Choose?! Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Do you knowingly choose your actions? Some neuroscientists have cast doubt on “free will.”

Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon and researcher at UCLA and Tel Aviv Medical Center, used implants combined with fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) to document that there is brain activity for a second and a half before subjects make a conscious decision to press a button. With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy. Fried concluded, “At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness.”

Hebrew University social historian Yuval Harari, author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (translated from Hebrew into forty languages)writes: “To the best of scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom.’ The sacred word ‘freedom’ turned out to be, just like ‘soul’, a hollow term empty of any discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.” (Homo Deus, p.285). And yet, Harari’s conclusions are far from universal among neuroscientists and philosophers. There is a wide gap between reactions to a specific stimulus and complex decisions, such as faith, marriage, and career- not to mention our very character.

For the sages, free will is essential to human dignity and moral order. If there is no free will, then there are no grounds for personal accountability and punishment. In the words of 12th century philosopher Maimonides, “Every human being may become righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked like Jerobaum; wise or foolish, merciful or cruel…every person turns to the way chosen, spontaneously and of his own volition.” (Laws of Repentance, 5) Maimonides states that he is responding to those who claim that their decisions are controlled by the stars or predetermined at birth.

Much that goes into our decisions goes unnoticed, whether unexamined biases, shortcuts of the mind, or biochemical swaying. And yet, in this week’s Torah reading of Nitzavim,  free will is a given: “I call on heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have place before your life and death, blessings and curse. Choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As we approach a new year, morality, dignity, and contentment demand freewill. May we chart our future wisely. Let us choose life.