Sunday, January 10, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section four

The Global Kindergarten (Chapter Three, section four)

The author now addresses why God would have created us with the desire to do bad things. He is at this point assuming he has demonstrated the existence of free will, and says that only by having the opportunity to choose to do bad do our choices to do good become meaningful. This is a pretty standard line or argument, and is usually presented as part of a larger set of arguments that attempt to answer the Problem of Evil.

The author complicates it though with an emotional appeal by noting that little children are not allowed to make important decisions, and making decisions is a sign of adulthood. The implication is that if you’re denied the possibility of making choices (either because free will doesn’t exist or because God didn’t provide us with the option to do bad things) you’re functionally a preschooler. To which our reaction is supposed to be, “How dare you say that I’m like a child! Of course free will exists, and how kind God is to allow us to make choices!”
{emotional appeal}

The argument itself seems to make good logical sense. We can only make choices if there are options to choose between. Note though that this argument presupposes that the benefit of having free will outweighs the cost in evil acts people will commit.
If we were to grant that it is worth the cost, we then have to address why in many cases we seem to be programmed so that we are driven to commit bad acts. This goes beyond merely having the choice of good or bad.

For instance, people are predisposed to divide themselves up into little social groups and to see those outside the group as less-than-human. This predisposition has been the root cause of untold suffering. Yet it doesn’t seem that this particular tendency is necessary for free will. Wouldn’t it be sufficient if we felt neutral towards those outside our group? Then we truly could choose to be kind or cruel to them. Instead, we have to fight our nature (through socialization, education, etc.) just to see outsiders as fellow human beings.

Still, the basic premise that evil at least needs to be possible still stands, even if we can’t explain why God thought it was necessary to predispose us towards evil in some situations. This brings up another question. What is evil? Let’s define evil, in this context, as going against what God would prefer you to do. In that case, we could have free will without anyone having to suffer. God could have arranged it so that the only choices we had were whether to keep bein adom l’makom mitzvos like Shabbos and kashrus, while it would never even occur to us to steal or murder. This way free will could be maintained without the need for human suffering. That evil is necessary for free will is not a justification for the ability of one person to cause another to suffer.

That said, I concede that hypothetically speaking for us to have free will there must be options to choose from, and for us to choose to do “good” (defined as what God prefers) we must be able to choose to do “evil” (defined as not doing what God prefers). Of course, if free will is just an illusion, this is all irrelevant.

The author now quotes a rabbi who asserts that free will is what constitutes the self, and the author states that, “Just as the seat of hearing is the ears, the seat of free will is the soul.”

Firstly, the statement that free will is the self is rather strange. Surely there is more to the self than that! What about our thoughts, emotions, memories, and personality? Aren’t these what we usually mean by the self?

Secondly, why should we assume that free will is seated in the soul? Has the author forgotten his own argument from the beginning of the chapter, where he explained mechanistically how free will is made possible by the balancing of all influencing factors? If his theory is correct, there is no need to posit a metaphysical soul to explain free will, just a module in the brain that decides between options when all other influences are balanced. But then, the brain is a physical construct and therefore is itself influenced by the environment. Therefore such a brain module would itself merely be a product of influence, and such a choice could not truly be said to be free will. He may be right that we need something metaphysical, completely removed from all influences, if we are to come up with a scenario in which one could be truly said to be exercising free will. Yet this still:
1) Assumes free will is a real phenomenon, something that has not been demonstrated.
2) Redefines the soul as that thing which allows us to make uninfluenced choices in rare specific cases. This is in contrast to the traditional understanding of the soul as that which animates the body and defines the self. Showing that in a specific hypothetical case for a given hypothetical phenomenon to function there must be a metaphysical component, and then labeling that component, “the soul,” does not show that the soul as traditionally defined exists. It’s just playing with semantics. In short, an equivocation fallacy.
3) Positing a metaphysical component to make free will work doesn’t really explain how free will functions. All it does is take one thing whose functioning we don’t understand – free will – and replace it with another thing whose functioning we don’t understand – the soul. This is the fallacy of pseudo-explaining one mystery with another mystery.

The author now cites, “The Zohar (the authoritative, ancient book on mysticism),” as saying that man has two souls, a lower animalistic soul the same as that which animates all animals, and a higher soul that makes, “Homo Sapiens become human beings.”

Firstly, he might want to qualify his statement about the Zohar by adding, “Accepted by many Orthodox Jews as…” Textual scholars, many rabbonim at the time of its publication, and a good number of contemporary Orthodox Jews agree that while the contents of the Zohar may be based on extant kabalistic ideas, the book itself was most probably written by Moses De Leon, the man who claimed to have discovered it in 1270. If that is the case, the Zohar is old, but not ancient. It also probably shouldn’t be accepted as authoritative, as its claim to authority rests on its authorship by R’ Shimon bar Yochai.
{questionable historical fact}

The second issue is more of a nitpick than a problem with his point. The author is trying to say that the higher soul is what makes people different than animals, what elevates our physical bodies to become people. What he actually said is taxonomical nonsense.

From Wikipedia: “The word "human" is from the Latin humanus, the adjectival form of homo.” Thus the word “human” technically refers to the entire genus homo. Modern humans are Homo sapiens, a single species (although the only non-extinct one) within the genus homo. (If we want to be precise, all people currently living are Homo sapiens sapiens - members of the sapiens variety of the species Homo sapiens.) Thus earlier humans became Homo sapiens, not the other way around.
{incorect scientific fact}

The author ends the chapter by once again asserting that the soul is the seat of all virtues and that it must remain in control of the body, this time comparing the soul to a parent that must control their impulsive child. He says that neither the child nor the body are “bad” for desiring pleasure, but, “It is the juvenile nature to choose indulgence and pleasure.” This unsupported assertion is an emotional appeal that attempts to equate fulfilling one’s desires with a child’s insistence on eating candy for breakfast. Once again, we are supposed to react by shying away from any implication of childishness and proclaim that, of course, we have a soul and it is in firm control of our bodies. We are adults! I’m not disputing that a young child has little self control. But drawing an analogy between a child and the body to reinforce an assertion that the body is the seat of all desires and the soul is the seat of all virtues does not make it so.
{emotional appeal}


  1. The answer to Life, the universe and everything:

  2. > The answer to Life, the universe and everything:



    Interesting, but too limited in scope to be The Answer