Who or what controls our decisions? God? Our spirits? Or just material?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Why does the physical state of our mind affect our consciousness so much if it truly stems from our spirit? 

Answer: Yikes! I am really not sure what you’re asking me — and the issues surrounding any of the phrases you have chosen are complex and vast. So, here is what I will do: I will restate your question, normalize the data (that is, make sure that we both understand the same thing by a term), and then answer the question as I have restated it. If I have “missed” your intention, please query me again.

I think that when you used the phrase “…the physical state of our mind…” you were referring to the physical brain — and not the mind. The mind is our consciousness — and although consciousness is associated with the brain, the mind itself is not a physical entity. I realize that people often refer to the physical brain as the mind in casual conversation… and that’s okay. But we will have to be more technical for the purposes of this answer. Why? Because we need to parse some strange concepts, and we cannot be spongy with the terms.

For instance, people known as materialists believe that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all phenomena — including mental phenomena and consciousness — are the result of material interactions. To these people, our minds — or our awareness — is merely the result of the brain’s physical characteristics. This category of thought is called monism because these people recognize one thing — the brain; they do not recognize the mind as a separate entity. To them, entities like the soul or the spirit can only be illusions.

By way of contrast, dualism recognizes the mind as a separate entity from the physical brain. We may further refine this into interactive dualism — the belief that our physical and mental states affect each other. This belief “feels” right. For anyone who has experienced the “fight or flight” response (where your mind knows that you are afraid… yet your body feels the adrenaline), this position would be difficult to deny. 

So, few would doubt that we have a physical component, and most (I believe most) people understand that we have a consciousness that is separate from the body — the personality part of us that will live on after we die — the soul. Furthermore, an honest observer will recognize distinct aspects of our nonphysical awareness — like our conscience. I would ask the materialist, why is it we feel guilty when our bodies are not telling us to — or even when our minds rationalize our inferior behavior?

I propose that the law of God is connecting with our hearts and our consciences in the realm beyond the body… and even beyond the mind. Yet, (and this is no small irony for the materialist) this guilt often manifests physiologically… which would be the tail wagging the dog from their perspective. Guilt simply affects the “gut” — and it drives people to tears. Pieces of evidence like these convince me that interactive dualism best describes reality.

We should be aware also that the thinking and emotional aspects of our being (that is, our personalities — the unique and recognizable aspects of our being that are outside of our physical systems) have loose terminology — even within the Bible. We find that terms like soul, spirit, conscience, heart, mind and “inner man” are frequently used to emphasize different functions of our nonmaterial natures — but without (necessarily) declaring themselves to be distinct entities.

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25, NIV, emphasis mine)

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16, NASB95, emphases mine)

“But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
(1 Timothy 1:5, NASB95, emphases mine)

“So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, AV, emphasis mine)

“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, NIV, emphases mine)

But, although the term “soul” is sometimes used to describe a functional aspect of our nonmaterial whole, it is frequently used as a substantive — and particularly in the Old Testament.

“So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45, NASB95, emphasis mine)

So, the term “soul” is often used to describe our very selves — the essence of our noncorporeal persons. But since it can also be used to describe a mere functional aspect of the soul’s nonmaterial whole, interpretive differences are inevitable. Some believers see the soul and the spirit as separate entities (which is known as the Trichotomous view — that we are body, soul, and spirit) while others see them as varying aspects of the same entity (known as the Dichotomous view — that we are body and soul [the spirit being an aspect of the soul]).

Now, your stand on the soul/spirit issue is not clear. But as you can see, neither is the Scripture’s. We will keep out of trouble, however, as long as we understand that when people refer to the nonphysical part of us — the part that communicates with God — they usually use the words like spirit or soul in a non-technical fashion. In my opinion, this cultural bias towards the existence of a spiritual dimension shows that materialism is counter-intuitive.

Now that we have defined our terms, here is the question that I will answer: “Why do the physiological activities of our brain affect the way we think — if the way we think is (as it is purported to be by Christians) directed by God through our spirit?” In other words, is our consciousness merely controlled by our brain chemistry? Is it controlled by our nonmaterial awareness — our own souls? Or does God fire those neurons through a unique spiritual connection?

Frankly, I don’t know — and the experts out there who purport to know seem to know differing things. This does not surprise me. After all, where would one even begin to get the data on the relationship between brain activity, decisions and whether or not there is causation beyond the brain activity? Well, someone did begin; brain scientist Benjamin Libet performed the following experiment:

Libet monitored the brain activity of subjects who were instructed to press a button with one of their fingers. He discovered that prior to a person’s awareness of his decision to press the button, the brain had already fired—and this firing caused the fingers to move. Here is the data:

  • A brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the fingers moving.
  • But an awareness of the decision occurs about 200 milliseconds prior to the fingers moving.
  • Then, the finger moves and presses the button.
  • The decision to move the finger can be subsequently vetoed by the will. (From a later experiment).

Now, I am no brain scientist (and this data is variously interpreted by those who are professional scientists and philosophers), but for those of us who subscribe to God’s agency in our lives — an agency which is over, above and outside of the brain’s chemical and electrical actions — these results are supportive. The power to veto an action — an action that materialists insist can only be caused by physiology — points to two things that materialists cannot abide: free will (an extra-material decision to perform an action) and a controller (instructions that are extra to the body’s physical systems). This points toward dualism — and particularly the interactive sort.

As to your question then, we work as a system — and not a singularity. Every human being has three interacting and irreducible entities: a body, a soul and instructions — and they must work together (in synergy) to thrive.

So, I don’t know if I answered your actual question or not. But with this overview of the brain, mind, soul and physiology, perhaps you can find some sense in their complex reactions.

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