Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Forms and substances


I would like to advertise two posts by Rabbi Micha Berger:
Form and Information
Mind, Pereception and Metaphysics
If I were to summarize the two posts (the parts relevant to the discussion below), I'd say:

1) Phenomena of a world higher become the forms of the phenomena of the world lower
2) Soul is a ray of G-dly Light that pierces the spiritual worlds
3) The lowest level of the soul is the highest level of the brain, its form

We recognize that each object has two components: matter and form (chomer and tzurah). A key consists of the metal from which it is made and its unique shape. If the metal is replaced from aluminum to copper, but the shape is the same, what was replaced is the matter, while what remained is the form. If the key was melted down, its matter remained the same, while its form was changed.

I personally define form as the relationship between different parts of the matter. The properties, the nature of the object, can be thought of as the matter: after all, we can't say that there are two things: the electron and its properties; the properties of the electron are electron. But then again, they can also be though of as the form: if all we care about is the charge of an amino acid, even if a point mutation in a gene replaced amino acid A with amino acid B, as long as the function that it plays in the protein (due to its charge) is unaffected, the protein will still fold normally; so, we've replaced the matter, but retained the form, which means that the key property of the amino acid that we cared about could be identified as its form.

In order to see in detail the discussion of form and matter as it pertains to brain and soul, in the context of Jewish sources, please read the posts. I would like to quote this bit:
[W]e can say the soul is therefore the pattern which the brain fits, encoded in the layout and attributes of its neurons, neurochamicals, glial cells, etc… This doesn’t mean the soul is only the pattern, or that the soul has no existence without the brain. The soul is the same thing, as substantiated in a higher world, one in which there is no need for a physical instantiation. The two are in sync in the same way a movie picture changes as the light from the projector flickers in its different colors.

Thus the mind is a product of the design and structure of the brain while simultaneously being a spiritual thing, our connection to a higher plane.
(See also this post, briefly.)

Now, Rabbi Berger says that he is a Litvishe Mikubol and thus doesn't subscribe to all ideas of Chassidus Chabad, but I was wondering if I can apply his model to the struggle between Nefesh Elokis and Nefesh Ha'Bahamis as described in Tanya.

According to Tanya, the two souls (G-dly and animalistic) fight over control of the brain. Each one wants to be the one "enclothed" in it. So, for instance, we can say that when I was sixteen years old, not religious and eating lobsters, my brain was controlled by my Nefesh Ha'Bahamis. When I turned seventeen and became religious and started going to shull (and stopped eating lobsters), but brain started to be controlled by my Nefesh Elokis.

Well, if an atheist Neuroscientist hears this, he will scoff. It's not like, he will say, my brain was plugged into an iPhone when I was sixteen, and then was plugged into Android when I was seventeen. The internal structure of my brain changed! Due to a number of outside influences (charismatic rabbi, his wife's chip salad, certain propaganda literature, certain conversations), some connections in my brain (e.g., in the circuits responsible for lobster-eating behavior) weakened or even became associated with negative emotions, while other connections (e.g., in the shull-going circuits) strengthened.

If you consider Rabbi Berger's model, however, the Neuroscientist's view does not contradict the concept of one soul being enclothed in my brain vs. another.

Remember, according to the model, hislabshus (enclothment) of the soul in the brain happens through the brain's tzurah (form). Perhaps we can even say that the brain's tzurah is the soul's hislabshus in the brain's chomer (matter). [See again the first post linked above.]

Yes, the brain's tzurah changed, as the Neuroscientist above tells us. But that is exactly what it means that one soul vs. another gained the control. The change in the brain circuits from lobster-eating to shull-going is (evidence of) the change in hislabshus of one soul vs. another in the chomer of the brain.

(What I am trying to understand at the moment is what the specific nature of hislabshus of neshama in moach might be, according to the model and according to sources in Kabbala and Chassidus. To be continued, iyH. Any comments, especially with sources, are welcome.)


micha said...

I never said I was a Litvisher mequbal, because I would never call myself a mequbal. In fact, I personally gravitate toward Mussar, and among the reasons why is the stark lack of need to delve in Qabbalah in order to know how to act or to have a clear picture of what Hashem wants of my life!

