Judaism, neuroscience and the free will hypothesis (Part 2)


The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed.

Not surprisingly, and despite the caveats, some interpreted Libet’s experimental results as proof that one’s actions are not freely made, but, rather, predetermined by unconscious neural activity. In the years following the publication of Libet’s report, other experimenters have not only replicated his work, with more sophisticated measuring devices, they have extended it.

For instance, experiments reported in 1999 by Patrick Haggard and Martin Eimer involved index fingers on both hands, and they calculated both RP and lateralized RP. Subsequently, scientists at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also utilized right and left index fingers, this time to press a button, and his subjects reported awareness of action not by observing a clock, but by identifying one of many letters streaming by. Brain activity was detected by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”) signals. In a 2008 publication in Nature authored by Chun Siong Soon and others, Soon et al. claimed that brain activity encoding a decision could be detected in the prefrontal and parietal cortex for up to ten seconds before the subject became aware.

Also not surprisingly, the assumptions in and the interpretations of results from these experiments drew criticism, beyond the obvious concern about mistaking correlation (of recorded brain activity) with causation (of a decision to act). And they continue to do so. After all, the average human brain contains billions and billions of nerve cells called neurons. We have recently learned the number of neurons is approximately 86 billion. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by perhaps thousands of synapses, junctions through which neuroactive molecules or electrical impulses travel. The total number of these synaptic connections exceeds 100 trillion. Moreover, while we once believed the brain to be fixed, now we know that is more plastic, and changes constantly.

Even if we were thoroughly familiar with all of these connections, and all of the electrical and chemical processes which operate (or not), and when and why they do (or do not), and also had a complete grasp of neuroplasticity, which understandings we do not currently possess, we clearly do not understand what has been called the Hard Problem, the nature of consciousness. If we do not understand that, then obviously we also do not understand the nature of sub-consciousness. So, what exactly, if anything, Libet and Soon were observing other than some sort of recordable activity is not apparent.

More narrow objections could be and were raised, as well, to the early tests. Florida State philosophy professor Alfred Mele suggested that because subjects might have different understandings of the “awareness of the intention to move” they were to report, the term was too ambiguous to measure to any degree of scientific value. Moreover, even if some readiness potential could be measured, isn’t it possible that RP itself is indicative of nothing more than the result of various stimuli, including being placed in a control room, hearing instructions, and focusing on a specific task? In this view, it would be akin to heightened anxiety that a patient might feel prior or during a conventional physical examination.

In addition, the tests performed were narrow in scope and duration. They generally involved very simple motor functions to be undertaken, or not, within seconds of some signal. But Princeton psychologist and Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman teaches that we think fast and slow. His core observation is that humans operate with two different thought modes. In the first, known as System 1, the brain “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” In the other, known as System 2, the brain “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” Kahneman associates the operation of System 2 with what we feel as agency and choice.

Is it possible that a person’s brain activity, as recorded by an EEG, an fMRI or some other mode of neuroimaging, would display different results in circumstances where more complex actions are involved, especially over an extended period? Is it conceivable that brain activity would be different if the subjects were in a kitchen and asked to choose how many, if any, eggs they wanted for breakfast, and how they preferred them cooked, and with what bread, what spread and what fruit and drink? And might that kind of brain activity be different still than the kind involved in deciding over the course of a presidential campaign which candidate to support or during courtship deciding whether to select a certain someone for a life partner?

We have no EEGs or other scans that address breakfast or political or marital choices, but some recent experiments suggest that the death of free will, as announced by Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, may have been not just premature, but unwarranted. In 2012, French neuroscientists published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concerning a study about RP which included a variation on Libet’s experiments, specifically an audible cue to the participants to make a movement in response to an unpredictable noise. Rather than reflecting the final causal stages of planning and preparation for movement, Aaron Schurger et al. found that neural activity in the brain fluctuated normally and that decisions about self-initiated movement were “at least partially determined by spontaneous fluctuations” in such activity. In other words, movement might not be determined subconsciously, but may simply occur when the brain is in a sufficient state of arousal.

Similarly, a study undertaken by graduate student Prescott Alexander and his team attempted to isolate motor and non-motor contributions to RP. As reported in 2016 in Consciousness and Cognition, they found that “robust RPs occurred in the absence of movement and that motor-related processes did not significantly modulate the RP.” This suggested to Alexander et al. that the RP measured was “unlikely to reflect preconscious motor planning or preparation of an ensuing movement, and instead may reflect decision-related or anticipatory processes that are non-motoric in nature.” They concluded, in part that “RP does not primarily reflect processes unique to motor execution or preparation, and may not even be primarily generated by the neural activity involved in making a free choice.”

