Do We Have Free Will? Isn’t as Simple as “Yes” or “No”

Free will has once again become a hot topic of discussion, with neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky having recently published a book entitled Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. In it, he argues that all of our decisions are the outgrowth of biology and environment:

The intent you form, the person you are, is the result of all the interactions between biology and environment that came before. All things are out of your control. Each prior influence flows without a break from the effects of the influences before. As such, there’s no point in the sequence where you can insert a freedom of will that will be in that biological world but not of it. 

But while Sapolsky is often viewed as an excellent neuroscientist, many philosophers found his arguments lacking. These questions of free will, responsibility, and moral action are ones that philosophers and theologians have been grappling with for millennia; all these, and their interplay with determinism, are not new discussion topics in the Jewish world.

It’s something we see in this week’s portion, Va’era, where God exacts punishment on Pharaoh for his stubbornness, and the final three plagues wreak havoc on Egypt. In this portion, God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart, seemingly removing his ability to choose. If he didn’t truly have the freedom to choose to free or enslave the Hebrews, how much blame would he be subject to?

The problem is that the framing implies a binary decision – the question is not, “Did Pharaoh (or do we) have free will, yes or no?” Rather, there’s a scale of how many degrees of freedom we have over our choices. We see this in animals – human beings clearly have more options for agency than dogs do, but with some training, dogs can restrain their own impulses, and much better than, say, a mouse could. Fish or reptiles have even fewer options because of their environments, and while we certainly wouldn’t say an amoeba has “free will,” it can “decide” how to move toward food. All of these animals have some level of agency, but with the power that we humans have over our environment, we clearly have the widest range of choices before us.

When it comes to human beings themselves, there is also a difference in the range of opportunities we face. While “money doesn’t buy happiness,” it can certainly allow for more choices. Sports stars have certainly worked hard to get to where they are now, but they also happened to have genetic predispositions that helped their height, strength or agility.. In other words, the more power we have in a situation, the more “free will” we can exert onto said situation. 

To me, that’s the biggest sin of Pharaoh’s. As the King of Egypt, he had more power than anyone else in the land. He had the ability to free the enslaved Jews, or to keep them in bondage. There’s a reason the ancient proverb, more commonly remembered as a beloved line from Spider-Man, gets quoted over and over – “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And maybe that’s the way we can strive to build a better and more just world. Some people suggest that, given the unfairness of the world, we should focus on redressing past grievances. There is an argument to be made there; however, that also removes a level of agency for people to craft their own lives. Perhaps a better sense of a just society is one in which there are as many opportunities as possible for people to have as many options as possible in order to succeed. Yes, luck will still play a factor. And yes, hard work will still be required. But rather than trying to square the circle of reconciling biological determinism and moral responsibility, we can and should aim to provide more agency to more people.

After all, that’s what the Israelites were asking for – to be free. And while they didn’t always make the best choices afterwards, they were the ones who were able to make them. While God might have hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Egypt, God’s gift to the Israelites was to discover freedom… and to begin their journey of learning how to use it responsibly. 

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