Friday, March 24, 2006

Brains in a Jar

Godol Hador is blogging away furiously. I think he's having a crisis of something. A recent polemic against the skeptics broached the subject of all of us being "brains in a jar". I think the implication was that clearly we're not. But how clear is that?

I don't really mean that literally. What I am talking about is that in many ways our feelings, emotions, and perception of reality are very heavily influenced by simple electro- and bio-chemistry. Not enough seratonin and you're depressed. A lesion in your brain and you can hear music that isn't there. Exposure to certain chemicals that cross the blood/brain barrier can make you psychotic, or unable to control your sexual urges. Electrical stimulation can make you remember or forget, say things that you don't want to say or not be able to speak at all.

Which leads to a more complicated question. If there is a G-d out there who cares about our actions and determines our reward or punishment based on these actions, how can we account for the fact that many of our actions are really not byproducts of free will, but rather of simple statistical distributions of defects in our bodies.

So a mother who drowns her kids did so because she heard voices in her head telling her to do this. This hallucination was caused by the abnormal presence of a chemical in her brain. How can she be responsible for her actions. How can she be punished by the Divine?


Blogger Stevin said...

I've struggled with same questions, and I'm glad you've articulated them. Surely, if G-d exists, he must be merciful enough to overlook the sinful results of our biological deficiencies. I hope so. Alchoholism is a genetic disorder, schizophrenia can induce hallucinations which lead to acts of injury, depression can drive a person to suicide. Can we really expect G-d to subject us to these disorders and punish us for them? I hope not.

March 24, 2006 2:19 PM  
Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Well, later it turned out that the story about the voices was fabricated, which is why she's having a re-trial. Nevertheless, even with biochemical defects, we often have will enough to choose whether we want to fight the problem or not - while it's not too late! Andrea Yates was on anti-depressants, but when she felt better, she figured she didn't need them anymore...

March 24, 2006 3:02 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Although formulating this question in terms of brain chemicals is a modern idea, the question itself is not- how can we be punished for things when we are not responsible for making the choice to do them? The halachic category of ohnes, duress is specifically created to match it. Ohnes need not be only when someone has a gun to your head; I'm pretty sure that I have seen places where one is considered to be forced by a strong ta'aveh for something- Yitzro Onso.

The more general point is that we must assume that G-d's justice is completely just. We do not have access to His sentencing guidelines, but I'm perfectly fine with assuming that He takes all these sorts of things into account, much the same way that we do when evaluating moral culpability.

It's basically the idea of R' Dessler's "point of choice"- you are given a test at your level. There are things below this point, that you automatically do correctly, and things above this point that you are not expected to do. You are responsible only for what decision you make at that point where you have both temptation and the ability to beat it. For every person this is different, and for everyone it is constantly changing. You are also responsible for the results your decision may have in terms of lowering this point. If, for example, ala Irina, you choose to stop taking anti-depressants, you may be responsible for your later, unavoidable decision to kill your children, or at least responsible to some degree.

March 25, 2006 5:28 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>If there is a G-d out there who cares about our actions and determines our reward or punishment based on these actions,

The idea of reward and punishment is much more complicated than you present it. God does not sit and judge each of our actions and decides how to reward and punish. It is the way we look at it from a "pedagogical" (i cant think of the right word) point of view. The reward is the good outcome that results from the good deed and punishment is the bad outcome. It is the way HKBH created the world, that built into it is that system of cause and effect. It is sometimes hard for us to understand how a result from a good deed can be seen as good when it does not seem that way. Two things are at play, first we always question if the act was really good, second, we dont see the macro results which may not be good unless seen in all is aspect. It is much more complicated as Yediah and Bechrah come into play but this a good general starting point. You have to learn Rambam's hashgacha to get a clear picture.

March 25, 2006 5:48 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


One of the problems with having mental illness is that it basically makes your judgement impaired. When you have a physical ache, you can tell when you're better by how your body feels. When the problem is not physical, it's hard to figure out when you're better.

Of course, this means that once someone is on this medication for psychological problems they should never decide themselves to come off it. I don't know why so many do. I don't know if it's forgetting to take it for a day and then it is too late, your illness takes over - or if it is just human nature - people think that they are fine and don't need it anymore.

