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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Izbicer Rebbe and Freewill

Having spent some time thinking about medieval approaches to the freewill problem – the apparent contradiction between God’s foreknowledge and our freedom – Rabbi Herzl Hefter introduced me to the work of the Chassidic Rebbe, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, otherwise known as the Izbicer. In this blog, I want to present what I take to be the Izbicer’s ‘solution’ to the free will problem. All of this has been worked out for me, essentially, by R. Hefter. The only contribution I’ve made, if any, is to repackage the central ideas utilising a collection of philosophical tools that I borrow from Gareth Evans and Kendal Walton.[1]

Our talk about fiction requires careful semantic analysis. There is a sense in which it is false to say that ‘Hamlet is a prince of Denmark’, because Hamlet doesn’t exist. You can’t be a prince of Denmark if you don’t exist. On the other hand, I have surely made a more serious error if I have said that ‘Hamlet is an Italian ice-cream salesman’. The first comment, though strictly speaking false, would win the approval of my English literature teacher. The second comment would reveal that I hadn’t been reading my Shakespeare.

Evans, following the lead of Walton, helps us to navigate through this sort of minefield. He suggests that when we engage with a fiction, we relativise the truth conditions of what we say to the fiction in question. So, though it is false that Hamlet is a prince of Denmark, it is true relative to the fiction at hand. That Hamlet is an Italian ice-cream salesman, on the other hand, is false relative to the real world and relative to the fiction. The meaning of the words ‘Hamlet is a Danish prince’ remain constant; but the truth of the claim can be asserted as relative to the real world (in which case, it’s false), or relative to the fiction (in which case, it’s true).

The account becomes more complex when we recognize that there can be fictions within a fiction. Famously, Hamlet contains a play within a play. Let us call the actor who plays the king in the play within the play, Adam. If I say that ‘Adam is a king,’ I say something false, because Adam doesn’t exist, and you can’t be a king if you don’t exist. Even relative to Shakespeare’s fiction, I have said something false, because Adam isn’t a King, he’s an actor. But, relative to the fiction within the fiction, I have said something true. Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of times we can iterate this maneuver. There can be fictions within fictions within fictions.

My grandfather used to tell me a jocular story that plays with this very notion: ‘One dark stormy night, the sailor said to the captain, ‘tell us a story,’ and this is how it went: ‘One dark stormy night, the sailor said to the captain, ‘tell us a story,’ and this is how it went: ‘One dark stormy night, the sailor said to the captain, ‘tell us a story,’ and this is how it went:…’’’’ The reader of such a story is introduced to a number of fictional worlds: worlds within worlds within worlds. The meaning of the words doesn’t shift upon each iteration, but the fictions to which the truth-conditions need to be relativised do keep shifting.

Returning to the notion of free will, let us examine the following statement: Hamlet didn’t freely decide to challenge his uncle; rather, Shakespeare decided to write the story that way. If we’re speaking relative to the fiction itself, this statement is false. The whole notion of drama depends upon the dramatically charged choices that the protagonists have to agonize over. You know that it’s just a play, as you’re watching it, but you recognize that, relative to that play, the choices are real and free. On the other hand, the statement is true, relative to a different discourse entirely.

If we’re speaking about the fiction, rather than relative to it, then it is of course true that the entire plot depends upon the decisions that the author makes. In that sense, Hamlet’s whole life plan is entirely dependent upon Shakespeare’s choices. We have thus recognized, at least with regard to Hamlet, that he is free, relative to one discussion, and yet wholly dependent upon Shakespeare, relative to another discussion.

The Izbicer adopts what we would call a Berklean metaphysics (after George Berkeley). For the Izbicer, something exists because it exists in the mind of God. In a sense, to be real is to be imagined by God.[2] A similar thing could be said about existence in the world of Hamlet. To exist in Hamlet’s world is to be imagined by Shakespeare to exist in Hamlet’s world. To be real in the play within the play is to be imagined by the playwright that exists in the play, who, in turn, only exists because Shakespeare imagines him. When we say that Hamlet acts of his own free will, we say something true relative to the fiction because Shakespeare imagines Hamlet to be free. Likewise, according to the Izbicer, God imagines us to be free, and that’s what it means for us to be free. Our freedom couldn’t be more real. It’s as real as anything else, because, to be real is to be imagined by God. So, the Izbicer wasn’t the enemy of free will that he’s traditionally painted to be. He thought that we do have free will, because God, so to speak, imagines us that way.

