International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 173 27th June 2012


I. Readers' Reactions to Special Issue 172

II. 'What Is the Meaning of Life? A Sixth Argument for the Existence of God' by Max Malikow

III. 'Frankfurt's Free Will: Moses Maimonides in Modern Thought' by Mark Goldfeder



This is a transitional issue of Philosophy Pathways. A new procedure of peer review (we prefer the term 'evaluation') is being introduced which will I hope give rise to a steady improvement in the quality of articles published in the e-journal. The Board of the International Society for Philosophers will be much more fully involved in the editorial process than hitherto. As I write, members of the Board are evaluating the first batch of submitted articles.

The Pathways evaluation process is special -- I wouldn't go so far as to say unique -- in that it is not 'blind'. We take into consideration whether the author is a senior professor or undergraduate, an academically trained philosopher or self-taught. As it states on the journal home page, 'Providing us with these details will prejudice your application -- but in a positive way.'

There are not many philosophical journals where an undergraduate has the chance to publish work alongside senior academics, or where the lack of an academic background is not necessarily a bar to acceptance. Our interest is in quality, but there is more than one measure of quality. We wish to evaluate the process of production and not just the cold product in marks on a page or 1s and 0s on a computer disk. Do bear this in mind when you submit articles for publication in Philosophy Pathways. Tell us who you are and how you came to write your piece.

Articles will be evaluated by members of the ISFP Board at the Editor's discretion. Announcements, or reports of activities of local philosophy groups, or other topical items of interest do not need to go through this process. However, even for those articles which are evaluated by the ISFP Board, the delay is only one month, a much shorter turnaround than other journals are able to achieve.

Other changes are afoot. The Pathways School of Philosophy has a new home page. We've chosen this time a much simpler design than the previous 'compressed quadruple-decker sandwich' (as one viewer unkindly put it). The writing is more discursive, so that the page reads like a real page, and we've added some nice illustrations to break up the text. If you have any thoughts or comments, please email

Exactly a year ago today, we launched a new service aimed at helping philosophy students pair up online with other students taking the same or similar courses: ' -- a new (old) way to talk' (Issue 163). Last week, the service was relaunched with a new setup. When you register, you will be asked to give the web address of your Facebook or other social media page, such as Twitter or LinkedIn. You don't need to give an email address, nor do you have to request a private discussion space, although we are still more than happy to provide this. It's an easy and safe way to find like minds, and also to be found:


Special Issue 172 provoked a fantastic response. I was overwhelmed. I am tempted to go back on my embargo on posting the issue on the Philosophy Pathways web site. However, as I state in my comments below, it would be too easy. It would also not be cool. Those who had the chance to see the issue will know what I mean.

One very welcome email, from former Pathways student S.H., suggested the idea of 'Pathways to Philosophy Meetups'. The idea is that if you are a present or former Pathways student, you can start a local study or discussion meetup group with the full backing and resources of Pathways.

So to the present issue.

The first piece in Issue 173 is a compendium of responses to Special Issue 172. I have given initials, rather than the names of individuals concerned, even though I'm sure some would be happy for their names to appear. However, I can state that the last item, a poem, is by John Pullin, who has previously written a couple of articles for our sister publication, 'Philosophy for Business'. I didn't know you were a poet, John!

We also have two articles. The first article, which is also the first to pass the new Pathways evaluation process, is by Max Malikow, Professor at Syracuse University. Dr Malikow considers the weighty question of the meaning of life as a possible source of a 'sixth argument' for God's existence. As one ISFP Board member succinctly put it, 'Well written, logical, and crystal clear.' My own view is that Dr Malikow's case remains 'ad hominem', because it is aimed specifically at someone who feels dissatisfied with what he terms the secular/ existentialist view of the meaning of life. Let us know what you think.

The second article is by Mark Goldfeder, a postgraduate student currently doing his doctorate in Law and Religion at Emory University, which draws fascinating parallels between the views of Harry Frankfurt and the medieval philosopher Maimonides on the question of freedom of the will. On Goldfeder's reading, Maimonides shows himself to be far ahead of his time in anticipating modern sophisticated compatibilist views on the question of freedom and determinism, although the exact degree of correspondence is difficult to discern. I had accepted this paper -- Goldfeder's second article for Philosophy Pathways -- long before the evaluation process was set up, so the double jeopardy rule applies.

Geoffrey Klempner



Just to get into the swing of things, here's a thoughtful piece by T.A. with which I heartily concur:

     As I was reading about these male critics of yours, I was
     reminded of a Clint Eastwood performance in one of his own
     movies (of which I've forgotten the title).
     Another rather intelligent viewer remarked that in the
     movie Clint seemed to be in a rather pinched and diminished
     state. Veins bulged on his forehead. The reviewer concluded,
     correctly in my estimation, that Eastwood must have had a
     tourniquet around his t*sticles during the shooting of the
     It is my best guesstimate that these certain male critics
     of yours must be suffering from the same condition.
     It is furthermore my suggestion that a kind soul should
     step forward and relieve these gentlemen of their pinched
     After that, would the same kind soul be so kind as to
     escort these gents to their local and help them down a few
     That should loosen up their spirits and allow them to once
     again get some more blood flowing into their philosophical
     If, on the other hand, thus relieved and replenished, the
     gentlemen in question still find themselves unable to get
     their philosophical pen up, well, then my final suggestion
     would be to enroll them in a basic rock 'n' roll class.
     (Why? For the simple reason that you cannot dance rock,
     have a tourniquet around one's t*sticles, and smile at the
     same time at one's cute partner -- as one is required to do
     when dancing.)
     I believe my that my comments and suggestions are not
     naive, but in fact are quite mature, ethical and kind.
     I therefore trust that my input has been helpful.