Also, I want to keep this discussion general even though I brought up the example of the Yates case.

March 26, 2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I understand your point about duress, but this seems to me a slightly different issue. Duress to me means that the person still has a choice to make, but makes the "wrong" choice due to duress.

So let's not talk about the person who takes medication. Let's talk about the cases where someone is not even aware that they should take medications at all. My point, and I realize I will probably never get a satisfactory answer to it is:

Rationally, the point of choice says that you are capable of making a choice (this gets into the whole free will argument). So why would G-d make the human body in such a way that there are cases where defects in the body cause people not to be able to make a choice at all.

March 26, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

David, thanks for your comment. I am really unlearned in philosophy and especially in Rambam. I know from reading your posts on the web that you are quite an authority on him.

I understand what you are saying, but frankly it seems like a cop-out. How do we know that the Holocaust is not something that ultimately leads to good? To me it seems like it is justification of an illogical system. If we are expected to understand good and evil (I mean we did eat from the tree and live the consequences) then we cannot hide behind the idea that it's all for the good.

I am sure that I am missing the point, but I can tell you that I am not alone. Perhaps we need a new edition of the Guide - one intended for the common folk.

March 26, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

Our process of making decisions may involve brain chemistry, as well as many other invisible influences. However, that doesn’t mean, at least to me, that we don’t have free will. The exceptions are psychotic illnesses in which the ability to experience reality and cognate are seriously impaired. For those who suffer such illnesses, neither Man nor God would consider them culpable.

And I always understood reward and punishment to be scaled to the circumstances of the person involved. In any case, I don’t think that reward and punishment in religious Judaism is to be understood in simplistic heaven and hell terms. When one does good deeds, he improves his soul. When bad deeds are done, the soul is weakened. In the world to come, where the life of the soul takes place, those with healthier souls will have better lives. Those with weak, impaired souls will have more difficult lives. The effect of an action on ones soul is dependent on what the meaning of that action is to that person.

See Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim and/or Derch Hashem.

Personally, I believe that making the ‘right’ decision is a matter of how much empathy one can have. The challenge is always being about to see what the effects of your actions are on others. Many things interfere with that empathic process, including drugs. (But also social and religious prejudices.)

March 27, 2006 3:03 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

dbs said:
The exceptions are psychotic illnesses in which the ability to experience reality and cognate are seriously impaired. For those who suffer such illnesses, neither Man nor God would consider them culpable.

This is the whole point of my question(which I know cannot be answered!).

What possible reason could G-d have to create us with the possibility of losing the ability to make a free choice.

March 27, 2006 5:40 PM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

The brain is absolutely fascinating, and quite scary as well. My take on it is that you don't know that Hashem would punish someone for such an act, that was determined by a chemical inbalance that could be said was caused by Him in the first place. I think it bothers me more that such cases happen, and the why of it.

March 28, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Sechel said...

Dear E-kvetcher,
I return after many months' hiatus, and once again, find you are discussing the very problem I have been studying recently. We must have some kind of inner connection. Perhaps we both derive from the same earlobe of Adam Harishon. In any case, there's a strong subterranean current in Judaism that runs counter to the whole we-have-free-will-and-are-fully-accountable-for-our-deeds refrain that characterizes 99% of Judaism. It's the everything-is-decreed current. Hakol begezeirah. There's a fantastic midrash in Tanchuma parashat veyeshev where R. Yehoshua ben Korcha complains that all the bad things that happen are really G-d's fault, but G-d makes it seem that it's the fault of human beings. G-d acts in and through human beings, and even though we have "free will" G-d merely uses this to accomplish what He had already planned. In Rav Elyashev's Leshem Shevo VeAchlamah, Drushei Olam Hatohu, p. 148 ff there's a lengthy analysis of the the metaphysical aspects of this. At a high level, in the hidden thought of Adam Kadmon (high above Atzilut), the entire history of the world down to the smallest detail has already been planned out.

