DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Do Thoughts Create Things?, Part 1: Yes, Unless You’re A Robot

It will probably be obvious, to anyone who follows debates about personal development, that a central question in these debates is whether our inner experience can affect reality.  In other words, can changes in our thoughts and feelings cause changes in the world around us?

It's tempting to respond the way some critics do, and treat the answer as plain -- and, perhaps, the question itself as dumb.  Clearly, the answer is no -- thinking about a BMW won't cause one to appear in my driveway, my bad moods don't cause inclement weather, and so on.  Only a fluff-headed, New-Agey navel-gazer could think otherwise.

But that response, as we'll see, caricatures and oversimplifies the question.  In fact, this question raises profound, and hotly debated, philosophical and scientific issues.  To illustrate, let's look at a few (and by no means all) of the ways we might answer this question.

Reductive Materialism

From one perspective, it's impossible for our thoughts and feelings to affect reality.  What we perceive as "thoughts" and "feelings" are merely our subjective experiences, or "epiphenomena," of biochemical processes in our brains.  Our experience of those processes plainly cannot cause or influence those processes.

Here's a crude analogy -- the chemical reactions in my brain are like a movie, and "I" am like a person watching that movie.  Clearly, my experience of the film can't alter the film itself. The fact that I like some character in the film, for instance, won't cause the movie's plot to change so that the character lives rather than dying.

One result of this view is that human beings don't have free will. This is because the very concept of "I" -- an individual who chooses, wants, makes plans, and so on -- is itself just a subjective experience of chemical reactions in the brain.  "I," being merely an illusion created by neurological activity, can't influence anything that happens in the physical world.

If you buy this view, you're free to claim that our thoughts and feelings don't affect reality at all.  But if you don't accept it, I think, you have to believe -- on some level -- that they do.

Emotions As Reasons

You may recall that, in an earlier post, I observed that we do most, or all, of the things we do in life because we want to experience certain feelings.  For example, as I pointed out, most people don't make money just to own little colored pieces of paper -- they do it to create feelings of security, power, joy, or something else.

If this is so, there is clearly a sense in which our inner experience -- our thoughts, feelings and sensations -- affects our reality.

Take the example of making money.  The feelings we desire (security, power, etc.) influence the actions we take in the world (starting a business, getting a job, and so on) -- and when we act, of course, we alter the physical world in some way.  This is just another way to put the point that we make money because we want those feelings.

Thus, on some level, I think most people would agree that our inner experience does affect reality.  The real question is the way in which, and perhaps the extent to which, it does so.  We'll get into that question more deeply in the next post.

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  1. Hey Chris,

    This is Cory. I read your stuff on a pretty regular basis and was surprised to see over on Mindfulconstruct that Melissa has pitted us against each other on our supposedly opposing viewpoints on self-help. I think she’s going to put our guest posts back to back and see if there’s something there to look at. It should be fun!

    But anyway, I don’t think that thoughts create anything physical outside of our own bodies unless you extend the meaning insofar that thought leads us to create something physical like building a chair or something. I don’t buy the message of The Secret that thoughts alone are as powerful as they say.

    I remember when I was young another kid told me that for every new thing we learn we get a new crease in our brains. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I always have imagined it to be the case, at least metaphorically.

    Thoughts create constructs in the mind. And while we may not be able to watch these constructs crystallize in a CAT scan, they are definitely as real as real can be.

    Walking around with healthy constructs will bring goodness into the world, because each choice you make in life will be influenced by your healthy beliefs. So, yes, thoughts create things most definitely.

    Free will is a tough one. It sort of doesn’t really help you by believing you have no free will, because then you’re just giving your power away to a perceived greater force.

    “I’m just gonna snort all this cocaine, because my life is already determined anyway.”

    You have to believe that your thoughts, actions, and choices are under your own volition in order to take responsibility for your own life.

  2. Hi Corey — yes, I think that’s where a lot of people get off the train — the belief that the universe changes in a sort of one-to-one correspondence to the pictures we make in our heads.

    Still, like you say, there are a couple of ways in which it seems generally accepted that our thoughts and emotions do influence reality — one being the unconscious mind, which I think you’re referring to, and which I’m going to dive deeper into in the next post. As you also observed, even philosophers who claim that thoughts and feelings are mere “epiphenomena” of neurochemical activity don’t (and can’t) really act like they have no free will when it comes to living their own lives.

    Maybe the difference between the “Secret” view and the view of modern psychology and philosophy is more a difference of degree rather than kind.

  3. The problem with the new-agey approach I think is that it suggests the connection is direct.

    And the same quantum physics experiment conducted by different experimenters with different hopes and expectations will still turn out the same!

  4. I just thought of something really important, if not extremely disturbing. I recently watched an online video of Oprah interviewing child molesters. Evidently, Oprah was a victim of child molestation by certain members of her own family. Being a new father myself, I was inclined to watch. It was the most difficult thing to watch. My body was completely tense the entire time, lump in my chest.

    One of the big takeaways was that it all begins with a fantasy in the mind of the molester. These monsters would allow themselves to think about committing their crime first and that would lead them to position themselves into situations where it could take place, and then they carry out their fantasies if and when the opportunity arose.

    I know, it’s heavy and difficult subject matter, but I think it proves the point rather convincingly that thoughts and fantasies are extremely powerful.

    BTW, just so you know, child molesters go after kids with low self-esteem, low confidence, quiet types. You’re better off to raise your kids to be loud, expressive, and with high self confidence in order to prevent this type of awful abuse.

    Sorry for bringing the conversation to such a dark place, but I thought it was too important not to mention.

  5. Hi Evan — it sounds like, as with Cory, you get off the bus when people start talking about a one-to-one correspondence between our thoughts and what happens in the world, [Edit:] but still you don’t subscribe to the reductionist view that thoughts and emotions are illusions or have no causal relationship with reality. I wonder if that commits you (and me) to a belief (I’m just speculating) in immaterial parts of human beings such as immortal souls?

  6. I’m amazed that Oprah gave the child molesters air time. Few people have the courage to do this. Huge kudos to her! She has gone WAY up in my estimation.

    This is not to for a minute to suggest child molestation isn’t appalling and disgusting. I have spent lots of time listenint the victims. The kudos is for doing something that may break down the barriers of seeing others as demons rather than people who do frightful things.

    Hi Chris, if not immaterial parts then wholistic emergent phenomena. The problem with the material/immaterial split is how they communicate. There then is usually posited a third term (but is this material or immaterial and if neither then what? and on and on). I think our reality is not reducible to the material. There are various forms of materialist philosophy – all unsuccessful in my view – they can’t give an account of any distinctly human phenomena in my view. The recent US revival of this kind of thing just ignores the problems in the philosophy as if they had neve been identified (maybe the writers are just plain ignorant). I don’t find this intellectually impressive.

    David Hume pointed out long ago that no one has ever seen a cause. Since then empiricism has just been bluffing.

    I’m not claiming to have the answers on how to talk about all this but I do think materialism is just reductionist.

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