The concept of the 'male critic' is worthy of further investigation. In these postmodern times, it is impossible to deny or overlook the role of sexuality in relation to academic infighting, and attacks on (mostly male) philosophers by other (mostly male) philosophers. There's altogether too much testosterone flowing about in the academic world.

Now that we've suitably loosened up, here are some more comments. This more serious response, is from M.D:

     I thoroughly endorse Issue 172. It is good that you can
     write in the first person singular as a philosopher and
     write about damage. Damage causes damage and it piles up
     over time, personally, socially, historically -- this was
     Walter Benjamin and Adorno's view and is mine too. Part of
     the sense of mission (which is in Marxism too, hence
     perhaps your attraction to it -- who was it called Marxism a
     secularised version of Judaism?) of having a task to perform
     in this world is to rectify the damage. This is a core
     doctrine of Kabbalah too, the rectification of the broken
     I like the words of the reviewer of Naive Metaphysics, 'the
     opacity and interminability of his text subvert the effort
     required to make even minimal sense of it.' He meant it
     negatively, but this could be said of Hegel's
     phenomenology, as of Adorno's brilliant aphoristic Minima
, or anything at all by Derrida and so on. It is
     what fools say of philosophers in short.
     I have always privately recognised you as a philosopher of
     historic worth by which I mean when they look back at
     philosophy in England from the world to come they will see
     you, not B. It is why you are on your own and he has the
     plush jobs and influence. You are Spinoza to whoever were
     the (now forgotten) Bs of Spinoza's day. You must trust in
     this, which is perhaps a theological trust.
     Why I like that quote about Naive Metaphysics is that
     although you have grown up with analytic philosophy and
     profess to dislike 'continental philosophy' -- the fact is
     that against yourself you are too 'continental' and that is
     what they are picking up on. Not just any-old continental,
     but what that reviewer said of you that I quoted is like
     what the goyim said of the Talmudists. You have some of
     this Talmudic tendency -- the interminability of commentary,
     the opacity of the logic, which is not Greek or Latin, that
     I do not think you are as fully conscious of as you could
     be. To be more fully conscious of it is to come into your
     own and own it. In other words you are more of a
     'continental' thinker than you think, but continental
     philosophy is more open to history and the world, it isn't
     just a 'discipline'.
     Back in the 90s when I first read Naive Metaphysics, which
     was too analytical for me, I could see in and around the
     analytical mode, an independence of spirit that I see in
     Hume (hence his connecting with Rousseau), Locke (deeply
     resonant with Spinoza) and the best of British philosophy.
     I think you might think about making Issue 172 available on
     the website if you remove the paragraph about the Bs at
     breakfast. And just run a search on B to make sure there is
     nothing else too hypothetical. But the sense of injury at
     his hands, his misuse of power, the academic inbreeding
     which is a big problem and spells the death of good
     philosophy and does indeed attach to names e.g. B, and
     others -- his work buddies, working together, called insider
     trading in business -- this should be known and exposed and
     no-one is saying it loud; if you are wrong, let B say so,
     you are not scared to retract if you are totally wrong and
     he can convince you otherwise.

I'm blushing now. I'm not putting Issue 172 on the web. Not because I'm afraid of lawsuits, nor because I'm shy about baring my soul and letting it all hang out for every casual surfer to see. The Glass House notebooks give the lie to that conceit. No, it's simply because it's too damned easy to publish on the web. I'm not taking the easy route this time.

Let's press on. I like this, from my current student M.S. which captures his sense of what it means to be 'enlightened' with a charming simile:

     The honesty in the entire article is of great value to me
     personally. So often, I have read about philosophers
     without obtaining any relevant details about their
     relationship with to their own work that does not feel like
     an outright embellishment. I suppose it is very easy when
     writing about a philosopher to mythologize about their
     struggle coupled with their genius. That being said, most
     of what I've read (which by all means does not imply that
     that's all there is) is speculatively written from a third
     person point of view. In this interview however you speak
     about your work and N.M. in a way which can for me be
     compared to turning a light on in a dark room. There is no
     mediate levels of light; it goes from complete darkness 0
     to 100 -- metaphors don't have to be logically possible ;)
     There is no mood lighting and it is just about philosophy
     in content and in an action explicated in language.

Especially warming were the messages I received from subscribers to the e-journal who were former Pathways students, who hadn't contacted me in years. Here is an example, from M.Y:

     You probably don't remember me amongst the other students.
     I took an online class with you four years ago. The class was
     most stimulating: while I didn't agree with many things --
     which was expected, I guess -- it opened my eyes to a whole
     host of metaphysical issues, made me read quite a few books
     and articles; in fact, I remember the issues we discussed
     more vividly than some of my academic courses.
     Since then I have been studying for my PhD -- and the
     writing sample I used to get accepted was the one produced
     for your class. Moreover: I seems that people in the
     academic community here in the USA know and appreciate your
     The experience with academic philosophy helped me put
     things in perspective. And here is what I can say now: what
     you are doing is a great thing. The web is the medium for
     philosophy: the pure contact between minds it allows while
     keeping spatial considerations in their deserved humble
     place seems precious. Moreover: I think that the emphasis
     on the issues that you keep, as opposed to textual
     commentary on the sources, provides a nice counterweight to
     some of the academic philosophy today.

