By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University
APU’s psychology program offers online bachelor’s and master’s degrees that introduce students to the different schools of thought in psychological research. These degrees are designed to prepare them for different fields, including clinical work and mental health and wellness services.
Last summer, I wrote a series of articles about the argument made by some psychological and philosophical experts that free will is an illusion; that what appears to us as free agency is really just an endless cascade of cause and effect as atoms in our brains interact to produce thoughts and emotions.
In other words, the argument is that we feel as if we’re “in charge” and authoring our thoughts and actions, but in reality we’re just passengers along for the ride, which is governed strictly by the laws of physics and nothing more.
This idea is actually predicated on the foundational tenets of biological psychology, also called physiological psychology. This school of thought within the professional psychological community says that the machinations of our minds are simply products of neural mechanisms that involve the nervous system, hormones, genetics and our external environment.
Everything Happening between Our Ears Is Reducible to the Basic Interaction of Atoms
But what biological psychology does not abide is the idea that anything going on inside our head is the product of something preternatural or ethereal. The basic idea behind biological psychology is that everything happening between our ears — including the feeling of consciousness we experience every day — is ultimately reducible to the basic interaction of atoms.
To say this is not to suggest that the inner workings of our minds are simple or easily understood. We already know — judging by the years of painstaking research invested in studying how the mind works and the relatively little progress we’ve made from all that toil — that our brains are incredibly complex machines.
Our Thoughts, Feelings and Urges Are Born from Extremely Complex Systems
What we experience as thoughts, feelings and urges are born from extremely complex systems. They involve chemical interactions with hormones and neurotransmitters; they involve electrical signals with neurons firing communications throughout the brain. They involve mechanical interactions of our senses with the environment and the cells of our bodies with each other. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes.
But to say that something is complicated does not mean that it can never be understood or that its causes are metaphysical. Just because we may not understand the biological origin of every thought a person has doesn’t mean there isn’t a biological origin or that we won’t understand it at some point in the future.
The default assumption of any good scientist is an Occam’s Razor train of thought: the simplest explanation to a mysterious phenomenon is usually the correct one. So although we haven’t yet mapped the brain with perfect precision and we don’t yet know exactly how all thoughts and feelings arise, the prudent hypothesis is that the explanation is grounded and empirical, and it conforms to the known laws of physics. We simply haven’t discovered all the answers yet. But we shouldn’t assume that it’s mysterious or spiritual or outside the purview of science’s ability to inquire and understand.
Imagine you have a thought right now that you’d like to eat pizza for dinner tonight. Where did that thought come from? Perhaps it was catalyzed by your environment. For example, maybe someone walked by you with a box of pizza. You smelled it, and this smell generated a craving for pizza. In this sense, your thought was really just a reaction to the environment and a fairly obvious one at that.
But what if no such environmental cue existed? Suppose you’re just sitting in your living room reading the newspaper, and the pizza thought appears to manifest itself out of thin air. But how?
The Machinations of Thought Are Extremely Complex
Again, the machinations of thought are extremely complex. However, your pizza craving was likely the product of some combination of interactions among factors such as blood glucose concentrations, neurotransmitter levels, neural activity, and the anatomical composition of your brain, right down to the atoms that comprise it and how they are structured.
We don’t yet understand all of these dynamics perfectly. But if we continue our research in the fields of neurology and biological psychology, there is every reason to expect one day we will understand it.
Then, we will be able to articulate the exact circumstances of your pizza thought and every other thought you might have for that matter. In fact, we’re already able to do this on a very rudimentary level using fMRI scans and other observational techniques.
What could the origins of our thoughts and feelings possibly be if not biological? Supernatural? No, the workings of our minds may appear mystical, but everything in our skulls that is responsible for manufacturing thought is ultimately composed of ordinary matter — matter that is constrained by the laws of the physical universe and accessible to the methods of scientific inquiry.
This is why biological psychology is best positioned to investigate these phenomena.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.