This can potentially totally demolish the concept of free will, or I should say supercede it. It's not just Andrea Yates who may not have had free will, it's all of us. The Leshem, however, dances back and forth between the concepts of free will and predetermination--ultimately, both are true, and it's a stirah--a transcendental contradiction, somewhat like a Zen koan. Only in a state of expanded consciousness can one begin to appreciate it (even then, probably not grasp it really though). And yet we are held accountable for our actions, because it's His will that the events of history be carried out precisely in and through the creatures embedded in it. We can cause damage, so we can heal, and thus we get to be part and parcel of the Divine plan and cosmic drama.

Rebbe Nachman brings a similar concept in Emet Vatzedek, in the chapter on "Galut Vegeulah," siman vav, where G-d uses our free will to accomplish His plans, on a level not accessible to us.

Thank G-d Judaism is not a monolithic dogma. Chazal were truly bold and honest, and they confronted the same hard questions that plague us today.

March 28, 2006 6:02 PM  
Blogger Sechel said...

One other thing. Free will is clearly an important concept, but its significance is sometimes overstated. The Ramchal in Daat Tevunot writes that actually, free will is secondary in importance to the "gilui hayichud"-- the revelation of the Unity (of G-d) that is the foundational purpose of this universe. This would support the midrash's point I mentioned above, and the Leshem's analysis, as well as Rebbe Nachman's inyan.

March 28, 2006 6:21 PM  
Blogger Sechel said...

A second other thing.
All religions have struggled to come to terms with this issue. According to the Wikipedia, Catholicism comes down on the "free will" side of the stirah. Other Christian systems, however, don't, like Calvinist philosophy, which leans heavily toward determinism. Early Islam is deeply deterministic, while later Islamic thinkers tried to moderate this toward a more free will philosophy. And 99% percent of Judaism is 'free will-oriented;' because, I believe, Jews are pragmatic and don't want to give the crazies any excuses for intentionally misbehaving and then saying that they couldn't help themselves.

March 28, 2006 6:27 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


Thanks for your comments and welcome back.

I am astounded by how much learning some people have acquired. Let me restate this. I am astounded how much learning a typical frum person posesses.

If you don't mind me asking, how old are you and how long have you been learning Torah?

March 28, 2006 8:36 PM  
Blogger Sechel said...

Thanks...the thing is just to not be afraid to ask the hard questions. That's why I like your blog.
I'm 40, and most of my Torah is from my own family upbringing.
I'm not a frummie but I am observant.

March 28, 2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>At a high level, in the hidden thought of Adam Kadmon (high above Atzilut), the entire history of the world down to the smallest detail has already been planned out.

Sechel, I have very little understanding of Kabbalah. The little I do, I believe the real Mekubalim were mere philosophers, with no more supernatural insight, than regular thinkers that because of the very esoteric and dangerous (from a theologicalperspective) idea, they couched it in mystic language. The quote of the Leshem, which i have not seen, is almost a perfect expplanation of Rambam's will. The difference is that your understanding of "Adam Kadmon" is what is confusing you. I have been posting about transcendence lately. If you will follow my posts as we go along you will see that where I want to end up is for an understanding of what it means that we cannot grasp or apprehend anything about HKBH. His "knowledge" just like His "Existence" are only words that describe something wwe have no concept. Timeless knowledge, timeless by definition (lema'alah min hazman in Kabbalah parlance), does not influence outcome from our point of view. So there can be random developments in spite of His "knowledge". So as far as humans they should not be concerned about His "yediah" and not take it into account in their thinking. There is much more and I hope to post about it as we go along. Every time I deal with this issue I learn and I hope to help others. Please go back to regular Sifrei Mavhshava of Rishonim and leave the sifrei Kabbalah to those who are well versed in philosophical thought. there is a lot of good stuff, a lot of bunk, and even the good stuff one must really understand. The bunk resulted from misunderstanding the good.

March 30, 2006 1:45 AM  
Blogger Sechel said...

These are difficult issues.
One of the particularly special qualities of Rav Shlomo Elyashev z"l, the Leshem, was that he was not satisfied with a simple answer. Almost as if to say, "It must be understood both (often totally contradictory) ways, in order to have any chance of approaching the truth."

