Form and InFORMation

So far (part 1, part 2, part 3) we discussed the Rambam’s notion of the chain of forms/intellects from the Creator down to physical reality , in comparison to the Qabbalah’s metaphor of a beam of Light. In particular, the Leshem writes that the Light shines from one world to the next which is what makes what serves as substance in one world to be the forms in the next lower one.

Now I wish to look at the identification of forms with intellects, and in particularly, how that works in modern terms. In the second section of this post, we will look at how to understand the human soul in these terms.


Something we learn early on in Computer Science classes is that the program or data is a matter of bits, not what the bits are made of. In one computer, a “1” may mean holding the wire at 5 volts. In another, a “0” could be 2.3 volts, and a “1” is where it’s grounded (0 volts). In yet another computer, a one is a hole in a card, or a marble running down a slide, or water in a pipe. It doesn’t matter, as long as the bits interact as per the rules of the various logic gates, how they’re represented is irrelevant to the computation (power consumption, speed, reliability, etc… aside). You just need the chips, the marble’s bumpers or the water-works’ valves are set up accordingly.

The information is in the form, and we could ignore the substance. When looking at bits, we can even discard much of the form. If we say the presence of a marble is a “1”, we can ignore its color, for example. In a digital computer, we gain reliability by dividing the possible forms of the parts of the machine into one of two categories – those we call “1” (even if it’s at 4.4 volts in a machine where ideal is 5v) and those we call “0”.

We then combine those bits into patterns, such as the convention used by most computers today to use 01100001 to represent an “a”. When your file has an “a” in it, that sequence may be represented as a pattern of pits in a CD, patterns of iron filings on a hard drive, a time sequence of voltages in a wire or light in a fiber optic cable. But all the physical phenomenon share one feature, they represent the 01100001 pattern.

The information involved is form without substance. Only one aspect of the form of what encodes them, it’s true, but the relevant point is that they do not require physical implementation because they lack substance.

I’m not suggesting that the mind or soul is nothing more than computer software, which in the case of a human mind is implemented on a computer called the brain. I would instead suggest it as an analogy: mind is to brain as program is to computer. Minds aren’t digital computers, and thought isn’t computation. But thought too is copying a form into one’s mind. This is actually the origin of the word “inform” — en + form, the Latin for “putting a form into [one’s mind]”. When you think about a table, the form of the table is in your head. You picture its shape, color, hardness, etc… It’s not a table because it has no substance, and an object requires both form and substance. But whatever elements of the form you think about are copied within your head. This is the koach hadimyon, the ability to make a demus, a similar form. It’s what the rishonim called the same mental ability Aristotle called “imagination”. (Although it goes beyond the current meaning of the word, as Aristotilian imagination not only included seeing things that are made up, but also qualia — how one experiences red internally when actually seeing something red.)

This brings a whole new meaning to the title “Olam haEmes” — calling the spiritual world the World of Truth. It’s not simply an adjective, it’s the defining feature! Olam haEmes is a realm where Truths exist beyond physical implementation.

I once visited someone who knew they were in life’s final lap. The gentleman asked me how could he be sure, I mean really sure, that there is an afterlife. I was a little pressed and felt a need to answer quickly and with certainty — for the asker, this was a pressing and very real problem. Any uncertainty he would hear in my reply would cause emotional pain.

I replied that truths are eternal. Whether we are speaking of “2 + 2 = 4” or “It rained in New York city on November 1, 2009.” (In the latter case, we might phrase it as “it is raining”, which doesn’t sound like it’s an eternal truth but actually expands to the same fact.) What is a mind if not an active constellation of ideas? How could such a thing not be eternal?

I think this is a radical notion — that everything the mystic refers to as metaphysical forces are equally validly described as ideas. Not that they are mythological, metaphoric representations of ideas. But that ideas actual have metaphysical existence, and these existences are ontologically prior (the cause and less contingent, as the Rambam puts it in Yesodei haTorah 2:5).


The basic mind-body problem is figuring out the relationship between the two. Is the mind merely a product of the neurons in our brain? Does it exist as a separate entity?

