We are under the impression that we are in charge of our bodily actions. We believe that by steering our thoughts, we are somehow able to steer our bodies. If you are hungry and want to grab some food, ‘you‘ – the entity that is in charge of your mental processes – seem to somehow cause your body to move to the refrigerator and grab a sandwich. But how is that possible? How can something that is immaterial, which our thoughts seem to be, cause reactions in a physical world? Is there some kind of causal linkage between these two domains? Or are our thoughts nothing but a by-product of the physical existence of our bodies, and thus unable to – although it might appear to be otherwise – cause any physical activity?
You could say that there are two ‘kinds of explanation’ we could turn to in order to explain our sense of consciousness or our sense of control over our bodies. The first kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be the biological causes for our sense of consciousness. The other kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be religious or spiritual causes. I will not zoom in at the second kind of explanations because – frankly – I have very little to say about it; except for the fact that if there would be some kind of deity which has endowed us with our sense of consciousness, there would be little left to explain. But even if that would be the case, it is still highly unlikely that we will get to know this during our stay on this earth.
Within the biological spectrum of explanations, again a distinction can be made between what appear to be two incompatible ‘stories’. The difference between these stories does not so much reside within the causes they say are responsible for our sense of consciousness, but more in the consequences attached to each of these causes. The first branch of biological explanations claims that our human consciousness has come into existence at some point during the stay in our mother’s womb; at a certain point in the growth process of ours, our neurological development crossed a certain naturally determined threshold, thereby initiating what might be an ever recurring neurological signal; a signal that is coextensive with our mental processes (our thoughts, so to say) and that has a causal influence on our bodily behaviors. This explanation thus explicitly points to our thoughts as being causally related to our neurological activities. This explains why it seems to us that we are able to steer our bodily actions.
However, the question that immediately comes to mind after thinking about this explanation is: how could it ever be possible for something like the mind, that is involved with the ‘realm of thoughts’, to be connected to the physical world? That is: how can thoughts, that most of us consider to be immaterial, steer our bodies, that are material? This question remains yet unanswered.
The other type of biological explanation seems to do a better job at explaining the mysterious connection between our minds and bodies. This explanation claims that our consciousness is nothing more than an accidental byproduct of our neurological development, and has, subsequently, no causal influence on our bodily actions. That is: although we might have the impression that our thoughts are steering our bodies, in reality our physical bodies are, via our brains, steering our thoughts and therefore the content of our sense of consciousness (our thoughts). Our consciousness is no more than the activation of different regions of the brain, triggered by bodily actions in the physical world. Our mind is, as it is being called, ‘epiphenomenal’ on the body. And although this explanation might appear to be (very) counter-intuitive, it does a remarkably good job at clarifying the connection between our thoughts and actions.
Maybe one day science will be able to provide us with the final answer to the question of who is in charge: our minds or our bodies. Until that moment has come, we should stay ‘open-minded’ about what this relation might look like. No matter how counter-intuitive the explanations might be.
But what do you think?
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