. Now you ask why it has these properties — what makes it different from glass, copper, marble, and other materials. What can he say? Two hundred years ago they did not know about molecules. All he can say is that this is how we experience wood, that this is what we observe it to do. But what wood really is, the ultimate structure which explains why it is this way, he does not know. Our relationship to God is something like this.

Now, what do we mean when we say God knows the future? We cannot mean He literally knows it, because we are using the human understanding of knowledge, which, strictly speaking, does not apply to God. We mean only that the world operates under His direction, taking everything in the future into account. But that does not contradict free will power. Only real knowledge would contradict free will power, and we are no longer asserting that.


The Challenge: “Social science has shown that we are creatures of our environment. Our culture, socioeconomic class, home environment, schooling, and personal experiences make us what we are. Together these factors are the external force which causes everything we do.”


The Response: Social science can only show that these factors influence what we do, not that they cause what we do. The difference is crucial. Though these factors make some decisions harder and some easier, we still have some room to make our own decisions. Statistics prove that children growing up in a decayed urban ghetto are more likely to use drugs, commit crime, and be functionally illiterate than children from other neighborhoods. But these statistics all have exceptions. Some children from the ghettos escape drugs, crime, and illiteracy. Some children from other neighborhoods experience disaster. The statistics show that these environments make good choices harder; they do not show that the environments cause bad choices. So until we are shown a description of an environment which produces the same result every time, something social science has never done, causation has not been proved. And the same holds true even if you add in the contribution of DNA. After all, identical twins raised in the same home do not always make the same life choices.


The Challenge: “Science has proved that the brain is just a physical-chemical machine. Everything we do ultimately comes from the brain. So the physical processes which cause the brain to develop, and the stimuli which cause it to react, are the external forces which cause our actions.”


The Response: Science has proved nothing of the kind. Roger Penrose of  Oxford University (with a Nobel prize in physics) and Sir John Eccles (with a Nobel prize in brain physiology) are among the dissenters. The brain being a machine is an assumption of much contemporary science, but it has never been proved.

I hope this brief discussion has shown you that free will is at least a possibility. But given that we have free will, what are we to do with it?

It is often pointed out that a free public library is of no use to an illiterate, and freedom of movement is of no value to someone so poor that he cannot afford transportation. Similarly, the freedom to go to medical school is of no personal value to someone who has no interest or intention of ever going to medical school. There is a general rule here: The potential value of freedom is determined by what we are able to do with it; the actual value of freedom depends on what we really do with it.

This rule applies to each of us. We each have the freedom to do many things. The value of freedom for each of us will be determined by what you or I decide to do with it. How can we decide which of our options has the greatest value? Try this experiment in your imagination: Suppose you stood at Sinai and personally heard God say, “Keep the Sabbath!” Could you ignore that revelation in making your decisions? Wouldn’t that revelation make keeping Shabbat valuable? And the same holds true for the rest of the Torah. Once we are convinced that the Torah is true, it becomes the source of value. Thus our freedom achieves its maximum value if it is used to live a life of Torah. This is what the Torah means when it says: “I am Hashem your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.” That is why He gave us our freedom — so that He would be our God.