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.