> Judaism 101 > Philosophy > The Way of G-d

22. Free Will

March 5, 2014 | by Rabbi Yaakov Aaronson

Are human decisions based solely on predictable factors?

The Sustainer1:2:2 (Part 1)
Section 1: Fundamentals of Existence
Chapter 2: Purpose of Creation
Point 2

G-d's wisdom, however, decreed that for such good [i.e. the pleasure of connecting with G-d] to be perfect, the one enjoying it must be its master. He must be one who has earned it for Himself, and not one associated with it accidentally and without reason.

The Ramchal has brought us to a topic that we've succeeded in skirting until now, but which is clearly central to the discussion of man achieving his purpose. That topic is free will.

In the weltanschauung that the Ramchal has presented thus far, we have an infinite Being creating us for our own pleasure, and with the paradigm of emulating G-d to achieve the goal of ultimate pleasure – i.e. a connection with G-d.

It is also clear that G-d could have created us in such a way that the process of attaining that pleasure would be automatic.

Before we can appreciate the significance of free will in the Ramchal's philosophy, we need to examine a few important components. We know that G-d's goal is not just for us to attain pleasure, but rather to appreciate and truly enjoy that pleasure. That is possible only if we have some inferior experience, i.e. "lack of pleasure," to compare it to. We enjoy food precisely because we know the pain of hunger. And we can appreciate health precisely because we live in a world where there is sickness.

Could G-d have made us without those needs and lacks? Of course. But since His purpose was our pleasure, G-d's plan in giving us needs – and then filling them – expands the range of pleasures we are able to achieve. G-d could have made our lives much more stress-free, like the life of a cow, hanging around all day in the sun, chewing grass, and dozing off to sleep. Cows don't get bored, don't have self-esteem issues, and don't worry about making more money. No hassles. On the other hand, they don't fall in love, strive to give their children a good education, or attain meaningful accomplishments. So as we struggle in our lives to love, to achieve, and to earn, we should see the potential lacks as giving us the opportunity to enjoy what we do have.

Now we can understand why G-d would create a world that at times may appear "unG-dly." It is in order for us to move toward spirituality and really appreciate it.

At the same time, this idea doesn't demand that we have free will, or be the "master of the good," as the Ramchal calls it. G-d could have made the process automatic. We could have been created in a way that our spiritual growth is as automatic and natural as our physical growth. We know that the 5-year-old will be bigger, stronger and smarter when he's 10, and more so when he's 20. It's an automatic process.

But what about spirituality? To get the deeper pleasure in life, it has to be chosen. And this idea of being non-automatic, not pre-determined, serves as a nice introduction to what "free will" really is.

The Need to Earn

The Ramchal says, "The one enjoying [the pleasure of connection with G-d] must be its master." Intrinsic to G-d's creation is the idea that when we get something for free, an undeserved hand-out, we don't fully enjoy it due to the inherent shame associated with taking something that we didn't really earn. In kabbalah, this is called "the bread of shame." So while it is true that G-d could have given us the pleasure of connection to Him without us having to work for it, there's a built-in flaw in such a scheme.

And that's probably why the Ramchal introduces this concept by saying, "G-d's wisdom decreed." Theoretically, could G-d have made a world where undeserved earning is an ultimate pleasure that has no flaws? If He could have, He would have! Since His only agenda in creating is to give us pleasure, and He's not bound by any laws of nature or lack of resources, and He chose to create in this way, it must be that this form of creation has the capacity for to the greatest possible pleasure.

The Nature of Free Will

Sir Isaac Newton is really the pioneer of the modern scientific method, which we still use today to logically deduce the processes of nature. The principle he discovered is that everything in the physical world is deterministic, i.e. everything that happens can be explained as being the direct natural outcome of the forces involved. Think of it like this: All of life is essentially one big billiards table. When one ball hits the others, there are very precise laws of physics at work that determine exactly how the shot will affect each of the other balls, and how they will then affect each other, and exactly where all the balls will end up when they come to rest.

If we throw a watermelon from the top of a building, the laws of inertia, gravity, friction, and acceleration will determine exactly what the impact will look like. If we can know all the relevant variables, we will know exactly how the impact will look and how far the mess will spread.

With the advent of quantum mechanics and the exciting discoveries of 20th century physics, scientists discovered that, on the micro level of sub-particle physics, the world is not so deterministic... it's actually random. What does this mean? It means, for example, in the decay of radioactive particles, there is no force of nature that determines which particles will decay and when. It's truly random. In the watermelon example, the only reason we don't know exactly what the mess will look like is because the properties of the watermelon and the equations involved are difficult for us to calculate. However, with radioactive particle decay, there is nothing to calculate! It's inherently unknowable because nothing causes one particle to decay over another.

The notion of random events is such a paradigm shift for the scientific community that to this day, almost 100 years after this discovery, there is still heated discussion (with no resolution) about the philosophical consequences of this discovery. (Albert Einstein initially rejected the whole notion, with his famous quote, "G-d doesn't play dice with the universe.")

So science lives with two possible explanations of what causes something to happen: a) determinism (i.e. mechanical laws of nature), or b) randomness.

