Sunday, July 16, 2006

“Free will, it is a bitch.”

Judaism places a strong emphasis on free will. This is understandable, since it sees the power to choose as a necessary condition for morality. If you cannot choose to avoid sin, how can you be held accountable for your actions?

And yet, Judaism also believes in an omniscient God – a god who knows everything past, present, and future. If so, how can you really be said to have the free will to choose between good and evil if God knows what you will choose in advance? Hasn’t your “choice” been preordained? After all, you must necessarily do what God knows you will, else God’s knowledge would be incorrect, and therefore not omniscient.

I struggled with this problem for nearly as long as I can remember. Whether I was pestering my Hebrew teachers in elementary school or discussing it over beer with rabbis in Jerusalem, the answer was always the same and always unsatisfying. God, they said, was “above time.” He does not know what choice you will make before you make it; for him, there is no “before.” We, as temporal beings, could not possibly comprehend such timelessness.

For years, I grudgingly accepted this argument as a plausible solution to the contradiction. At least, that was until I was introduced to the idea of a worldline.

My honors program required a special upper-division physics class. The class was infamous – a lecture hall full of liberal arts-minded kids thrown headlong into a world of quantum mechanics and relativity. Although the math was substantially toned down for us, Physics for Poets it was not. And in beating my brain against the theories of Einstein, I realized that taking God out of time was no solution at all. In fact, it only worsened the contradiction.

My rabbis were wrong: we can understand what it means to be above time. All it takes is the right conceptual tools and a little imagination. Time and space, teaches modern physics, are just different dimensions of a unified entity we call “spacetime.” A “worldline” is the trajectory of an object through spacetime, and can be modeled using a “space-time diagram.” Here’s how they work:

The temporal dimension is represented on one axis of a coordinate system. Spatial dimensions are represented on the other axes. Although any number of spatial dimensions can be modeled, I find it easiest to use only one (especially since I’m not even going to attempt to draw a four-dimensional picture with MS Paint…). What we see here are two beings, A and B, hanging out in one-dimensional space. A’s worldline is vertical – he is moving through time, but not space. In other words, he is standing still. B, on the other hand, begins moving away from A, and then moves back towards him.

From our one-dimensional friends’ point of view (reference frame, if you want to get technical), everything depicted happens sequentially, that is, in time. A sees B move away from him before he sees B move back:

We, however, have what you could call a “God’s-eye-view” of their entire world – we see everything that happens at once. It is not that we know that B will return to A “before” it happens, we are above time; while A and B experience one-dimensional movement in time, we see their entire two-dimension worldlines. For purposes of this tiny world, we are omniscient. Visualize tacking on a couple more spatial dimensions, and you get to the perspective God is coming from.

So what does this mean for free will?

According to Jewish thinking, God creates the world at every instant. We can now put this in more elegant terms: God creates worldlines. However, we can also see a few much deeper conflicts between omniscience and free will. Consider the worldlines of Adam and Eve:

Once we look at the story from an omniscient perspective, the problem here is no longer that God has foreknowledge that Adam will eat the apple. Instead, the problem is that God created Adam’s entire worldline, from T1 to T2, and every point in between. In other words, God created a complete trajectory in spacetime that included Adam’s sin!

But let’s assume for a second that Adam somehow retains his independence, that he somehow “chose” his trajectory while God just watched. Unfortunately, this only makes the problem worse. God, being omnipotent, had the option to create two possible Adams, alike in every respect but one: an Adam who would “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he ate the apple, and an Adam who “freely” choose a trajectory in spacetime where he didn’t (call him “Shmadam”).

God created Adam instead of Shmadam, knowing fully well which trajectory either would take. He created an Adam whose worldline followed a direction he disapproved of, who would violate his only command. How can we possibly say that Adam really had a choice in the matter when God chose his worldline over Shmadam’s? He never stood a chance.

In the legal world, we find no difficulty in holding people liable for the reasonably foreseeable acts of others. For example, under the theory of “negligent entrustment,” if you give a raving, angry, and visibly intoxicated man a loaded handgun, you may be liable for any injuries he causes. Can we hold an omniscient God to a lesser standard? Or, is the First Cause somehow less than proximate?


Blogger Elle Woods said...

I remember in my problems in philosophy class when we talked about this issue and the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of god. For me it was never really a "problem" since I just strugged and figured "good thing I'm an atheist." However, it was mildly amusing to watch the religious students make up all sorts of ridiculous excuses.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 8:11:00 AM  
Blogger Mad Jurist said...

You make a couple of assumptions with Shmadam. First, you assume that there *is* a Shmadam; not that there is a possible world in which Adam chooses not to eat the apple, but that there is a set of circumstances in which Adam freely chooses not to eat the apple.