Pathways contributor P.B. develops the theme of 'institutionalized philosophy':

     This is a great idea for a supplementary issue. It gave me
     some hours of reflection on the meta-topic of
     institutionalized philosophy and teaching. What brought
     this to the front was the comment from one of your
     reviewers that a textbook could be 'too idiosyncratic.'
     Shouldn't they be so? By what standard does/ could one
     write a textbook that can suit all learners, all learning
     styles, and all cultural vantage points? To do so would
     make too many assumptions about the very nature of
     philosophy itself.
     This must be new in the history of ideas. People in the
     past studied under teachers, not schools. Aristotle 'was a
     student of' Plato. John of Damascus 'studied under' Kosmas
     the Sicilian. Saint Thomas Aquinas 'studied with' John of
     Saint Julian. Even of recent philosophers we read that they
     studied under someone. Immanuel Kant 'was taught by' Martin
     Knutzen. We do not say of Husserl that he studied at
     Humboldt University but that he was a student of Brentano.
     Sometimes we identify the teacher with a group: we do not
     typically say which University Wittgenstein graduated from,
     but that he was involved with the Vienna Circle, and so on.
     This is what makes it all the more imperative for
     philosophers today not to hide behind the name of some
     'accredited institution' (emphasis on institution,
     suspicion on accredited) but to take on responsibility for
     their product. I'm glad that you are one of these.

Now for some shorter comments, relating in different ways to the theme of what it is to 'be a philosopher'. This, from R.S, an independent philosopher and author for whom I have great respect:

     You are at heart an existential philosopher, the highest of
     all callings. Regarding academic criticism, your poem
     Gulliver says it all. To put it more directly, when
     academic monkeys are confronted with contemporary
     existential philosophy, all they are able to hear is monkey

And this, from D.K, like R.S. a valued Pathways contributor and author of several excellent and original books on philosophy:

     Recently, I confess, I have been reading the Philosophy
     Pathways issues only selectively. Not so this present
     issue. I have read every word from 'Contents' to 'All the
     best' and as I read, through the bitterness and the anger,
     I felt was reading an account of my own experience clothed
     in different outer garb. At many a point I could relate an
     exact parallel down to the minute details. I am certain
     that a few of our Pathways friends will feel the same; in
     particular I have in mind R.S. But we have to go on doing
     what we have to do. It is not 'of no consequence'.

Finally, this comment from J.L., who studied with Pathways before going on to take his PhD as well as publishing several fine books:

     You incarnate the Platonic Eros of Paideia (Phaedrus) with
     your work. Let no-one disparage it who doesn't understand,
     can't do or mistakes it for philodoxy.

The last word, however, I will give to J.P. who was inspired by my attempts at poetry, to write a poem of his own.

     Dear Gulliver,
     The hubris of mankind
     Lies entirely in the mind,
     That, but for forbear's steam and sweat
     Life would never seem
     So much like a dream.
     Created as we are
     From gaseous dust of star
     And by gravity's patient breath,
     Aeons of years and bacterial soup,
     Energy made this human troop.
     What luck you have, dear
     Inconsequential philosopher,
     To live a life unfraught
     By poverty and hunger
     And war's endless thunder.
     Life is but to love and live
     And to others give
     A sense of purpose
     So future generations
     Finds joys in their creations.
     Not just to procreate
     Or follow king and prelate
     Through endless mindless job.
     It is but to engage our minds
     To make futures for our kinds
     The wheel of life goes on
     In an endless marathon.
     It does not stop with us,
     For death is not the end
     Energy does eternity bend.

     ATB JSP

I accept the nudge of criticism. In my defence, I would say that the two pieces, 'Gulliver' and 'Dream'[1] were not intended as statements of some philosophical faith. It would be worrying if they were. The implication would then be that I am, or am close to being a solipsist and a nihilist, both views which I heartily despise. No, they are not true as philosophy. But they are, or are intended to be, true as art: as expressions of certain mood or way of seeing things, intended to strike a chord with persons who have had similar feelings, at some particular time in their lives.

Apologies to those whose comments I haven't included. I am grateful to all the Pathways readers who took the trouble to write to me. It has been a wonderful experience, learning that others really do care. Thank you :)


1. 'Gulliver/ Dream' http:---

(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2012




      You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
     -- Albert Camus

      The purpose of life is to stay alive. Watch any
      animal in nature -- all it tries to do is stay alive.
      -- Michael Crichton

What is the meaning of life? The writer Dale Long has addressed philosophy's fundamental question with these words,

     Why are we here? This is a timeless question that expresses
     humanity's fundamental desire to understand our collective
     existence and value.
     On a more personal level, why am I here? Many other people
     seem to have a pretty clear opinion of why I'm here. My
     wife believes I'm here to take out the garbage, help the
     children with their homework, and rub her feet. My boss
     believes I'm here to do my job and do it well. The person
     in the car behind me this morning looked as if she believed
     I was there to make her late (2012, p. 167).

Although clever, this assessment is hardly a definitive answer to the question of life's meaning. Long admitted this by adding, 'However, while living up to everyone's expectations may give our existence purpose of a sort, it's not the same as figuring out our own answer about why we, personally, are here'.

The question, What is the meaning of life? Brings to mind President Clinton's statement to a grand jury in the wake of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. It was there he said the oft quoted, 'It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.' Similarly, the question of life's meaning depends on what the meaning of the word 'meaning' is. In the present case, meaning is to be understood as, 'what is intended to be; purpose; significance; end' (American Heritage Dictionary, 1969, 811). Hence, this question can be alternatively posed: Is there an intention or purpose to the existence of human beings?

Any claim to have an answer to this question arises from faith -- a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Apart from invoking faith, this question is unanswerable. Cheerfully, this does not render the question valueless. The purpose of this treatise is to argue that the enduring existence of this unanswerable question implies the existence of God. As such, it constitutes a sixth argument in favor of the existence of a supernatural creator.

