|Rambam and Free Will
||[Aug. 1st, 2008|03:49 pm]
In my last post I expressed hope that I would discuss the fifth chapter of Rambam's laws of Teshuva (repentance). Rambam posits Teshuva as a manifestation of humanity's ability to change itself for the better. Consequently, after he begins by delineating the process by which one may accomplish Teshuva, and the factors that may prevent a person from achieving Teshuva, he reaches toward the fundamental premise on which Teshuva stands: Free Will.|
Quoting a mishnah from Pirkei Avot chapter 3, Rambam begins: "Permission is granted to each person" to make himself righteous or wicked. I am typing from my family computer which does not have Hebrew characters installed; if I were typing from my laptop, I would use Hebrew. The antecedent Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says HaKol tzafuy, vehaReshut netunah - "Everything is foreseen, but permission is granted." Rambam emphasizes the second clause and ignores the first for reasons that emerge later in the chapter. The contradiction between God's omniscience and man's free will is resolved either by saying God is not truly omniscient or man is not truly free. Either God's omniscience or man's free will, stated in absolute terms, is mutually exclusive. The alternative, which some people believe but I find unsatisfactory, is that God can watch and know from the outside what we will do but cannot compel us to do it. I understand the idea: I certainly do not feel compelled to type these words, but if it is really my choice to type them or not to type them, I do not understand how God can know that I will type them. Rambam deals with this question last, so I will revert to his order of presentation.
Faced with the dilemma of determinism versus free will, Rambam emphatically promotes free will as an absolute right and responsibility. I have lecture notes in Hebrew that I transcribed in Yeshivat Har Etzion in August 2002, six years ago, in the class of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, one of the Roshei Yeshiva (deans). Rabbi Lichtenstein appended remarks on Laws of Teshuva in 20-minute segments after two-hour lectures regarding the first chapter of Masekhet Ketubot. Though it was my second year in Yeshiva, my Hebrew writing is not entirely clear in calligraphy or meaning, but it suffices to provide a faint echo of Rabbi Lichtenstein's thought process. Rabbi Lichtenstein interprets Rambam's use of the word Reshut not as a desirable action, the way that in Masekhet Berakhot the Rabbis classify the Evening Prayer as a "Reshut" rather than an absolute imperative, but rather Rambam uses Reshut to mean a neutral choice: one may choose to be good or evil. From subsequent clarification, though, it emerges that a person bears responsibility to choose life, as the verse in Deuteronomy so beautifully commands. Since a person has the ability to choose good or evil, the only reason he could have failed to choose good is by his own negligence or malfeasance, so he must actively correct his ways. Rabbi Lichtenstein, citing his awareness of modern thought, posits Rambam's statements as a rejection of the psychological theories that a person is driven toward certain habits by his upbringing or environment. In Rambam's own words, "Do not let it pass through your mind what non-Jewish idiots and many Jewish fools say, that God stipulates from a person's conception whether he will become good or evil. It is not true. Rather, anyone can become a righteous man like Moses or a wicked man like Jeroboam, or wise or stupid, or merciful or cruel, or profligate or thrifty, and likewise for all traits." Rabbi Lichtenstein states, according to my notes, that Rambam rejects both religious determinism and secular determinism. Religious determinism would reject the statement that "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven," because in this mistaken view even fear of Heaven is included. Secular determinism I defined previously.
What concerns me about Rambam's position, and what causes me to ponder it, is his absolute rejection that any force leads a person toward sin. I don't know that Rambam rejects altogether that some people are tempted toward certain sins for which others experience no temptation, but even if Rambam accepts that as fact, he does not consider it in his analysis. To me, any analysis of Free Will must account for variable levels of temptation among different humans. For example, the Torah says in many places: "You shall not eat blood." In Deuteronomy it uses stronger language: "Only be strong, not to eat the blood because the blood is the life-force, and you shall not eat the life-force with the flesh. Do not eat it, rather spill it on the earth like water. Do not eat it, so that you and your children will experience favor for doing what is right in the eyes of God." The Rabbis in Masekhet Makkot implicitly ask: "For what reason is such exceptionally strong language used to prohibit blood? Is it not sufficient to say 'do not eat it,' that God must emphatically command 'only be strong'?" They answer that it is a clever hint: even though man does not desire to eat blood, God offers a reward for abstaining from eating it. All the more, if a person overcomes a real temptation, he will be rewarded. (I am paraphrasing everything here from memory and have not checked the sources.) I find this answer to be wonderfully insightful on its own merits, but insufficient to answer the question. It is obvious to me that some people in antiquity, and probably still today, do relish the taste of blood. We all remember how our mouths tasted when we lost teeth in our youth: blood has a thick, milky consistency that would naturally appeal to a certain subset of the population. Perhaps in modern times the temptation is lessened by the professional mannerisms of food processing, but in antiquity, where one attained meat by slaughtering the animal one intended to eat, it is not difficult to imagine someone wanting to eat the blood as a kind of sauce to make the meat more palatable. All this is speculation, but my point is, some people desire blood and others don't. For those who do, the temptation to violate God's prohibition is greater, and in a fair accounting of Reward and Punishment, God would presumably reward such a person more for abstaining, and punish him less for transgressing, than for another person who lacked the temptation.
