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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Symposium: David Shatz's Preface

The symposium on David Shatz's paper, "Hierarchical Theories of Freedom and the Hardening of Hearts" (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 1997 (XXI): 202-24), is now underway.  Professor Shatz has kindly agreed to initiate the symposium with some thoughts on his paper and the broader philosophical and exegetical issues it raises.  What follows are his remarks.

This article (from 1997) belongs to a genre that is becoming increasingly popular among analytic philosophers, thanks to pioneering efforts by Eleonore Stump, Charlotte Katzoff and (without a predominantly analytic emphasis) the Shalem Center: namely, the philosophical analysis of biblical narratives. As editors Charles Manekin and Robert Eisen remark in their introduction to Philosophers and the Jewish Bible, “While the contemporary project of philosophical exegesis differs greatly from the medieval project, both share a fascination with the Bible and a desire to make sense of it in philosophical terms” (p. 5). Just as medieval philosophers sought to harmonize Scripture and  philosophy and to use philosophy as an exegetical tool, analytic philosophers who are committed to what can loosely and evasively be called "traditional philosophical theology" utilize philosophical analyses to remove inconsistencies between the Bible and philosophy and to understand narratives more deeply. It scarcely needs to be added that philosophers who are not theists may -- and do-- use philosophical theories and methods to analyze biblical narratives, and that philosophers committed to "traditional philosophical theology" may, like everyone else, use philosophy to interpret narratives without relating them to theological concerns. Also, some philosophers (like Howard Wettstein) stress the gap between traditional philosophical theology and the Bible.

In the case I treat, contemporary philosophy seeks to resolve a conundrum in the biblical text. The article argues, however, that, given certain intuitions, the solution does not work.

The Bible relates that, beginning with the sixth plague, God at times hardens the heart of Pharoah, and as a result the king keeps the Israelites enslaved. Prima facie, the hardening deprives Pharoah of free will. If so, how can he be held responsible for his various “hardened” refusals to free the Israelites? Hardening also seems to rob Pharoah of the opportunity to repent, and (as Stump stresses) it causes further harm to the Israelites. Depriving someone of free will, furthermore, seems problematic in and of itself. How can we understand free will and hardening , then, so as to meet at least some of these problems?

Stump suggests that if we understand freedom a certain way-- roughly, as having the will that your intellect judges you should have — God’s hardening actually makes Pharoah’s will free. Her view of free will is a modification of the extraordinarily important “hierarchical” account developed by Harry Frankfurt in the early ‘70s, and resembles theories held by Maimonides and Gersonides. In the article I argue not against the hierarchical account, but against using it to solve the hardening puzzle. I have two main grounds. First, the hierarchical solution does not fit the Bible’s account of why God hardened Pharoah’s heart. Second, due to God’s intervention, Pharoah’s will does not satisfy a “because” clause that is needed in the hierarchical account. At the end of the article I contrast the hierarchical account with the theory of Joseph Albo (1380-1444).

Some larger issues about using philosophy as an exegetical tool might deserve attention. For example, I indicate in the article that philosophers seem to assign a higher value to free will than the Bible does. In addition, the Bible does not seem concerned with the philosophers’ problems about hardening, nor do the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash say much about them. However, illustrious commentators and thinkers -- Saadyah, Maimonides, Nahmanides, Albo, and many more-- grappled with them, and  contemporary philosophical analyses of the text fall right in line with those discussions. There are other instances where classic biblical interpreters occupy themselves with a philosophical problem that the Bible does not address. For example, commentators on the Akedah narrative (Gen.22) ask why God had to test Abraham if God foreknew what the patriarch would do—a problem the text does not touch. In fact, God's statement to Abraham, "attah yadati," "now I know [that you are a God-fearing person]," appears with no indication that there is a problem in God’s saying “now I know.” Because the Bible is silent on the philosophical perplexities, some might argue that the philosophers’ questions and answers are a sideshow that diverts us from the text’s meaning. In many or most cases (to be sure, not all) I would deny that strongly. Philosophical arguments and theories often affect how we define words and how we fill in gaps in a narrative. Theories in psychology are often used to fill out a narrative (e. g. to understand family dynamics in Genesis), and it seems arbitrary to bar philosophy from doing that. (We should also observe that there are a variety of philosophical problems that the Bible is concerned with more or less explicitly-- the basis of morality, theodicy, and the tension between divine planning and human initiative. Shalom Carmy and I co-authored an article about this.)

I reiterate my thanks to Eleonore Stump for her gracious comments on an earlier draft of the article many years ago.

David Shatz


  1. When discussing (in your preface) the larger issues involved in using philosophy as an exegetical tool, it seems to me that you allude to (what I take to be) a serious objection, but then the objection you formulate explicitly is different, and more easily handled than the former. The objection to which I thought you were alluding is that in certain circumstances the silence of the Torah gives us good reason to think that the Torah simply CARES FOR or VALUES less the phenomenon the philosopher is trying to "save", such as free will - in such cases, there is something approaching an apparent inconsistency between the text and one's philosophical/theological presuppositions about what's worth saving.