One might feel a certain disappointment when faced with this approach to free will. We’re not really free if our whole lives have been authored by God in the way that Hamlet’s life was authored by Shakespeare; that’s not the sort of freedom that we were after! But that critique plays insufficient attention to the semantic shift that we employ when we move between speaking relative to a fiction and speaking about a fiction. When we speak relative to a fiction, it is true to say that the characters are free, and the meaning of the word ‘free’ doesn’t have to be contorted in the slightest; the concept of freedom is the same concept that we started with. But, when we speak about the fiction, and its writer, we make a semantic ascent, and it is no longer true to talk of the characters as having any sort of independence from the author. But, the freedom that we attribute to the characters, in their world, is a real as anything can be, and it is freedom in precisely the pre-philosophical sense of the word; no definitions have been twisted.

The Izbicer seems highly sensitive to the fact that it may not be possible for us to talk meaningfully about any sort of reality beyond the world we live in, and the fictions (and the fictions within fictions) that we create. The meaning of our words draw upon our experience to such an extent that, even if we were brains in vats, we wouldn’t be able to say, with any meaning, that we are brains in vats because our referential capabilities don’t allow us to reach out of our experiential realm to talk about some sort
of vat that exists beyond the horizon of our experience. We might think that we’re talking meaningfully, when we talk about the world that lies beyond the horizons of human experience, but, perhaps we’re under some sort of delusion. Perhaps our words don’t have the power to reach out that far. Thus, even if God is the author of reality, in some way comparable to Shakespeare’s authorship of Hamlet, there is a sense in which we couldn’t really talk meaningfully about it. So, a lot of this blog, has actually been nonsense, as it’s tried to talk about worlds above our own, so to speak. But, the hope is
that, as with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the nonsense is, somehow, illuminating.

Accordingly, the Izbicer was keen on the notion that fundamental truths about God couldn’t be expressed meaningfully in the language of thought; that they could only be apprehended by the heart in the midst of some sort of fleeting mystical insight. This is what led to the Izbicer’s disregard for systematic philosophy: it can never reach out to the God that lives beyond the power of description.[3]

What the Izbicer demonstrates is that it is possible for agents to be free, relative to the fiction that they live in, whilst wholly determined from a God’s eye view. On the other hand, the Izbicer admits that we can’t actually break out of our perspective to see the sense in which we are determined. Nevertheless, he holds that we sometimes get some sort of mystical glimpse; akin to the Wittgensteinian idea of having something shown to you that can’t be said. The sense in which we are free is very real and open to human comprehension. The sense in which we are determined is somewhat closed to us, just as it is closed, so to speak, to Hamlet. But, in order to illustrate this notion of a mystical glimpse, let me share an example that the Izbicer uses himself.[4]

When a man and a woman come together in a loving embrace, we are very aware of the contingency of the event. The couple didn’t have to be in the appropriate mood. And, if the event results in the conception of a new human life, we are all too aware of the fact that the relevant biological happenings are fraught with contingency. All too often, couples try to conceive and fail. And yet, when one is confronted, for the first time, with one’s own new born baby, despite the knowledge that the event that led to its conception was overtly contingent, one is struck by what one could call the unbearable heaviness of being.[5] This baby simply had to be. Everything about its existence is so right and perfect. The experience I’m describing is somewhat mystical. We know it doesn’t make sense, but it seems, to the person who experiences it, to transcend sense. That is what it means for a character in the story that God is spinning to catch a glimpse of the necessity that is false relative to his own existence, and yet true from some higher, incommunicable perspective.

For the Izbicer, human freedom is real. It’s as real as anything can be. On the other hand, there is a sense, that we can’t fully grasp, in which our existence, and our every action, is dependent upon the will of God. For that reason, the Izbicer is willing, in certain moods, to twist the famous Talmudic dictum radically, until it reads: ‘All is in the hands of heaven, even the fear of heaven.’ But this didn’t mean that, in the Izbicer’s opinion, we didn’t have free will. He was trying to make a semantic ascent.

One might not like the Berklean metaphysics of the Izbicer, including the notion that reality is defined merely in terms of being imagined by God. One might also think that the Izbicer’s worldview fails to get God off the hook, to any degree, for the existence of evil. We are all, for better or worse, merely characters in a story that God seems to be telling to himself; he writes the happy parts, but he also writes the tragic parts. This is a failing that the Izbicer seems to share with Crescas. We might also react negatively to his mystical notion of apprehending that which cannot be understood.

