The Sages of old opposed Jewish messianic expectations for fear of another devastating revolt. Modern rabbis demand from God a supernatural Messiah to avoid a revolt against the treacherous Israeli government. Miracles, however, are antithetical to Judaism, which insists that the Created world operates according to the Created laws of nature. The belief in a supernatural Messiah presupposes predetermination, an action independent of the laws of nature or human free will.
Many misinterpret the notion that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart (and also those of the King of Heshbon, some sinners, et al.). Surely God wouldn’t punish someone who didn’t have a choice; that’s like punishing a person for the fact that a stone falls down rather that flies through the air. Maimonides explained the contradiction with his usual ingenuity: the hardening of his heart was a means of punishment for previous offenses against Jews. There’s a simpler explanation: “God has hardened his heart” is an idiom not to be taken literally. It’s like “God willing [we would to this or that]”, or “God’s gift.” People consider some things too important to be attributed either to randomness or to choice, and attribute them to divine influence. Pharaoh could have acted of his own free will, but his actions were as if God-sent for Jews.
Rabbis, especially Chassidim, insist on determination of all things. That’s a Christian doctrine, “You cannot make a single hair black or white.” Determination is important to rabbis, as it allows them to withdraw from the real world inside their synagogues. Why care, if everything is taken care of? If every event is a manifestation of God’s will, how can we work to change the situation? So relax and accept whatever happens. That nonsense is far removed from Judaism, which insists that people must work to change the world. That’s the whole purpose of Jewish existence. Sages said, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Could human actions be determined by free will, while everything else is pre-determined? Animals are one obvious exception to that rule; they possess a degree of free will. Humans influence inanimate objects. But if a major input (human influence) is a random variable, then how can the behavior of objects be predetermined? Suppose it is predetermined for a roof to fall, but then free-will-endowed humans intervene and remove that roof altogether, so the predetermined event cannot occur. A system with arbitrary inputs cannot be predetermined.
Consider a man who realizes his free will by flipping a coin and acting with 50/50 probability in any situation. Every time he is faced with two options, he flips a coin and acts accordingly. Coins fall heads or tails irrespective of human will; supposedly, then, coin-flipping is a predetermined process. Humans, therefore, can submit to the divine will and to absolute predetermination by acting upon coin-flipping. Since acting upon the divine will is the best course of action, all men should start flipping coins to get the answer to every question in a heads-or-tails manner. A belief in predetermination of inanimate objects leads to ridiculous conclusions.
God created not only the isolated objects, but also their properties; not only the earth and all the objects on it, but also the laws of nature. If God continued to influence the events after the Creation, then the laws of nature are moot. God’s omnipotence doesn’t necessarily mean that he influences the universe at whim. It is like a good parent who sets rules for his children: despite his relative omnipotence in dealing with them he abides by those rules. In rare instances, both God and the good parent twist the rules a bit in order to uphold general principles. Israel prevailing against the Pharaoh and against Nasser was technically within the framework of the laws of nature, but somewhere the order of events was influenced.
If God predetermines all events, then we run into some ugly notions of him controlling the exact form of feces’ splash in a toilet, or that he personally oversees a car crushing a child in an accident. Or that he moved the hands of the Ukrainians and the others who manned the gas chambers, or shouted through the mouths of Germans for Jews to climb over bodies into death pits. Such a God is not deserving of love; in fact, moral humans should disobey him.
Pervasive determination creates no consequences to our behavior. Suppose a believer in determination encounters a robber—who is presumably driven by the divine will. The believer would still resist the robber. And how can the court sentence the robber, who was acting on divine command like an automaton?
A more sensible concept is that the World Created is driven by the likewise-created laws of nature, and God intervenes time and again, usually without altering the laws of nature, but producing some very improbable events—often sequences of highly improbable events.
Maimonides laughed at the Muslim mutakallemim, who imagined that God destroys the universe at every moment and immediately creates it anew. But the Chassidic doctrine of God permeating all things is similar: the existence of all objects hinges on the Divine Presence permeating and enlivening them. Did we ever see a stone suddenly evaporate because the Divine Presence had abandoned it? Shall we not break a stone for fear of desecrating the Divine Presence which fills it? Consider a simple energy-matter transformation: sunlight is transformed into green leaves. A year ago, that leaf didn’t exist; the Divine Presence couldn’t permeate it. Now the leaf exists, supposedly permeated by the Divine Presence. That makes the Creation an ongoing process, though the Torah asserts it was time-fixed. God is always present in the world like a good father participating in the lives of his children, not like a juggler perpetually catching objects so that they don’t fall and break.