    Then there is the further objection you mention: if the Torah is not talking about the philosophical issue explicitly, then discussing it is a distraction from what's going on in the text, if not an unimportant pursuit in general. Here, I definitely agree that (at least in some cases) the Torah leaves gaps to be filled in by the reader, and philosophical investigation is no more out of place in doing so than psychological speculations. But this doesn't seem to address the first objection. So what would you say about the first objection?

    [Of course, that there are apparent incosistencies between the Torah and "philosophy" is nothing new, and animates much of medieval Jewish philosophy, but here the inconsistency seems to be of a special sort - an inconsistency about what's worth having or what's necessary to have a valuable religious life - and hence worthy of its own treatment.]

  2. In the clash between the value of free will and the value of aggrandizing God's name, for the sake of which God tells us He is going to harden Pharaoh's heart, on one natural reading, it seems to me, the narrative clearly, if implicitly, ranks the latter over the former. Although free will is taken for granted generally throughout the Torah, this is not a unique instance of God's subserving human free will to his own purposes (See, for example, Deut. 2:30 where God hardens the heart of Sihon king of Heshbon.) Indeed, specifically in this narrative, the Torah does not address this as a problem. That it does not, however, seems to me to be of philosophical significance and to attend to it is hardly a distraction. Rather, especially for those of us who are skeptical of attempts to "solve" the hardening puzzle, a philosophical account of the role free will plays in the divine scheme of things in the Torah is a pressing issue – both in terms of the metaphysical picture which emerges and the value system which is implied.
    Charlotte Katzoff

  3. As Aaron points out, I formulated in the post two separate objections to the analytic philosopher’s procedure. I agree that the first objection (=that the Bible doesn't care about free will as much as philosophers do), is harder to turn back than the second (=that philosophy might be a diversion from what really matters in biblical interpretation). I responded to the second in the preface, but what response can we offer to the first, to which the beginning of the article referred ,but on which my post was silent?
    In one sense, the answer is: Eleonore Stump's article. That is, the optimal response to the first objection would be to do what she undertakes-- develop an account of hardening on which Pharoah's will remains free, so the charge that the Bible doesn't care about free will cannot be established by reference to the hardening. And if her theory of hardening fails to secure that result, we can try others, like Albo's, that preserve Pharoah's free will. It's not only philosophers and classical exegetes who have looked for solutions: so have biblical commentators like Cassutto and Nahum Sarna. So there are a variety of solutions out there.
    But what if all these theories fail to preserve Pharoah's free will? As CharlotteKatzoff mentions and I stress in the article, the text tells us that God hardens Pharah's heart to multiply His wonders-- and that seems like an inadequate justification for God's taking away free will if we assign high value to free will. So is it the case that the Bible doesn't care about free will the way "traditional philosophical theologians" do? Here are some talking points on this question:
    1) Judaism contains strains that do not value free will all that much (Nahmanides, Hasidic schools, Rabbi Dessler). In general philosophy, Robert Nozick asked why "tracking bestness" (roughly, doing the right thing at all times) wouldn't be better to have than free will. Fair question. As I set matters out in the article, the free will theodicy is the main reason for saying a theist values free will highly. If we find another theodicy it will be easier to diminish the value of free will.
    2) Some philosophers think that not all varieties of free will are, in Daniel Dennett's phrase, "worth wanting." Maybe we should ask what kind of free will the Bible thinks is worth wanting and what kind philosophy thinks is worth wanting, and see if they converge. I don't know if this will lead anywhere in the Pharoah case and the other hardening episodes I mention. But it may be useful to ask the question independently of the hardening episodes.
    3) One reason I gave for thinking that the Bible does not value free will as much as commonly thought is that God uses promises and threats to secure compliance with the law. But how is God's use of promises and threats, which seems to diminish freedom, is different from a government's uses of promises and threats, which likewisae diminishes freedom. If the government's procedures are not major obstacles to free will,is God's hardening>
    David Shatz

  4. The last line of my previous comment is mistyped-- it should end with "is God's use of rewards and punishments?"

  5. In the question about whether the use of rewards and punishments diminishes free choice, we should keep in mind Hobbes's view that a person who hands over money at the point of a gun does so freely. All choice, it's been said, takes place in the context of incentives, so what we call coerced choices aren't altogether different from other choices but simply involve especially powerful incentives. So the thesis that a religious person or a government citizen freely obeys the law even though she is acting in the face of strong incentives depends on whether we adopt Hobbes' view.If we do, then God's widespread use of incentives does not suggest that free choice is not important to the Torah.