I think the givens of Yahadus compell one to conclude that the mind is a function of the soul. After all, it’s the soul that is credited with bechirah chafshis (free will), and gets judged for man’s decisions. And what is free will if not decisions consciously made, therefore intimately tied with the notions of awareness and self-awareness? Second, the entire concept of mussar is founded on the notion that perfecting one’s soul is a function of correcting one’s personality faults, that issues of patience, modesty, self-restraint, zeal are spiritual ones.

But if we say that the mind is something the soul does, how does one explain the relationship between brain injury and personality? How could a lobotomy change behavior? By what mechanism do decisions made by the mind cause the body to take the chosen action? How does one bridge the gap between our spiritual selves and our physical bodies?

The rishonim who deal with this question raise another example: How does food aid in keeping the soul in the body? After all, food is a physical object, how does it reach out and impact the soul. Rav Chaim Vilozhiner (Nefesh haChaim II) presents the typical answer, based on the concept of emanation. The apple is at the end of a beam of Light ne’etzal from the Source. Thus, there is spirituality within the apple.

What does this say about the relationship between soul and brain? Our question is based on a false dichotomy. We assumed that either they are the same thing, or we have to ask about the causal connection between the soul and action, or between sensation and the soul. This concept of atzilus means that the brain itself is the “projection on the wall” of a beam of light that shines through higher levels of reality until it reaches this one. The connection between soul, mind and brain isn’t causal. Rather it is all one action, described on different planes, as the Divine Light cuts through the different worlds.

The difference between soul and brain, it would seem, would be their closeness to G-d upon the same flow of shefa. The lowest level of perfection, but still very much the soul, is the form of our brains. We saw about bits that a bit represents only a single yes/no question about the state of a computer system. Similarly, not everything about our central nervous system is an implementation of the soul. And yet there is no need to distinguish the significant aspects of the brain’s design from the soul itself. Albeit, the soul as it appears in this world, olam ha’asiyah, the world of action and physical events, the light as it finally hits the screen of matter.

In a sense, we 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.

Why do so many mitzvos involve shoes? In Ruach Chaim 1:1, Rav Chaim Vilozhiner writes, “The body is only like the shoe for the soul. Just as the shoe only clothes the very bottom extremity of the body, so too the body only clothes the very bottom portion of the soul. A shoe is called a body, in that a body is considered the end of the feet of the soul.” This is why moments or locations of extreme spirituality, such as Yom Kippur, serving in the Beis haMiqdash, or when Moshe saw the burning bush, call for removing one’s shoes. Also, when in mourning, removing one’s shoes is a way of remembering that only the body is gone. For chalitzah, the widow’s refusal or inability to continue her husband’s line is brought home by having her spit in a shoe. All in the sense of shoe representing the body, as it is a house for the bottom-most portion. The brain is only the shoe, only the manifestation of the bottom-most aspect of the ever less abstract form that is the soul. The bits on the CD.

Notice there is a basic difference between the human soul on one hand, and mal’akhim and physical objects on the other. Mal’akhim are forms at specific levels of abstraction, each level of mal’akh a lower point on the beam of light. The soul, however, is the entire beam — from “10 tefachim below the throne of [Hashem’s] Glory” (cf Sukkah 5a) to its physical implementation in the brain.

We will explore the implications of that idea in the next post in this series.

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  1. avakesh says:

    The relationship between consciousness and the brain is a popular probelm in modern philosophy and in the neurosciences. Several interesting but limited books have recently appeared. They are limited because they assume that consciousness resides in the brain processess and represents either a subjective perception of these processeses or their integration. See,
    The Kabbalistic perception that Chaya and yechidah are outside the body provides a possible approach. Each level fo the soul in less dependent on the physiical processess so that brain damage, f.e., affects mostly nefesh and somewhat ruach and very little neshama and not at lll chaya or yeshida.
    It also helps solve the probelm of how we choose. ALl external deterministic factors, our upbringing, experiences etc influence only the lower aspects of the soul, while bechirah takes place at the higher and more indepndent level.

  2. micha says:

    FWIW, R Aryeh Kaplan zt”l defines chayah and yechidah being “chitzoniyos” as being “external” to our notion of self, not physically internal or external to the body.

    But more fundamentally, you and I are headed in opposite directions. You are using atzilus to define various components of the soul, each less attached to the physical. I’m using it to show the unity of soul and that which the brain physically implements.

  1. January 8, 2010 – כ״ב בטבת תש״ע

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