Second, you assume that God's liability in creating a worldline is similar to our legal liability in handing someone a gun, but it's not clear that this is the case. I gotta go to church, but if you're interested, I can continue this line of thought later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 8:29:00 AM  
Blogger WC said...


Sunday, July 16, 2006 2:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the issues here is that god is not knowable. The minute you try to put yourself in a "God's eye view," you miss the point, in a sense. The Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith, with which you are no doubt familiar, state unequivocally: "I believe with perfect faith that God does not have a body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing whatsoever that resembles Him at all." We can't understand God's perspective because it is so foreign to the human experience that to begin to approximate it through graphs and charts is to misunderstand His entire nature.

I definitely understand people's frustration with the clashing concepts of free will and an omniscient Creator. But the fact that people make bad decisions sometimes does not negate God's omniscience.

Maybe Adam was always intended to eat that apple. Maybe in the end, it was better that he did. And even if God did know that he was going to do it, does that necessarily mean that He could stop him? We were given free will by an omnipotent God and one of the burdens of that gift is having to make the hard calls. And we are rewarded when we make them for the good, and even if we are not immediately punished when we don't, as Adam was, the punishment is every bit as real.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 5:39:00 PM  
Blogger The Atheist Jew said...

ChrisB - I was trying to avoid the question of whether there is a possible world in which Adam chooses not to eat the apple, since that proposition already assumes free will. Instead of worldlines (the actual), you would have something like two-dimensional cones of possibility. However, I don't think that would get us anywhere.

If we accept the premise of omniscience, God doesn't just know the possible (the available trajectories in spacetime), but also knows which trajectory Adam actually takes. We are therefore stuck debating in what sense there were "really" any other path Adam could take.

However, if we go back a further step and, instead of considering Adam's choices, consider God's decision process, I think we get somewhere. In the Adam/Shmadam diagaram, God has two possible worldlines to create. I don't assume that "there is" a Smadam - I assume that "it is possible that there is" a Shmadam (there'd be a diamond before the existential quantifier).

By doing this, we don't have to worry about Adam's or Shmadam's possible trajectories, because we know what trajectories that they actually take if their worldline is selected.

Think about it this way: You work at a gun shop and two guys come in to buy your last Glock. One is drunk and talking about how he's going to kill his girlfriend. The other is a gun-safety instructor. Sure, it's possible that the drunk guy will just go sleep it off if you give it to him, or that the other will start shooting up a mini-mall. But which one will a jury find you liable for if you sell it to and something bad happens?

By choosing Adam's worldline over Shmadam's, God essentially sold it to the drunk guy. And if I was on the jury, I'd find that he was liable for the foreseeable results of the sale.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 8:56:00 PM  
Blogger The Atheist Jew said...

Anonymous - You've actually anticipated a topic I was planning to post on in the future. I'm actually working through his Guide to the Perplexed - fascinating stuff. Many of the issues I take with the Rambam are the same issues I have with Aristotle's discussion of "substance" in the Metaphysics (no surpise, since Maimonides was a hardcore Aristotelian). There's no way I can incorporeality/unknowability justice in a comment, so keep reading!

As far as the rest, I wasn't really arguing against omniscience - I was arguing against the possibility of meaningful free will, assuming omniscience. I'll also have to get to omniscience later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 9:10:00 PM  
Blogger RandomLawyer2Be said...

My 2 cents. First, you say that G-d had a choice to create Adam who will chose the apple and Shamdam who will not. Obviously creating a being that will or will not do something automatically takes out free will. Instead I see it that G-d created a being that had both possibilities within him, both to chose the apple and not to chose the apple. After that, this being DOES have free will to do either one. Now, just because G-d knows which choice this being will make does not mean this being did not have a choice. Think of a child who sits at a table. To his right there is a chocolate bar, and to his left brocolli. You probably KNOW that he will chose the chocolate, but that does not negate the fact that he still has a choice, he can take the brocolli - but he won't. So, your knowledge of his choice, even before he makes it, does not mean he did not in fact chose.

Monday, July 17, 2006 5:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a good guess... you’re not all knowing. It’s not even a fine line. If you really knew the kid was would eat the chocolate then he wouldn’t have a choice in the matter. That is indeed the whole point of the debate. If God just has a good guess as what we will do and we really have free will then we have free will but God isn’t really a god, he would be little more than an alien or non-caporal force.

Monday, July 17, 2006 2:31:00 PM  
Blogger RandomLawyer2Be said...

My point is that just because you know how someone will react does not mean that person did not have a choice in his reaction. Let's try another example. Let's say I, dressed as a Jew with a yameca (sp?) and black suit, walk into a Hezzbalah stronghold tomorrow morning. Both you and I KNOW what will happen to me. Does that mean that these people do not have a choice in their actions? You will say that I only have a "good guess" at what will happen, but is that true? At some point this "good" guess becomes so good it's a certainty. Even then, the choice is still there.