Eating blood is a politically neutral topic because nobody I know expresses or even conceals a desire to do it. If you translate the preceding paragraph from blood to homosexuality, you strike a mother-lode of problems. It is indisputable that some people desire homosexual contact and others do not. Those who desire it find it difficult to express what is the source of their desire: it strikes them as natural and obvious, and if anything, they may have difficulty relating to heterosexual people who find it equally obvious that their own orientation is preferable. So when God says homosexual relations are an "abomination", I feel it is entirely God's right to say that, and I castigate in the strongest possible terms the arrogance of Conservative and Reform thinkers who deign to suggest that God may have fallen behind the times. What emerges, then, is the problem that a nontrivial percentage of Jewish adolescents and adults experience a strong desire for something God calls an abomination. Can I honestly say that these people have no force acting upon them? I feel they do have some force acting upon them, but being human beings with Free Will, they are tasked with overcoming that force with an equal and opposite force to obey the statutes of God. Still, I cannot equate the challenge of a homosexually oriented Jew with that of a heterosexual one: the latter would say, "Of course I will not do that! I would not want to do it anyway!" For that person, there is really no choice to make.
I note here, in passing, that the existence of any law in any society implies that somebody might wish to violate that law by commission or omission. Thus, the prohibition upon eating blood implies that someone might think to eat it: perhaps not that it is tasty or worthwhile to eat it, but at a minimum, it may physically be eaten. Some of the more mysterious prohibitions, like the ones not to reconstruct the composition of the Anointing Oil or the Incense, require a modicum of analysis to consider: "Why would anyone want to do that?" In those specific instances, a rogue chemist may desire to experience the pleasant smell or warmth of these perfumes either to usurp God's metaphysical pleasure for himself, or to transform the material into a talisman of superstition. The context of the verses: "Anyone who mixes the Incense to smell it shall be cut off from his people," or "Anyone who mixes the Anointing Oil or anoints it upon a layman shall be cut off from his people," place emphasis upon the lay use of holy objects. These prohibitions become a special case of usurpation of holy items, what is called Me'ilah. In most cases, Me'ilah occurs only for items that actually exist, but for the Anointing Oil and the Incense, there is a special theory of usurpation to prohibit anyone even from creating these items. However, if one creates them to learn how to do it, but not to usurp its holiness, it is permitted.
The relevance of the preceding comment to blood and homosexuality is this: There must be reasons why God prohibits those activities. Even if you or I might not want to do them anyway, someone does. For that person, it is more of a challenge to abstain from sin.
The last two questions Rambam answers strain his ability to encapsulate complicated ideas in short paragraphs. His penultimate question: If God does not allow anything to happen against His will, how can a person have the ability to act on his own and possibly to violate God's will? Answer: Everything occurs according to God's will, yet humans possess free will precisely because God endowed them with Free Will. Just as the Creator desired that the scientific world operates according to laws, so too He desired that humans have the Free Will to do as they please. In other words, "Permission is granted" because God, as the creator of humanity, chose to grant it.
Finally, Rambam asks how God can know everything if it's possible for humans to do something that God does not "expect" them to do. He ducks this question, begging for lack of space, but briefly he states that humans really do possess free will, and as for God's knowledge, it is not like human knowledge where humans know about some reality external to themselves, but rather God's knowledge is an inherent element of His identity in a way that humans cannot understand.
If there's one question I would ask Rambam, I would want him to explain this in a little more detail. Perhaps he has already tried it in Guide to the Perplexed: that is a book I have owned for many years but never read. What excites me about this particular question, though, is the analogy from artificial intelligence to demonstrate that humans and computers can use completely different modes of thinking to solve the same problem. Of what relevance is this? Endgame tablebases in chess solve problems by analyzing a complete set of information for all positions in a certain endgame. They produce results which are shocking to humans. A 517-move forced mate is worthy of the verse Rambam quotes from Isaiah ch. 55: "For My thoughts are not like your thoughts, nor are your ways like My ways, says God." Theoreticians have called tablebases "God's Algorithm," and I wonder in all seriousness, does God think this way? In a chess position, each player has a number of legal moves (sometimes only one, but usually 20 or more). The game-theoretical result of any move, and the means of obtaining that result, can be attained in some cases by computer analysis, and are invariably knowable to an omniscient being because chess is a game where all information is available to the players at any time. Within the framework of possibilities, a human chooses a move, and he may preserve a good outcome or deteriorate to a worse outcome depending on the move. Bilam proclaimed: "God is not like a man who deceives, or a mortal who changes his mind," yet He did change his mind not to destroy Nineveh in the Book of Yonah. Why? Did God deceive Yonah? I don't think so. In the reality of Nineveh as it existed at the time of Yonah's proclamation, God was prepared to destroy the city. Consequent to the inhabitants' repentance and rectification, God decided not to destroy the city. The fact that God, in the end, did not destroy the city does not negate the fact that he would have destroyed the city absent any change. Thus, in the original reality, God foresaw that the city would be destroyed, and within that reality, He was right. The inhabitants of Nineveh changed reality. God did not know that the inhabitants of Nineveh would repent. God did know that, if they were to repent, God would save the city. So if you were to ask me, did God really know all along that Nineveh would be spared? I don't think that's a precise question. In the emergent reality of repentance, God spared them. To compare with chess, the players of Nineveh made an outstanding move, preserving their ability to survive and not be "checkmated." The analogy is not precise because in chess you cannot turn a loss into a draw or win, but rather, your opponent may allow you a chance to draw or win, and you must capitalize on that chance. If you have no chance to win, even the best move will not save you. It is by the mercy of God that he does not "play chess" with humans as a brutal force of perfection, but allows us to salvage a "lost position" by making a "good move." Surely Rambam would consider all this irrelevant to his theory, but my own analysis of the paradox between Free Will and Determinism allows for God to determine the outcomes of multiple scenarios and for humans to choose among them. Each element in this game retains some autonomy. Humans choose, as they are commanded and designed to do, and God retains his knowledge of what will occur consequent to those choices. But as to what the humans will choose, I believe God does not really know that in advance of when it happens, and I think my interpretation of the paradox is consistent with Rambam on this particular point.