6.40 Free Will


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From the desk of Rabbi Brian



Free Will

I proposed to the powers that be at my rabbinical school that I write my graduate school thesis on “Popular Culture’s Conceptualization of the Divine.” I thought examining the movie Oh God! and the song What If God Were One of Us would be interesting. They didn’t like the topic as it didn’t seem to them to be Jewish enough. I protested pointing out that I was told I could write on a topic of my liking if I found willing faculty advisors. They didn’t budge.

After realizing that I was at their mercy and that I really couldn’t write on just anything I wanted, I facetiously asked, “Can I just write about freedom of will?”

They said yes.

So I did.

Here’s a summary…

(It’s pretty long.)

*** FREE WILL ***

Rabbi Brian’s ROTB summary 


The problem with freedom


Freedom of will only becomes a problem if you maintain notions of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God.

If God is God, how can we have freedom of will? In other words, if you and I are free to choose what we do, how can God still be all-knowing and all-powerful?

The philosophers that I studied, well, they didn’t have any really good answers to this. Their answers were as poor as those we read about when we looked at theodicy.  This is the explanation given by almost all philosophers when asked this question: God’s sense of knowledge is different from ours.

Having studied about a dozen philosophers, I feel comfortable in paraphrasing their explanations:

What we mean when we say we know something and what we mean when we say God knows something are two different types of knowledge. What we know and what God knows are, God knows, different things. What God knows, God knows, and what we know, God knows; what God knows, we don’t know and what we don’t know God knows, and God knows that.

If you are upset or let down by this wobbly answer the philosophers give, you might be taking this a little too seriously. Look at how absurd and funny this answer actually is: “There is a simple answer, it’s just beyond your comprehension.” (If you are still offended, you might think about waiting until your head clears and the humor of the situation presents itself before continuing.)

Let me let you in on a little secret: the philosophers did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do in researching something – they started with their conclusion and worked backwards from there. This, of course, is putting the cart before the horse – we want there to be freedom of will and so we set out to prove it exists. (As my friend Larry says, “This is my opinion, please don’t confuse me with the facts.”)

There are two reasons folk start with the notion that we have freedom of will…

  1. law
  2. ego


The entire fabric of our society and legal system are built on the notion that people have the ability to choose their actions! After all, you can’t put someone in jail or blame someone for something if they don’t have a choice but to do it, right?

In criminal law, the Latin phrase mens rea is used to mean “capable of incurring guilt.” (The notion of a person pleading or being declared “guilty” is related.) The idea is that if someone is not able to incur guilt for their action, they are not responsible for their action. Think of a two-year-old or a person of limited mental capacities who sets fire to a house.

Moreover, there’s the idea of God rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. How could God be just in rewarding the good if the good had no choice but to be good and how can God be just in punishing the wicked if the wicked had no choice but to be wicked.


Pioneering, turn of the 20th century American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote:

The whole feeling of reality, the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life, depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.

And, that’s about it.

We want there to be freedom of will. Otherwise, what the heck are we doing here? Our sense of self is so horrified by the notion that it might not be needed, necessary, or in control that we hardly even entertain the notion that we don’t have freedom to make decisions.

Paul Tillich wrote, “The most frightening thought we have is the thought of our own non-existence.” How true!

Therefore, since the alternative is a fate worse than one I can imagine, I must have freedom of will! (I know, again, putting the cart before the horse.)

But I have a proof! This evidence that we have freedom of will dates from the Middle Ages. Here it is:

Do you think you have the freedom of will to raise your hand or not? If so, raise your hand now. If not, raise your hand now.

That simple experiment proves you have, at least some, freedom of will. Even if you never raised your hand, you chose not to, right? The logic is that if you raise your hand whenever you want, you are not fated.

Maybe we aren’t free?

Here’s something to ponder: maybe, you aren’t free to be doing anything other than what you are doing right now. After all, you are only doing that which you are doing because of the things you were doing a moment ago, which, of course, were determined by that which came before that – a line of thinking that can lead us all the way back to the time when your mother’s egg and father’s sperm collided.

Aristotle proffered the idea that all forces are caused by a previous force – all actions are determined by the action that came before them and all these actions start with what Aristotle called God – “the prime mover.”

Look at it this way: nature and nurture cause you to be exactly who you are and to do exactly what you do. You are exactly who you are, doing exactly what you are doing, thinking exactly what you are thinking, because of the DNA you carry and the choices you have previously experienced.

So, maybe there is no free will after all.

Maybe we are like the image of a monkey with a steering wheel on the backs of tigers. We think we are in control, but we’re not driving.

And, I have some unsettling news to share about this. Researchers watched the different parts of the brain in response to people performing simple tasks with their hands. What they found is that the part of the brain associated with the hands movement was activated before the part of the brain related to the conscious decision to move the hand. In other words, the thinking part of the brain, like the monkey, is only pretending to drive.

I think about this a lot at night. It’s very Twilight Zone.

It’s also in line with the thinking that God is the “great-clock maker.”  That God put everything in motion and then stepped back. Of course, this doesn’t exactly give us any consolation with regard to our free will in light of God’s benevolence, omnipotence, or omniscience.


Hasdai Crescas, who died in 1410, is a little known or studied philosopher.

