Are We Really Just ‘Hackable Animals’?

In the 1980s, a team of neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco led by Benjamin Libet published numerous papers interpreted by many, including Libet himself, as demonstrating that our brains initiate conscious voluntary movements as well as the will to move before we are consciously aware of the will to move. As Libet wrote in his seminal manuscript, Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act (Brain, Vol. 106, Issue 3, Sept 1983, pp 623-42): “It is concluded that cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any…subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally. This introduces certain constraints on the potentiality for conscious initiation and control of voluntary acts.”

To say that this publication rocked the worldview of many theologians and philosophers would be an understatement. Basically, instead of supporting the traditional notion that mental processes are free and unconstrained (except perhaps by one’s character and values) originating from a non-physical component of our mind-body duality called the ‘soul’, Libet’s experiments supported the contrary view (known as ‘epiphenomenalism’) that holds that mental events are caused exclusively by physical events in the brain and have no effect whatsoever upon any physical events. In other words, if Libet is correct, then Yuval Noah Hariri, Israeli intellectual, historian, official contributor to the World Economic Forum and advisor to Klaus Schwab (architect of the so-called “Great Reset”) is correct. We are nothing more than ‘hackable animals’.

This is not the forum to examine the details of Libet’s research. Suffice it to say that despite its acclaim and its subsequent acceptance in pop culture, it continues to be the subject of intense controversy, both philosophically and methodologically. In other words, contrary to what the mouthpieces of propaganda want us to believe, the subject is far from being settled. But let’s probe this subject anyway and ask a really important question. What if Libet’s conclusions hold up and are corroborated by more and more sound research to the point where everyone agrees that the science shows conclusively that we are nothing more than animals with no real free will at all? What then? What would that do to the foundations of our faith?

What is the truth of the matter? Is free will real or is it just an illusion? We are not speaking about choosing between an apple and a peach if you are hungry. Even animals make these kinds of choices. We’re not even talking about choosing between wanting to know truth and wilfully ignoring truth (as Morpheus famously presented the choice to Neo in the now iconic scene from the film Matrix), although clearly animals don’t seem to have this level of consciousness. Everybody has the power to choose between two alternatives no matter what those choices are. Even Sophie in the terrifying scene from Sophie’s Choice made a choice as to which of her two children would be sent to the gas chambers and which would survive. No, we are talking here about something much deeper yet much more universal. We want to consider whether we have the power to choose our reaction to every situation that happens to us in our lives. For example, if someone provokes you in just the ‘right way’ (and you can decide just what that ‘right way’ is for you), will your reaction be 100% predictable? Even if you know what the ‘right’ reaction ought to be, are you able to bring it out and live it, or are you inevitably doomed to repeat the same ‘wrong’ reaction over and over again? In other words, do you really have free will or are you just an animal with reflexes?

From the point of view of the Torah, the potential for free will unequivocally exists, for it is written (Devarim 30:19): הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ (I call heaven and earth to testify against you this day: I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. And you shall choose life so that you and your descendants will live). Is free will a binary absolute or a spectrum that varies in magnitude and degree between people and even within an individual from one moment to another?

To answer that question we need to know where free will comes from. It comes from da’at [דעת], and as we have written elsewhere, da’at is the moment of intimacy [יחוד, yichud] between chochmah [חכמה] and binah [בינה]. Da’at can be understood as a settled mind in the present moment that can respond effectively and correctly to whatever befalls us. As it is written in Likutei Moharan 4:4: כִּי עִקַּר הַדַּעַת הוּא אַחְדוּת שֶׁל חַסָדִים וּגְבוּרוֹת זֶה נִקְרָא דַּעַת הַיְנוּ שֶׁלֹּא יַחֲלֹק בֵּין חֶסֶד לְדִין וִיבָרֵךְ עַל כֻּלָּם הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב (For the essence of da’at is the unity of the forces of kindness [chasadim] and the forces of strictness [gevurot]; this is called da’at, i.e. that there is no distinction between chesed and din [judgment], and that one can make the following blessing on everything, ‘The good One and the One who does good’). Without da’at, we respond with animal reflexes from the Sitra Achra [סטרא אחרא, the ‘Other Side’]. But with da’at, we can choose our responses in the present—not a day later or a minute later or even a second later, but in the present itself. It follows, therefore, that the more da’at, the greater potential for free will; the less da’at, the lesser potential for free will. Da’at is not a function of how smart we are or how much Torah we have learned. Rather, it is a function of both how much Torah we have learned and how much Torah we have placed into our heart by pouring out our heart to Hashem in prayer. As Yirmeyah said (Eicha 2:19): קוּמִי רֹנִּי בַלַּיְלָה לְרֹאשׁ אַשְׁמֻרוֹת שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֲדֹנָ-י (Arise, sing in the night, at the beginning of the watches. Pour out your heart like water before the presence of Adon-ai). And as David ha-Melech wrote (Tehillim 119:11): בְּלִבִּי צָפַנְתִּי אִמְרָתֶךָ לְמַעַן לֹא אֶחֱטָא־לָךְ (I hid Your word in my heart so that I not sin against You). By waking yourself up in the middle of the night and pouring out your heart before Hashem when the rest of the world is quiet and your mind is free and clear from the vicissitudes of life, you will experience the breaking down of the barriers of your heart thereby allowing the Torah that you have learned to penetrate and sink deeply into your essence. This is the only way for da’at to come into existence.

