Neither Random nor Predetermined

Free Will is difficult to define. We’re saying that people make choices that are neither predetermined by outside causes, and yet non-random. Moshe Koppel, in his book “Metahalakhah” proves that such a domain exists, but without showing us what that domain might contain.

A random sequence is one whose next element is not predictable given the sequence’s history so far. But it’s easy to model, simply say that each it is random. It can be done in very few bits of a programming language.

A sequence that can be reduced to a shorter one is the product of algorithm. For example:


You don’t need to have every bit listed in order to reproduce the sequence. One need only have a set of bits that mean “10, repeat” in some programming language.

For example:


Looks like it’s the old “10, repeat”. Until we get to:


Now it looks like

if not a multiple of 5
if odd 1
if even 0
if a multiple of 5 – 0

But then we get some more items:


So we theorize:

if not a multiple of 5
if odd 1
if even 0
if a multiple of 5
if odd 0
if even 1

But later on we learn:


The 25th item didn’t obey this rule… and so our model gets ever more complex as we have more data to work with. We can always explain the sequence in less space than the sequence itself. So it isn’t random. However, the description of an infinite expansion of this sequence would be infinite. It’s not an algorithm because no finite model exists. They are “non-modelable”, since neither a coin tosser nor an algorithm will model the resulting output.

There is a middle ground between deterministic and random. If one watches a person’s decisions, it will fall into that class.

Dr. Koppel, following R’ JB Soloveitchik’s approach in “Halachic Man”, sees the role of halakhah as that of maximizing free ill. Man redeems himself through a creative partnership with G-d. That creativity is a product of being non-modelable; our decisions are neither inherent in our nature nor our environment nor random — they are something new, products that our uniquely our creations.

Perhaps the same dichotomy lies behind Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

To recap my summary of that dilemma from an earlier blog entry:

In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because Hashem chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?

The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.

Notice how the options presented match the ones Dr Koppel rules out with respect to free will: either Hashem’s moral choice is predetermined by an outside notion of morality, or His choice is arbitrary.

The resolution I offered to Euthyphro’s Dilemma was:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis.

Moral good is thus defined in terms of Hashem’s purpose behind creating us. Notice again the third alternative is about being purposive. Deterministic behavior is caused by one’s past. Random behavior is arbitrary, without particular cause for one outcome over another. By not being modelable, people have the ability to make decisions based upon a desired future.

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  1. J Zukerman says:

    For the Jewish Euthyphro’s Dilemma:
    My understanding was that mitzvot were holy because they conform to the nature of HaShem. People are told we are to be holy, to be like HaShem, and following the mitzvot are the way to get there. It’s the best way we have to know his nature. An act isn’t good just because he, on a whim, commanded it, but because it is him. But maybe I’m missing something?

  2. R’ Moshe Averick would agree with you. See his recent essay at the Nishma web site. My own position on Euthyphro wasn’t really spelled out on this one, here I reference my earlier post and build from that.

    The difference is subtle, since Hashem made man for some purpose that is best served by making us in His Image, in a manner in which we can make that Image ever closer (or G-d forbid further) from the Original. Thus, to be one is to be the other. G-d’s purpose obviously would therefore come from His Essence, everything has to lead back to that. But I’m not defining morality directly as imitating Him. In addition, we don’t know His Essence, we know How He shows Himself to us. Which eliminates the power of your answer.

    Second, we don’t always imitate G-d; murder is immoral, but natural death is common. The fact that G-d kills doesn’t mean we can. And last, my answer obviates the need of asking and answering “Why follow G-d? If the creator was an infinite but evil [as we now understand the term, one who would say ‘thou shalt slowly torture to death’] deity, would I be compelled to follow?” I would argue that if any of our actions have meaning, it’s because we are significant creatures. So, either our purpose for being here is morally significant, or our actions have no moral import and our moral decisions pointless anyway.

    My preference is to define morality in terms of His purpose in creating us rather than in Hashem’s Essence directly for a couple of reasons:

    1- It allows me to give the word “tov” (good) a single meaning, whether we’re talking about a good pen or a good person. A good pen is one that writes well, that is good at its intended function. A good person is moral, which is also being good at its intended function. (This being Judaism, it’s more critical to me that the same can be said of “tov” in Biblical Hebrew.)

    2- If morality means “in the image of G-d”, ascribing morality to G-d then becomes vacuous — He is what He is. However, if it means “doing what He made us for” we are saying that everything G-d does is purposive, to serve His Ultimate Purpose. If G-d’s actions are termed “moral”, but moral means “in accordance with G-d as He is” then saying that G-d’s actions are moral reduces to “G-d behaves in accordance with G-d.” Circular.

    3- (And by far the weakest:) It also fits a very modern notion of reward and punishment. Not so much that sin is punished by that by definition, sin is that which doesn’t fit your function and thus minimizes your gain.


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