The five arguments traditionally presented to make the case for God's existence can be summarized as follows:

     1. Cosmological: Anything that exists has a cause outside
     of itself. Nothing can be the cause of itself since nothing
     can exist and not exist simultaneously. Since the universe
     exists, it must have an agent that caused it. God is that
     causative agent. Ergo, God exists.
     2. Teleological: The universe operates predictably rather
     than randomly. Predictability implies an intelligent
     designer. Ergo, God exists as the intelligent designer.
     3. Ontological: God is the greatest conceivable being,
     possessing all good qualities to the ultimate degree.
     Existence is a good quality and greater than non-existence.
     Ergo, God exists.
     4. Moral: Unless God exists, moral absolutes are an
     impossibility. (The only alternative would be moral
     relativism.) Moral absolutes do exist. Ergo, God exists.
     5. Ethnological: All cultures across human history
     demonstrate a sense of the divine expressed in some form of
     religion. This convergent data is evidence that human beings
     have an innate sense of a supernatural being and spiritual
     realm. This implies a creator who intended this and
     designed human beings accordingly. Ergo, God exists.

To these five arguments (not proofs) a sixth can be added: The persistence of the unanswerable question of life's meaning provides an argument favoring the existence of God. Before proceeding to make this case, an overview of a secular understanding of life's meaning is in order.

A Secular Understanding of the Meaning of Life

Stated simply, all secular views of life's meaning have in common the belief that human beings are not created by a supernatural being for some divine purpose. For the secularist, there is no creator with a personality and plan. Rather, human beings are part of an evolutionary process that is indifferent to their existence. This impersonal process is the agency by which human beings have developed into their present state.

Existentialism provides an understanding of life's meaning that is unmistakably secular. It is the philosophical movement associated with Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre that emphasizes free will and personal responsibility. For the existentialist, there is no meaning to life apart from the meaning people bring to their lives. (Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian existentialist, is an exception to this description.) Further, the existentialist believes all of us can bring meaning to our lives regardless of our circumstances. Moreover, each of us is responsible for determining and living out the life that will be personally meaningful.

Holocaust survivor and existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl believed that since life consists of thousands of situations, there is no single meaning to life but thousands of meanings. In his classic, Man's Search for Meaning, he wrote:

     I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in
     general terms, For the meaning of life differs from man to
     man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters,
     therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather
     the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment
     (1959, 130-131).

For this reason Frankl preferred the ten thousand commandments to the Ten Commandments:

     In an age in which the Ten Commandments seem to many people
     to have lost their validity, man must learn to listen to the
     ten thousand commandments implied in the ten thousand
     situations of which his life consists (1969, x).

Professor Robert Solomon has characterized existentialism as 'the philosophy of no excuses.' The introduction to his course on existentialism includes this characterization:

     The message of existentialism... is about as simple as can
     be. It is that every one of us, as an individual, is
     responsible -- responsible for what we do, responsible for
     who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with
     the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world
     is. It is, in a very short phrase, the philosophy of 'no
     excuses!'... If there is a God, we choose to believe. If
     nature made us one way, it is up to us to decide what we
     are to do with what nature gives us -- whether to go along
     or fight back, to modify or transcend nature (2000, 1).

Walt Whitman's poem, 'O Me! O Life!' is a literary expression of existentialism. In the first seven lines the poet laments the apparent meaninglessness of life with phrases like, 'the struggle ever renewed' and, 'the empty and useless years.' Then, dramatically, he implores readers to optimize their lives by recognizing their individuality and taking action:

     That you are here -- that life exists and identity.
     That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a
     verse (1900, 166).

Existentialists are unimpressed by what people profess or predict for themselves. Sartre wrote, 'Man is nothing else... than the ensemble of his acts' (1957, 32). An individual's life is authenticated by what is done rather than what is said. A belief that is not expressed by action is inauthentic and not to be taken seriously. The controversial psychiatrist Thomas Szasz expressed agreement with Sartre with this observation: 'People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates' (1973, 49).

A Sacred Understanding of the Meaning of Life

Natural selection is the principle that the behaviors and traits that will maximize a species' survival and reproduction will be passed on to succeeding generations. Evolutionary psychology is the study of the development of human behavior and the mind using the principle of natural selection. The question of life's meaning has no survival value and contributes nothing to reproduction. Hence, an evolutionist could not explain the existence and persistence of this question by saying it is integral to the perpetuation of the human species. In fact, to the contrary, it is counter-productive to the survival of many individuals whose existential angst culminates in their suicide. Further, an evolutionist might posit that this question once had survival value and, like appendices, wisdom teeth and other vestigial organs, no longer has a discernible function other than to keep philosophers occupied. If offered, this would be an argument from silence (argumentum ex silentio), by which a conclusion is derived from the absence of evidence rather than its presence.

A sacred understanding of this question's durability is that human beings owe their existence to a creator who has an intention for their lives. The unanswerability of this question is intentional as well. The creator (God) has orchestrated the human condition in such a way that each of us must discover our own reason for being rather than create it as the existentialists maintain. Further, the process of discovering how our lives should be spent simultaneously contributes to each of us being the kind of person God wants us to be. Lest this idea remain abstract, consider the Nobel laureate and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. Reflecting on what he considered his privileged life, he determined to follow the principle of Jesus Christ: 'From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked' (Luke 12:48, NIV). Schweitzer describes his day of decision in his memoir.

     One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach, during the
     Whitsuntide holidays -- it was in 1896 -- as I awoke, the
     thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune
     as a matter of course, but must give something in return.
     While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought,
     and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that
     until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in
     devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that
     I would devote myself directly to serving humanity... What
     the character of my future activities would be was not yet
     clear to me... Only one thing was certain, that it must
     be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere
     (1933, 82).

Schweitzer's service was as a medical missionary to the people of Lambarene in the rainforest of Central Africa. There he worked as a physician from 1913 until his death in 1965.

The existentialist believes an individual's essence or defining qualities are determined by action. Sartre communicated this in several of his works.

     What is meant here by saying existence precedes essence? It
     means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on
     the scene, and, only afterwards defines himself (1957, 15).

