Freedom and Determinism
© 2010 S.H. Parker

Many years ago, I was reading Chinese philosophy. It was, if I recall correctly, Confucius' Analects (but I reserve the right to have remembered the reference incorrectly).

N.B.: Confucius, 551 BCE – 479 BCE, is roughly contemporaneous with Ezra and Nehemiah.

He observed that there are two perceptions most of us hold:

everything appears to be fore-ordained


we appear to have free will

Confucius notes these beliefs. He observes that "this is most interesting" and drops the matter.

Millennia later, my Social Psychology professor noted humankind's extraordinary ability to entertain conflicting beliefs. The remarkable ability is explained by the fact that people can keep these inconsistent beliefs apart, so the inconsistency doesn't normally enter consciousness. People only have a problem holding these inconsistent beliefs under specific conditions, when the conflict between them just cannot be avoided. When this irrepressible conflict occurs, we experience "cognitive dissonance." We do not develop coping mechanisms to deal with dissonance because most dissonance is minor (i.e., not yet cognitive). But, under some circumstances, two beliefs come into such strong and obvious conflict that a resolution is required.

Surrendering one of the conflicting beliefs is what one would normally expect (being inconsistent, both cannot be true), at least this is what we would expect of a rational person. For example, Newton's mechanics had been known, for years, to be incorrect. Einstein proposed an alternative theory and, by the early 1920's, there were three major confirmations of his predictions over Newton's (e.g., that light bends in gravitational fields and, therefore, has mass). Yet, as Arthur Eddington remarked, "An entire generation of physicists had to die before Einstein could be accepted" (Eddington, by the way, provided one of the first of these major confirmations of Relativity in 1919). 

So much for what one would normally expect of a rational person.

Finding a third belief to reconcile the two in conflict is another resolution strategy. We often find the Rabbis using a similar technique. When two passages or mishnayot contradict each other, a third is found to harmonize them. In fact, I was explicitly taught that when I found two passages, inconsistent with each other, I had to find a third to reconcile them. 

If well done, if the third fact does indeed resolve the first two, this reduces dissonance to tolerable levels or eliminates it entirely. When not well done ... it is less satisfying.

A third mechanism is to embrace one of the beliefs even more strongly (but, and this is the important bit, without sacrificing the other). This is quite common with religious beliefs, especially end of the world cults. Festinger, Riecken and Schachter's When Prophecy Fails studies such a group in detail and their increased proselytization when the world fails to end on schedule (there is a summary of the book at wikipedia).

Confucius is correct. We do feel like the world is deterministic, the future is written, fate rules. And we do feel like we have free will and that our future has not yet been written.

However, Confucius' resolution of the perceived inconsistency, "this is most interesting," hardly satisfies.

In the 1970's, resolution of this dissonance, the question "Is there free will?," was the subject of debate in Philosophy. With the constant inroads made in Psychology by researchers like Leonard Krasner and Leonard Ullman (applying operant conditioning techniques as a therapeutic technique), it was becoming ever more clear that people could be made to do things, conditioned, they might not otherwise do. There is, for example, the tale of the lecture hall of students who operantly conditioned their professor to deliver his lectures from the corner. This story is not apocryphal -- I was one of those students.

The situation for supporters of free will became so desperate that, by the mid-1970's, notable Philosophers were claiming that if certain linguistic conventions made sense, then there had to be free will (note: the argument was that if certain words made sense, not that those words were true, free will exists). The free will-determinism problem was to be determined by semantics? Indeed.

This school of Philosophy, known as "libertarians" (a person was "at liberty" to do something replacing the locution "being free" to do something and not be confused with the modern American political movement), argued that there were linguistic analyses in which "he could have done otherwise" (free will) is consistent, compatible, with casualty (determinism -- hence this school of thought was formally known as "compatibilism"). My own minor contribution was a paper, "The Case for Compatibilism" (Dialog, 16, 2/3, Jan-May 1974), which helped close that door.

I think that even then I realized that making the case for the existence of free will, in the face of all the evidence from science, was all but impossible. But, like so many others, I could not abandon free will nor stop using it in my daily interactions. My own resolution of this dissonance? Well, as Fermat did not have sufficient room in the margin of the book for his marvelous proof, I don't have room here for my resolution....

The Rabbis, too, understood these two conflicting perceptions; we see this tension throughout the Rosh ha'Shannah and Yom ha'Kippurim liturgy. Unlike Confucius, the Rabbis understood that there was rather a lot at stake, the dissonance had to be resolved. The notion of "laws of nature" was already well established in Rabbinic thinking by the time of the Tannas (1st century BCE - 2nd-3rd century ACE, the period when the Mishna and Midrash were written down). Indeed, the Rabbis go to great lengths to preserve Biblical stories from the accusation that they violate natural law (Bilaam's ass, for example, it was asserted, was created just before the universe and, with it, natural law, was put into motion, thus "natural law" was preserved in the face of a talking ass). On the other hand, without free will, the entire notion of moral responsibility goes by the boards (Eliezer Berkovits presents this case beautifully in Man, God and History).

While accepting the primacy of natural law and the consequent implication of a fully deterministic physical world, the Rabbis, like most of us, are unable to let go of free will. Their problem, of course, is that both perceptions appear quite real and neither is conclusively provable. That latter bit warrants repeating: neither position is provable (Einstein's famous remark against Quantum Mechanics, "God does not play dice with the universe," goes to show how determinism in science is actually an assumption of science, not a provable consequence).

The various strategies for resolving dissonance don't work here. Neither belief can be surrendered, it's simply not possible to do so. There is no third fact that can be brought to bear to resolve the apparent inconsistency (well, I think there may be but it gets quite quantum and Fermat and all that ...). And, because neither belief is disprovable, proselytizing harder for the disconfirmed belief is off point entirely.

There is a fourth strategy. It is one the Rabbis often use. That strategy is to reframe the question. When a question is too hard or is unanswerable, the Rabbis don't try. Instead, they reframe it so that it takes a form that can be dealt with. (It is likely such thinking that contributes to Rabbinic dicta to avoid certain subjects, like the mysteries of creation, as being simply beyond the ken of people.)

In this case, understanding that neither belief is provable and neither is disprovable, they shift the frame of reference and make the issue a matter of one's psychological approach, a philosophical framework for organizing our thinking and perceptions:

"Everything is in the hands of heaven except [for] the fear of heaven" (Berakhot, 32b).

Remember: "fear" does not refer to "fright" but "awe," "reverence," "ultimate respect."

Elsewhere I have seen: "Pray as if everything depends on heaven; act as if everything depends on your action."

Similarly Rabbi Tarfon teaches: “You are not obligated to complete the task neither are you free to desist therefrom” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Is the universe fully deterministic? Is man free to do as s/he will? Is Relativity Mechanics or Quantum Mechanics true? I don't know. But, I do know that the Rabbis are very wise in turning the whole issue into a praxis, in telling us how to approach, how to think about the world as we interact with it....