(First published on aish.com on the 31st of March 2022).
Why are you reading this post? Can you control whether you read on? Aish have launched a new philosophy project and asked me to write this launch piece on free-choice so if you want a brief overview or review, from Plato/ Kant/ Leibniz to Leiner/ Albo/ Maimonides, with some Dessler/ Frankl/ - click here or read on, starting with a few more questions:
Did you choose to read this article, or did some algorithm bring you here? Why are you wearing those particular clothes right now? And why did I decide to write this when I could have done anything else? Does free will – our ability to freely choose between multiple options without any external force predetermining our decision – really exist? Do people decide between right and left, good and evil, chocolate and vanilla? Philosophers have grappled with this since ancient times. There are three main schools of thought: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. Let’s consider what they mean and their relevance in our lives.
Absolute determinists believe we do not act freely. Plato argued that our actions are determined by our impulses, our conditions, and a bunch of other things. For example, Charles Darwin talked of biological and evolutionary factors, Karl Marx outlined economic constraints, Sigmund Freud developed theories around unconscious drives, and more recently, Rene Girard said that we copy those around us. In short, the determinists think that your procrastination issues can be blamed on literally everyone BUT you. Congratulations! Enjoy watching way too much Netflix in one go instead of doing more exercise – it turns out you don’t have a choice in the matter.
Immanuel Kant takes the opposite stance, a more libertarian view. In the broader sense, this approach argues that if free will doesn’t exist, neither does moral responsibility. Without culpability, there are no systems of justice, and without justice, there would be chaos and anarchy. For libertarians, the responsibility for our choices is self-evident: you chose TV over volunteering at a puppy shelter, and that’s on you.
Gottfried Leibniz takes what is called the compatibilist stance: we have liberty and free choice, but we make those choices within a framework determined by outside influences. You and only you decided to stay up until 5 am watching a new season of Stranger Things. BUT the season is brand new, and everyone’s been talking about it, and you’re already seeing spoilers online, and Jimmy Fallon just posted 15 interviews with the cast. But – you still made the choice to stay up so late when you have a full day of work the next day.
So, what’s the right answer? Which makes the most sense? Before we jump to any conclusions, let’s see if Jewish philosophers have anything interesting to say on the matter (and you may be surprised to find out that there are several different approaches, so I will pick one that aligns with each category).
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner argues that free will is an illusion. God controls all, and therefore everything we say or do is predetermined. Rabbi Joseph Albo, on the other hand, takes a strong libertarian approach: as long as choice exists, we have the possibility to choose, no matter how challenging our predisposition, surroundings, or other influences.
Maimonides takes more of a compatibilist approach. We may have free will when it comes to individual decisions, but we are still the subjects of social determinism. Our environment inherently affects us, and Maimonides encourages us to choose positive settings that are more likely to facilitate positive results. It’s like your parents always told you: choose your friends wisely and always listen to Maimonides because he was a doctor AND a rabbi.
And where does God fit in? Does God fit in? Sure, God definitely knows what you were ultimately going to choose, but you’re still the one empowered to make that choice.
So, we make decisions, and some of those decisions are bad ones because we are human. And some of those decisions feel impossible to correct. One of the foundational tenets of Judaism is the ability to restart anew. Who you were, who you are and who you can be are separable: failure is never fatal, and we’re always able to wipe our slate clean and start afresh.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler developed an idea called the ‘choice point.’ We all have a ‘choice point,’ even if we don’t realize it. The factors that lead us to our ‘choice point’ are deterministic, but we have all the power once we get there. We do the choosing and no one else. For example, most of us don’t find it particularly challenging not to steal. But somebody who has been conditioned to engage in theft may find themselves in a situation where they’re desperate enough or know they’ll never get caught. Deterministic factors may have shaped everything leading up to that point; yet the liberty to steal or not steal is still very much there. If we had to rank two people just for fun: one who hasn’t been brought up in an environment of thievery and one who has and neither of them steals anything, one could argue that the person who fights their deterministic factors scores way more points. We must be responsible for our actions and acknowledge that while there may be a limited number of paths, we ultimately choose which one to take.
Rabbi Dessler wasn’t just a philosopher; he was also an ethicist. So, while he understood that people will find themselves with certain ‘choice points’, he also challenged people to work on themselves and reach a stage where morally problematic choices are harder and harder to make. Victor Frankl once wrote one of my favorite quotes: ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz was a hell on earth that managed to inspire this concept. In the concentration camp, one’s liberty and identity were stripped to the extreme. It seemed as if there were no choices to be made; you did what you were told. In short, this was determinism to the max. And yet it was in this seemingly impossible situation that Frankl identified room for possibility. No one, he argued, not even those imposing the cruel condition upon their victims could determine the individual’s attitude to the situation. Even as a prisoner, one has a ‘choice point’ – the choice of feeling hope or giving up.
So much in this world is determined for us, and yet there are elements of freedom everywhere. Where we were born and who we are was chosen for us, but we can always choose who we want to become. The choice is ours.