Nonetheless, for reasons that might have been beyond my control, I came across his writings while preparing my thesis.

I would like to share with you the answer that Crescas came up with to the problem of our having freedom of will and God being benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent.

As opposed to starting with the notion that we have free-will and working backwards, Crescas started with the assumptions that God is just, foresees and controls everything.

Crescas wrote that our actions are predetermined, but our opinions of them are not.

Let me repeat that – Crescas believed that our actions are predetermined, but our opinions of them are not.

Now, let’s take that one part at a time. It’s pretty cool and worth understanding.

Crescas studied Artistole and subscribed to the Greek’s notion that all things are determined by that which came before them.

Hence, according to Crescas, where we are, doing what we are doing, wearing the clothing we are wearing – things that might have seemed to be free choices -are, in fact, decisions not freely made.

All actions are fated.

Our opinions of them are not.

The question Crescas had to answer was: How could a just God reward and punish if there were no freedom of will in our actions? In other words, if we have no choice but to do that which we are caused by past actions to do, how can God be just in rewarding the good and/or punishing the wicked?

The response Crescas had was brilliant! It’s this: What we think about ourselves when we are doing our fated actions is freely ours to determine and it is upon this that God judges us.

In other words, we have no choice in our actions, but our attitudes and opinions toward those actions are freely determined. Therefore, according to Crescas, it is upon our internal judgment – our intentions and our attitudes toward what we do – that God judges us.

For example, let’s say you stole a Torah scroll out of a synagogue. Crescas would tell you that you didn’t have a choice but to commit that wrong, but you do have a choice about whether or not you regret it.

God, therefore, could have both caused you to do what you did, have known that you were going to do it, but can still also reward and punish. A brilliant loophole to the freedom of will and God debacle!

I have two different friends – a woman and a man – who each like to rearrange their furniture. These two furniture movers aren’t related to each other, and for all I know, don’t know that I have another friend with the same idiosyncrasy. When I’ve asked, each gives different reasons for moving their couches, rugs, and armoires on a semi-regular basis. She does so to make it feel like she is living in a new place and he does so because he is convinced that there always is a better location atheistically. According to Crescas, rearranging furniture isn’t something that they have a choice about doing — it’s fated — but coming up with a reasoning for doing so is something they can (and do) control.

Trying out fate for a moment


We now have our proverbial feet wet with the idea that perhaps we don’t have free-will.

Now I’m going to ask that we take a moment to dive deeper into the notion that we are more fated than our egos might like to believe.

I know fate and its spiritual counterpart surrender are seemingly very un-American, nonetheless, let’s try it for the next few sentences, if only for the exercise of having tried it.

So, consider for a moment that you don’t have freedom of will and that you are willing to just surrender to life. (I promise you don’t have to do this for longer than the 100 words remaining in this exercise.)

An exercise on fate

Think about the following:

·Maybe some of the things you thought were in your control aren’t. 

·Maybe nature and nurture have conspired to make you exactly how you are at this moment.

·Maybe I was fated to become a rabbi, write my thesis on freedom of will, write this newsletter, and you were fated to read it?

·Maybe you are supposed to be exactly where you are at this very moment reading these words.

·Maybe you are supposed to be wearing exactly what you are wearing.

·Maybe you are breathing exactly as you are supposed to be breathing.


How does that feel? How does it feel to entertain the notion that you don’t have complete freedom of choice, that you are doing exactly that which you are supposed to be doing?

Now, let me ask you a very important question:

If everything was happening according to some giant plan – and not one about which you had control – do you think you would be more or less relaxed?

(My hope, obviously — as if you had a choice — is the former.)

This notion of regularly taking some time off to not control the world and to surrender to life and to live it on life’s terms is the basis of almost every spiritual practice.

Here are two great quotes about surrendering:

I would like to conclude this section by reiterating the notion that we live somehow between strict determinism and absolute freedom. A beautiful balance is suggested by the serenity prayer:

God, help me to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.



Rabbi Brian’s thoughts… 

I don’t have an air-tight philosophical understanding of freedom of will and its relationship to God.

But, I do have some thoughts about what Crescas wrote.

While the idea that heaven and hell exist in our own minds – that we create our joy or misery by our attitudes – would be a wonderful motivational message certain to give hope to the downtrodden, I don’t think it works this way.

I tried it for a few years, and I’ve realized that while I can find a silver lining in every rain cloud – it’s not a long-term solution to problems.

Let me give an example: I was driving and there was traffic. I got off the freeway and took surface streets, which fared worse. Sitting, getting anxious I would be late, I told myself to “turn it around.” So, I looked out my window at the big old tree I was now almost parked next to. Regarding its beauty, I told myself to be grateful that I was stuck there able to see that which on any other day I would have sailed past.

What I did, I later learned, was to tuck my frustration away – I didn’t get rid of it, just bottled it.

I call this process “spiritual escapism.”

What I do now when I’m frustrated is try to be in my frustration – to experience it, not to judge it.

Of course, this is simpler to say than to do.

But, the point is that some emotions will come up that we won’t like.

We have the choice to live them or deny them.

Spiritual-religious advice: act as though you have free will, have faith as though you don’t.


With love,

Rabbi Brian

Rabbi Brian

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