    David Shatz

  6. 1. Aristotle distinguishes cases in which a person is praised for enduring pain for the sake of a noble end or blamed for giving way for the sake of an unworthy end. The decision of whether to resist or give way is up to the person. In that vein, potent promises and threats wielded by God may indeed constrain people's choices, but they do not deprive them of their free will. By contrast, when God hardens Pharaoh's heart, the choice is out of Pharaoh's hands.

    The fact that God deprives Pharaoh of his free will is well accommodated, it seems to me, by Gersonides' approach – God grants freedom of the will in the standard case, but makes exceptions in circumstances where the achievement of a particular outcome is of extraordinary importance. That there are these exceptions is telling, but free choice is nevertheless very important to the Torah. The akedah story, as a prime example, is predicated on Abraham's ability to go either way – and only when God sees which way Abraham goes, does he bless him.

    2. Shatz explores a particularly attractive version of Stump's argument -- that by strengthening Pharaoh's first-order desire to hold on to the Israelites, God changed the context of choice for Pharaoh. As a result, Pharaoh could, on his own, bring his will into line with his second-order volition and thus Pharaoh enjoyed freedom of the will. Shatz objects that although in this altered context Pharaoh has the first-order volition he has because he has exercised his second-order volition, the new configuration of desires is not due to Pharaoh's second-order volition, but to God's intervention in his first-order volitions, to which Pharaoh's second-order volition is irrelevant. Since Pharaoh had no control over the change in the context of choice which enabled him to bring his will into line, Shatz argues that he is relieved of responsibility for the results. Shatz's exoneration of Pharaoh rests on the principle assumed by Stump, that Pharaoh's moral status is determined by those elements of his motivational structure over which he exercises control. Thus, Stump dismisses Pharaoh's initial inability to bring his strong first-order desire to release the Israelites in line with his second-order desire to enslave them as a moral accident – of no moral significance.

    Consistent with the hierarchical reading, however, one could judge Pharaoh even more sympathetically than does Shatz. In circumstances in which a person has decided he make an unworthy desire his will, Frankfurt is prepared to credit him for not being able to bring himself to implement his decision. On a less exclusively voluntaristic notion of moral status than Stump's, we might credit Pharaoh for the strength of his wayward first-order desire to do the right thing. Pharaoh may be deemed praiseworthy for not being able, on his own, to bring himself to act on his evil decision to continue to enslave the Israelites .

    This is not to say that the Torah presents Pharaoh as admirable; Pharaoh is not meant to evoke sympathy. Neither, however, it seems to me, are the evils that befall him meant as punishment for the actions he performs from a hardened heart.
    Charlotte Katzoff

  7. Charlotte - you say "free will is taken for granted generally throughout the Torah" and "free choice is nevertheless very important to the Torah. The akedah story, as a prime example, is predicated on Abraham's ability to go either way". I wonder about this. It's not obvious to me that the Torah assumes that human beings are free and it's even less obvious to me that freedom is very important to the Torah. The Scriptural sources cited by the medieval philosophers in support of the contention that the existence of free will is presupposed by the Torah, such as Deuteronomy 30:19, really talk about *choice* simpliciter, not *free choice*. But it doesn't follow from our making choices - about very important matters no doubt, such as life and death, blessings and curses - that we make them freely (philosophers who think we rarely have alternative possibilities, and even those who think we are rarely free, still admit that we make decisions and choices).

    And I was curious about your reference to the Akedah - why do you think that the text supports the importance of Abraham's free decision? Perhaps what was so important was that his actions/decisions/choices revealed his God-fearing *character*, and perhaps it was even necessitated by that character in such a way that, at least at the time he decided to sacrifice Isaac, he wasn't able to do otherwise.

    I realize that the text, *together with some substantive philosophical thesis*, might establish that human beings have free will. For example (another one from the medieval philosophers), the text says that God is just, and it also says that God punishes people; so IF we assume that no one can be justly punished for something unless he did it freely, then it follows that at least sometimes people do things freely. But that assumption is a substantive and somewhat controversial philosophical thesis [and matters are even more controversial if, in light of David's helpful suggestion, we distinguish between different "varieties" of free will; if we want to know whether the Torah values or think exists the "ability to do otherwise", then the philosophical premise we'd need to supply would be even more controversial.] And even if that assumption is TRUE, it doesn't seem to license the conclusion that free will is *taken for granted* in the Torah, since not everything that is entailed by something the Torah says can plausibly be said to be taken for granted by the Torah (presumably, it would have to be *obviously* entailed or some such thing).


  8. Aaron -- Admittedly, when reading a biblical text it is hard to steer clear of substantive philosophical assumptions and what seems like an obvious entailment to one reader may not be so to another. Here I introduce notions about God's knowledge in my interpretation. It seems to me that these notions are implicit in the biblical narrative.

