Experts in neuroscience, philosophy, and Jewish thought peer into the brain and beyond.
Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jewish people traditionally go through an intensive process of introspection and repentance. It is sobering to consider that everything one stands to gain or lose in this world hangs in the balance when the previous year’s deeds are weighed on the heavenly scales. Whether in prayerful supplication at synagogue or in thoughtful contemplation in the course of day to day life, now is the time Jewish people traditionally acknowledge poor choices – in interactions with their fellow man, in their relationship with their Creator – and commit to making better choices in the year to come.
This value placed on choices is predicated on the existence of free will. Yet it is not universally accepted that free will exists, and scientists are still searching for a way to observe free will in action.
Who decides, my brain or ‘me’?
In an interview on the radio program “This American Life,” Stanford neuroscience and biology professor Dr. Robert Sapolsky says he sees no room for “the slightest bit of free will out there.” If a person wiggled an eyebrow, for instance, “a neuron in the motor cortex commanded a muscle to produce that motion,” he says. “That neuron fired only because it received inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before; and those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before; and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that from out of nowhere decided to say something – that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will.”
“There is no such neuron,” he concludes. “There is nothing more or less than the mechanics.”
This perspective is reflective of two philosophies. One is materialism (also known as physicalism), which is the idea that reality consists solely of the observable physical world. The other is determinism, a belief that everything is a mechanistically-produced outcome of that which came before it. If free will cannot be mapped onto the brain somehow or physically observed in the decision-making process, then for skeptics like Sapolsky it does not exist.
According to Rabbi J. David Bleich, rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (Yeshiva University) and an expert in Jewish law and bioethics, proof of free will’s existence can be derived working backward from the written Torah and oral tradition. A system of reward and punishment would not make sense in the absence of the ability to choose right from wrong, he says.
Bleich did not need to get into theology, however, to counter Sapolsky’s perspective in a recent phone interview. There is no question that people experience consciousness, Bleich said, because it is a self-reported subjective experience. Akin to philosopher Descartes’ declaration “I think therefore I am,” a person can say that consciousness is real because experiencing it is the direct evidence of its existence. The same goes for decision-making.
Medieval scholar Rav Sa’adya Gaon (Rasag) takes a similar philosophical approach, according to Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank. Wiederblank, also a rosh yeshiva at RIETS (YU), is the author of a multi-part series on classical Jewish thought and philosphy (Illuminating Jewish Thought, YU Press and Maggid Books)
“Occasionally, our perception of reality is faulty,” said Wiederblank via email. “A person may see a mirage that does not exist. Therefore, we must wonder whether we can trust our perception of freedom. Rasag assumes that in the absence of compelling counterevidence, there is no reason to question our experience.”
That doesn’t mean that subjective perception cannot be challenged.
Experiments by Jewish American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s are regularly referenced as proof by materialists that the circuitry of the brain and not the conscious mind is responsible for decision-making. Hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) recording electrical activity in the brain, participants were told to move a finger at an arbitrary time of their choosing. The participants also had to report the moment they made the conscious decision to move by noting the position of a dot rotating around a clock.
While participants reported the decision to move approximately 200 milliseconds before the movement occurred, a buildup of electrical activity in the brain began approximately 350 milliseconds before that reported conscious decision. Libet interpreted this “readiness potential” to mean that the brain makes up its mind to act before an individual is aware of making the decision.
While it is widely recognized as a groundbreaking experiment in the study of volition and the brain, Libet’s methodology and conclusions have been subject to criticism from the scientific community. Readiness potential might reflect general anticipation, for instance, or the subject’s increasing focus on the clock. But Chapman University’s Dr. Uri Maoz chipped away further at Libet’s findings in a recent experiment comparing brain activity before arbitrary choices versus deliberate choices.
Maoz, another Jewish neuroscientist, leads an international collaboration of neuroscientists and philosophers to understand how the human brain enables conscious, causal control of actions. In his experiment, participants hooked up to EEGs either pressed buttons that produced no consequences or buttons that would determine which charity would receive $1,000.
“We found that, while the readiness potential did appear before arbitrary decisions, it was strikingly absent before deliberate decisions,” writes Maoz for Psychology Today. This absence challenges the interpretation of readiness potential by scientists and philosophers as the hallmark of decision-making. Additionally, it challenges the claim of some scientists and philosophers that Libet’s findings absolve people of moral responsibility for their decisions, as morality can be ascribed only to deliberate (in other words, conscious) decisions.
“The various conceptual and methodological problems with the Libet experiments and with the interpretation of their results mean that they do not provide strong evidence that all decisions are made unconsciously,” Maoz continues. “However, it is likewise clear that much of our brain activity, including many decisions, are often unconscious.”
A proverbial example is arriving home from work with no recollection of the drive and all of the decision-making involved in that activity. “While we may not yet have a complete or clear picture of how the brain enables human decision-making, nor to what extent particular choices are made freely or independently, what we can say for now is that today’s best neuroscience knows of no true impediment to the ability of people to make decisions and act according to their best beliefs and desires.”
In search of the soul-brain interface
Still, couldn’t one argue that any decision, even if the conscious self is in the driver’s seat, is a product of upbringing, genetics, and brain physiology which produce a result inevitable for a particular individual under particular circumstances? Is that really a free choice?
“I think that the primary reason why some scientists deny free will is because they are taking a materialistic perspective of the universe for granted,” says Rabbi Wiederblank. “If there is more to us than our physical bodies – if there is more to consciousness than the neurons that make up our brains – then the notion of free will no longer be objectionable.”
“We believe that the soul or the tzelem Elokim is the basis of our freedom. Were it not for this spiritual component of our existence, we would be nothing more than the blood, bones, and sinews that make up our bodies, and, indeed, we would not have free will,” he says.
“Most theologians, at least before the 20th century, would tell you the body doesn’t will anything,” says Rabbi Bleich. “To the Greeks, the soul and the will were one and the same thing. The greater humanity’s understanding of the mechanics of the physical world, the less people want to attribute things to the metaphysical.”
Dr. Alexander Flyax, a data scientist by profession and neuroscientist by training (and this writer’s husband), offered a potential approach to entwining the divine with the physical:
“Dr. Alan Kaddish discusses how the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle provides room for the concept of G-d embedding Himself in nature and ‘hiding’ within the uncertainty of the micro-events. Perhaps most of the time G-d leaves the microworld and macroworld to run according to its laws, but when He wants to intervene, to create a hidden or a revealed miracle, He influences the micro-and-macro events through the uncertainty fog of the quantum events. It could also be that the soul hides within the uncertainty of the micro-events – that normal brain function is deterministic, but just like G-d can do hidden miracles to override nature, so can the soul vis-a-vis the brain.”
This dovetails with a thought that Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean and rosh beit midrash of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, shared in an interview last week with The Jewish Press.
At a minimal level, he views free will as the ability to make values-based choices that are not predetermined. An alternative approach, which he describes as Soleveitchikian, focuses on choosing to shift the margins of one’s free will by working on one’s character: “the meta-capacity to change oneself so that one’s predetermined values-based choices are different than they would have been,” he says.
It is a perspective that at once acknowledges the presence of deterministic forces in people’s brains, while simultaneously empowering people to challenge those limitations. It is an approach to free will that involves capitalizing on opportunities to make choices that reflect one’s values.
It is an inspirational idea going into a new year.
Rabbis J. David Bleich, Netanel Wiederblank, and Aryeh Klapper. (Courtesy)