Maybe we're defining choice differently. Is it against the forces of physics for the child to select the brocolli, or for Hezzbalah to let me go? No - they can choose to do it. But I KNOW they will not. My knowledge is independent from their ability to choose their actions.

(Disclaimer: I'm not comparing small children who love chocolate to the Hezzbalah!)

Monday, July 17, 2006 2:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still don't see why omniscience and meaningful free will necessarily conflict. God knows which path each of us will take, but the fact remains that we ourselves do not always know. If someone had told me four years ago where my life is now, I would certainly not have believed him. But all my choices have been my own (informed or not).

God told Adam not to eat the apple in Bereishit. Adam and Eve both knew that they were not to do it. But they both did it anyway. The Torah doesn't bring down much about Adam's personality. We know that he maybe liked to pass blame a little, because when God asked him whether he had eaten from the tree, he replied that the woman whom God had given him told him to do so. Not much else is there. Was Adam a contrarian? Did Adam specifically disobey because he was specifically instructed?

Chazal have taught that all information in the Torah is necessary, and all unnecessary information has been omitted. Adam's character is therefore unnecessary. Why? Probably because there is a little of Adam in all of us. Adam disobeyed, as humans are wont to, simply because of free will. I maintain that he wasn't set up as you suggest because he had a completely viable alternative - stay in paradise and live happily forever. He made a choice, which he had been equipped to make.

Looking forward to your post on Maimonides. Also, your idea of holding God liable is rooted in history, as I'm sure you know (cf. Elie Wiesel). I do anticipate a juicy jurisdictional issue or two along the way.

Monday, July 17, 2006 2:44:00 PM  
Blogger stud.iur. said...

I'd say, if God knows which path adam will choose, then a choice never existed. But it seems to me that this is only true from Gods perspective. From adams point of view (from our point of view), it was always possible to act as he had been told. He himself does not kow upfront what he will do in the future. He thinks he has a choice. And thinking that, he would probably tell you, that no doubt he has a free will. I think that is an important point. If you are convinced that you have a choice and nothing in your reality indicates anything different in a for you graspable way, don't you then have to accept the existence of free will as an natural fact? I think free will must be defined from the perspective of the individual who is supposed to have it.
But its true. If you think about human choices fom gods perspective, the conflict between omniscience and free will is evident.

(I'm german so please forgive me for my bad english. )

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 6:25:00 AM  
Blogger Kirsten said...

Where is the court that holds God liable for His actions?

Considering you started this blog to "to work out my conflicted issues with Judaism," so undoubtedly you already know that this question is not at all about finding "the answer" but finding your answer, so stud.iur (P.S. - your English is very good) is exactly right - it's about you. The question you're really asking is not "Can we hold an omniscient God to a lesser standard?" but "Can you hold an omniscient God to a lesser standard?" The answer to that is no for you as an athiest, but it's also the wrong question if you're looking for spirituality. The correct question is "can I hold to an omniscient God to whom I can hold no standards whatsoever?" And again as an athiest, your answer is probably no. Especially as a smart lawyerly athiest. I'm guessing that to some extent you abhor things that can't be explained and can't be accounted for and can't be controlled. This would be the case if T.M. Palay is correct that lawyers are risk-adverse, and consistent with other people I've known who've made the exact same arguments you're making, though those I've known come from very science-heavy backgrounds, so maybe this is not an accurate understanding of you. I'm a scientist too, and I feel quite strongly about both science and God.

The question of predestination versus free will is a circular one and a pointless one because whether we are in charge or God is makes absolutely no difference - we will act as we will and not know the future and barely know the past regardless of who's in control. Even if you find an answer to this question, how will it make any difference in your ability to control/be responsible for your personal worldline, which I suspect is what you actually care about. You will have no clue whether the answer to this question effectively takes your worldline to different coordinates in the x, y and z axes, because as yet we cannot control the one that matters and for practical purposes does not exist, which is the timeline.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 8:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written. I always thought that the "well, god is outside of time" argument was kind of a lame way to not think about it. And in response to Kristen's comment, I think the point isn't so much our personal worldline, but rather the truth. If I'm truly not in control, I just want to know.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 7:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Adam/Shmadam point could be boiled down to a simple fatalistic view of God. Why would an all-powerful God knowingly allow evil to exist in, and thus be a part of His creation? What about free will? God created Adam, and Adam chose sin out of free will since he was created by God 'in His image'. God wants us to do the right thing, but he does not force us, rather lets us choose of our own volition.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009 11:12:00 AM  

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