For example, the first half of the the first volume of the Leshem, called "Hakdamot Veshe'arim" is a lengthy treatment of the very issue you bring up: an attempt to reconcile what is knowable of G-d, which he calls G-d's "Metziut," with his unknowable "Mahut," also called "Emitato HeNe'elama," "His Hidden Truth." This is the issue raised in the first anaf of Etz Chaim; it is perhaps the most central issue kabbalah attempts to address. The Leshem in his commentary brings sources from the whole span of the tradition; particularly midrash and Zohar, but also gemara, Tanach, machshavah, and so on. I recommend it to you; he quotes the Rambam several times. One finds he goes deeper with each turn of perspective, but ultimately the problem remains a stirah. He treats other issues in the same way, including free will, in that case in the second volume, called Sefer HaDeiah. The issue of free will and predetermination also must be understood both ways, after lengthy serious analysis.

I think it's safe to say, in general, that any serious question, pursued earnestly and deeply enough, leads to a stirah. One must always be cautious about absolutes and simple answers. They most often represent either an incompletely thought-out response, or a distortion in some other way.

You wrote: "Timeless knowledge, timeless by definition (lema'alah min hazman in Kabbalah parlance), does not influence outcome from our point of view. So there can be random developments in spite of His "knowledge"."

I agree, but would add a few qualifications. One is that ergo, randomness is only apparent but not actual. One might argue that this is a meaningless distinction, for how can we know something other than through what it makes apparent of itself? I might respond that it's important to make this distinction, however, if only as an article of faith. After all, the coherence of our religion is at stake: If G-d truly is the Creator and Sustainer of all, then control over all is His. Nothing can truly be outside His will, even if, from our point of view, it appears to be random. So I cannot agree with your statement that:

"So as far as humans they should not be concerned about His "yediah" and not take it into account in their thinking."

While remaining humble in our acknowledgement of our creaturely lack of access to His yediah, yet we must believe in it and take it into account. It seems to me that it is extremely important to remain cogniscent of its existence. This belief is what has sustained our people in our darkest hours, for example. When we lose loved ones or go through national calmities H"V, sometimes literally the only thing that keeps us going is the faith that although the plan for the world is hidden from us, there is a plan, and G-d directs all things toward the ultimate good. We have to take this into account in order to survive.

There are other reasons to take it into account, as well. For example, you take it into account by writing about how humans need not take it into account. Surely that is a stirah if there ever was one.

In any case, kabbalah, in the words of the Ramchal, comes to show and support "the truth of faith." Kabbalah need not be reserved for the elite and kept from the simple Jews like myself. It is our very life-force.

March 31, 2006 7:45 AM  
Blogger Sechel said...

PS When you are uncertain about the meaning of a term (like "Adam Kadmon") you would appear more prudent if you did not accuse others of misunderstanding it. I used the term correctly; in the same way as the Leshem did at that point. The RaMChaL gives a good description of Adam Kadmon if you are interested, see KaLaCh Pitchei Chochmah, petach 31-35.

March 31, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>We have to take this into account in order to survive.

First Sechel, I did not mean to imply that you don't understand adam Kadmon. i did not get a feel from your comment one way or the other. So I appologize for the sharp language.

I picked the quote above beacuse i have always a problem with it. We Jews believe in Avodas Hashenm, that is man serves God, and not the other way around. That is the stark difference between us and ovdei avodah zara. So when a compromising idea is allowed because it makes people feel good, it immediately loses religious content in my eyes. I know it is a stark way of looking at it, but Torah is to heal the Nefesh not the body (Rambam Hil Avoda Zara 11:12). The feel good attitude is okay for a beginner but if you are into kabbalah then this argument should never come into play.

I am not ready for Kabbalah at this point. I am averse to learn any subject from Acharonim before i know the sources. I am suspicious of any "developed" idea and prefer to start at the source so that I can judge if the later commenters are correct. So I will leave the Leshem for later if i get that far in my life span.

Have a good shabbos.

March 31, 2006 1:30 PM  
Blogger Sechel said...

