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Nature-Nurture & Free Will

| 13/07/2007
Fast Days
Religion & Science
Thought and Philosophy

The age-old adage – “does the person make the job or the job make the person?” is being framed quite differently today.  The rewording does not change the question:  Are we in charge of our destinies? Are we shaped by our surroundings? Or are we a product of our genetic makeup?  The nature-nurture argument has not gone away.  It is being fought on different grounds: grounds that often frighten people into avoiding scientific facts and claiming that they just do not understand.

In his book on human nature  (Pinker, Steven.  The Blank Slate : The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Press, NY (2002)).  Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Steven Pinker points to a few modern thinkers who have been attacked for implying that genes play a part in our behavior, our belief systems and our moral capacities.  That is to say, we are influenced by things apparently out of our control when making decisions.  Our free will is limited, the theory implies, by our genes.

Another “attack” on free will comes from the philosopher Daniel Dennet  (Dennet, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea : Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster , NY (1995). And Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking Press, NY (2006)).  when he claims that our minds, that sense of self we so cherish as humans, has been very carefully selected over the many years of evolution to perform the tasks it performs so well.  In other words, our selves are products of evolution.  John Locke’s theory that we are born tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which anything can be written is not borne out by current scientific theory and methodology.

Interesting.  The attacks on free will come from the very quarters that came up with the idea in the first place.   Or do they?

Yet we must ask: “do we really believe in free will?”  The Torah gives us choices in the book of Devarim, the choice between good and bad, between life and death  (Devarim 30:15). .  Yet only a few verses later, we are instructed to choose life.  (Devarim 30:19).   Is that free will?  More, the Midrash in Tanchuma  (Tanchuma, Noah Siman ?).  teaches that the children of Israel did not accept the Torah until God held Mt. Sinai over their heads, threatened to drop it on them and bury them if they did not accept all of the Torah laws and precepts.  Doesn’t sound very free.

To be sure, the Mishna in Avot tries to sum it up by teaching us that everything is seen by God, but we still have free will.  (Pirke Avot 3:15).   But isn’t that almost like saying that our actions are determined by a combination of our genes and of our environment.  At the risk of sounding heretical, it doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding or resolution: are we free to do what we choose or is our behavior predetermined either by our God or by our DNA.

During this month of Av we commemorate the destruction of the Temples .  If indeed we are a product of our genes, how can we hold our enemies responsible?  They were preprogrammed to conquest and we were in their way.  If they were enacting the will of God, the same question holds.  If the Jews of the time were punished for their evil deeds – murder at the time of the first temple and pointless hatred at the second – how can we justify any punishment?

That is the ultimate question raised by the observant among us who bristle at the possibility that we are products of our genes, or by the non-religious who do not believe in seeing God’s hand at work.

Yet allow me to propose a different solution:  one that I share with Professors Pinker and Dennet and one promoted also by Dr. Yoram Yovel, an Israeli psychologist and psychiatrist.  There are many things in our lives that are predictable, determined if you will.  The scientist in me sees our genetic makeup that in turn developed our minds.  In turn this mind evolved over millions of years to adapt to certain ecological realities.  The rabbi in me sees the hand of God.  Either way, I may be limited.  Yet I believe that, in fact, the opposite is true.

If, in fact, I can learn my genetic tendencies, I can learn to curb them.  If I turn to God for the answer, then I know that God wants me to be an active partner in my choices.  I need not succumb to the genetic or holy burden placed upon me; I can fight it and conquer my tendencies.

Let me prove this with a few examples: hair color, high blood pressure and violence.  Today I can enter any pharmacy and overcome my genetically determined hair color.  A few shekels and I can be blonde, brunette, have streaks or highlights.  Simple, but true.  The analogy to violent behavior seems far fetched, though.  If I know that I have a genetic tendency to violent behavior, I cannot simply enter my local pharmacy and by an over-the-counter remedy for it.  At best, I need a prescription.

Yet we can learn from high blood pressure or cholesterol if you like.  The genetic component of these disorders is well documented.  If in 2007 I know that my father and/or mother have one or another of these conditions, I believe that I am obligated to pursue a course of treatment that will allow me to be a father for my children for many years to come.  That course of action may include medication, but also behavioral changes, i.e. diet and exercise.  I think it immoral to succumb to my genetic tendency to die of high blood pressure, just because it is genetic.

And in fact, this holds for violence as well.  If I know that my parents were violent (mine have high blood pressure and cholesterol, but are not violent) and if I do succumb to this tendency I must turn to treatment, medical and behavioral, in order to overcome it. I think that answer is obvious.

And if I am lucky enough to see God’s hand and hear God’s voice and if I understand what God wants of me, I must take charge, I cannot let myself be dictated by God’s will, that is not what God wants.  If I believe that it is a God-given characteristic to be one way or another, that doesn’t mean I must succumb to that characteristic.  Indeed, Pirke Avot teaches me that I am valiant, a true gibbor when I conquer my yetzer , my innate, inborn characteristics.

So, in fact, the knowledge that genetics determine a large part of my behavior actually increases my responsibility to act freely, and not allow my genes to be the final determining factor.  That God may know in advance does not allow me to kick back and let nature take its course.  They both require me to act. That is what I believe the so called “attackers of human free will” are teaching us.


Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is the Academic Advisor for the Family and Community Studies M.A. Track at the Schechter Institute and. His courses touch on this topic as well as the psychological aspects of Judaism. He is a graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a practicing psychologist specializing in ADHD and Learning Disabilities

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