Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Freedom of Choice in Natural Law?

Rambam in MN 2:7 has a very puzzling discussion which at first blush seems to be completely incomprehensible. In scholarly circles and more so with people who have not experienced Rambam in depth, the tendency would be to dismiss this as an Aristotelian comment which has been totally debunked by modern science. My experience with this great man is very different and I am convinced that he was able to transmit ideas that would have meaning even if the science of his day would be shown wrong. In fact, he does every so often suggest that science might change in the future. All he is doing is teach us how to interpret the reality we live in so that it is understood from the perspective of a man of religion who is also committed to the truth.

Rambam discusses the concept of angels and spends several chapters discussing the broad meaning of that word - it includes people, forces of nature, non-sentient and sentient beings, laws of nature and a multitude of other possibilities. Generally, it refers to an agent that is the cause of an effect perceived by people. In this chapter he says that the angels we refer to as the laws of nature, the ones that are the cause of the natural effects we observe in our world, have freedom of choice.

But do not imagine that the Intellects and the spheres are like other forces which reside in bodies and act by the laws of nature and do not apprehend their acts. The spheres and the Intellects apprehend their acts, and select by their own free will the objects of their influence, although not in the same manner as we exercise free will and rule over other things, which only concern temporary beings. I have been led to adopt this theory by certain passages in Scripture: e.g., an angel says to Lot: "For I cannot do anything," etc. (Gen. xix. 21); and telling him to deliver himself, the angel says: "Behold I have accepted thee concerning this thing" (ver. 21). Again: "Take heed before him, and listen to his voice," etc. (Exod. xxiii. 21). These passages show that angels are conscious of what they do, and have free will in the sphere of action entrusted to them, just as we have free will within our province, and in accordance with the power given to us with our very existence. The difference is that what we do is the lowest stage of excellence, and that our influence and actions are preceded by non-action; whilst the Intellects and the spheres always perform that which is good, they contain nothing except what is good and perfect, as will be shown further on, and they have continually been active from the beginning.”

At first blush, this statement seems absurd. Laws of nature that are aware of their actions? Laws of nature that have freedom of Choice? I have struggled with this Rambam for the longest time and almost gave in to the general opinion that he based this chapter on erroneous Aristotelian theory. As I was reading about Heisenberg and his theory of uncertainty, a glimmer of light started to emerge.

Quoting David Lindley in his book Uncertainty (page 146), “An electron flies through space. An observer shines light upon it, then detects the light that bounces off the speeding electron. By measuring this scattered light – its frequency and direction – the observer can try to deduce the position and momentum of the electron at the moment the light hit it…. The encounter between one of these photons (light), is a quantum event. That encounter as Born has proved, does not yield definite outcomes, but a range of possible outcomes, with various probabilities. Reversing the logic Heisenberg now realized that an observer could not infer a single unique event that would have led to the measured outcome. Instead a range of possible electron-photon encounters could have happened.”

With Quantum theory what had been thought of until now as normal predictable cause and effect, has now become unpredictable. There are multiple choices of how things are going to develop. One can calculate the probabilities of one outcome over others but when looking at the individual particle one cannot predict what choice it will make or what will cause it to make that particular choice. All we know is that from the observer’s perspective a generally probable and thus predictable outcome can be expected. It is therefore not so far fetched when one says that a particular particle has the freedom of choice of deciding whether to be in one group or another. I am not implying that there is thought in the particular particle but there is in the randomness itself, in the chaotic process we witness.

The angel that was sent to save Lot had as a mission to produce an end result. How that end result came about, the detail of it, was not preset. Lot escaping to Tzoar was not part of the original plan. His choice to go there accomplished the mission of saving him though he could have made other choices. Rambam astutely points to this story, as he understands this to be a decision Lot made, which is attributable to his Mal’ach (his mind and intuition?). In other words, he compares the unpredictability of human free will to the unpredictability of natural phenomena.

As I have reiterated before my knowledge of physics is very rudimentary. I may therefore be completely off base. Maybe a better-informed reader will straighten me out. However, for now I seem to get a glimpse of what must have been fermenting in Rambam’s mind when he wrote this. At least for now I can translate this Aristotelian based theory and its implication to theology and metaphysics into a contemporary perspective.

1 comment:

  1. Hi.

    I recently saw something on kriyas yam suf, I am pretty sure it was in Sfas Emes. He says that the yam suf split the moment it was given permission, because it's natural desire is not to be bound by the forces of nature. The chidush is 'vaeyshev hayam le'esano', that the sea returned to its constraints.

    The Rambam says in Yesoday Hatorah 4 that all the stars and planets are living beings. I don't see this as Aristotelian, it's much more like Plato, but really I think it is just basic Jewish doctrine, that everything is a manifestation of the Divine and therefore everything is alive at it's inner spiritual level. Plato was tuning into this basic truth.

    As far as the free will goes, we always have a free will, it's just that, as the Rambam says in MN 1,1-2, being confined to purely phsyical sense-knowledge we can't see what the spiritual truth is, so a piece of meat can appear good but is traife. On a spiritual level, you know what things really are. It doesn't take away your power to act, but you are fully exposed to the true reality.