Reasonable Doubts Blog

Raise Your Hand if You Believe in Free Will

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the July 28th, 2010

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” - Albert Einstein

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.” – Stephen Hawking

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

My first act of Free Will shall be to believe in Free Will.”William James

As I read the latest round of the Free-will/Determinism battle in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks I couldn’t help but to wonder at how far these arguments have developed. The seeming contradiction between what science tells us and what we experience day to day has confounded man for centuries. Democritus’ theory of tiny bits of matter called Atoms making up the material part of the world led to the first Western deterministic philosophy in the 5th century BCE. It was not well received. Epicurus, who relied heavily on Democritus’ Atomic Theory, later introduced a curve to the atomic path allowing for the possibility of free will. Since then new terminology has been introduced. Science has made vast discoveries in fields like neuroscience that have lent new perspectives to the issue. And yet the question remains where it was in the 5th century BCE: unanswered.

A few days ago William Eggington, professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, added his two cents to the centuries-long debate ( ) and I have to say that I very much enjoyed his two cents. Eggington discussed an experiment that was aimed at discovering the neuro basis for decision making. The experiment was written up in The Annual Review of Neuroscience by Josh Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington. In the experiment sensors were hooked up to the parts of the brains of monkeys that are responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were taught to respond to a cue by looking at one of two patterns. Computers that were interpreting the sensors were able to predict the patterns the monkeys would choose a fraction of a second before the monkey chose the pattern. The computers were literally reading the monkey’s minds.

If a computer could predict what a human will decide before he makes his decision, like it did for the monkeys, what does this say about free will? Have our decisions been made for us?

Eggington explains that this logic is based on a false premise. We are imagining Space and Time as if it were in some type of legible code of codes that can interpreted. So when the the computer predicted the monkeys choice it was reading from some type of code of the future as opposed to simply reading the mind of the monkey. Instead of interpreting the experiment as a statement about the neural processes of a monkey’s brain (in which the unconscious mind is a fraction of a second faster than the conscious mind) we have extrapolated about some future as if it were already written down in some secret but ultimately decipherable code.

I can’t claim to have read all or even most of the recent literature regarding the issue of free will and determinism but it seems to me that Eggington is on the right track. He reminds his readers of Kant, the limits of the human intellect and the dangers of trying to stretch reason too far. There is only so much we can know. And when we reach our limit we can’t keep using our intellects to create hypotheses so that we can prove some pre-determined theory (pun very much intended). That’s probably what Tolstoy was sensing as he raised and lowered his arms of his own free will and dared philosophers to challenge him. There are limits to the elasticity of our brains. Sometimes we need to concede to the illogical.

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Does Science Contradict Torah?

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the June 14th, 2010

One issue faith crisis sufferers often find themselves dealing with is the issue of the conflict between science and the Torah. The debate between science and religion did not commence with the discovery of Darwinism as some might think. Part of the task of the medieval Jewish philosopher was to deal with the science of their time, Aristotelianism. Philosophers like Maimonides worked hard to come up with solutions to contradictions between science and Judaism. Maimonides’ rule was stated plainly in the Moreh Nevuchim: If Aristotelian science can come up with demonstrative proof for their scientific theories, we must translate the text of the Torah in a non-literal fashion because the Torah does not lie. Maimonides had to create this rule because the generally accepted principle of the medieval rationalists (like Maimonides) was that intellectual truth was the highest form of knowledge. Science and the Torah were speaking the same language for these medieval rationalists. They were asking the same questions and offering the same answers. And if they didn’t seem to fit, we need to delve deeper into the meaning of the text of the Torah and locate it’s true meaning.

Modern notions of the concept of truth make it a lot easier for faith crisis sufferers to approach the contradictions between science and Torah. When Kant limited the confines of reason (intellectual truth) he opened the door to allow other types of truths into the universal lexicon. There is aesthetic truth. There is ethical truth. There is personal truth. There is social truth. There is cultural truth. And there is religious truth. The concept of truth should embrace the entirety of the human experience, why should it be limited to one aspect of humanity, namely the intellect?

The main difference between intellectual truth and religious truth does not lie in the answers they propose. It lies in the questions they ask. In Lonely Man of Faith Rav Soloveitchik creates two prototypes: the scientist and the man of religion (Adam one and Adam two). He describes the scientist as one who seeks to understand the universe around him so that he can use it for his purposes. He asks the question: How? How can I utilize the earth for my needs? The religious man looks at the very same universe but asks completely different questions. He questions are metaphysical in nature: Why did the world come into being? What is the purpose and meaning behind it? And who is the giver of life that I can sense but cannot see?

The reason science and Torah propose different answers is that that they are responding to different questions. They are viewing the universe from completely different perspectives. The Torah is a book of theology not science. When the Torah tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh we are meant to explore the religious ramifications of that statement, not create a science lesson from it.

Many think that the intellect is the only road to truth. These people are stuck on a medieval model. This is not to say that the intellect does not reveal truth. It just means that the intellect is not the only means of grasping truth. The intellect even plays a critical role in understanding religion, but it does not play the only role. There are other aspects of the human being that contribute to our understanding of our place in this complex universe. Truth is way too big a notion to limit it to one avenue.

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