But, one cannot fault the Izbicer for failing to save either human freedom or divine omniscience. Freedom is a notion that can appear meaningfully in a fiction, or in a fiction within a fiction, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. The freedom of any of the characters along the way, relative to the fiction at hand, is as real as anything else. And you can’t say that the Izbicer’s conception of life itself isn’t real, because, for him, reality is defined, along with Berkeley (who had somewhat respectable philosophical reasons for so defining reality), by having been imagined into existence by God. The difference between Hamlet’s world, that doesn’t really exist, and our world, that does, is that Hamlet’s was imagined by a human being, ours was imagined by God, whose imaginings constitute reality.

Finally, you might think that the Izbicer has failed to give God and his creation the requisite degree of separation. The centrality of the notion of tzimtzum seems to be ignored by a worldview that relates to the whole world as a dream in the Divine mind. Doesn’t the Izbiver collapse the possibility for a meaning relationship with God, because he collapses the difference between us and Him? On the other hand, the Izbicer could reply: the creation is distinct from the creator because the creator imagines it that way. This sounds like a cheat, but it is no more of a cheat than the way in which the Izbicer secures our freedom. It all follows from the idea that reality itself is defined in terms of the Divine imagination. If we are imagined to be distinct from God, then, relative to the world in which we live, we are distinct from God, even if there is some God’s eye perspective from which this distinction evaporates.

We might have plenty of reasons for disliking it, personally, it’s currently not my preferred solution to the problem, but the Izbicer has achieved something that eluded the medieval Jewish philosophers: (1) He doesn’t hold his hands up in the air and claim that the human mind can’t reconcile the truth that God is omniscient, with the truth that we are free, as Maimonides seems to do – for we can certainly understand how Hamlet can be free and yet determined; nor does he twist and massage the concept of God’s omniscience until it allows for God to be ignorant of the future, as does Gersonides; nor does he twist and massage the concept of freedom, in order to make it compatible with the fact that our futures are determined, as does Crescas. He might not have thought of himself as a philosopher, but it seems as if the Izbicer made a significant contribution to the problem of freewill.

PS – The Izbicer’s solution almost seems to fall out of a Berkelian metaphysics, does anyone know if Berkeley ever tackled the problem? Was his solution similar?

[1] Evans, G., The Varieties of Reference, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, §§10.2-10.4; and Walton, K., ‘Pictures and Make-Believe,’ Philosophical Review, 1973, vol. 82, pp. 283-319, and his ‘Fearing Fictions,’ Journal of Philosophy, 1978, vol. 75, pp. 5-27.
[2] Cf. Mei Hashiloach in parshat Miketz.
[3] See section VI of R. Hefter’s as yet unpublished article on the Determinism of R. Mordechai Leiner - in that paper, the reading that I present of the Izbicer's worldview is very well butrussed in the relevant texts.
[4] See his comments on Leviticus 12:2, in volume 1 of the Mei Hashiloach.
[5] I owe this turn of phrase to R. Hefter.


  1. Looks great Sam
    Look forward to reading it

  2. Thanks for this post. Two points for now:

    1. It would be helpful, at least for me, to have an argument for the incompatibility of foreknowledge and free will set out, and then to see which premise exactly the Izbicer would be denying.

    2. "Likewise, according to the Izbicer, God imagines us to be free, and that’s what it means for us to be free."

    The freedom of Eve, say, would then seem to amount to the following: God has a mental imagine of Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and God labels that image ‘Eve eats the forbidden fruit freely’. So God has determined things in imagining them, but Eve is nonetheless free. Presto! No problem!

    But that won’t work. What it means for us to be free is for us to have the ability to perform some action and the ability not to perform that action. God could imagine and create us that way, and maybe his imagining us that way is his creating us that way. But the original problem about foreknowledge and freedom is not answered by pointing that out. We still need to explain how the foreknowledge is compatible with the ability.

  3. Thanks Tyron,
    I really do think that there's a solution to the problem here, even if one doesn't like the metaphysics that underlies it. So, I appreciate your comment because it forces me to be clearer.

    The problem can be stated in the following six propositions:

    1. A being with a free will often has the choice between two mutually exclusive actions, action x and action y, at some time, t. In fact, it is constitutive of free will to be able to choose between alternative courses of action.

    2. God is omniscient, and therefore knows that I will chose to perform, say, action x at time t.

    3. Knowledge is factive, which is to say that it’s either a relation between a mind and a fact, or at least, a relation between a mind and a true proposition; a proposition made true by a fact. Knowledge is, therefore, always accompanied by the existence of a fact.

    4. Given 3, if God knows that I will perform action x at time t, then it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t.

    5. If it is a fact that I will perform action x at time t, then I cannot choose to perform action y at the same time.

    6. Therefore, I am not a free being with control over the course of my own life. Given any choice, I am always bound to act in the way that God already knows that I will act. There are no real alternatives for me to choose between because there is already a fact as to which of the alternatives will be chosen.

