The Free Will Problem: Modern Solutions

Modern thinkers have addressed the free will problem by questioning the authority of science, acknowledging the limits of freedom, and asserting the transcendent importance of choice.

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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.

two paths divergingCausation 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.

Perhaps more importantly, modern quantum physics has revealed that what is actually happening at the sub-atomic level is not mechanistic in any traditional sense. Without the presumption of simple causation, a major obstacle to our self-conception as free decision-making individuals is removed.

Choice is Required, But Not Guaranteed

Other thinkers have not been convinced by this approach to the free will problem. While acknowledging limits in the nature of our knowledge about physics, they have felt that advances in cognitive science have made it impossible to view the brain as anything but a mechanical system.

One such thinker was Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), a Jewish philosopher and neuroscientist. Leibowitz suggests that the laws of Judaism reflect a conviction that the human power to choose is weaker than is generally supposed. Humans need a challenging image and directive to avoid slipping into the mindless chasing of psychological and material needs. Judaism challenges humans with laws and imperatives because it requires people to choose, not because it guarantees that choice is within their reach.

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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.