This is the first paragraph of the RaMChaL's KaLaCh, petach 1:

"The unity of the En Sof, may He be blessed, is such that only His will exists. There is not any other will in existence that is not [derived] from Him. Therefore, He alone rules, and not any other will. On this foundation is built the entire structure [of Torah]."

G-d's unity is such that He directs everything--the RaMChaL held this to be the foundational principle of Torah. So I wouldn't call it a compromising idea. Regarding it being "feel-good": although many might find it reassuring, others might find it disturbing, for it means G-d is ultimately responsible for all the terrible things that have happened to us. So it is not self-serving.

I respect your desire to learn first things first, however.

Shavuah tov.

April 01, 2006 8:04 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

Sechel - Ramchal is a mehkubal that was not accepted, in fact was rejected and considered a kofer, until Gra rehabilitated him. So I read his stuff with suspicion.

But be it as it may, your quote is not wrong because the word will is completely different than what you imagine it to be. God cannot change, "ani hashem lo shiniti" so His will is timeless. Think about that word - timeless, eternal - which means non changing. How can that be? The word Will as applied to God is only a word we use to describe something we see the result of so we imagine that He must have used will. We know however that His will is incomprehensible, and notwhistanding the unchanging will we have freedom of choice. So from an ontolligical perspective we say everything is God's will from a practical one, as far we are concerned we are free agents. We are therefore totally responsible for what happens. BTW that includes the Holocaust - it is man's cruelty that brought it about not God's will. I will be posting on these issues so keep on reading.

April 02, 2006 4:31 AM  
Blogger Sechel said...

You are a tough-minded guy. However, I again agree with your main point, but add some qualifications.

I agree that "from an ontolligical (sic) perspective we say everything is God's will from a practical one, as far we are concerned we are free agents. We are therefore totally responsible for what happens." But ergo, so is G-d.

"BTW that includes the Holocaust - it is man's cruelty that brought it about not God's will." At least ontologically, it follows from your above statement, that the Holocaust was indeed G-d's will.

I understand your desire to separate theoretical and pragmatic concerns. Generally, it's a reasonable thing to do when one is concerned with outcomes--like the question of upon what we shall base our behavior. (Clearly, we have to take responsibility for our actions.) However, it remains an artificial separation.

Granted, it's difficult to hold a stirah in one's mind; almost like a high-wire act. One tends to fall to one side or another eventually. But that is only due to the limitations of our weak intellects. Torah itself is many-faceted, even if we can't appreciate all the facets simultaneously.

As an aside I'm not sure why you insist you know what I'm thinking when I write "will." Perhaps you've had conversations yourself with people who presume to know what you mean, when in fact, they are off the mark. I think you'll agree, such presumptions are irrational.

April 02, 2006 6:13 AM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>But ergo, so is G-d.

Nonsense.see Moreh 3:11-12.

>I think you'll agree, such presumptions are irrational.

and you thought i was rational!:-)

I separate it philosophically ; "Ki lo machshevosai machshevosechem ...."

I believe as quoted from Gra on my post that one may not entretain these issues because our quest is Truth. When something is unattainable going for it is not truth. One must therefore stop there. Iam too lazy to find the Rambam where he makes that point but if you insist I will.

April 02, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger Sechel said...

I admire the Rambam. Do you know what he makes of the verse, "...Oseh shalom uborei ra, ani Hashem oseh kol eleh." (Isa.45:7)? That would be interesting.

It seems to me that his view that all evil comes from men or nature, and not G-d, is still reconcilable with the Leshem's. The Leshem says, after all, that G-d wanted all the "gevurot takifim," including ra, to come forth through the creatures themselves, so they would be part and parcel of the process and could rectify things. Because we are shayach to the gevurot, we can metaken them. However, G-d Himself is in control of the whole process, behind the scenes.

Incidentally the way you describe the Rambam, his theodicy sounds similar to Kushner's in "Why BAd Things Happen to Good People," which I think is in complete error. Kushner says G-d is not responsible for evil; that there are some things outside of G-d's control, that He can't do anything about. I don't buy it.

April 02, 2006 9:05 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

> that there are some things outside of G-d's control, that He can't do anything about

Rambam would never agree to that.

April 03, 2006 12:29 AM  

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