The antithesis of existentialism is essentialism. The essentialist believes the purpose of an individual's life precedes that person's existence. The essentialist reverses the existentialist's mantra by asserting essence precedes existence. Albert Einstein expressed an essentialistic thought in an essay he wrote in 1931:

     Strange is our situation here upon the earth. Each of comes
     for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to
     divine a purpose.
     From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one
     thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other
     men -- above all for those upon whose smile and well-being
     our own happiness depends, and also for the countless
     unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of
     sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much of my own
     outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow
     men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert
     myself in order to give in return as much as I have
     received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the
     depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from
     the work of other men (1990, 3-4).

The Quaker philosopher and theologian David Elton Trueblood also wrote of the meaning of life in juxtaposition to an obligation to others: 'A man has at least made a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit' (1951, 58).

A knife provides an analogy that differentiates essentialism from existentialism. Consider two answers to this odd question: What makes a knife a knife? An essentialist would answer a knife is a knife owing to its construction. An implement for cutting is conceptualized by a knife-maker who then proceeds to fashion an instrument for cutting. An existentialist's answer would be, 'It's merely an object until it cuts, it then becomes a knife.' For the essentialist, a knife is a knife by design, even if it never cuts, cutting is its raison d'etre. For the existentialist, it is merely a nondescript object until it cuts; the act of cutting defines the object.

Knives, unlike human beings, have neither a mental life nor a free will. The sacred view of human beings is essentialistic, maintaining that each of us is responsible for discovering our purpose. The secular view is existential, positing that each of us is responsible for creating our purpose.

A theological statement articulating the sacred view of humanity is found in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christ-followers at Ephesus:

     For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do
     good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do
     (Ephesians 2:10, NIV).

Another such statement is made in the Westminster Shorter Confession, a Protestant catechism:

     Question: What is the chief end of man?
     Answer: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy
     him forever (1648, 1).

Granted, both of the above are no more specific than Einstein's vague notion of a purpose for his life or Trueblood's assertion concerning altruism. Nevertheless, all four communicate the idea of intentionality to our existence. It was this idea that prompted Schweitzer to discover his purpose and led to his calling to the people of Lambarene.


An excerpt from the novel, Congo, is quoted in the introduction to this essay: 'The purpose of life is to stay alive' (Crichton, 2012). The fact that people kill themselves is ample evidence that this analysis is simplistic. Thirty-thousand suicides occur annually in the United States (Jamison, 1999, 24). If our lives could be reduced to a mere struggle for survival there would be no suicides.

Psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom posits there are four philosophical issues present in psychotherapy, one of which is the meaning of life (2000, 4-5). A psychiatrist of an earlier era, Carl Jung, also viewed life's meaning as integral to psychotherapy:

     Among my patients from many countries, all of them educated
     persons, there is a considerable number who came to see me,
     not because they were suffering from a neurosis, but
     because they could find no meaning in life... When
     conscious life has lost its meaning and promise, it is as
     though a panic had broken loose and we heard the
     exclamation: 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!'
     It is in this mood, born of the meaninglessness of life,
     that causes the disturbance in the unconscious and provokes
     the painfully curbed impulses to break out anew (1933,

Professor Jay L. Garfield of Smith College believes this question is sufficient to justify an entire course devoted to it:

     What is the meaning of life? It's a question every
     thoughtful person has pondered at one time or another.
     Indeed, it may be the biggest question of all... It is at
     once a profound and abstract question, and a deeply
     personal one. We want to understand the world in which we
     live, but we also want to understand how to make our lives
     as meaningful as possible; to not only know why we're
     living, but that we're doing it with intention, purpose,
     and ethical commitment (2012, 16).

This treatise presents the claim that the unanswerable question of life's meaning constitutes a sixth argument (not proof) for the existence of God. This question has persisted throughout the history of philosophy in various forms. It is implied Aristotle's definition of happiness (eudaimonia) as well as his analysis that every event has four causes. The significance of this question resides not in its answer but in its endurance in spite of its unanswerability. Since it is not necessary for the survival of our species it is important for another reason. The contention of this essay is that this question is innate rather than part of an evolutionary process. To appropriate a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, this question is 'endowed by the Creator.' This argument did not originate with the author of this essay. It was stated sixteen centuries ago in far fewer words by Saint Augustine: 'You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you' (398 A.D.).


American Heritage Dictionary. (1969). William Morris, Editor. New York.American

Heritage Publishing Company.

Augustine(circa 398 A.D.) Reprinted in 1960 by New York: Image Books.

Crichton, M. quotation recovered from http:--- on May 21, 2012.

Einstein, A. (1931). 'From living philosophies.' Living philosophies: The reflections of some eminent men and women of our time. New York: Doubleday.

Frankl, V. (1959) Man's search for meaning. New York. Washington Square Press.

_________ (1969) The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. New York: Penguin Books.

Garfield, J. (2012). The meaning of life: Perspectives from the world's intellectual traditions. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

Jamison, K. (1999). Night falls fast: Understanding suicide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jung, C. (1933). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harvest Books.

Long, D. (2011). 'Why are we here?' from This i believe: Life lessons. Dan Gediman, John Gregory, and Mary Jo Gediman, Editors. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Sartre, J. (1957). Existentialism and human emotions. New York: Kensington Publishing Corporation.

Schweitzer, A. (1931). Out of my life and thought. Translated by Antje Bultman Lemke. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Solomon, R. (2000). No excuses: Existentialism and the meaning of life. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

Szasz, T. (1973). The second sin. Garden City, NY: The Anchor Press.

Trueblood, D. (1951). The life we prize. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Whitman, W. (1900). Leaves of grass. Acquired May 17. 2012 from Great Books Online.

Yalom, I. (2000). Love's executioner and other tales of psychotherapy. New York: Harper Perennial.

(c) Max Malikow 2012




Ever since humans have been aware of themselves, they have wondered what exactly it is that they are aware of. And every attempt at defining what constitutes the elusive term 'human nature' must at some point deal with the question of the doctrine of free will; simply put, do humans, or do humans not, have free will.