    To be continued...

  4. Here, as I understand it, is the Izbicer's solution:

    You say that, 'What it means for us to be free is for us to have the ability to perform some action and the ability not to perform that action.'

    Now, utilising your definition, let's take the sentence: Hamlet is free to challenge his uncle. You take that sentence to mean 'Hamlet has the ablility to perform the action of challenging his uncle, and he has the ability not to perform that action.' Let's call this sentence, about Hamlet, S.

    Is S true? Well, as with many sentences, we can't tell you whether it's true without knowing more about the context of utterance.

    If I said S in a philosophy class, my utterance would most likely be false. Hamlet doesn't have abilities of his own. He doesn't exist as a real person. And, in whatever sense he could be said to exist, as a character, he doesn't really have abilities to act as he wishes: he just does whatever Shakespeare decides for him to do.

    But, if I utter S in an English literature class, then I really have said something true. In fact, if I deny S, in that context, then I've really missed the whole point of the drama. The dramatic tension of the play resides in the fact that it's all up to Hamlet.

    With all of this in mind, let me restate the problem that we're trying to solve:

    There are two sentences that we want to utter, but they can't both be true.

    S1: To be free is to have the ability to chose to perform an action, or to chose to refrain from performing it; and thus, to be free demands that our future is open and up to us.
    S2: God already knows what we're going to do [which implies that future is neither open, nor up to us].

    Normally, this problem either forces us to deny one of the sentences, or to ammend one or both of them.

    The Izbicer's solution is to say that they are both true, but only relative to different discources.

    S1 is true. We are free. Eve was free. And her freedom means whatever you want it to mean. But, S1 is only true relative to the story that we live in, so to speak. But that's still a truth. And, truths relative to the story that we live in are generally the only truths that really bother us, because it's the story that WE LIVE in!

    S2 is also true, but only relative to a different discourse entirely. Relative to God's reality, so to speak, S2 is true, and S1 is false.

    So, that's what I take to be his solution.

    To be continued...

  5. But, the really sophisticated part of the picture is that, God has written Himself into the story as a character, so to speak.

    We must all be familiar with post-modern novels in which the author jumps into the story to meet his characters - Milan Kundera and Kurt Vonnegurt are two authors who have done this.

    So just as it is false that Kundera met his characters, because his characters don't exist, it's also true, relative to the story, that he did meet his characters.

    Likewise, in the story that God spins, He meets his characters, but he doesn't interefere with or determine their future actions.

    So we have two new sentences:

    S3: God doesn't determine our future actions in any way.
    S4: God does determine our future actions, as the author of the story that we live in.

    The two are incompatible, but only if read on the same semantic level.

    S3 is true relative to the story that we live in, and false relative to God's reality.

    S4 is false relative to the story that we live in - God didn't do anything to get in the way of Eve's free decision, which was free in exactly the way that you understand the word 'free' - but, it is true relative to God's reality.

    Something about this solution seems like a fiddle. But I'm pretty convinced that, from a logical point of view, it works. It solves the problem, whether or not we like the metaphysics of God as author of the world.

  6. Sorry, S1 above should read:

    S1: To be free is to have the ability to chose to perform an action, or to chose to refrain from performing it; and thus, to be free demands that our future is open and up to us - AND WE ARE FREE!

  7. This is definitely very interesting Sam, but I'm not sure I see how the solution is supposed to go exactly. Perhaps I can express my confusion this way: suppose that in ordinary contexts, the sentence 'God doesn't determine our actions in any way' expresses the proposition that would be most perspicuously expressed by the sentence, 'According to the story God imagines, God doesn't determine our actions in any way' [I prefer to think in terms of appending a modal operator to the sentence rather than thinking of truth-relative-to-a-story, just because the only way I can make sense of the latter is by the former, so I'd rather just think about it in terms of the former straightaway. Tell me if you think this is where I'm going wrong.]. Name that proposition 'P'. Now, since we seem to be able to speak not only WITHIN the story, but from OUTSIDE the story (as in when we utter S2 or S4), it seems we can intelligbly ask whether the proposition that would be expressed by the sentence "God doesn't determine our actions in any way" when uttered in the SAME context as S2 or S4 - name that proposition 'P+' - follows from P. Here's the dilemma - if it does (and I take it this is what the Berkeleyan metaphysics is supposed to do for us), then we're back to square one, and the problem re-arises. If not, then I don't see what the point is; we haven't saved our freedom in any way, since all we have is that ACCORDING TO a certain story, we are no determined, but we already knew that! There are plenty of false stories according to which we are true. Please help me see my way through this.
    Aaron Segal

  8. V interesting Sam. one question which springs to mind concerns sentences of the form 'God knows that p' where p is some future contingent about my behaviour. You say that the Izbicer is sensitive to the idea that 'it may not be possible for us to talk meaningfully about any sort of reality beyond the world we live in' etc. Might not the answer to the puzzle then not be that there is a semantic ascent, but rather there is no contradiction between sentences S2 and S1 because one of these sentences is strictly speaking meaningless?