    Indeed, God's declaring Abraham a "God-fearing man" suggests that God sees this as not an isolated act but as emblematic of Abraham's character. Insofar as character tends to constrain one's choices, God seems to be saying that now he knows he can count on Abraham to behave in a certain way.

    Is the text consistent with the notion that God sees Abraham's God-fearingness as having NECESSITATED his compliance? The angel waits until the very, very last moment before he intercedes. This at least suggests that God believes that the alacrity with which Abraham sets out on his mission and the preparatory steps which directly precede his lifting his hand leave it open to him until he actually brings down the cleaver to refrain from doing so – that's why God had to wait until "now." God may be wrong in this belief, but although in the Bible there are numerous things God doesn't know, it's not often that he's wrong.

    Of course, it's possible that God does believe that Abraham's actions are necessitated by his character, but he doesn't know what Abraham's character is or how it works. He wants to learn as much as he can about Abraham's character, so he lets the test run as long as it can without ending in Isaac's death. But when God stops the test he declares that he now KNOWS that Abraham is God-fearing. All Abraham's raising his hand demonstrates is that his loyalty to God was strong enough to overcome all his reasons for not wanting to kill Isaac. God has not learned that Abraham has a character that necessitates his obeying God. It's not likely that God is making a mistake about what he knows.

    As for other substantive assumptions about God's nature – at Deut.29:17ff. Moses describes God as being angry and unforgiving of those who defy him. Anger and lack of forgiveness are reactive attitudes that assume that their object is at the very least morally responsible for what he does. The assumption that God would not be angry in vain and that Moses is not mistaken about God's attitudes, regardless of whether they are true about God or Moses, seem uncontroversially to hold for the Torah's understanding of God and Moses.

  9. Thank you, Charlotte and Aaron, for pressing the Abraham question. A certain approach among the commentators strikes me as relevant. The basic idea in this approach is that the purpose of the akedah was to give Abraham, as a reward for his righteousness, an opportunity to bring his righteous character from "koah" to "po 'al," potentiality to actuality. But "koah" here is misleading, because I have a sense that these commentators are attributing only a one-way power, since Abraham's actions are necessitated by his character. The word "disposition" seems to capture their idea-- dispositions are usually associated wth lawlikeness, necessity, etc. Abnraham is a God-fearing man, and a God fearing man will do A in circumstance X. God just puts him into X and of course knows the outcome in advance.

    So, the reward for having the character trait of righteousness is being given the chance to ACT righteously and express in deeds a character that is already there and predetermines the action. This could explain why God lets the string play out up until the very moment of Abraham raising the knife. The aim of the akedah in this view, after all, is to let Abraham go very far in translating his chartacter into action. Of course a prime motivation for the interpretation is to protect divine foreknowledge. And the view will have to find an appropriate translation of "nissah" in Gen. 22:1.It also needs to vindicate the value judgment that the "expression" of chartacter makes it all worth it.

    As I just articulated the interpretation, it fits in with Aaron's suggestion about the chapter. But a variant is readily compatible with Charlotte's view. It goes as follows: As a reward for his righteousness to date, God gives Abraham the chance to freely choose between alternatives all the way up to the moment of raising the knife. God foreknows the outcome, and that's why he gave Abraham the chance. But (on this reading) Abraham's character doesn't necessitate the outcome and he keeps choosing all along the way.

    I don't know if there are grounds for preferring one version of the "koah/poal" view to the other. But I think Aaron's original point was that the Abraham episode doesn't decide the question of what the Bible's view of free will is, not that we must interpret it the way he suggests.

    There's a broad issue here. How would we go about deciding whether the Bible, say, endorses the Principle of Alternative Possibilities? Might it be like the question, "What was Shimon's foot size?" where it's fruitless to seek an answer because the Bible just isn't interested in the question? Or might we look for a hint, say, in the "dual causality" in the Bible-- events are caused by both God's actions and human actions? (Charlotte has written about this.) I don't know. (A whimsical question: Assuming divine authorship-- if we knew what the Bible thought about PAP, does that mean we'd know what God thinks about whether Frankfurt counterexamples are decisive, and we wouldn't need to philosophize about that? Would a referee committed to the Bible's veracity be able to recommend rejecting papers on one or the other side of the issue on the grounds that God had the opposite view? Or at least we'd know what the conclusion should be. I'm being jocular of course, but in that vein please don't miss the joke in note 20 of my article.)

    David Shatz

  10. David,
    Now, I'm curious. The approach you spell out strikes you as relevant. Indeed, it is relevant to the debate between Aaron and myself. As you say, its prime motivation is to protect divine foreknowledge. Are you recommending this approach as a satisfying reading of the adkedah chapter, independent of that motivation? As for myself, who wants to ascribe only limited omniscience to the God of the Bible, this approach seems largely unmotivated by the text.


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