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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Free Will Doesn’t Really Exist, But That's OK

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) developed a similar approach and pushed it even further. Although he is not usually treated as a "Jewish thinker" per se, recent scholarship has traced rabbinic strands in Wittgenstein's thought. In addition, Wittgenstein referred to himself as a Jewish thinker and was deeply conscious of both his Jewish origins and the Jewish nature of his thinking.

For Wittgenstein, the answer to the free will problem lies in a fundamental re-analysis of the relationship between the self (the enduring aspect of one's person), the will (the element of a person which effects worldly action), and the world.

We tend to think that the self does not belong to the physical world, and that it possesses and controls the will. Wittgenstein attempts to demonstrate that it is, in fact, the will that is responsible for the self, and that we should view our selves as merely parts of the workings of the world, and our lives and actions as continuous with that world. We do not own or possess our actions, they simply happen. In this sense, there is no free will, but there is also no problem of free will, because there is no distinct self to be constrained.

Freedom is an Existential Possibility

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) adopts an approach to freedom that might be seen as building on Wittgenstein's model while making more concessions to our needs as human agents. Heschel also rejects the self, but does so from an ethical standpoint instead of a philosophical one.

Heschel believed that modern beings had come to view themselves as a bundle of mechanical and biological processes. To liberate or redeem oneself from this view involves altering this self-perception and then setting one’s sights on some higher, humane purpose.

For Heschel, freedom is not a scientific fact, but an existential possibility, something we may find ourselves capable of, a new dimension of our lived experience.

Freedom is a Challenge

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) rejected anti-scientific interpretations of free will and worked to interpret freedom in a manner still relevant to Jewish striving.

Traditionally, freedom was understood as an ability that humans have, something we must make use of. Kaplan reconfigures this and suggests that freedom is a challenge to restrain oneself. Humans, he thinks, exist in tension between positively realizing individuality and negatively slipping into self-worship. Freedom challenges us to negotiate this tightrope and hold back from egotistic pride or an excessively domineering spirit. This restraint engenders a free-spirited feeling, which is more important than any scientific question of cause and effect.

The Imperative of Choice

Martin Buber's (1878-1965) existentialist philosophy emphasizes the gravity of human individual choices as the most central component of our lived experience. Although he is aware of the tendency to point to events and frameworks as setting conditions for action, he thinks that when we reflect on the choices we make these soon become much more important and significant.

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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.