  9. Thanks for the reply. I’m still not sure which premises of the argument the Izbicer would dispute. (That can’t be the strongest version of the argument. I’d think that premise 5 is pretty implausible, and hardly needs such a sophisticated response.) Also, I think I see how there can be two contexts in the case of sentences about Hamlet. But I can’t draw the analogy here; I can’t see what this amounts to in the case at hand. But that might just be my problem, and no fault of the solution.

  10. In my comment, replace "There are plenty of false stories according to which we are true." with "There are plenty of false stories according to which we are not determined." Sorry.

    Aaron Segal

  11. To Ty:
    I don't think the nature of the Izbicer's solution is going to depend very much on which version of the problem-creating argument one chooses. So choose Pike's or some improved version thereof, or whatever is your favorite (if you have one - you may think, as I'm inclined to, that there is no good argument, but I think we should let the Izbicer at least have a target to work with). I assume the move that the Izbicer would be making - if I'm understanding Sam's suggestion correctly - is not to deny one of the premises but to say that there is an equivocation going on, and thus the argument is invalid. The equivocation will be roughly between what a certain sentence (that appears in a standard statement of the argument) means IN the story/God's thoughts, and what it means in a "neutral" context. Of course, the exact nature of the equivocation will depend on how one formulates the argument, but I'm not sure how much hinges on it. [That's not to say that one couldn't come up with a version of the argument -in response to the Izbicer - that doesn't equivocate, by making explicit certain synonomy claims, but then I assume he would be able to easily locate the premise that he wants to deny.]

  12. Aaron: I’m not sure whether we’re right to think in terms of modal operators, rather than truth-relative-to-a-story, and I think you’ll see why, as I try to help you see the sense in which there really might be a solution here.
    So, once again thanks, because I’m being forced to bring out the salient parts of the solution more clearly. I think there might be something worth publishing beneath all of this, but I need to sharpen the philosophy. This is really helping me.
    On the view I’m putting forward on the Izbicer’s behalf, we’re wrong to think in terms of propositions. The meaning of a sentence is not a proposition. Meanings of sentences are given by a Davidsonian style meaning-theory for the language at hand.
    Not only is there no such thing as a proposition, there’s also no such thing as truth-simpliciter. Truth is always relative to a language, and, perhaps to a certain discourse (in the case of a story, or within a make-believe game, for instance).
    So, we have nothing to fear in terms of the problem rearing its head again at the level of propositions, because there are no propositions. All we have are sentences. S1 and S3 are true-relative-to-the-story-that-we-live-in. S2 and S4 are true relative to God’s language and relative to His reality, as it were.
    Eli is right to point out that in fact, S2 and S4 are meaningless in our language, and that we can’t really understand the language in which they’re true. But, we supposed to have some sort of intuitive grasp of the idea that there are perspectives/discourses broader than our own, relative to which sentences like S2 and S4 would be true, if only we could really understand them! And though they’re meaningless to us, they might be meaningless in the way that Wittgenstein thought that his Tractatus was meaningless – meaningless in a somehow illuminating way.
    But, we certainly can make the relevant semantic ascent when thinking about Hamlet’s total freedom at one level, and his totally determined state, from another level. This should at least give us some sense of what the solution is supposed to be, even if the real content of the solution lies beyond our grasp. All we can really understand are sentences like S1 and S3, which are true.
    The difference between stories that humans spin, and the one story that God has spun, is that God’s storytelling creates physical reality. God’s story is privileged. That is part of the work done by the Berkelian metaphysics. So, whilst it’s true that "There are plenty of false stories according to which we are not determined," only one of those stories was spun by God Himself, which explains what gives it its metaphysical clout! Ultimately, to exist, is to be thought up by God. That’s why Hamlet doesn’t really exist, and we do. The whole hierarchy of stories within stories, ends with God, the unauthored author.
    Ty, has this made things clearer, or more murky? I need to learn how to put all of this properly!! And, Aaron, you’re right. The response to the problem is to say that none of the premises are false per-se, but that there is an equivocation between semantic levels that gives rise to the appearance of a paradox.


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