General Shorties

Shorty*: Free will?? — Only when the “Ego” is subjugated to “I”

“Free will” is an essential component of our lives as humans. It refers to common decision scenarios, when we confront multiple choices and one has to be selected. A philosophical question then often arises:

Are we, human beings, free to make our own choices, out of free will? Or are we always just “optimizing”, selecting that which is, or seems to be, best for us?

What is the difference between free-will choice and “optimization”?? And how are these related to two major components of our psyche — “Ego” and “I”?

Observing and studying the centuries-old debate for and against “free will”, one realizes that participants to this debate often do not grasp the true nature of free-will. Once this is cleared and clarified (by answering the above questions), the debate of whether free will exists largely becomes irrelevant and redundant.

What is “optimizing”?

An “Optimization decision” scenario occurs when all factors that may affect our decision are external to our free will and independent of it (or optimization, which always aims to benefit the ego and its needs, could not have taken place). Our behavior in such decision scenarios is therefore purely deterministic, devoid of free will; In fact, a robot, fed with the correct data, could have made the decision for us, possibly even better than we do (since a robot expectedly does not commit errors).

What, then, is the essential ingredient that renders a choice situation from one of optimizing to an exercise of free-will?

The answer is simple:

A “free-will” scenario is one where our ego is made irrelevant to the choice we make.

In other words, in a “free will” scenario, created out of our own free will, all factors affecting our decision are within us, under our control, subject to the ultimate decision-maker within our psyche, the “I” (not to the ego).

What differentiate the “I” from the “Ego”?

The “I”, exercising free will, may decide on giving; The ego, by its very nature, decides only on “taking” (NEVER on giving).

This is perhaps why Jewish prophets so often refer to the Divine as the ultimate embodiment of “I”. Here is prophet Isaiah:

I am I am Jehovah and besides me there is no deliverer” (Isaiah 43:11); “..I am the first, and I am the last, and besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6); “..I am He, I am the first, I am also the last…  (Isaiah 48:12);  “I I have spoken, Indeed I have called him, I have brought him, and he shall succeed in his way” (Isaiah 48:15).

And this is the ingredient by which to judge whether a choice scenario is a “free will” one:

A free-will scenario always contains a moral and ethical element — Will we act against our own interest, against our own ego, to benefit others? Will we decide to give instead of take? Will we decide to love (give) instead of hate?

Or, in the original language of Chazal (tractate Avot 4:1):

“Who is a hero? — Him, who overcomes his desire”.

(Tractate Avot, or Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers”, is a tractate of the Mishna that details Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships; A modern day PC translation would probably read: “Who is a hero? — Him/her, who overcomes her/his desire”.)

Given these perspectives regarding “free will” and its relationship to the two main ingredients of our soul, the “Ego” and the “I”, a powerful lesson may be learned:

Qualifying a decision scenario as free-will (“I”-related), and acquiring the necessary sensitivity to distinguish it from an “optimization” decision (ego-centered one) — these are first essential steps towards genuine personal growth, moral development and personal maturing.


* Shorty is a short post