What does this mean? At a minimum, Schurger and Alexander, and their teams, have interrupted what seemed to be developing scientific support for hard determinism and against free will. They have provided scientific grounding for an alternative understanding of previously accumulative data. In the words of cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth (speaking of Schuger et al.), they have opened “the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition.”

Consequently, when Alfred Mele argues that science has not disproved free will, he is correct. Science has not falsified the free will hypothesis even once, let alone in the kind of replicable experiment that is the hallmark of the scientific method. At the same time, science has not confirmed the free will hypothesis either. The unsettled state of affairs is not necessarily bad, though, for at least two reasons.

First, the reality is that we are at the early stages of our understanding of both the human brain and levels of consciousness, and we undoubtedly do not even know what we don’t know. For instance, in 2015, neuroscientists were acknowledging that no one knew how the human brain was wired and bemoaning the fact that they could not even map a mouse’s brain, let alone a human one. About a year later, scientists were able to produce a map of the brain’s cerebral cortex with a “new mapping paradigm,” but even so, a participating researcher conceded the limitations of the new map. (See map below.)

Similarly, in early March, 2017, researchers led by neurobiologist and physicist Mayank Mehta at UCLA published a report in the journal Science in which they claim that the brain is much more active than previously believed and that neurons are not purely digital devices, as scientists have held for 60 years, but also “show large analog fluctuations . . . .” If so, according to Mehta, this changes the way we understand how the brain computes information.

The idea of a more powerful, dynamic brain may trigger yet more revisionism concerning free will, as well. Indeed, it is at least conceivable that the reductionists are looking at the picture in the wrong way, zooming in to try to locate and record each signal the brain emits, rather than stepping back for a broader perspective. That is, for all its amazing discoveries and insights, perhaps neuroscience, as commonly practiced today, is too narrow a science. Perhaps there must be some consideration for the possibility that the vast number of neurons and synapses, and their intricate interconnectedness, in conjunction with neural plasticity, yields something greater than the individual cells themselves, even as water is more than its component molecules made of hydrogen and oxygen. Perhaps consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. (See Nelson, The Emergence of God (University Press 2015) at 32-35.) In this view, at a certain level of collective complexity, consciousness emerges. And with it, free will.

From the history of science and technology, we can assume that the pace of our progress will be uneven and the results surprising. Perhaps we will move faster than did our ancestors on the centuries long path from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Hubble (both the man and the telescope). But how much time we will need is not clear. Consider the journey from Wilbur Wright’s first step onto a biplane at Kitty Hawk to Neil Armstrong’s first step off the lunar module Eagle on the Moon, and whether neuroscience is arguably more complex than rocket science.

Second, another reality is that the stakes in the multi-disciplinary debate between free will advocates and determinists go far beyond the musings of philosophers and the reputations of neuroscientists seeking grants and fame. Should science somehow disprove free will, should it show that we are not just influenced by our genes and our physical and social environment, but that our response to each option available to us is truly compelled rather than chosen, it is not too hard to imagine at least two dystopian results.

In the first case, should it be generally known that humans have no free will, and that conduct is in fact predetermined, significant numbers of individuals might well feel released from whatever tenuous social bonds now attach to them and engage in disruptive behavior. We already have some experimental evidence from psychologists Kathleen Vos and Roy Baumeister that supports the idea that weakening a belief in free will leads to “cheating, stealing, aggression, and reduced helping.”

A second worrisome situation that might arise concerns potential screening of individuals for genetic or environmental or other predispositions to anti-social behavior. Might individuals found to possess an anti-social gene be incarcerated or subjected to gene therapy to alter or remove the problematic genetic material? If so, it is not too difficult a leap to rounding up groups of people who, by virtue of their color, ethnicity, geographic origin, socio-economic status or other trait likely share having the offending gene. The infamous Nazi medical experiments on Jews, Roma and others provide a chilling example of the depraved capacity of some humans to mistreat the Other, and to do so ostensibly in the “interest of science” or some asserted “greater good.” Social historian Yuval Harari has warned recently about the merger of Big Data with Big Brother. It is a warning worth heeding.

In many ways, then, the free will hypothesis is more important than the understanding laid out in Genesis with respect to creation and evolution. We have learned a great deal about how our universe came into existence and how life forms have evolved. And we have learned that we can survive quite well with such knowledge. But if the free will hypothesis is incorrect, if we are only products of our genes and our environment and of the purely mechanical interplay of chemistry and physics, if we do not have any meaningful capacity to make choices, then we could still proceed as if we were free and our decisions mattered (a path advocated by some determinists like Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky), but there would be a cloud hanging over us, and, worse, we could not dissipate it. We could not overcome.