I did, however, write 7 out of my 565 posts (so far) on the topic of what I like to call "Maimonidian Qabbalah" -- the overlap of Qabbalah (as per Litvisher sources) and the Rambam. Why Litvisher sources? Because it's the Leshem who repeatedly uses the Rambam to buttress his points in a Sefer Qabbalah.

One of those 7 posts is a kind of overview/roadmap to the others, available here.

But to call me a mequbal both overestimates my knowledge and distort my worldview by placing qabbalah in a more central role than it really has.

micha said...

The paradigms are fundamentally different, so I'm not sure how to address this post.

The Gra doesn't believe in this notion of two souls. There is in his worldview one soul. The side that pulls you heavenward is the neshamah, the one that pulls someone toward physicality is the nefesh.

In the ideal, as the Zohar (Acharei Mos) tells it , "The various components of the Tzaddik are all inter-connected, nefesh with ruach and ruach with neshamah; and the neshamah is connected with the Holy One (blessed by He) so that [even] the nefesh is bound up in the Bond of Life."

In this hashkafah, the question is how much the forms at the higher olamos influence those at the lower. How well does morality (tzuros in olam hayetzirah, as R' Dessler describes it) express itself in one's physical actions (tzuros in olam ha'asiyah)?

There is a verticality that makes the notion of the NE competing with the NB, despite one being less physical and one being more, kind of hard to map into anything Gra-esque.

micha said...

Tzurah is more than shape, or "relationship between different parts of the matter". Tzurah is the set of the chomer's properties. The hardness of steal is part of its tzurah. However, form is married to function. A gun is gun-shaped because of what it is a gun is supposed to do. And that too is part of the concept of "tzurah". This function is probably in relation to other things, but that doesn't mean it's accurate to say that relationships /define/ tzurah.

BTW, another mashal... Take an MP3 of a song... You can store it in memory as transistor states, or on a CD as pits engraved into a disk (actually, the bits are the edges of the pits). But as long as all the ones and zeros are in the same sequence, it's the same MP3 and can be used to reproduce the same song.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

I agree about the CD moshol.

But I have a question about this:

>Tzurah is the set of the chomer's properties.

I suppose, on a microscopic level, properties of a substance are a result of its internal organization. For instance, unique properties of water derive from the unique organization of its atoms, electrons in the orbitals, etc.

But, on a microscopic level, for instance, can we say that tzurah of the electron are its charge, mass, spin, while the chomer is "electron itself"? But, what is the electron itself if not its properties?

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Sorry, first "microscopic" should be "macroscopic".

micha said...

You're asking me to guess. Your microscopic level is specifically QM's version of it -- the notion that an electron is fully defined by its state. Or in classical terms: an electron has no essence, just the sum of its attributes.

I have no idea how mequbalim would integrate QM. I also don't think it's a pressing issue. How does some theory about subatomic particles change the universe I relate to -- the macroscopic? How does it change how my soul is refined and sanctified by my interactions with the universe?

Certified Ashkenazi said...

>I have no idea how mequbalim would integrate QM.

Well, you could say that the properties of the electron are (results of) dvar Havaya that simply assign a certain point (or volume) of space(-time) certain characteristics.

If you had to use the loshon that the philosophers used, you could say that chomer chiyuli is either the space of the particle that it occupies, such that no other particle can co-exist with it in that space, while tzurah is the specific properties of that point in space. Or you could say that chomer = yeishus, the concept of existence in this world (in a seemingly independent way from Eibeshter), while tzura = metzius, the specific state in which one exists.

In general, you could say that just like the world is created yesh m’ayin every instance of time, you can somewhat observe that on a microscopic level, where the electron doesn’t really travel through every point in space from A to B, but disappears in A and appears in B. Plus, the fact that the link between events is less strongly causal and more probabilistic points jives well with the concept of briya yesh m’ayin, as I noted in my post.

>How does some theory about subatomic particles change the universe I relate to -- the macroscopic? How does it change how my soul is refined and sanctified by my interactions with the universe?

First, as an aside, we ask the opposite question: how does knowing X change how we are able to refine and sanctify the Universe?

