Free will? Not for me thanks… Berakhot 16 & 17

I remember very clearly an episode of philosophical angst triggered by studying the philosophy of free will, just weeks into my degree course.  I was walking through the humanities campus, my mind swimming in a sea of determinists of one sort or another, and the flimsy counterarguments just didn’t seem to work.  I was struggling to find room for freedom.

I supposed that if I wasn’t free, if the appearance of my making choices was just that, an appearance, then it was hard to see what possible merit could there be in any of my actions.  Following this traincrash of a thought, if there wasn’t any merit in my actions, then what was the point of acting.  And what, in dramatic conclusion, was the point of life.

I wouldn’t say I was suicidial about it, but I was deeply and seriously perturbed.

As I look back at it, I’m struck by several things.

Firstly, there’s a very serious need expressed in those thoughts for my actions to be meritorious.  Having just come out of three years in Yeshiva, maybe that doesn’t look quite as surprising.  But I’m still detecting a strong and rich narcissism in operation here, the most important thing in my world was my impression of myself.  I was deeply in love with a certain vision of myself, with, at least, the possibility my being a moral person.

There was no sense in which ‘God is dead, so everything is permitted’, no surge of liberation or excitement.  Just a puncturing of a narcisstic bubble, of a personality focussing too much of its energy on itself, requiring an unsustainable level of introversion.

Fast forwarding fourteen years, last night I had the privilege to witness the spectacle of narcissistic exhibitionism that is Puerto Banus.  At a glance it would seem that this world of flashy materialism, of conspicuous consumption par excellence, is light years away from the earnest student in his ivory tower haunted by metaphysical conundrums.

And yet, from a certain point of view, they are exactly the same.  We often need to cling to an image of ourselves, to believe in the appearance we display to the world.  It’s actually quite a theological position.  We believe that if are enough of something, whatever that something may be – rich, beautiful, moral, wise – then we will be happy, content, saved.

We invest a certain image with magical powers, and it differs from ancient idol worship only in that the image is of ourselves.  And if we get the magic spell right, then all will be well.

So what am I saying, that we shouldn’t love ourselves, that we shouldn’t try to realise an ideal image of ourselves?

No, I’m not quite saying that.  I suppose I’m saying that sometimes our inner life is impoverished, we have a weak sensation of self, a paucity of positive emotion as in our everyday experience.  And in those moments or periods we are susceptible to the allure of the image, and invest too much of our hope and energy in it.  We become dependent on achievement, on merit, and on the positive feedback that generates.  It’s important to note that this feedback can be very much internal and private, it need not be public, though of course it often is.

There is a healthy level of concern with what one is, with keeping an eye on oneself, and there is an unhealthy level of self concern, an excess of narcissism.

It’s hard (impossible) to say absolutely where one draws the line, it’s a very personal and individual thing.  One sign of the excess can be a certain fragility, the ease with which a person can be knocked or flustered by the smallest of everyday events, which are perceived, sometimes unconsciously,  as setbacks to one’s self image.

One wants to have a rich inner life, full of fulfilment, appreciation, love, compassion and peace.  (And, without going into it, I think religion, done well, helps with this.)

One wants to be experiencing one’s life, not watching it from a distance, as a spectator, needing to keep score as to how well one is doing by a given external standard.  (Perhaps this is why we so often imagine God doing this – we’re projecting our own internal dynamics onto Him.)

Allen Ginsberg once described Bob Dylan as being unique in the way he absolutely inhabited himself, his being and consciousness completely in harmony, which gave off a shaman like presence and quality.

To live with oneself, to inhabit oneself, to be present to oneself, not running away, these are the positive things we can aim at.  By the time we’re succumbing to external standards and expectations we’re already lost, our balance is gone, we’ve fallen off the bike.

Excessive narcissism is a symptom, not the problem itself.  One can only proceed by addressing the real problem, the lack of inner ease and comfort, the failure to inhabit and embrace one’s own life.  And let’s be very clear, there’s no shortcut to that.

Getting back to free will, I think I’m trying to say that the problem of free will is actually a problem of narcissism.  We have too great a need to believe in, literally, ourselves, in an image of ourselves as powerful, effective, in control.  To be free is to have power, to be less than perfectly free is to be subject to our genes, our childhood, our history, our culture, our environment.

We don’t like being subject in this way, it diminishes us, it makes us feel helpless, dependent, like an infant.  (It’s actually a doubled or compounded narcissism, we need to believe we are powerful, therefore we must believe we exist, that we are free.)

Am I saying that I’m no longer bothered by the deterministic challenge to free will?

I’m certainly a lot less bothered by it.  There are some clever things to say about it, perhaps for another time, but fundamentally I just don’t sense the problem as much.  I accept that I am very largely determined, by all manner of things, but that there also seem to be occasional moments of freedom, of decision, of spontaneity, of creativity.

But even in those moments I do sometimes feel like a spectator, like I’m watching myself do or say something, watching something happen, witnessing a thought pop into my head or words suddenly appear on the screen in front of me.  In some sense the ‘I’ is just along for the ride, but for the most part it’s a pretty good trip.

In the strange spaces of freedom I do find, I acknowledge that my will is not something particularly free or strong, and so I try not to let myself rely on it too much.  In order to build the life I want, or think I want, I fill that life with the sorts of things that build the inner mechanisms which produce good decisions.

From this perspective, I view psychotherapy and religion as fundamentally aligned.  Both exist because the flesh is weak, and because the will is not going to do much, on its own, to tame or change it.

Both aim to get inside the thoughts and feelings of a person, to constitute a person, and to make the newly constituted person a happier and richer place to be.  To render them more inhabitable.

So what does this have to do with today’s dapim (16 and 17)?

We are presented with a series of very personal prayers that the Rabbis used to say, either at the end of their routine prayer or at other special times.  And one of the many noteworthy things about them, is the frequency with which they ask God to take away our will, to remove our evil inclination, to strengthen our positive inclination.  For example:

May you establish for us a good friend and a good inclination in Your world, that we should wake and find that the aspiration of our hearts is to be in awe of You.

May it be your will, God, that we not sin or disgrace ourselves.

May you save us from our baser, uglier instincts, from a bad companion or neighbour and from our destructive demons.

May you save us from the yeast in the dough (inner ferment, excess ego) and outer subjugation such that we may return to your just ways with wholeness.

Open my heart with your Torah that my soul may pursue your righteous ways, and save me from ill fortune and from the inclination for evil.

What we see here is a group of people who were not at all interested in the freedom of their will, in the merit inherent in their actions.  For these pious individuals, they would happily give all the credit to God, and get all the help they could from a higher power.  Their only wish was to end up living along the path they desired, in a manner which they felt would be pleasing and fulfilling.

Everything is turned on its head:

We pray because we are weak, not pious.

We don’t see God as offended by sin, but as a means to help us avoid sin, for our failure is only an affront to ourselves.

And finally, in praying we seek to be relieved of the burden of freedom, we hope that by targeting something higher and better we will ultimately come to live by those same higher standards.

Belief in the will is replaced by belief in the culture, in constancy, in ongoing maintenance.  Religion and therapy aim to strengthen the goodness of our will, but the starting point for doing that is to acknowledge just how weak and unfree we really are.

I’m left wondering what would have happened if  someone had explained all of this to that earnest student all those years ago.  I’d like to think something productive would have come of it, but I suspect that some lessons can only be learnt the hard way, that some of us are just born not to be told.

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