Yet, even in the most dire circumstances, some do overcome. Recounting the horrors of the concentration camps, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl noted that despite the conditions, the actions of some showed that “everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms –to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Why some react one way under pressure (or without it) and others do not remains a mystery, as even Sam Harris has acknowledged. Maybe science will solve that mystery some day, but maybe not. So, perhaps Descartes (1596-1650) was not quite right when he declaredCogito, ergo sum,” that is, “I think, therefore I am.” Perhaps thinking is a necessary but not sufficient element of being. Perhaps we need to be able to choose to be fully alive and vital. Consequently, until, if ever, the scientists prove otherwise: Eligo, ergo sum – I choose, therefore I am. Or at least I think I do. And at least once every year I am grateful to the Deuteronomist for reminding me of the extensive menu of blessings and curses that is set out before me, and for his emphatic call to choose life.

Recycling on the fashion runway


Ever since the nonprofit organization Earth Pledge teamed up with Barney’s in 2005 during New York’s renowned fashion week to demonstrate that sustainable fashion and style can coexist, eco-fashion activists have been quipping that “green is the new black.” Almost overnight, environmentally conscious designs shed their reputation of looking like burlap sacks made for hippies and were transformed into stylish, chic and fashionable clothes.

On the New York runway, Richie Rich’s striking yellow-and-pink skirt, made out of corn fiber, was topped off with a flashy silver bustier made from recycled polyester. And Linda Loudermilk’s luxury eco line has an express goal of giving eco-glamour “a fabulous look and a slammin’ attitude that stops traffic and shouts the message: Eco can be edgy, loud, fun, playful, feminine (or not) and hyper-cool.”

Levi’s recently released a line of “green” jeans made from 100 percent organic cotton and fashion icons such as Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Schouler hail the use of sustainable materials. Even celebrities are taking part in the growing global trend; Bono launched a new line of eco-fashion titled “Edun.”

New, organic raw materials that are both sustainable and grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or insecticides are more widely available too. Far beyond just organic cotton and hemp, contemporary eco-fashion designers can now choose between bamboo, soy and corn fibers, cottagora, eco-fleece, organic wool, linen, silk, tencel and ecospun — to name just a few. Eco-friendly, low-impact dyes and responsible manufacturing processes (employing people in good working conditions with fair wages close to home) are also part of the “reuse, recycle and renew” philosophy that define eco-fashion, according to the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP).

The widespread international movement has not escaped fashion designers in Israel, more and more of who are starting to incorporate eco-friendly principles into their own creative, unique styles.

But there have been bumps in the road. Organic fabrics are almost impossible to find in Israel and have to be imported at great expense. But for some young Israeli designers, this is an opportunity rather than a detriment. Instead of bringing in costly fabrics from abroad, they look for ways to use inexpensive materials that already exist at home.

For Irit Vilensky, the fabric of choice is plastic. By recycling the ubiquitous plastic bags that litter Israeli beaches and parks, she makes an uber-chic, colorful line of accessories called: Satik.

“I wanted to create something beautiful out of what everyone already has at home, so I decided to make things out of plastic bags,” she said.

Each one-of-a-kind bracelet, wallet and purse is handmade, and Vilensky says that the concept of using noxious non-biodegradable plastic bags, already banned in many countries due to their widespread damage to the environment, serves two purposes: to reuse waste and to rid the world’s landfills of a few more plastic bags.

Elanit Neutra was heavily influenced by environmental concerns in Toronto, where she studied film production. Two years ago she began using the inner tubes of black rubber tires to make her stylish, soft leather-like accessories.

“I have always been a collector, taking things from the street to make new things, and when I saw the tires, I decided to try and make something nice from the raw material,” she said.

Although the process of finding material and cleaning the rubber is long and difficult, Neutra said part of what makes her work original is that she maintains the texture and any imperfections.

“Each piece is handmade, and I spend a lot of time looking for the right composition and shaping the rubber into something elegant,” Neutra said.

Gili Ben-Ami makes brightly colored necklaces by stringing together car fuses, and Ayala Froindlich recycles comic books, inflatable pool floats and even encyclopedias to make her eco-friendly handbags. Artist Ossi Yalon paints new scenes on vintage clothing in order to refurbish the old.

