Shaya Cohen -


What if Our Superpowers are on a Spectrum?

What if our Superpowers are on a Spectrum?

Sometimes when can see the sun, it’s not there. This clip is one of the all-time funniest unscripted things I have ever seen:

Imagine that you have a superpower, something really great, like the ability to fly in the air like Superman. The only catch is that you don’t know that you can fly– in which case you don’t have anything at all. Not really. In both cases, our perceptions are our reality.

I was thinking along these lines when I read a piece by Jonathan Sacks on Free Will, when he pointed out that free will is not really a binary attribute: a hard addict might have very little or no free will when it comes to stopping his addiction on his own. That same person had much more ability to choose when he was just starting drugs.  

The logical result is that we can only have free will if we think we do – and that as we consciously focus on our free will, it becomes more extensive. Indeed, this is one of the first lessons G-d tells Cain:

Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master. (Gen. 4:7)

We can – and should – master our own inclinations. But the extent to which we are capable of overcoming the desire to act instinctively depends very much on whether or not we think we have the ability to do so.  Free will is a self-fulfilling belief.

It is hardly the only one. Do you believe that people can change? If you do, then you may be capable of it. If, on the other hand you know in your bones that people really are incapable of changing themselves in any real way, then you are surely right that you cannot change.

But even such ideas as “change” or “free will” are not binary – it is not as if you have it or you do not. Instead, they are a spectrum. Some people can change a little, others a great deal. Some people have much more free will than others – I very much doubt that anyone can be said to have absolutely no free will: even the addict can, in extreme cases, end his addiction. And, just as likely, nobody can be 100% free of our nature and nurture.

I think the difference between 1% and 99% can be found in the ways in which one chooses to exercise those particular mental muscles. Because mental strength and flexibility really are like muscles: unused, they will atrophy and weaken. Worked out regularly, they will become fit and capable.

Intrinsic to both of these ideas is our own belief in the way mankind is made. If we are mere animals in nature, then we are bounded and limited by our environment, the result of some combination of nature and nurture. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as possessing a divinely-gifted soul, then we can redefine our perception of ourselves: we can be partners to G-d, capable of choosing to change ourselves, others, and the world.  It comes down to what we think we are made of.

The corollary is that the nature and degree of our capabilities are irrevocably linked to how much we invest in them. The muscles that let us grow our ability to freely choose our own path are the same that let us connect to the divine. The more we do it, the better we become. The more we invest in growth and change, the more we are able to do both.

We know our perceptions cannot be “true.” All perceptions are by nature limited by the quality of the instrument and the filtration mechanism, e.g., your eye does not see x-rays, and it discerns both color and light levels differently than the eyes possessed by other people. So our perceptions cannot be telling us the truth, at least not in any absolute sense.

Similarly, since no two people thinks exactly the same thing, our beliefs are extremely unlikely to be entirely correct either. The closest we can come is to say that each of us blind men accurately feels and competently understands a piece of the elephant. So it remains that I do not have to deny the reality of Christians, Muslims, or even other Jews in order for my reality to be intact, productive, and even holy.

Whether or not the sun in the BBC skit is actually there does not matter in the slightest: my beliefs have created my reality.

[An @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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