In 2007, at Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, scientists conducted a troubling experiment. They put people into an MRI machine and asked them to press one of two buttons in front of them. The subjects were told to do this several times, and to choose freely which button to press.
One part of the results was nothing new: around a second before the button was pressed, the parts of the brain associated with conscious decision-making lit up. But looking more carefully, the scientists noted that there was a pattern of neural activities around six or seven seconds before the decision was actually taken. That pattern predicted with great accuracy the decision that the person ended up taking.
The researchers were shocked, because these findings suggest that decisions are not really conscious. Rather, they are subconscious neural processes that are complete before our “command and control” functions ever activate. We may think that we’re about to consciously decide something, but in fact, our subconscious has already (and irrevocably) decided.
And no, the experiment wasn’t a statistical fluke. Yitzhak Fried, an Israeli neurosurgeon, corroborated the findings by testing the activity of individual neurons. “At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness,” said Fried. “The conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage”.
What this experiment may prove is earth shattering: we may not have free will. We do have will; our will can be said to exist in our brain subconsciously, and the brain is a part of us. But if every seeming moment of choice is really an illusion—if our actual thoughts have no power over any decision—how can that will be called free?
Think about how much this idea can change the world: imagine a murderer claiming in court, “Sorry, Your Honor, but my subconscious made me do it!” Or, “I can’t stop being a burglar; it’s inscribed in my DNA!”
But, for all the science, this idea is not new. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that fate was determined at birth and that there is no escape from our destiny. Ask Oedipus; the oracle’s predictions were final, and even attempts to make them impossible ended up fulfilling them. Many Eastern cultures include inescapable karmas and kismets. Calvinist theology believed in determinism, as did many modern philosophers. Today, many thinkers and scientists go even further, holding that the very idea of the “self” is an illusion.
For some of us, this idea is unsettling. Are we not in control of our lives? For many, however, this belief is strangely reassuring. It brings the one comfort of the slave: the relief from hard choices. Few people know the intricacies of neuroscientific research, but even so, most of us live most of our days as if we have no control over who we are or what we do.
Our world today lives in a paradox of freedom: individuals have never had so much power over our lives, and yet we have never felt so alienated and powerless. Collectively, despite living mostly in democratic societies, we believe that we can’t shape world events. We feel as driven leaves in a world that has become too complex and too convoluted to understand, let alone control. It’s tempting, and easy, to abandon ourselves to listlessness and despair; to believe that, after all, we have no agency whatsoever, so “que sera, sera.”
Judaism has a longstanding quarrel with this idea. Our tradition says that we were created “slightly less than God,” and insists on the responsibility of both the individual and the collective. One might even say that Judaism is a meditation on the interplay between human freedom and human responsibility. This theme is present with particular strength on the High Holidays, as we face judgement for our deeds and as we reflect on our past and our future.
Jewish tradition leaves us no escape. We can’t blame our genes. We can’t confess our sins and ask an MRI machine to vouch for us, and we can’t hide behind karma or oracles. The liturgy leaves no doubt when it speaks of the deeds that with our hands we have forged. This time of the year confronts us, quite brutally, with our failings, but the main message the High Holidays transmit is that we can change; we do have free will and we do decide the type of people we are. We can’t control most of what happens to us, but we can choose how we react to the world around us. That is, ultimately, our own indelegable task. As the Renaissance thinker Picco della Mirandola said, “We have made you not of heaven, nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper or yourself, fashion yourself in the form you prefer.”
Collectively, too, the High Holidays call us to a renewed sense of shared responsibility. They tell us that we are all linked in an inescapable network of mutuality. And they insist that together, too, we have agency: we have the power to change the world and make it a better place.
It is in this kind of mutuality that I believe the answer lies to the seeming contradiction between science and the Jewish belief in free will. The Berlin experiment measured individuals, lying alone in an MRI machine, within a sterile lab and taking meaningless decisions without real consequences. But, of course, that’s not how we live our lives. Not only do our lives take place in all kinds of environments dissimilar to labs and MRI machines, and not only do most of our real decisions entail real consequences, but—crucially—we do not live our lives as single individuals. We are social beings, and as much as we are selves—perhaps more than we are selves—we are members of families, of communities, of organizations, of nations. Modern cultures may have forgotten this, but the Jewish tradition never has. That’s why so much of our High Holiday liturgy speaks to God not as “I”, but as “we”.
So in a lab, our subconscious may make an ironclad decision seven seconds before we consciously “decide” and confirm that decision, but in the real world, we seldom decide alone. Think of two spouses, two sisters, two colleagues, a parent and a child, standing in a room where a decision must be made. How might we affect one another during those seven seconds of supposed inevitability? How might be become agents of one another’s teshuva, return to our truest and highest selves? How might we become enablers of one another’s free will?
Let the scientists keep arguing over the free will of the individual. Who knows what new findings may produce? Perhaps tomorrow’s science will reinforce determinism for the brain and the genes even further. Or perhaps some new study will cause the pendulum in neurology to swing back toward free will, just as biology has begun to speak somewhat differently about determinism after the advent of the field of epigenetics—studying ways that the same genes can express themselves in different ways depending on context and environment.
In the meantime, and until science gives its final verdict, all we can do is live within the framework of human experience. As Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said, “Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice.” In this time of the year, we have no choice except to confront this choice: will we assume that we have no free will and passively accept our failings, or will we choose who we want to be and commit to becoming that person?
For philanthropists, the choice is clear. Whatever we see in human society, the good and the bad, was accomplished by people like us. If people broke it, people can fix it.
In these days, we are confronted with the choices we have made. We ponder whether we are being faithful to our dreams and aspirations. We are judged not by some external standard, but against our own potential. Have we done all the good we could have done? Have we taken responsibility for our people and for our world? Are we acknowledging our wrongs against ourselves and others, or are we hiding behind our perceived powerlessness? No wonder they are called the Days of Awe.
But they are also days of hope, for we realize that we can repair as much as we can destroy. The process of teshuva brings us the gift of a blank slate, a new page on which we—we together, not alone—will write our own fate.
In this New Year, let us be true to our nature that gives us the privilege of choosing and hoping, of acting and planning. May we all have a year in which our choices make us better: more empathetic, more humble, and more daring. May our choices bring us peace, prosperity, and joy, and may we share the exhilaration of knowing that we can reach both the depths of our souls and the heights of the stars.