“Today’s society, especially women, is obsessed with buying new clothing all the time and throwing everything away,” she said. “I am trying to point out that the same therapeutic endeavor can be accomplished by recycling the old and rejuvenating it.”

Recycled plastic bottles filled with colored water are crushed into funky toothbrush holders, mugs and vases in Doron Sar-Shalom’s designs for the home, and Zohar Yarom puts leftover sofa fabric samples to good use in her unique handbags.

“Each bag is reversible and designed to last for many years,” she said. “Part of the unique thinking in Israel requires reinventing ourselves and using what we have available, because importing is not as good for the environment, and materials from abroad are more expensive.”

Despite the greater challenges that pro-environmentalists face in Israel, such as the Israeli government’s lackadaisical interest in efforts to be more environmentally friendly in the fashion industry, some stores are still finding ways to create eco-fashion.

Cotton is an eco-friendly clothing chain in Israel founded in 1992 that now has 12 branches across the country. It is owned by fashion designer Galit Broyde and her husband Erez Moded, and Broyde designs all of Cotton’s stylish and comfortable clothing out of organic materials that are easy to clean and durable. The company adheres to environmentally friendly local production, sells reusable shopping bags, and tries to promote education in Israel.

“For us, green fashion is not a trend; it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that we always did at home, but we started to do more in Cotton in recent years,” Broyde said. “We do everything we can, but no one is ever 100 percent green. For that, we’d all have to go back to caves.”

According to Nirit Sternberg, the owner of Le’ela, a design store that sells exclusively Israeli creations, the number of designers exhibiting eco-friendly work in the store has seen a tremendous increase in recent years — so much so that she was able to put on an eco-design exhibit with more than 35 creators this February. Nevertheless, she points out that it’s still not as popular in Israel as one might expect: “Eco-fashion is still just beginning here. The awareness is not there yet.”

British immigrant and organic baby clothing designer Sohpie O’Hana agrees. She started her own line, called Tinok Yarok (green baby), about a year ago, after searching futilely in Israel for eco-friendly baby clothing.

Five Steps to an Ethical-Action Child


Everything teaches something. Here are five ways to help your children develop an ethical-action consciousness in their everyday lives.

First, be an ethical-action cheerleader and acknowledge your children’s positive behavior. Few learning experiences are as effective as being caught in the act of doing something right. One of the most important things you can do is to simply make sure that your children know that you notice their ethical behavior.

Look for opportunities to acknowledge their ethical decisions and praise them for good moral judgments. When a child offers to help a younger sibling with homework or spontaneously does a favor for someone without expecting anything in return, that child deserves recognition for behavior that reflects good character and values.

Second, reinforce integrity. Every day is filled with opportunities to teach lessons in integrity and trust. Begin by giving children small, easily managed tasks, such as carrying silverware to the dinner table or putting laundry away, and then let the chores become increasingly complex as they grow older.

Every time your child completes an assigned task, tell her how proud you are that she can be trusted to keep her word and follow through on her commitments. This creates a link between integrity, trustworthiness and earning the respect and admiration of loved ones.

Third, use your children’s heroes as teaching examples. Integrity is one of the main ingredients of which children’s media heroes are made — and so, for that matter, are courage, honor, altruism and other positive ethical values. One good way to begin instilling these values is to bring their attention to the way they are expressed by Batman, Superman or other heroes from cartoons, TV and movies.

Any time these heroes act in a way you want your child to emulate can become a teaching moment.

A simple comment like, "What I like most about Steven Seagal’s movies is that he always helps people in need," or "Isn’t it neat how in all the Batman movies he will do just about anything to help the people who need it the most?" will get them thinking in the right direction.

Fourth, find teachable moments in popular culture. Helping your children identify the negative messages they encounter in song lyrics or on TV will to some degree help mitigate the negative effect of the messages themselves. For example, you might ask your children to share with you the words to some of their favorite rock songs, then ask them what they think your impression might be and why. Their answers will reveal much about their attitudes toward the values you think are important, and about how effective you have been in instilling these values in them.

Fifth, nurture your child’s awareness of self. To lead an ethical life, children must be taught the skill of stepping away emotionally from their actions, looking at them objectively and making intelligent choices about whether or not they want to repeat them in the future.

Most children act without examining what they are doing. Teaching them the skill of self-examination and reflection is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

This article originally appeared at jewishfamily.com.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades.

A Jewish Diet


The Tu B’Shevat seder, with its many fruit and nuts, challenges us to reconsider our usual diets, and the recommended Jewish diet. While the FDA recommends a diet high in grains, rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats, Judaism recommends a diet high in holiness, rich in consciousness and connection, and low in selfishness. These four factors guide not only a Jewish diet, but also a Jewish life.

