One of the fundamental questions that scholars throughout Jewish history have addressed is the fundamental incompatibility of free will and divine foreknowledge. Put simply, if God knows what we are going to do in the future then it must have already been decided. If it has already been decided then no matter how much we feel like we have free will in any given scenario, it is simply an illusion.
The vast majority of Jewish philosophers go one of two routes. One group limits God’s power or knowledge and claims that he is not actually omniscient, while the other group limits free will. Both of these answers are problematic to the classic ethical monotheistic tradition in their own way.
Enter Maimonides and we receive a totally different answer that I feel can change our modern conception of both God and free will.
The Rambam (Maimonides) writes that when it comes to humans we are able to disconnect a person from what they know. I may know certain ideas or pieces of information, but they are fundamentally separate from me as a person. I can forget things or even know a set of facts but act in a totally contradictory and counterintuitive way. The term cognitive dissonance arises from exactly this point.
However, according to the Rambam, God is not susceptible to any type of cognitive dissonance. When it comes to God, knowledge is a fundamental and inseparable part of God’s nature. God is not a being that learns or becomes aware of information and then uses logic, ration, or emotion to act upon his knowledge. Rather, according to the Rambam, God is knowledge. It is not that God knows what is going to happen to you in the future, rather God is the knowledge of the future.
Fast forward a couple hundred years and now philosophers are dealing with a different, but curiously similar question. Our current conception of free will is no longer threatened by ideas of an omniscient God, but rather physics and neuroscience. Many scientists champion the idea that our entire notion of the self stems from our brain with its multiplicity of neuronal connections and networks. Within this view, if we could attain a full understanding of the underlying biophysics of the brain, we could reduce both consciousness and free will to illusory outgrowths of these elaborate physical systems.
Now this isn’t an entirely new idea. In the year 1814, a French Mathematician named Laplace published an essay describing his shocking theory of physical determinism, a theory that posits that through a combination of the knowledge of the position of every atom and every force in the universe, the future can be determined via the laws of physics.
It is not difficult to see how this theory, also known as Laplacian determinism or Laplace’s demon, eradicates all notions of free will. Just as (according to the laws of physics) a ball thrown upwards will come down at some calculable speed– and no one would say that the ball had “Free Will” or “chose” to fall — according to Laplace’s demon everything that happens or will happen, to an individual and the rest of the Universe, is also technically calculable; thus, it cannot be said to have “Free Will.”
Of course, Laplace assumes materialism (the idea that all that exists in our universe is matter), an assumption that may be completely reasonable but it must at least be pointed out. Second, we have since discovered that the laws of physics are not as deterministic as one may have thought. Without getting too deep into the nuances of physics, quantum mechanics simply does not allow for the same type of deterministic calculations that Newtonian or even Einsteinian physics offers. On a quantum level, particles do not act in any way that is reducible to a single data point. Rather, quantum mechanics infuses a measure of randomness into the universe, thus eradicating any notion of determinism.
Nevertheless, the idea that our brains operate via neurons acting in a quantum mechanics based “random” way still provides the same challenge to free will as determinism. While some have attempted to use quantum mechanics as a foundation or opening for free will, their arguments make little sense. We do not even have a basic understanding of quantum mechanics, let alone think that we can control it in some way. Whether our neurons are operating according to strict newtonian physics or quantum mechanics, there is seemingly no room for a “self” that can change the physics.
Hence, free will is an idea that is unable to be adequately defended given what we know about our world, and the belief in free will make require the same leap of faith as belief in God.
It is at this point where I feel that we can bring back the Rambam. The Rambam argued that God doesn’t “know” the future (as knowledge is a human-centric idea), but God “is” the knowledge of all future events. In other words, God is the full set of all potential ways that the universe can order itself at every moment from now until eternity. This is what it means to say that God is infinite.
Now, given that there are an infinite number of ways that the universe can be configured at any moment, it is simply incomprehensible to finite beings such as ourselves. While from an infinite perspective, humans act according to a complex set of fixed physical laws infused with quantum randomness, from a finite perspective we will never be able to understand this.
The idea that neuroscience and physics have negated free will is, in some sense, the exact same question as whether or not God negates free will. We understand that an infinite being or system technically negates free will, but that understanding has and should have nothing to do with our human experience and moral obligation imposed by our finite perception of free will.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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My 6 year old asked me how it is we have free choice if God knows everything in advance, and while I'm so proud of him for his advanced thinking, I am embarassed that I don't know the answer! Can you help? What does Judaism say?
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