Freedom of the will, as defined by the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1], is a 'philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.' Most great thinkers over the last two thousand years have assumed that the concept of free will is very closely connected with the idea of moral responsibility. It is no wonder then that a philosopher like Maimonides, operating from within Judaism's rich religious standpoint, would be quite interested in the topic. Indeed, his writings on the subject are quite prolific, and a thorough analysis of his work would be a lengthy undertaking. For the purposes of this paper, we will examine the medieval conclusions of Maimonides in the light of and in contrast to the model proposed by one of today's leading philosophical thinkers, Harry G. Frankfurt.[2]

The key to Frankfurt's theory is the understanding and application of a set of self-defined terms. To summarize briefly: Frankfurt recognizes that even non-humans have the capacity to have desires for, and be motivated to achieve, certain things. The desire to do or not to do one thing or another he calls a 'first-order desire.' What separates humans for Frankfurt is their ability to form 'second-order desires,' desires to have or not to have the aforesaid first-order desires. In his words; 'No animal other than man... appears to have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires.'[3]

Before he can move on to discuss free will, Frankfurt must define what the will that we are talking about actually is, and so he develops the notion of an 'effective desire.' An effective desire is the desire that moves, (or will, or would move) a person all the way to action, even in the face of other, conflicting desires. While these other desires may incline a person to act in a certain way, the one that actually, effectively, causes an action is what Frankfurt calls someone's will. We have now arrived at the crux of humanity: for Frankfurt, what makes a man a person is his ability to have a 'second-order volition,' a desire that a specific first-order desire should be his effective desire, or will, as opposed to some other desire being effective. This identification with the desire makes it more truly his own, and the preference demonstrates a level of caring about what his will actually is.

Here Frankfurt makes the important distinction between 'free action' and 'free will.' Free action is simply the ability to transform first-order desires into action. Starting with the premise of a person being someone who has second-order volitions, Frankfurt suggests that in order to have free will they must also have the ability to transform those second-order volitions into action, to essentially choose their effective desires.

In the case he gives of a drug addict for example, someone with conflicting first-order desires both to take and not to take the substance, has a real second-order volition that his desire not to take it be his effective desire, or will. The unwilling addict has thus identified himself with the will to no longer be an addict, and so when he is moved to take the drug anyways, he may claim (at least according to Frankfurt), that it was not of his own free will, but rather against his will, that he was forced to take it. To quote, 'the question of freedom of the will does not concern the relationship between what he does and what he wants to do. Rather, it concerns his desires themselves.'[4] Free will is the ability to will what one wants to will, or to have the effective desire that he wants to have. Because the addict on this case is not operating under the power of his own free will, Frankfurt would not necessarily hold him morally responsible for what he does.

In any discussion of Maimonides' position on free will, it is important to note that there has been some debate as to what his views actually were, and if he considered them safe enough for public consumption. In his popular works, Maimonides' Commentary to the Mishnah and Mishneh Torah, scholars have traditionally found him to be a proponent of strong libertarianism. And for good reason; in his introduction to Tractate Avot, Maimonides writes that:

     Without any doubt, the truth is that every aspect of a
     person's conduct is subject to his [choice]. If he desires,
     he will act in one way. And if he desires not to, he will
     not. Nothing is forcing or compelling him at all.[5]

In the Laws of Repentance in Mishneh Torah, this theme is dutifully echoed:

     Free will is granted to every human being. If a man wants
     to follow the good path and be good, he has the power to do
     so; if he wants to follow the evil path and be wicked, he is
     free to do so.[6]

Specifically in that same chapter, Maimonides, on theological principles, firmly rejects the notion of an externally imposed, Heavenly determinant:

     Let it not occur to your mind that G-d decrees at the birth
     of a person that he shall be good or evil, a notion
     expressed by foolish non-Jews and most of the stupid
     individuals among the Jews. It is not so. Every human being
     is capable of becoming righteous like Moses or wicked like
     Jeroboam, wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, niggardly or
     generous; and so with all other traits. There is no one to
     compel him or to decree what he is to do, no one to pull
     him in either direction; it is he who directs himself
     deliberately towards any course he desires.[7]

Now, Maimonides does recognize the possibility of a person possessing inborn tendencies, but maintains that they are not to be considered deterministic. In his Commentary, he notes that:

     It is, however, possible for a person to be born with a
     tendency to one of the virtues or one of the shortcomings:
     i.e. conduct [representative of this trait] will come
     easier to him than other types of conduct... Nevertheless,
     if the person whose natural inclination puts him at an
     advantage acts sluggishly and fails to study or develop his
     potentials, he will surely remain foolish. Conversely, if
     the person who is by nature coarse and phlegmatic applies
     himself to study and conceptual activity, he will be able
     to learn and comprehend, albeit with greater difficulty and
     after expending more effort.[8]

As Maimonides understands it, there is no inner deterministic force that a person cannot choose to overcome. It is precisely this choice that leads Maimonides to write, in regards to the accompanying moral responsibility, that:

     Hence he is judged according to his deeds: if he has
     behaved well, he receives a good reward; if he has
     misbehaved, he is punished.[9]

Thus far it has been clear that Maimonides seems to support a strong libertarian view in regards to the question of free will. There are, however, difficulties with this assumption, namely other passages that seem to contradict the notion. The main point of evidence that scholars have cited is Chapter II of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. The chapter begins by stating that everything produced in time has a proximate cause, which in turn has a cause, in a regression all the way back to the First Cause, G-d's will. (When prophets say that 'G-d did something,' they are ignoring the proximate and intermediate causes of the event.) The late Professors Shlomo Pines of Hebrew University and Alexander Altmann of University College London have both used this chapter to argue for Maimonides as a strong determinist. The main thrust of their argument comes from the following passage, also in Chapter II of the Guide:

