Thursday, January 7, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section two

What Does Judaism Say About the Subject? (Chapter Three, section two)

According the Judaism, the author says, we have a soul and, unlike animals which are driven by their desires, we can control our desires and choose our actions. This ability to choose is what makes us human. He claims that only humans can choose to do things like face their fears or return things they find. I’m not sure whether this is actually true, but even granting that it is, the author’s next statements are baffling.

He says, “Free choice operates only in the realm of morality.” He says that heredity and environment may determine what you like to wear, the kinds of things you buy, even major life choices like your career. But moral choices, those are different. Those are subject to your “free will.” Think about this for a minute. Is there any functional difference between the way in which we choose which shirt to buy or whether to return the extra change the cashier gave when we bought it? Choices, all choices, are made for a variety of intuitive, emotional, and rational reasons.

Perhaps the author means to say that choices that are in line with your desires, such as which shirt to buy, are driven by environment and genetics, while choices that go against our desires, like returning money, are products of our free will. (This seems to be in line with his statement that facing our fears is exercising free will, even though I’m hard pressed to see how facing one’s fear is related to morality. Is it immoral to avoid high places because of one’s acrophobia?) But this isn’t a distinction between moral and amoral choices. If I were to choose to buy and wear a shirt that I despised, is that a moral choice? Yet according to this definition, by making such a choice I would be exercising my free will. Similarly, if I were to return money I found because of the pleasure I get from seeing another person happy to get their money back, that is not a choice made using free will even though it is moral.

Keep in mind, also, that the entire premise is flawed. If I’m right about the author’s intended meaning, he is assuming that either we want to do something or we don’t, and if we do it despite not wanting to we are exercising free will. Our decision making is far more subtle and takes more than our immediate impulses into account. We drag ourselves out of bed in the morning even though we don’t want to because our desire for a paycheck is stronger than our desire to stay in bed. Similarly, any actions we take that go against our immediate desires are most probably prompted by other factors such as societal conditioning, later rewards, or emotional urges. Our decisions about whether to behave altruistically are even dependant on the exact conditions in which we find ourselves. There have been experiments that show that if someone thinks another person is waiting for him he is less likely to stop and help a person in need. Given all of these factors that come into play when we are making decisions, can we really be said to be exercising “free will?”

In the next paragraph the author acknowledges the influences on our decisions, and says that, “It [free will] kicks in only at the point (unique for every individual) where the scales are evenly weighted between the possibilities.” In the abstract, I have to agree that this makes a certain amount of sense. But given a mechanistic view of decision making, a scale (to use the author’s analogy) on which are weighed all the factors influencing our decisions and the heavier side determines our actions, isn’t it possible that those times when the scale balances perfectly are the times we find ourselves paralyzed by indecision? The author is assuming that we tip the scale by exercising our free will. Perhaps there is no such thing as free will, and a balanced scale leaves us deadlocked until something throws weight onto one side.

Granted, this is speculation on my part, but so is the author’s theory of scales and narrow bands where all influencing factors balance to allow for the exercise of free will. Without any evidence it is impossible to say which of our theories, if either, is correct.

He now cites a study done at Princeton University in 2004. The researchers presented the subjects with a serious moral dilemma and observed their brain activity using an MRI machine. They found that in addition to the activity found in the emotional areas of the brain when subjects make simple decisions, there was activity in the abstract thinking and decision-making areas. The author interprets the extra activity to mean that they were making a free-will choice as opposed to one that was wholly influenced by other factors. This despite:
1) The obvious conclusion that complex dilemmas about hypothetical situations require input from more sophisticated areas of the brain to reach a decision than do simple questions.
2) This runs counter to his earlier argument that the point at which the scales balance and free will kicks in is unique for every individual. We would have to assume that all of the subjects in the experiment just happened to have the particular scenario presented to them fall in that narrow band where all the factors influencing their decision balanced and they were able to exercise free will. While possible, it is unlikely that a random scenario would fall into the free-will band for any of the subjects, let alone all of them, and we have no reason to say that it did in this case other than to lend support to the author’s theory.
3) The author writes that the neuroscientists running the experiment reached the conclusion that complex decisions take longer because they use more recently evolved parts of the brain. The author discounts their conclusion for no apparent reason (though I wonder if he might consider their reference to evolution enough of a reason). I’m inclined to give the neuroscientists’ interpretation of the experiment more weight than a layman’s, myself and the author included.

The author’s theory, with very little reference to Judaism despite the section heading, is that free will exists, albeit only in that narrow band where all other factors are evenly balanced. Strangely, he thinks that such balance only occurs in relation to moral choices. Unfortunately for his theory, the decision scales are likely to balance perfectly very infrequently, and I would guess that when they do the result is indecision, not an opportunity for free will. (This may be an unknowable, as it is likely impossible for us to ever measure ALL of the factors that influence a given decision.) The experiment cited is largely irrelevant to the author’s theory, and the conclusions he draws from it are unwarranted.

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