Second, I think there is a value in seeing Eibeshter’s presence in the world (both as a goal on its own and as a way of enhancing our avoidas Hashem). This has the greatest involvement in our view of the macroworld, but it can also extend to the microworld. As a scientist (not that I know much physics, but I think about things in terms of what I know about science), I find it difficult to ignore science when thinking about certain statements about the world that Kabbala and Yiddishkeit in general make. So, when it says that "dvar Havaya is mehave the body, and the neshama is mechayeh the body", I try to understand what that means in terms of what I know from the scientific point of view what makes up the body’s existence.

I agree, however, that one shouldn’t lose too much sleep over this.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Btw, I talked to my rabbi about these concepts, and he said that it is also conceivable to say that:

1) chomer and tzurah are relative concepts, such that the level below your current level of focus is chomer, while the level above is tzura. so, the metal from which they key is made = chomer, and the shape = tzura, if you’re talking about the interaction of the key with the lock. but then, if you start talking about the properties of steel vs. iron, the specific molecules making up the metal = chomer, while their arrangement within the metal (or re-arrangement of atoms within the molecules) = tzurah. etc.

2)tzurah can refer to different things in philosophy. it can mean shape, it can mean purpose, etc.

micha said...

The point of my question about what's the nafqa mina wasn't about the value of delving into the question. Rather, I was asking about metzi'us. What's the religious metzi'us? The world as we can know it through science and conjecture in the abstact? Or the world as we actually experience it? It's the macroscopic that touches our souls through our senses. It's that level of reality that we really need to worry about hashkafically. (And halachically, but that's a whole other category on my blog...)

The Leshem, whose idea is the underpinning of identifying the Rambam's chain of sikhlim with Qabbalah's olamos and tzuros, does make tzuras vs chumer relative -- but not the way your rabbi did. Rather, one olam's chomer is the next "lower" olam's tzurah.

Going back to my assemblage of ideas from disparate sources: The nefesh is chomer in its olam, but that also means it's the tzurah of the moach.


Certified Ashkenazi said...

>What's the religious metzi'us? The world as we can know it through science and conjecture in the abstact? Or the world as we actually experience it?

I think it is both. There is the level of the world that touches our everyday experience, and there is the level of the world as we know about from science or math.

Maybe if a person is uneducated, his experience is only the "intuitive" perception of the world. Once he becomes more educated, it's hard for him to think of the world the way a child thinks. I find it difficult to imagine an object flying at a straight line and then dropping straight to the ground. I think of objects flying in parabolic trajectory because I was educated in science from a young age.

So, it's important to reveal Torah on all levels of our perception.

After all, everything that Hashem created, He created for His Glory. So, if some phenomenon exists in the world, it is good to find a way to use it in one's avoida and to reveal Hashem in it. See, for instance.

Anyway, I am not saying we should run to try to reconcile Torah with every new theory of science. Science is changing all the time, and in 50 years, the theory that you've married Torah to will be obsolete. Also, if one cannot reconcile Torah and science or understand Torah in terms of science, that's fine. But I don't think one should say that this endeavor is completely useless.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

>(And halachically, but that's a whole other category on my blog...)

First, I am not completely sure how you derive the idea about the trajectories from Halacha (see comment on your blog), but I haven't studied the sugya in detail.

Second, although I agree completely that there are some instances when Halacha cares more about the perception of a person, there are also instance when Halacha cares about the objective truth (I was asking a rabbi about this in shull today, and he gave me examples like kilayim, life/death definitions, monetary issues). In fact, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes in one of his letters, sometimes Halacha gives greater credence to science than science itself.

Furthermore, we can't say that perception is the only thing that matters at all. It's true that I don't have to worry about bacteria in my asparagus. But what about the bugs that are not visible to the naked eye, but would be visible under a microscope or a magnifying glass, or if you poshut put the asparagus under water? If I eat it just like it is, I won't know I am eating bugs (in fact, most of my colleagues are surprised when I tell them that they eat bugs in their salad).

Third, following your argument, there is no point in understanding Torah in terms of any science, even macroscopic (since even Newtonian physics lichoira disagrees with Halacha according to your argument), with the exception of folk-psychological perception of the world.

Fourth (this is more addressing the hashkafa point of view, as an addition to the previous comment), we find gedoilim trying to explain that Torah speaks in the language of man and addresses the perception of man, like you noted, but also trying to reconcile Torah with science.