As Jews, we’re commanded to strive for holiness in every facet of our lives. One ritual and spiritual practice that helps us infuse holiness into our daily life, is offering blessings. Offering a bracha or a blessing with mindful consciousness — known in Hebrew as kavanah — helps us transform apparently mundane acts into moments rich with spiritual potential. Saying a blessing before and after each meal ensures that we stop to appreciate our food and its Ultimate Source. In our tradition, eating without blessings to thank God is like stealing from the Source of Life, while robbing ourselves of spiritual awareness. Judaism tells us a proper diet should include healthy portions of holiness — ideally beginning and ending each meal with blessings.

A second key ingredient in a Jewish diet is consciousness. Maintaining a traditional Jewish diet requires a high degree of consciousness in order to follow the ritual guidelines of kashrut commonly described as keeping kosher. The word kosher, which means ritually fit, can apply to a wide range of subjects from the food we eat to the wedding rings we may wear. In the dietary realm, the core ideas of kashrut are defined in the Bible. While the biblical Garden of Eden narrative clearly defines a vegetarian diet as ideal, our Noah narrative highlights the human lust for blood and meat. In Judaism meat eating can be seen as a concession to human blood lust, which was allowed, but highly regulated through ancient cultic ritual and the practice of kashrut.

As we know, the biblical traditions of kashrut include definitions, prohibitions and guidelines for treating animals. Kosher land animals have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (thus cows and most herbivores can be kosher, but pigs and all carnivores are treif, or un-kosher). Kosher fowl essentially include all birds except birds of prey. Kosher marine life must have fins and scales and may not be scavengers. According to kashrut, meat and dairy products may not be mixed, and traditional kosher homes have separate dishes, silverware, cookware and utensils for meat and dairy products.

While kashrut allows the slaughter and consumption of animals for food, it demands that the animals be treated with respect. Judaism requires the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to perform his duties consciously minimizing pain and maximizing reverence for life and the Life Source.

A third dish in the Jewish diet is connection. Our foods connect us symbolically to the teaching of our tradition, and sociologically to our heritage. This is best reflected in the Passover meal, or seder. Tradition teaches us that in this ritual meal, bitter horseradish represents the bitterness of slavery and saltwater reminds us of the tears of bondage, while fresh spring herbs symbolize the promise of hope. Through the Passover meal, food helps us symbolically reenact the journey from slavery to freedom. Similarly, the oily latkes and sufganiyot of Chanukah, remind us of the remarkable events surrounding the rededication of the oil lamps that burned in the ancient Temple.

A Jewish diet also connects people through a program of communal meals. One of the joys of the Sabbath is joining friends and family for a celebratory meal — by tradition this should be the best meal of the week. Every life-cycle event — bris, baby namings, b’nai mitvah, weddings and funerals — is accompanied by a communal meal. These meals and the food we often serve, connect us not only to our family, but to our particular familial heritage.

Our tradition demands that our diet be not only high in holiness and rich in consciousness and connection but also low in selfishness. We are commanded to share our bread with the hungry, even to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. At every Passover seder, we’re expected to call out to all who may pass, all who are hungry, let them come and eat. We strive to make providing food to the hungry a regular part of our Jewish practice, contributing to food pantries and volunteering at soup kitchens.

Mazon is a Hebrew word that means food. It is also an international Jewish organization that urges us to donate 3 percent of the cost of a celebration (such as a wedding or bar mitzvah party) to help feed the hungry the world over. Our blessing after meals includes the phrase "Chazan et hakol," praising God for providing food for all who live. We realize we must be partners with God to realize this promise.

As we know, there is enough food to sustain all who live on this planet if only we’ll be partners with God in the distribution of our resources — learning to share our abundant blessings with those in need. At times, in our world full of hunger, poverty and suffering, the blessings of holiness, compassion, connection and selflessness may seem distant ideals. The Source of Life and Sustenance, which we sometimes call God, may seem distant when we see the eyes of a hungry child.

Leo Baeck, a great rabbi who was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, was once asked where God was during the Holocaust. His answer? Every time one prisoner helped another to drag a heavy wagon or shared one hard crust of bread with another starving inmate, God was there in the helping and sharing.

May we who are blessed with abundance, be blessed also with the strength, will and conviction to share what we have.

This is the foundation of a Jewish spiritual diet.


Sheryl Nosan-Blank is rabbi at Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley.