Has neuroscience killed off the idea that we have free will?


A Texas court last week ruled that teenager Ethan Crouch must spend nearly two years in prison for killing four people in a drink-driving crash when he was 16. He had initially received a probationary sentence after his defence argued that he suffered from the psychological malaise, "affluenza". The claim was that owing to one's affluence and privileged upbringing, a person is unable to fully link their actions to possible consequences.

This position, which has caused considerable debate throughout the United States and beyond, is built on the premise that without understanding the ramifications of our actions we do not fully possess free will.

We usually take our own free will for granted. In Judaism personal free will is axiomatic and allied to the principle of reward and punishment. While God insists we take responsibility for our part in God's project, we may freely choose to do so or not, acknowledging the consequences of either option. Indeed, Moses, in his final speech to the Children of Israel, exhorts them to make a choice , u'v'charta b'chaim, "and you choose life".

Neuroscience has also explored the phenomenon of free will. In a landmark series of experiments in the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, (1916-2007), a Jewish professor of physiology at the University of California, claimed that conscious free will was no more than an illusion.

In experiments, Libet's subjects noted the precise time when they first chose to press a button. Meanwhile, a machine was measuring their brain's electrical activity in areas associated with movement. Libet found that motor neurons fired in readiness to press the button before the subject reported having made the choice to press. He concluded that unconscious brain activity dictates how our actions are initiated, relegating conscious "choice" to an illusion; a mere read-out of what the brain had already planned. For conscientious Jews, this challenge to free will is troubling.

Our texts state that free will is over-emphasised

Jewish sources similarly provide surprises. Our texts state that free will is over-emphasised. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) in many situations we act out of habit, not free will. For instance, I go to shul on Shabbat morning not because I freely decided to make the trip down to my riverside shul but rather because that is what I do each weekend (and because it would be strange for the rabbi to have a lie-in).

Our collected habits accrue until we have our status-quo spiritual position. This can be mapped on a spiritual axis; some behaviours are beyond us (higher than our position on the axis) while others are firmly within our grasp (below our position). Neither are subject to free will.

For instance, when I purchase my groceries, I do not need to make a free-will decision not to shoplift; that is below my current point on the axis. In a related manner, my mind occasionally strays when I am praying. Managing my frayed thoughts is not something subject to a free-will choice, it is simply above my position on the axis (though perhaps some more mindfulness might help).

At a certain point on the axis is what Rabbi Dessler calls the "choice point" - where we must make a conscious choice. We each have our own unique choice point, where our personal struggle and deliberation is present. We then freely choose whether or not to align ourselves with God's project and move up the spiritual axis or the opposite and move down the axis. Dessler's innovation was to state that we must only assume responsibility for decisions made at this point.

Despite Dessler's more limited conceptualisation of the choice point, he clearly acknowledges the presence of free will. So can Libet and Dessler co-exist without conflict? Possibly. Pressing a button within a psychological experiment is hardly a weighty decision; it is not a Desslerian choice point. Instead, it may be more akin to those things we do habitually or on auto-pilot, ie those things that we do unconsciously. How the lengthy, angst-ridden consideration of a "choice point" decision is manifested in the brain has not yet been demonstrated.

In the meantime, we return to the plea of affluenza. Die-hard Libetians would claim that no punishment is appropriate - "I did not understand what I was doing your honour; my unconscious brain told me to do it!" Even Desslerians might plead innocence for an action that was not subject to their "choice point".

This is an area in which psychological advances continue to challenge the established court system. We are forced to ask whether punishments are in response to crimes or to motives and whether they serve as consequences, rehabilitation or both. Perhaps this is why Jewish sources talk about only one true Judge, God.

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