The Book of Genesis states clearly: there was chaos and God shaped it into the world. Matter pre-existed, though formless. Are we to imagine that God himself was chaos? No. In the Creation, God acted as the external force: his spirit was gliding above the waters rather than permeating them.
On other hand, there are strong arguments in favor of predetermination. If wives can predict their husbands’ behavior, how much more should God be able to predict human behavior? The Omniscient, it is expected, must know and be able to predict every event.
The rejection of soul makes atheists automata, if exceedingly complex. Theoretically, a human brain can be copied. Pose a question to one copy of the brain and get an answer. Since the other perfect copy of the brain would give the same answer, the answer is predetermined.
Human decisions are the objective products of chemical and physical processes in the brain. Theoretically, those processes can be measured and modeled. That task is too complex for humans even with the best computers, but God can model each man’s decision-making process exactly. Free will is a metaphysical term like soul; what is the physical representation of free will? Is it a sort of random number generator built into the brain? But randomness is the very opposite of (free) will. Is “free will” a poetic term for physical differences in the brain structure of various people? But can we speak of the free will of computers playing chess according to different software programs? Short of metaphysics, free will must be an internal property of a physical object, the brain. The will is free in the sense that it is the person’s own rather than imposed on him by someone else, but not free in the sense that it is independent of physical processes or external influences. Mood-altering pharmaceuticals and electrical stimulation of the brain change the pattern of decision-making tremendously. Hypnosis can even make a person break his strongest behavioral barriers. How transcendent is free will if hypnosis suppresses it to a very large degree?
It is possible that each action or event is in fact predetermined by the immense sequence of events before it. Our limited knowledge of this near-infinite sequence of events, however, precludes us from predicting even the immediate future. Determinism may exist, but its outcomes are unknown and incomprehensible. For practical purposes, the impossibility of knowing or predicting predetermined outcomes is equal to free will. Free will is more accurately described as an uncertainty principle.
Humans and animals alike exercise an ostensibly high degree of free will in situations previously not experienced. That can be likened to drawing a line through a dot; the dot is the situation, and line is the action. An infinite variety of lines can be drawn through a single dot. If, however, the dots are many (the person has already experienced similar events), he can reliably draw a line close to them. In routine situations, his actions are substantially predetermined by prior experiences; in new situations, the actions are sporadic, though not random, as the brain tries to recall and reference similar experiences. The brain evaluates similarity along many criteria, and in substantially new situations it cannot reliably find similar experiences. The brain applies many suitable experiences to the current situation, acts on them, finds them unworkable, and tries other experiences until it finds a usefully similar experience.
The amount of data transmitted in “conscious” areas of the brain is vastly, perhaps a million times lower than non-conscious data processing. The unconscious deals mostly with external signals and mechanical moves, but also with abstract thinking. The conscious choice between good and evil amounts to a tiny fraction of the total efforts our brain devotes to deliberating moral issues. In other words, the choice between good and evil is largely subconscious. Though “I” is both conscious and subconscious, common opinion attaches merit only to consciously taken decisions: soldiers who accept suicide missions are respected, while intoxicated soldiers on the battlefield arouse scorn.
Free will is an overgeneralization. Its positive (do) and negative (“free won’t”) manifestations are very different. Positives (actions) tend to be very complex, based on all of human experience, while negatives (resisting an action or urge) tend to rely on straightforward convictions, better resembling the traditional concept of free will.
In the absence of free will, there shouldn’t be afterlife reward or punishment: one doesn’t reward or punish automata. Such view is consistent with the Torah, which holds that all souls abide in eternal sleep or bliss in Sheol, which is why the spirit of Samuel complained after being awakened by the witch of Saul. Reward and punishment fully apply in this life: societies reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, respectively, to encourage and discourage others. Each instance of societal reward and punishment creates a fact which other people take into account, consciously or not, when planning their own actions. Reward and punishment in this life are unrelated to merit: the well-rewarded achievements of an athlete or beauty queen have only moderate merit, while a convicted felon may have many excuses for stealing.
The Torah has long answered the question which puzzles scientists and philosophers: how are humans different from animals? Animals feel, have night dreams and symbolic cognizance, and can operate tools and even create them. The only fundamental difference between human beings and animals is the one stated in the Torah: humans are like God, in that they know the difference between good and evil. Human civilization is driven not by the struggle for the survival of the fittest, the desire for power, or any similar important things. Civilization is the search for goodness and the attempt to distance humanity from evil. Edison invented the electrical bulb because it was good, and Oppenheimer developed the atomic bomb because it would curtail evil. Animals act based on expectations of reward and punishment, but humans act on divine notions of good and evil.