     This is the notion to which I wished to draw attention in
     this chapter. For inasmuch as the deity is, as has been
     established, He who arouses a particular volition in the
     irrational animal, and who has necessitated this particular
     free choice in the rational animal [that is, man] and who
     has made the natural things pursue their course... it
     follows necessarily from all this that it may be said with
     regard to what proceeds necessarily from these causes that
     G-d has commanded that something should be done in such and
     such a way or that He has said: Let this be thus.[10]

Pines and Altmann both arrive at the conclusion that Maimonides did not really believe in free will. As Altmann puts it, 'Maimonides tacitly replaces the view expressed in his theological works by a deterministic theory that must be considered to represent his esoteric doctrine.'[11]

Scholars such as Jerome Gellman at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev understandably have trouble with the Pines-Altmann approach, and are unwilling to buy into a view of Maimonides that leaves him purposefully contradicting his own writings. In defense of our original understanding, Gellman has suggested a reading of the above passage in the Guide that protects the view of Maimonides as a strict libertarian.

He understands Maimonides here to be simply pointing out that G-d has determined only that we choose, not what we choose. While this is may be a valid and possibly correct interpretation, for the goal of this paper we will focus on the reconciliation proposed by Moshe Sokol of Touro University.[12]

Sokol is of the opinion that in actuality, Maimonides was a proponent of what Susan Wolf has termed the 'sane deep self' view of human agency and responsibility. This terminology denotes a school of thought that stems from the theories of Harry Frankfurt, involving higher and lower levels of human desire and compulsions. Basically, for an action to be free it must be free of both all external and all internal compulsions. This can only happen when, for example, the will to steal, is itself under the control of a 'deeper' self that stands back and evaluates it, and which can reject that lower order desire if it so wishes, and if it is not in accordance with the deeper self's values. As Frankfurt first described, that 'deeper' self (controller of the second-order volitions) that chooses which first-order desires to associate with is who we really are. While Sokol uses this idea to answer several questions in Maimonides' work, as stated our focus will be to look through Frankfurt's eyes in order to get a fuller picture and better view of Maimonides' understanding on the question of free will.

Armed with Frankfurt, we can now return to Maimonidean theory; while Pines and Altman have correctly deduced from the passage in the Guide that Maimonides believed in human choice being determined by a causal chain extending back to G-d Himself, according to Sokol this has no bearing on the discussion of free will or no free will. While a person's first-order desires may be heavenly sent, determined psychologically by the natural laws that G-d laid out, man has been given the autonomic ability to form second-order volitions; to choose which of the determined first-order desires will be effective. Thus the concept of moral responsibility is perfectly understandable; despite his inclinations, man can choose to be different than what he has been made.

The beauty of this argument lies not only in its ability to successfully weave the seemingly contradictory passages together; in citing proofs that Maimonides actually believed in some form of this theory, Sokol's method sheds new light on some of the most basic Biblical passages, things that schoolchildren have taken for granted for centuries but can finally understand in a more meaningful, less superficial way.

For instance, in the Exodus account, many have struggled with the idea of G-d hardening Pharaoh's heart. How could the king then be held accountable for what he did? The answer given by all the classical exegetes, including Maimonides, is that G-d was just restoring the balance that the fear of the plagues had upset, letting Pharaoh make the choice that he truly wanted to make. Taking the sane deep self theory a step further; someone's will is not free only when his or her deep self has lost control over the lower order desires. If, however, external forces were used to manipulate his first-order desires, bringing them back into accord with the deep self and its second-order volitions, the external forces would actually be restoring free will.

That, precisely, is how Maimonides and the rest of the commentators view the story of Pharaoh. In hardening Pharaoh's weakening first-order resolve to be evil, G-d actually restored Pharaoh's free will, bringing his first-order desires back into accord with his evil deep self and its second-order volitions.

Sokol's main textual proof though, comes from a halakhic context, Maimonides' treatise on the Laws of Divorce. Basing himself on a Mishnah and accompanying passage of Talmud, Maimondes writes that:

     An individual who does not want to divorce his wife,
     according to the law may be forced to do so. A Jewish court
     of law may force him until he says 'I want [to divorce her]'
     [Editorial note: in Jewish law, a divorce document is only
     valid if the husband wanted to give it. If it was given
     against his will, or without his consent, it is
     nullified.]... And why is this bill of divorce not
     nullified because he was forced, be it by non-Jews [who
     acted at the behest of the Jews], or Jews? Because we do
     not consider someone to be forced unless he is pressured
     and forced to do that which the Torah does not obligate
     him, such as someone who is hit until he sells or gives.
     [Editorial note: in Jewish law, if a man is strong-armed
     into making a sale or giving a gift that he did not want
     to, the act of acquisition is deemed invalid.] But someone
     who is attacked by his evil impulse to disobey a
     commandment or perform a forbidden action, and he is hit
     until he does that which he is obligated or desists from
     that which he is forbidden, is not considered forced by the
     hitting, but he forces himself despite his evil
     characteristics... Since he was smitten until his evil
     impulse was weakened, and he says 'I agree [to divorce my
     wife],' he is divorcing in accordance with his will.[13]

In this, perhaps the clearest formulation of Maimonidean philosophy on what constitutes a person's will, a Frankfurt-inspired reading seems not only valid but truthfully accurate. As Sokol explains, 'Maimonides distinguishes between two aspects of the self, a 'deep self' that truly wants to be an observant Jew, and a member of the Jewish people, and a lower-order self that chooses to do evil under the influence of the evil impulse.'[14] In other words, as evidenced by his lifestyle choices and his other actions, despite the fact that he says he does not want to grant the bill of divorce, the husband before us does in fact have strong first-order desires to remain an observant Jew and do what is right. That being the case, he must also have, if not conflicting first-order desires about the giving of the divorce, at least a second-order desire that he have the first-order desire to give it. Judging again by his overall personality, he must also have a second-order volition that the desire to give it be his effective desire. What then, is stopping him from giving? Simply the overwhelming strength of the first-order desire to be mean and withhold it, what Maimonides calls his 'evil impulse.' He is, in essence, Frankfurt's unwilling addict, who simply cannot resist the temptation, but cannot be said to identify with it on the deepest of levels.