This explains what we know about Pharaoh, i.e. that Hashem ‘hardened his heart’ at every turn. We correctly understand this as the removal of his free will, but what we often fail to internalize is that there was nothing particularly unique about Pharaoh. If we look into the mirror carefully, we will see that we are Pharaoh. And the reason of having the hardening of his heart detailed in the Torah is so that we would internalize the lesson of what can happen to us if we are not careful. After all, the prophet Yechezkel wrote (36:26): וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת־לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר (And I will give to you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give to you a heart of flesh). Likewise, Yirmeyah prophesied (31:31): כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְיָ נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתְּבֶנָּה (For this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Yisrael after these days—says Hashem—I will put my Torah into their innards and will write it upon their heart). And didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu testify to the nation that after a lengthy period of exile we would need a new heart (Devarim 30:6): וּמָל יְיָ אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת־לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־יְיָ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ (And Hashem your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul so that you will live)?

If there is nothing wrong with our hearts, why do the prophets say over and over again that at the end of the exile, we will need a new heart, a circumcised heart, a heart of flesh, and will no longer have a heart of stone? We have imitated Pharaoh and to the degree that our hearts are stone, to that degree we have lost our free will just like he did (and Libet may be correct). And there is only one solution; prayer. As it is explained in a lengthy passage in Likutei Moharan 5:2, the only way to straighten out our heart and remove the crookedness from its midst is through prayer: שֶׁאָדָם מוֹצִיא אֶת הַקּוֹל בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וְהַקּוֹל הַזֶּה פּוֹגֵעַ בְּעָבֵי מִטְרָא הַיְנוּ בְּחִינַת מֹחִין שֶׁמִּשָּׁם יוֹרְדִין טִפִּין טִפִּין כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּזֹּהַר (פינחס רלה:): בְּאֵר מַיִם חַיִּים וְנוֹזְלִים מִן לְבָנוֹן מִן לִבּוּנָא דְּמֹחָא (That a person releases the voice with great power and this voice hits the rain clouds, i.e. an aspect of mochin [spiritual brains], that from there descend the drops [of tears], like it is written in the Zohar (Pinchas 235b): ‘A well of fresh water and flowing streams from the Lebanon’ [levanon] (Shir ha-Shirim 4:15), i.e. from the whiteness [libuna] of the brain). We are not speaking about the Shemoneh Esreh. We are speaking about prayer that is heartfelt, meaningful, honest and heart-wrenching—prayer with tears from the innermost aspect of our being, one-to-one with our Creator. And no matter how far we have sunk incapable of exercising true free will in the heat of the moment, there is no reason to despair. The farther down we have been, the farther up we can go; and the lack of da’at that we might have had in the past only means that we are capable of tremendous heights of true da’at in our future.

So don’t expect Mashiach to come along at the time of the redemption and wave a magic wand and say “Poof, now you have a new heart of flesh.” That’s not how it’s going to work. If you want to learn, Mashiach will teach you how to pray with meaning, with concentration and with sincerity, in order for you to smash your heart into a million little pieces, to turn stone into fertile soil. And little by little (raindrop by raindrop, tear by tear), our hearts will change from being rocky, barren wastelands without da’at to beautiful, flowering gardens with da’at, shalom and simchah. And into such a straight heart, free will will return as we truly become what we were always meant to be—not animals with nothing but reflexes, but Adam made in the image of G-d.

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