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How Do You Know You Have Free Will?

September 7, 2022 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Free will is a pillar of Judaism. Here are three approaches to know that you have agency.

Maimonides, the great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, clearly states:

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his...

This principle is a fundamental concept and pillar on which rests the totality of the Torah and the commandments.  (The Laws of Repentance, 5:1,3)

The foundation of Judaism is that human beings have agency and are responsible for their actions. That’s why God can command you to perform certain actions (positive commandments) and forbid certain actions (negative commandments) and hold you accountable for how you lead your life.

You are not a robot. You are a moral, intelligent being who can overcome your instinctual base desires.

But how do you know that you have free will?

Here are three possible approaches to consider.

1. Accountability

People hold themselves and others accountable for their actions.

You are not a robot. You are a moral, intelligent being who can overcome your instinctual base desires.

Why do you feel terribly guilty when you know you did something wrong? Why do you feel inner pride when you perform an act of kindness that requires real effort? If you don’t have free will, your action ultimately has nothing to do with you. You’re a mere robot programmed to be cruel or good. Guilt and pride don’t enter the equation.

Your shame comes from the awareness that you could have chosen differently and done better. You failed to live up to your standards; that’s on you.

And that shot of pride, empowerment and self-esteem when doing good comes from owning the course of action you took. That’s also on you. You chose it.

You also hold other people accountable for their actions – the teacher who is mistreating your child, the careless driver who hit your car, the store that botched your order. You don’t accept these wrongs as just part of being an involuntary victim in a programmed, predetermined universe. You hold the person responsible for this accountable – because you believe he chose it.

2. Meaning

Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Meaning is the human being’s greatest need. It’s the engine behind living a fulfilling life. Therefore, Frankl writes, “The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.”

Think of moments in your life when you experienced intense meaning. Think about what gives your life purpose today. What are you living for? What makes it all worthwhile? (These aren’t theoretical questions. Take a few moments and write down your answers. It will make a difference.)

Now look over those moments of meaning you’ve experienced. What makes them meaningful? If they are mere result of an automated universe that occurred without your personal investment or agency, why are they meaningful? You have nothing to do with them.

Robots don’t have meaning. They don’t feel good when they do good, create art, or tell their owner, “I love you.”

The meaning you have experienced comes as a result of your free will.

3. Change

Another way you know you have free will is that you have experienced making a free willed decision in your life.

You can overcome your instinct and live differently than an animal. You can change. Proof: You have changed.

It is true that people don’t often actually use their free will; they go with inertia and surrender to a living a mindless life dictated by desire, comfort and the path of least resistance. But think of a time you rose to the challenge and shook off your inertia. You woke up early and went for that run, you overcame your fear and took on a challenge, you quit smoking or drinking, you refused that piece of chocolate cake.

And you felt great, empowered.

You do not have to listen to the inner voice that wants you to throw in the towel and cave into your desires. You can overcome your instinct and live differently than an animal. You can change. Proof: You have changed. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Every human being has the ability to change at an instant.”

You know you have free will because you have experienced the power of tapping into your free will, moving out of your comfort zone and making a difficult choice.

That is the essence of Judaism’s rallying cry, the one place in the Torah that explicitly mentions free will: “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil… Choose life!” (Deut. 30:15, 19)

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