Here is where Jewish law steps in. Recognizing the complexity of the situation, the law mandates that we once again level the playing field and allow his true self to shine through. Again, free will is the ability to have the effective desire that one wants to have. We know what this man's second-order volitions are; he wants to be a good Jew. We know that the evil impulse is preventing him from making this his effective desire. By compelling him to grant the divorce, all we have done is weaken that impulse, and in the process we have restored his free will. The analogous case would be to give some kind of harsh therapy to the unwilling addict, weakening his first-order desire to take the drug and allowing his second-order volitions to reign freely.

On the flip side of the Frankfurt approach to Maimonides' philosophy, if one's second-order volitions were, in theory, unable to choose the correct path, then, having no choice at all, such a person could hardly said to have made the wrong choice. They would therefore not be held morally responsible for their actions. While Frankfurt discusses the wanton, who is not a person because he has no second-order volitions, and for whom freedom of the will is therefore not even a question, Maimonides gives an example of a person whose range of first-order volitions has been stifled or cut off, leaving their second-order volitions no choices to make. These are essentially people, just without free will. Once again in Mishneh Torah, he writes, regarding heretics:

     But their children and grandchildren, who, misguided by
     their parents, were raised among the Karaites and trained
     in their views, are like a child taken captive by them and
     raised in their religion, whose status is that of someone
     coerced who, although he later learns that he is a Jew,
     meets Jews, observes them practice their religion, is
     nevertheless to be regarded as someone acting under
     compulsion, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of
     his fathers.[15]
While the children may feel like they are making a choice, connecting with the first-order desire (to remain Karaitic) that they want to be effective and bringing it to action, Maimonides sadly dismisses them as not having free will at all in these circumstances. Their conflicting first-order desire to become Orthodox has effectively been either killed or unnaturally prevented from coming into existence, leaving no choice for the second-order volition to make. For Maimonides, as well as for Frankfurt, the definition of free will requires there to have been alternative possibilities to choose from.

Having thus established the century-spanning connection between Frankfurt and Maimonides, we will now take a moment to point out in what ways the two are subtly different: While both deal with simple, first-order desires to do or not to do something, Frankfurt gives no explanation as to the origin of these desires, presumably ascribing them to natural physiological laws. As we have pointed out, Maimonides uses those same laws to portray his delicate balance of determinism and free will; the laws themselves are what have been determined, and operate because G-d said they should. Frankfurt does not even address that idea, a concept Jerome Gellman calls 'ancestral determinism.'[16]

In regards to the more pertinent question of second-order volitions and their determinants, Maimonides subscribes fully to the idea that man is master of his own domain, and has the ability to stand up, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty, to anything that the natural laws might have thrown his way. As sole bearer of moral responsibility for his actions, he is therefore both the culprit when he commits wrong and the hero when he chooses to do right. Frankfurt, for his part, makes no decision; as he notes at the end of his article,

     My conception of the freedom of the will appears to be
     neutral with regard to the problem of determinism... It is
     possible that a person should be morally responsible for
     what he does of his own free will and that some other
     person should also be morally responsible for his having
     done it.[17]

Despite these minor differences in deterministic theory, and the resulting moral/ theological stances that come along with those differences, it is clear that there is a strong connection between Frankfurt's 'modern' approach to the question of free will and Maimonides medieval writings on precisely that subject. Aside from what many have noted in regard to his rationalistic approach to Torah learning, in this philosophical field at least, it is safe to say that Maimonides was way ahead of his time. This is not to say that the later work is anything but important. On the contrary; using Frankfurt as a tool to decipher the philosophy and methodology behind the Maimonidean law-making process can give us an invaluable insight into the application and extension of his thoughts to new and varied cases.


1. O'Connor, Timothy, 'Free Will', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.), URL = http:---.

2. Frankfurt, Harry G. 'Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,' The Journal of Philosophy 1971, Journal of Philosophy, Inc. p. 5-20

3. Frankfurt, p. 7

4. Frankfurt p. 15

5. Touger, Eliyahu, trans. 'Maimonides' Pirkei Avot.'Jerusalem, Israel: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1994. Chapter Eight of Introduction, p. 47

6. Birnbaum, Philip, trans. 'Maimonides' Code of Law and Ethics.' New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1944. Laws of Repentance, Chapter Five Paragraph One p. 41

7. Birnbaum p. 42, Paragraph Two

8. Touger, Chapter Eight of Introduction p. 46

9. Birnbaum, p.42-43, Paragraph Four

10. Pines, Shlomo, trans. 'The Guide of the Perplexed.' Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. p. 410

11. Altmann, Essays in Jewish IntellectualHistory, p. 41, quoted in Jerome Gellman, 'Freedom and Determinism in Maimonides' Philosophy,' in Eric L. Ormsby, ed. Moses Maimonides and His Time. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989 p. 144.

12. Sokol, Moshe. 'Maimonides on Freedom of the Will and Moral Responsibility.' Harvard Theological Review 91, 1998 p. 25-39

13. Birnbaum, p.123 Paragraph 20

14. Sokol, p. 35

15. Maimonides, Moses, Laws of Heretics Chapter Three Paragraph Three, quoted and translated in Sokol, p. 37

16. Gellman, p. 143

17. Frankfurt, p. 20

(c) Mark Goldfeder 2012


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020