For instance, regarding the question of sun moving around the Earth vs. the opposite, one could say: "Sure, the Earth moves around the Sun b'emes. But what Halacha and Torah in general address is the world as it seems to people, and in a way that's useful to people. Sun seems to move around the Earth, and that's part of the person's experience on which he bases his cheshbon." But the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his letter didn't say that. He said that according to physics, it is equivalent to say that Sun moves around the Earth vs. the opposite. I.e., he tried to show that Torah and science are compatible.

See also this Hayom Yom.

Finally, it seems there is a difference between saying that when paskening Halacha, we are taking into concern only the perceived level of reality, and that when Torah speaks about the world (in Kabbala, for instance), it describes only the perceived level of reality.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Re: tzura of the body: My rabby asked me the following question. It says in medieval philosophy — and Torah seems to agree with this — that a person inherits the chomer of his body from his mother and tzurah of his body from his father. Can this mean that he inherits his soul only from his father?

Also, it is still not clear to me: according to your model that soul = tzurah of the brain, when you alter the brain surgically or through an accident, chv"sh, do you also alter the soul? What about (hypothetical, from science fiction) brain implants?

micha said...

Yes, I am arguing that halakhah depends more on folk science than the real thing. Aristo described the world as people's guts assume it works, and advanced in science since don't matter all that much. What you raise as an ad absurdum I'm accepting unflinchingly.

People are shaped by first hand experience *incomparably* more than by abstract or theoretical knowledge.

The brilliance of QM is that it gives room for both teva which is almost always deterministic and yet also room for hashgashah and free will. The macroscopic phenomena it underpins. The rest of it may be more of us trying to impose sense on something HQBH didn't even try to make sensible.

micha said...

You asked about brain damage and brain surgery... they mean that less of the soul's chain of tzuros, ie flow of Or Ein Sof makes it down to this world. It is a "narrowing" of the pillar of Light at the bottom, which is a kind of change in the soul. By the end of chibut haqever, that level of the soul is entirely disconnected anyway.

TheRealPianist said...


Certified Ashkenazi said...

But you're making an assumption that the sole purpose of Torah is to have effect on our souls. I am arguing (based on Chassidic model) that the purpose of Torah is to make Dira B'Tachtoinim, proof being that a soul is never going to be as holy in this world as before it came down here.

Now, DBT can refer to two things:

1) material world
2) neshamos Yisroel

In the first case, you need to know objectively about the world in order to elevate it. In the second case, you need to know which aspects of the material worlds you can use to make your neshama holier in order to make it into DBT (you can't use pork to achieve holiness, despite your best intentions).

Therefore, it seems that a mix of subjective and objective knowledge is necessary.

>The brilliance of QM is that it gives room for both teva which is almost always deterministic and yet also room for hashgashah and free will. The macroscopic phenomena it underpins.

Right, so if we are going to use QM this way (I don't know if it necessarily can be used), it's useful to understand precisely what we mean when we say certain things.

>Aristo described the world as people's guts assume it works, and advanced in science since don't matter all that much.

Well, he used to think that the main function of the brain is to cool blood. So, where does that leave us?..

micha said...

I'm not sure if "TheRealPianist" is expressing surprise at my comment, or illustrating it.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

TRP is working on a faulty machine known as iPad which doesn't allow him to communicate well.

micha said...

If you want to ask about apples by citing oranges, you won't get too far. In Litvisher thought, everything is anout changing souls. The theme of Nefesh haChaim shaar 1 is how only souls contain the forces of all the olamos, and therefore the only way to use one olam to change another is by consequence of changing souls.

If you want to talk in terms of mitzvos to repair the world in other ways, you can't borrow from the thoughtspace my post was drawn from. It's simply incompatible. Which was my earlier comment of Jul 28 10:37am (2nd after the OP) as well.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Fair enough, but then you have to explain why we need to worry about the bugs unseen with naked eye or about the scientific view on brain death for halachic purposes.

TheRealPianist said...

I was just using the ! To subscribe :p

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Furthermore, I think my question about Aristotle still stands.

You describe the relationship between soul and the brain as soul being "the layout and attributes of its neurons, neurochamicals, glial cells, etc.". In this statement, you're trying to fit modern science into a Jewish concept.

How is that different from trying to fit the concept of creation, tzura, etc. into quantum mechanics?

If you follow your philosophy of folk science faithfully, you should say: "Soul-body relationship is like the relationship of electricity and toaster. Soul is the juice that makes an otherwise inanimate object move." That seems to be the way "ancients" understood it.

