Author Archives: Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner

About Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner lives and writes in London. He has studied Talmud, Jewish Thought, and General Philosophy at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Cambridge University, and the University of Warwick.

The Free Will Problem: Modern Solutions

Medieval Jewish thinkers were concerned with reconciling the contradictions between human free will and divine providence and foreknowledge. Modern Jewish thinkers, on the other hand, have been primarily concerned with the challenges to free will posed by the natural and social sciences. 

Physics and Ethics are Distinct Discourses

For Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), the scientific paradigm of mechanistic causation, which affirms that every event in the physical world must have a cause, was troubling when juxtaposed with the notion of human choice. Applying this paradigm to human activity, it would seem impossible that humans could either make free decisions or act without reference to a previous mechanical cause.

Following Immanuel Kant, Cohen resolves this problem by questioning the status of the mechanistic causation so central to the worldview of the physicist. He suggests that mechanistic causation is merely a methodological assumption of the physicist, a descriptive tool that the physicist uses to explain phenomena.

Causation is of use in describing the interaction of billiard balls and even atomic particles, but we need different tools to describe human actions, particularly those with a moral colouring. According to Cohen, ethical thought has its own set of methodological concepts. Central to this is the idea that human beings can make choices.

Thus the ethical system of thought is distinct from the system of thought employed to investigate the natural sciences. According to Cohen, the framework of science and the framework of ethics illuminate distinct aspects of human experience.

Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1992), a follower of Cohen in many regards, continued to push the discourse on free will in this direction, but he was able to further undermine the omniscience of physics in light of new scientific findings. Soloveitchik pointed to emerging discontinuities between biology, chemistry, and physics as challenging the authority of the physicist and his mechanistic causation.

The Influence of Non-Jewish Thinking on Jewish Thought

Jewish thought has evolved in dialogue with the thinking of other cultures and religions. In each era, Jewish writers, philosophers, and mystics have been influenced by (and sometimes influenced) the intellectual trends of the non-Jewish world. 


Early Confrontations

This relationship stretches all the way back to the Bible. Ancient Near Eastern religious concepts can be detected in biblical theology, and according to many scholars, Ecclesiastes echoes early Greek philosophy in its tragic and pessimistic themes. religious texts

In the realm of strict philosophy, Philo (d. 50 CE) was the first significant Jewish thinker to self-consciously confront and embrace non-Jewish thought. A learned Hellenistic Alexandrian, Philo attempted to reconcile the Platonism prevalent in his day with the teachings of the Bible. To do this, he often employed allegorical readings of Scripture. For instance, Philo interprets Sarah’s demand that Abraham banish his second wife Hagar as the good man being called by his intellect to banish the lure of bodily passions.

The Middle Ages: Confronting Greek and Islamic Thought

The symbiotic relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish thought was never more obvious than in the Middle Ages.

Much of medieval Jewish philosophy was dedicated to reconciling the truths of the Torah’s revelation with rational thought as conceived by the Greeks. For the most part, however, Jewish thinkers encountered Greek thought through its Islamic manifestations. The first major Jewish philosopher, Saadia Gaon, was particularly influenced by the Mutazilite school of the Kalam–Islamic speculative theology.

In Saadia’s major work Emunot Ve’Deot (Beliefs and Opinions), he adheres to the first of the Mutazilite’s five defining principles: the unity of God. He borrows from their proofs for this principle and follows their lead in understanding the attributes of God as intrinsic elements of God’s essence, not independent properties. Saadia also adheres to the Mutazilite view of the non-eternity of the universe, believing that it was created at a fixed point in time. The proofs he brings for this are taken directly from Mutazalite literature.