Why are bricks red?

One way to explain the color of the brick would involve discussing the quantum mechanics of the atoms bricks are made of, (and this is where most readers eyes gloss over and skim to the end of the paragraph…) and the possible energy levels electrons can take when those atoms are combined into the compounds they are when they comprise a brick. Why those permitted levels means that those electrons will more readily absorb particular frequencies of electromagnetic waves. And how, of the frequencies in the range humans can see and thus call “light”, the result is that less light in the lower frequencies  is absorbed. Then we detour into the physiology of the eye, how the cone-shaped neurons in your retina detect light, why the three types of cones respond more to different ranges of frequencies. In particular, we can then trace the signal from the kind of cone most sensistive to lower frequencies of light, like the majority of the light that is reflected off the brick to the brain, and from there perhaps analyze why we group that under the label red. (… Hello again to all you skimmers!)

None of which actually touches on the first-hand experience of what it’s like to see red, what is called in cognitive science the “quale” of red. Not just to know something is red, but the first-hand mental image.

My question, though, is which is the cause and which is the effect?

Do we experience the quale of red because of the physics, biology and neural networking involved? Or, is what’s primary is that a soul experience the red of the brick, and that causes all the explanatory empiricism?

I am asking about the relationship between metaphysics and physics. We can take it as a given that Hashem causes metaphysics which in turn causes physics. That’s what metaphysics means — the spiritual “stuff” that lies behind physics.

So, to rephrase my question…

How are physics and metaphysics connected? Do metaphysical laws cause the physical ones? Are the laws of nature their implementation in physical “stuff”? Or, is their connection indirect, via people — who live both in this world and yet reach up to heaven?

I discussed this latter idea (from a different angle) in an earlier post titled “Mind, Perception and Metaphysics“. R’ Chaim Volozhiner (and I believe R’ Dessler is on the same page, see that post) writes in Nefesh haChaim 1:6:

אבל עיקרו של דבר כי הוא ית”ש אחר שברא כל העולמות ברא את האדם אחור למע”ב בריאה נפלאה כח מאסף לכל המחנות. שכלל בו כל צחצחות אורות הנפלאות והעולמות והיכלין העליונים שקדמו לו.

But the essence of the thing is that He (blessed be His name), after He created all the worlds, created man differently from the Act of the Beginning Of [ie the process of the rest of creation]. A wondrous creation, forces / potentials gather from all the camps. That unified in him all the Refinements, Lights, Wonders, Worlds and Upper Palaces that preceded him.

Physical objects exist and impact in the empirical world. Angels have their various planes of existence. In all of creation, only man’s existence runs from earth to heaven.

Related to this is the difference between how Chassidim and Litvaks understand the concept of tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacia contraction), of other things existing.

In Chassidus, tzimtzum is understood to refer to the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but is only an illusion. After all, Hashem Himself cannot change. As tzimtzum is an illusion, it would seem they assert an actual unity between metaphysics and physics.

In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, tzimtzum is real, but not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else. Different opinions then multiply as to what — the Or Ein Sof (the Infinite Light), Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will – R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position), and other opinions (wordings of the same idea?) exist. This removes the association between Hashem’s Unity and saying creation is inherently connected. Whereas Chassidim would have Hashem linking the various worlds, Rav Chaim — as we saw — says the linkage is via the human soul.

Interestingly, my theory fits the two communities’ respective attitude toward segulos, actions designed to achieve particular goals through metaphysical mechanics. Whereas it might be common to see a Chassid (or a Sepharadi, or… but let’s keep this in scope) wear a red string as a bracelet to avoid ayin hara, or a single Chassidah wear a magnet to attract a date, until recently you would not have found Litvaks doing the same. (Scoffing at the whole notion was far more common.)

To the Chassid, what happens in this world directly influences what happens in higher ones and the reverse. Thus, the notion that one can use Qabbalah to engineer a given consequence. A chassid can think in terms of the protection afforded by the mezuzah itself.

To a Litvak, the only connection is the soul and what is best for it “as he is there”. Thus, actions that do not refine the soul (or ch”v the inverse), do not change what is best for it, will not change outcome. Even the reward for mitzvos can not be determined mechanistically. A mitzvah will change the soul and thus what it deserves, but every soul and every moment of a life is different — we cannot know what that is. And so doing the mitzvah of mezuzah merits receiving protection (rather than it being a power of the object), but even so if for other reasons that soul needs trauma rather than protection… Even homes with the most beautifully and passionately written mezuzos have been broken into r”l.

So, returning to my opening question…

I am suggesting that the Chassid would say that the quantum mechanics, biology and neurology that goes into seeing the brick as red are caused by higher principles Hashem put into place beforehand. On the other hand, the Litvak would say that those higher principles are why a person has the experience of redness, the quale called “red’. This then causes the empirical world to “do its thing” to provide it.

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  1. I argued in the blog entry that Chassidim are more likely to view metaphysics as causing physics, which we then experience, whereas R’ Chaim Volozhiner is more likely to conclude that metaphysics causes experiences, which then physics falls in line to implement. With a pragmatic difference, in that it has something to do with our relative attitudes toward segulos. Belief in segulos requires a closer connection between empirical objects and metaphysics than is expressed by those who belittle them.

    The causality could in theory flow in both ways, but I don’t see that flowing from the two approaches of Qabbalah.

    • Bob Miller says:

      1. Any theory that views a segulah as “forcing” HaShem’s hand can’t be valid. The most it can be is a sort of verbal or non-verbal prayer not guaranteed to get the result the person wants.

      2. Causality by human thought or action can never be absolute. Achieving the result the person desires is dependent on HaShem’s will. Sometimes, we’re allowed to achieve a result counter to Torah law or our best interests or the world’s best interests because our free will has to be maintained. In such a case, we can be held responsible even though we did not really control the result.

      • When you let go of a rock are you “forcing Hashem’s ‘Hand'” to make it fall?

        What I’m suggesting is that because Chassidim do not believe in literal tzimtzum, their metaphysical and physical worlds unite, and thus they have laws of metaphysics you can count on and engineer with, just was we do with laws of physics.

        I agree with your outlook, that outcomes revolve around mitzvos, and thus might only work when you can call it a “non-verbal prayer”. But I’m associating that outlook with misnagdim and our notion of literal tzimtzum (albeit not of Hashem’s Essence).

        • Bob Miller says:

          I’ve been led to understand that the world was created with rules of everyday functioning to help us live here. Going out of one’s way to subvert the everyday system by direct action, as opposed to prayer or mitzvah performance, seems like an attempt at “forcing” not far from the white magic in paganism. It also seems like an attempt to deoptimize the natural world’s general functioning, for apparent personal benefit.

          • Bob Miller says:

            Also, I’ve read of failed attempts by Chassidic Tzaddikim, sometimes in small groups, to use their metaphysical influence to effect the final redemption on earth right then. Was their failure attributed to their insufficient expertise in mobilizing metaphysical forces, or rather to HaShem’s decision not to redeem us then? If it’s the latter, that suggests that the failed attempts were more in the nature of prayers.

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