Anyway, as I said, I have no problem with saying that halacha relies only on perception and gut feeling of people. (Even then, there are cases when halacha uses modern science.) I find it hard to imagine that that's the case with hashkafa. It may use the loshon of Rambam and by extension the philosophers, but if it's emes, we should be able if not to reconcile, but at least to talk about it in terms of modern science.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

People usually write "subscribing".

Certified Ashkenazi said...

From here:

A fascinating footnote for the mathematically-minded: The Vilna Gaon enlightens us to the fact that the value of "pi," 3.1415, is hinted in this verse. In Hebrew, each letter has a number associated with it. In the above verse, the word "circumference"(kav) is written one way "kuf vav heh" which equals 111 but it is pronounced a slightly different way "kuf vav" which equals 106. (That is, there is a stated value and an actual value.) The ratio of these two numbers equals the ratio of 3 ("pi" as stated by the verse) 3.1415 (the actual value of "pi" to the 10,000th). [ie. (111 / 106) x 3 = 3.1415]

micha said...

Still, TRP's "!" is a picture of what I was saying about the beam of Ohr developing a disconnect, or a narrowing, when the brain is altered so as to have a tzurah that less embodies the soul. As an illustration, it was a very clever comment.

Second tangential comment: The Gra wasn't the one to make the q'ri vs kesiv comment on qav/qavah. The earliest published source is Rabbi E Munk zt"l, Sinai vol 51 (5722). There is nothing on it before 1962, according to people who research these things. (R' Dr Moshe Koppel, publisher of Higayon, sent me this info.)

Jews for some reason tend to back-attribute it to the Gra and non-Jews to Newton (who was into religious numerology), but there is no documentation for it. More likely people who heard the idea third or fourth hand "remember" the name of the source they expected to hear it from. But really, there is no one wrote on it before late 1961 at the earliest.

Notice that lehalakhah, 3 is close enough, and a quadrelateral with equal sides is square enough if the diagonal is 1.4 instead of sqrt(2). And even as our measuring equipment improve, that doesn't change. I'm suggesting that it's because we are only demanding something look like a square or a circle.

I'll reply to the on-topic comments later.

micha said...

The Jewish concept is that some aspects of the moach's tzurah are caused by the nefesh's tzurah, and thus are a continuation of the Or Ein Sof which is the soul into the physical world.

I can phase that using today's knowledge of the brain's structure, but that's just window curtains. Your critique would only work if the idea depended on knowledge of brain structure beyond that of our senses.

Second, halakhah isn't emes. Halakhah is law. Rules of behavior. Not a collection of facts. Halakhah's job is to bring us to emes. The kind of reconciling you're asking for is again -- apples and oranges, fact and law.

micha said...

"Fair enough, but then you have to explain why we need to worry about
the bugs unseen with naked eye or about the scientific view on brain
death for halachic purposes."

We don't need to worry about bugs that can't be seen with the naked eye. As for bugs that could be seen but are currently hidden... well my posts on the laws of birur (safeiq, rov, chazaqah, etc...) address how the laws of handling partial knowledge of the facts fits within this theory. I actually think it provides a single concept that explains some of the odder conclusions in the Sheiv Shmaatsa and Shaarei Yosher.

Brains are macroscopic. As, for that matter, are their lack of function. Yes, we now have tools that allow us to know exactly when that happens whereas replying on our senses would force us to approximate -- and err on the side of later. This makes it a kind of gray-area case, and the current machloqes IMHO reflects that. One side is saying that an electronic measurement cannot replace knowing that "the brain went soft" (moach tefuchah), the other side saying that we now have a way of knowing the same macroscopic condition as the gemara's.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

>Second, halakhah isn't emes. Halakhah is law. Rules of behavior. Not a collection of facts. Halakhah's job is to bring us to emes. The kind of reconciling you're asking for is again -- apples and oranges, fact and law.

I agree completely (except for Halacha's job, and even then, on some level there is an agreement, if one doesn't mean "emes" in a conscious way). But that's why I was saying that while I can agree with you about Halacha's using perception of the person as the basis for the "view of the world", I cannot agree with, say, Kabbala doing that.