The Third Factor

Free will introduces yet a third elemental cause: man himself. By describing free will as the mechanism that allows man to be the master of his relationship with G-d, the Ramchal is defining free will as the ability to make independent moral and spiritual choices. "Independent" means neither random nor a byproduct of other forces.

Let's examine a typical free will choice. George walks along the street and sees a beggar with an empty can, asleep on the sidewalk. George hears a voice inside that says, "Poor guy. I'm sure my giving him a dollar would really help him out." Another voice within says, "Maybe the guy's a drug addict. I work hard for my money and this guy hangs around all day expecting other people to take care of him. By giving him money, I'd be enabling his habit!"

So George has a moral decision to make. Suppose that George decided to give him the money; how do we explain what caused him to make that decision? Was the decision caused by the giving-voice? It can't be. How do we account for the other voice that said the opposite? Was the decision a byproduct of the various factors that make George who he is – his personality, his mood that day, the values instilled by his parents? In other words, would we describe the decision as just a mathematical equation – that the factors that predisposed him to give outweighed the factors that made him feel like not giving? If this is true, then we're saying that George's choice was deterministic, i.e. it was inevitable that he would end up making that choice, no matter how much it seemed to him like it could have gone either way. Like the watermelon sailing toward the street below, we'd be saying that George has no free will.

The only other possibility, according to the scientist, is that the decision may have been random – i.e. George didn't make any decision at all! He felt like he was responsible for his decision, but nothing caused him to give. Therefore he can take no credit for doing something good. And the corollary: He cannot be blamed for doing something evil.

Neither of these options seems to accurately describe the human condition. And for this reason, the addition of "free will" opens up a whole new way of viewing human decision-making.

Deeper Insights

How Do We Know We Have Free Will?

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern day psychoanalysis, was an ardent supporter of the idea of determinism, i.e. that humans do not have free will. He said:1

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe... The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world...

But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research, which is endeavoring to prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind... This is the kernel of the universal revolt against our science.

Freud believed that most of our thoughts and emotions, and therefore our actions, stem from the subconscious and unconscious aspects of our minds, over which we exercise no control.

A good example of this effect is modern-day advertising. A person walks into a store to buy a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. If you were to ask him why he chose that particular brand, he might tell you that he prefers the taste, the price, etc. A marketing psychologist would explain it altogether differently: It was a subconscious desire to live the life of the Marlboro man – rugged, macho, rural. And modern-day psychology would therefore suggest that our free will is really just an illusion.

Similarly, modern science presents a similar dilemma. From a secular scientific perspective, we are pure biology – chemical, molecules and neurons – which simply react to the world around us by following the same irretractable laws of nature as do billiard balls.

The late Dr. Francis Crick, winner of the Nobel prize in biology for the discovery of DNA, had this to say:2

'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

How does Judaism answer these challenges? On one hand, it's difficult to deny Freud's observation that we're not in full control of our decisions. We get angry and have a hard time calming ourselves down. We treat obsessive-compulsive disorders under the pretext that the patient has behaviors that he can't control. And yet at the same time, we know that if the secular psychological-biological view of man is correct, and that we are indeed not in control, then we should never feel guilty for anything bad we do nor proud of any difficult accomplishment. After all, it's in our genes/personality/social conditioning!

Judaism's answer can be found in a statement from the Mishnah:3

Beloved is man in that he was created in the image of G-d. As a greater sign of love, it was made known to him that he was created in His image, as the verse states, "For in the image of G-d He made man" (Genesis 9:6).

What do the Sages mean that man was created in G-d's image? G-d has no form! One of the answers provided by the commentators is that we were given free will, just as G-d has free will. Just as G-d can do as He wishes, with no external compulsions, man has a similar ability. We have drives, instincts and motivations that pull us in many different directions. But ultimately, we, like G-d, are masters of our own choices.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg of Aish HaTorah poses the following question: If the Mishnah is telling us that G-d gave us this gift of free will, then why does it say that "as a greater sign of love," He informed us that He gave us this gift? If I buy you a watch because I like you, it would sound a little silly for me to give you the watch and say "...and I even like you so much that I'm going to tell you that I'm giving you this watch!"

The Mishnah is telling us that free will is so subtle, that if you're not told that you have it, you could go through life oblivious of this precious gift.

A person could spend a lifetime immersed in bad habits and poor decisions, shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh well, that's just who I am, because of the way I was raised, because of my inborn personality traits..." That's a tragic waste of human potential.

To summarize: Free will is precisely what makes us G-d-like ("G-d's image"). It's what allows us to be in control of the path of our life, and to forge the deepest pleasure of connection to G-d. Yet at the same time, it's unobtrusive enough that one could ignore this power within. And choosing to tap into it is, perhaps, the greatest act of free will!

Questions to Think About

  • In what way does free will enhance our ability to get pleasure?
  • Couldn't G-d have made a world where we could achieve the ultimate pleasure without all of the effort that free will entails?
  • If He could have, why didn't He?
  • And if He couldn't have, isn't that a limitation of G-d's powers?
  • As much as there are philosophical difficulties with understanding free will coexisting with an omnipotent and omniscient G-d, in what way is it more difficult to understand free will in a world without G-d, i.e. totally governed by the laws of nature?


  1. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Eighteenth Lecture.
  2. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.
  3. Avot 3:18

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