Rabbi Kass' Viewpoint: Harvard and Free Will
In a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is an article entitled “What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk which reports the results of the Grant Study, a longitudinal examination of the Harvard class of 1942. Although George Vaillant, the man who supervised this work for 42 years, makes some suggestive correlations such as that men coped with their problems better as they got older and those who were close to their siblings had a healthier old age, what is most striking is the surprising variety of their destinies in life.
Clearly, to go to Harvard, the most prestigious college in the country, is an auspicious beginning. What’s more the 268 members of the class were for the most part intelligent, suave, rich and ambitious. Some of them did very well such as John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee. However, more than a third of the class suffered at least one serious bout of mental illness. Alcoholism was a
chronic problem. Indeed, the class jester, who had a wife and three children, battled depression and fell to his death at 64 down a flight of stairs in his apartment building while drunk. The most promising student who manifested at the College superior stability, intelligence, sound judgment, good health, idealism and noble aspirations died young after a life spent wandering, smoking pot and courting a psychotic woman. Some of the most banal personalities in the class turned out to be the most successful while people who at one point in their life were cautious and well- organized displayed diametrically opposite qualities at a different stage.
What is most fascinating about all this is how difficult it is to predict human behavior. Indeed, I would say, impossible. Obviously, heredity and environment play important roles in our growth and development, predisposing us in certain directions. But we don’t have to go in that direction, and many people don’t. Human behavior possesses a complexity which transcends scientific certitude. In short, the Grant Study confirms the principal underpinning of our Judaic faith: human beings possess free will.
Free will is the basis of man’s responsibility as a member of society. Without it, the whole concept of these High Holy Days that God judges our behavior would be meaningless. What right would God have to evaluate our conduct, if we could not behave in a manner other than the way we actually did behave?
To be sure, the rise of modern science has created problems for those who believe in free will; because the scientific principle of causality affirms that every phenomenon is the result of an antecedent cause. Man is part of nature; therefore, his being and acting are the effect of an infinite number of prior factors, which determine what he is and does today. Indeed, Spinoza accepted that line of thinking and concluded that free will is an illusion. If he is right, it would spell the total paralysis of thought and action. Once you accept the notion that there is no freedom of choice, there is no logical reason for wrestling with any given problem or for weighing alternatives before coming to a decision. Scientists today, however, have retreated from a totally mechanistic view of the universe which maintains that every action is predetermined. The physicist Heisenberg has promulgated the principle of indeterminacy which declares that one cannot predict with perfect accuracy the path of any atom. Max Born postulated what has been called “the principle of limited measurability.” Certainly, the range of human freedom is limited by scientific law; but, however limited, we have sufficient freedom to be held responsible for our actions.
We may find it difficult to understand precisely how causality and freedom blend with one another, but life testifies that they do; because both are real. Rabbi Akiba in the second century expressed the paradox by declaring: “All is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” Samuel Johnson articulated it a little bit differently when he declared: “With regard to freedom of the will, all philosophy is against it, and all experience is for it.”
Certainly, the Grant Study reaffirms that life has a complexity which behavioral science and objective analysis could never predict. The destiny of the Harvard Class of 1942 is a powerful argument for free will.
Miryom, Sarah, Lewis and Sarah, Danny and Debby, Judah and Bennett join me in wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year. L’shanah tovah tikatevu.