>The theme of Nefesh haChaim shaar 1 is how only souls contain the forces of all the olamos, and therefore the only way to use one olam to change another is by consequence of changing souls.

Why does "changing souls" means changing them only in a conscious way? What about the sub-/supra-conscious effects on the soul? For instance, if an atheist listens to the kriyas haTorah, is his soul effected?

Is every effect of a mitzva explained only in terms of its psychological impact?

(Btw, in Chassidus you also have the idea that what Hashem really desires is Torah/mitzvos and neshamos Yisroel. So, birrur ha'netzutzos happens only as a tool for the neshamos to become bottul to Eibeshter, since the neshamos themselves are the tachtoinim, as known from "veshochanti besoichEM". But this does not discount unconscious effect on the neshamos and the fact that there are aspects of the world that can influence neshamos, while there are those that cannot, which is why we have Torah and mitzvos.

Then again, you also have the opposite idea that the whole purpose is not to affect the neshamos, but to affect the world.

On some level, both concepts are true, although I don't know yet the unifying idea. In any event, as my Rabbi says, this is why the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted the campaign of putting on tefillin on non-religious people. Either that had unconscious effect on their neshamos or that had effect on the netzutzos in tefillin, perhaps uniquely affected by a unique neshamoh.)

I'll try to answer the rest later, iy"H.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

Actually, I can't agree completely with the statement that "Halacha is not emes". Halacha comes from Chochma Ila'ah, which is the source of all emes. By looking at Halacha, we are able to draw lessons in avoidas Hashem (see my last post), draw lessons about Kabbala, and presumably even about the world, if we know enough.

What I agree with is that it's not Halacha's primary job to teach us emes; it's to direct our action.

Second, as I said, even though I agree that the Halacha does not have to be based on "objective" reality and must be based on "subjective" reality, it doesn't mean that that's the case for all things.

(Btw, perhaps laws of Halacha ARE based on the objective reality -- it's just it's not always accessible to us, especially in terms of science. Certainly, we can say that in terms of ruchnius, in the sense that Halacha reflect the ultimate reality of the world, which is the ruchniusdik composition of it, but perhaps we could even say that in terms of gashmius -- that, if we knew science to 100% accuracy, not to whatever degree we know it today, all of Halachos would make even objective sense.)

Finally, as I said, Hashem saying: "Act in your everyday life as if the Earth were flat" and Hashem saying "Earth is flat" are two different things.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

>Still, TRP's "!" is a picture of what I was saying about the beam of Ohr developing a disconnect, or a narrowing, when the brain is altered so as to have a tzurah that less embodies the soul. As an illustration, it was a very clever comment.

I am still trying to understand to a certain extent what your vision of neshama being brain's tzura is.

Let me explain. I understand what you are saying, but I don't understand what it means in detail (at least I am having trouble reconciling what you're saying tzura is with my view of what brain's tzura is).

You say that "brains are macroscopic. As, for that matter, are their lack of function" — and by brains being macroscopic, I assume you mean that their function is macroscopic. That may or may not be completely true. Certain functions of the brain, such a consciousness, are all-or-none phenomena (more or less; you can still have consciousness of some things but not others, etc.). But certain functions of the brain, such as motor function, are as macroscopic as microscopic — i.e., you don't have all-or-none response.

In general, that seems to be the way that epiphenomena are cut off from the underlying mechanisms: by an all-or-none response. It doesn't matter for the post-synaptic cell what inputs the pre-synaptic cells receives and how it does its summation of the inputs and calculation of their "value". What matters is whether the pre-synaptic cells spikes (creates an action potential) or not. (Actually, what matters is whether it releases neurotransmitter, but the two are almost always linked.)

But in a case where, for instance, you have electical synapses, it very much matters for the "post-synaptic" cell (if you can define it in such a way) what happens inside a pre-synaptic cell.

So, in those cases where you get hit with one tree at a time, the difference between a forest and the trees is only in the eye of a beholder. When the trees cause some one-or-none avalanche when there is enough of them, we can say that we only care about the forest.

So, this is what I meant when I said that some functions of the brain may be said to be "macroscopic" only. But the tzura of the brain certainly cannot be said to be so. It's only in the eye of a beholder (usually someone who does only fMRI or EEG work and is looked down upon by the rest of the Neuroscience department).

So, when you say that neshama is the tzura of the brain, it's important for me personally to understand what exactly you mean. Is it the case, in your view, that neshama creates (and I use that word for simplicity; you can say it's the case of identity rather than creation) the arrangement of neurons, synapses, etc., while, say, koach Eloki, creates their chomer?

Even that would be difficult for me to imagine, because, really, in the brain, there is a continuity down to the level of amino-acids, possibly even electrons and on. It is true that neurotransmission is for the most part in an all-or-none matter, but frequency and synchrony of action potential matters very much for the downstream "readout", and intra-cellular processes hugely regulate that. If you wanted to say where, on a micro-level, what the unit of mind is, it's probably a synapse, with the pre-synaptic bouton and the post-synaptic spine (but there are many intra-cellular processes that regulate the effect of signal injected into spines as well, such as a number of active conductances along the dendrite, etc.).

Anyway, most people would probably say I am nitpicking too much, but I tend to be OCD about such things...

Also, it just seems to me that there is a contradict

Certified Ashkenazi said...

[Actually, since the amount of neurotransmitter released, the number of axonal terminals and the strength of post-synaptic response (due to the number of post-synaptic neurotransmitter receptors) are all variable and dynamically regulated, the concept of all-or-none nature of an action potential is purely academic, but that's a side point.]

What I started to say at the end is this:

There seems to me a contradiction in your views. Seemingly, if we say that neshama = tzura of the brain ("tzura" meaning form/structure, not "purpose"), which means that it's the mind of the brain, then what should matter is whether the cortex is alive, not whether the brainstem is alive and is supporting the secondary (from mental-processes point of view) functions of breathing and heartbeat.

The reason why in Halacha we care about whether the brainstem is alive is because according to the standard Halachic view, the siman of a person being alive is breathing and heartbeat. Now, one could say that that's just a siman; there was no other way for a medieval/ancient person to determine whether the person's brain had any electrical activity, or whether the micro-structure of the cortex was preserved. (I have to say, though, I don't know much about the sugya from Halachic point of view, because it seems to me we would still have to make the best effort to revive the person, even if he wasn't breathing. Presumably, there would be some period of hope, etc.)

But we don't say that. We say that even today, when we know in a greater detail what brain events are correlated with consciousness and mental states, we still rule that if a person has a hole in the place of the cortex, but his brainstem is intact, removing the person from the machine is ossur.

What's the underlying reason? From your point of view, it's that Halacha was given for men to purify their souls and therefore operates on a gut-feelings level (so, if I disconnect a breathing person from the machine, that psychological experience will metamtem my neshama). From Chassidic point of view, it's because the halachos that were formulated by Chazal have oir and keili. The oir is the ruchniusdik reason for the halacha; the keili is the physical circumstance or reasoning for the halacha. So, even if the kli is not applicable today anymore, the oir of the halacha still is.


I was going to write that the nafka mina is still the same in that we have to make the assumption that (due to Halacha of issur of disconnecting the person with a hole in his cortex) neshama is still in the body, even though the tzura of the moach (the tzura that matters for the brain processes) is destroyed.

But I just realized that following your reasoning, you could probably even say that the person is dead, and the neshama is gone, and it's ossur for us precisely because of the effect it will have on OUR neshamos. While from Chassidic reasoning, that sounds a bit strange -- first, we say that the neshama is still connected to the body, but is unable to have effect on it; second, we say that the disconnecting the body from the machine is an act of murder precisely because of the metzius that neshama is still in the body; third, we say that the tragedy of such an act is both in the effect it has on our neshamos (both psychological and, much more importantly, spiritual) and in the effect it has on the metzius of the world -- that a neshama that was supposed to be in the body is not there anymore.

(I mean, it's more complicated, in the sense that the death of the person is ratzon Hashem, and our ossur comes from our decision to commit murder, but the fact that the metzius of murder is happening is still true. Eibeshter is just aligning the hasgacha protis of the person dying and our decision to kill him.)

Certified Ashkenazi said...

(All of the above is based on my assumption that nobody or almost nobody would pasken that if a person has a hole instead of the cortex, chv"sh, but an intact brainstem, he can be disconnected from a feeding machine.

Of course, there are more machmir views, to the point of a view that my wife told me about recently that even if one neuron is alive in one's brain, the person is still alive.)