I have my own thoughts about this. Am I on the right track or is there some real philosophy that defines the concept of control differently?

In a regular cause & effect scenario the cause determines the effect in two ways:

  • The cause provides the information about the effect, what will happen
  • The cause also provides the energy needed for the effect to happen

In a control scenario, my brain controls my muscles, decides which muscles move and when. I find it somewhat problematic to say that my decisions cause my muscle actions, as my brain does not provide the energy for the muscles. But then again, I can see no other cause for my actions than my decision to act. I think about how the mind falls short of controlling matter and energy by a lot, and wonder how freewill relates to control of the body.

So, I'll start with what is the difference between control and causation?

  • I think the energy part of your definition is problematic. In an explosion, the trigger inputs a small amount of energy, which causes release of a lot of energy that was NOT provided by the trigger but by the explosives. We would still see the trigger as "causing" the explosion.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 7:38
  • Exactly. When I press the gas pedal of my car, that action actually causes the car go faster. But what causes my foot to press that pedal? Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 8:18
  • I only want to read some relevant ideas about control and causation. There is no concept of control in physics, therefore I have to ask about it in Philosophy section. Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 8:31
  • @PerttiRuismäki Your foot causing the acceleration is the same as the trigger causing the explosion, is the same as the nerve signal from your brain causing your muscle action. In each case, most of the energy of the reaction is not coming from that specific cause (but rather, there is a compound cause and the energy comes from the other part of the cause: stored energy in the gasoline, stored energy in the explosives, stored energy in the sugars in your muscle).
    – kutschkem
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 8:41
  • 2
    And in response to no notion of control to physicists, there is indeed. In fact, there's a discipline between the hard sciences and the information sciences called control theory which talks about the design of physical systems to self-regulate. The ball governor is the classic example of a machine that controls a system.
    – J D
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 15:33

3 Answers 3


Short Answer

What is the difference between control and causation?

Yes, philosophy is well established if you phrase the question correctly. Control is a type of causation. As for how does the mind relate to the body, that's a philosophical problem of the first magnitude and you'll find no easy answer.

Long Answer


Cause and effect or causation (SEP), which are simple to do in making pronouncements, but much more difficult to establish and circumscribe by reason, describe any an all attempts to establish a temporal relationship where one can gain some measure of certainty of the latter event given the former event. Very important language that characterizes potential causes is necessity and sufficiency. That is some effects are necessary but not sufficient (buying a calc textbook is necessary, but not sufficient to learn calculus) and some are not only necessary but sufficient (one must study calculus to learn, but one needn't use a textbook, but may learn from a teacher or YouTube instead therefore it is sufficient). Modern purveyors of causality are statisticians and computational experts like Judea Pearl whose Causality is a challenging mathematical apparatus for characterizing cause and effect.


Control, in the literal sense, is an ontological extension of the category of agency (SEP), and is intimately linked to action theory. We have to be careful with our language to observe the distinction between literal and metaphorical expressions, since on can say meaningfully "the gravity of the earth controls the path of the moon". Strictly and philosophically speaking, wherever we impute control on non-agents, we are dipping into a linguistic mechanism where one literal meaning, such as the etymology of control demonstrates (etymoline.com), can take on a life of its own (for instance, words aren't actually alive, are they). Control means an agent has the potential to determine an outcome. The fancy philosophical term for potential is modality, and modality plays a very important role in epistemology (SEP).

Teleological Notions in Biology

When you start talking about using the word control in reference to a body, then you've struck out into the territory of teleology in the domain of biology (SEP). Here we have to ask ourselves, does our heart "control" our blood flow in the same way a centrifugal governor controls a steam engine? Well, most would say yes, and in this sense, we have now extended the definition of control to encompass a literal definition that no longer has the political overtones of the word's origin. Most philosophers wouldn't object to the claim that the mind controls the body, let us now say that the brain literally controls the body, and we now have satisfied both the idealist who projects causality out from the mind, and the physicalist who projects causality out from the body.

Does a heart 'want' to beat, or is that an instance of anthropomorphism? The mind surely can want the heart to beat, and the mind surely cannot directly control the heart beating, but it can want and decide to control the heart in the extended sense, for instance, by choosing to engage in regular cardio to keep the heart healthy. So, we are left with a dialetheism "the mind does and does not control the heart". So, we divide up the mind into the conscious and unconscious mind, where the former chooses and the latter does not. We can also carve up control into direct and indirect control, so the mind has indirect control over the heart rate, but not direct control. Choice and consent are categories of the conscious mind, if it exists, as for some philosophers the mind is an illusion.

Energy and Will

Here, now you make the question difficult. What is energy? What is will? You have asked perhaps two of the most fundamentally difficult questions in philosophy, since energy is primarily an abstraction used by the physicalist, and will is an abstraction primarily used by the idealist. On top of it, asking if will manipulates physical energy fundamentally sits atop the question of the nature of mind-body duality. There are no canonical answers in this territory of question. Some philosophers reject freewill entire, and others reject physical reality, and while many philosophers of mind try to reduce the mental to the physical (or like Dennett reject the mental entirely in a form of eliminative materialism), others like Berkley try to reduce the physical to the mental with his subjective idealism.

  • Strange game. The only winning move is not to Philosophize!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 17:33
  • 1
    @ScottRowe Lol Tis true. Tis true. Philosophy it's nothing short of a pathological need to articulate claims instead of live life. : )
    – J D
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 17:42
  • Thank you for your comprehensive answer. Now I understand the complexity of the question. Causation has never been a metaphysical thing to me. I have always thought of it as the necessary requirement for any physical event to happen. I have only wondered does the cause necessarily have to be a physical event itself? Voluntary actions are caused by neural signals originating from the brain. The energy of these signals comes from brain electrobiochemistry. The mystery lies in the way how the mind manages to send the signals to the muscles it has chosen to move. Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 3:01
  • Control is just another word for choice. A mechanical device like thermostat does not control/choose anything. It is just a tool designed by people helping people to control the temperature. Voluntary (=controlled) actions are always chosen for a purpose (in the future). Involuntary (=uncontrolled) actions occur due to a physical cause (in the past). No control, choice or purpose is involved. Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 3:14
  • 1
    @ScottRowe: over the last 80 years, computer science has started to replace philosophy in the context of explaining the mind, and it's now a race to prove the possible, rather than the impossible, because there is more profit in the former. The first to build an artificial mind might rule the world.
    – tkruse
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 15:43

In causal reasoning, the energy required to explain an effect does not need to come from the cause.

As an example, automatic umbrellas are opened by pressing a button with a finger. The energy required to open the umbrella does not come from the finger pressing the button, but from a spring that was loaded much earlier (when last closing the umbrella). Logically we can say the finger press caused the umbrella to open, but physically the finger press caused only for the spring catch to be released, which in turn made the spring open the umbrella.

In causal reasoning such physical details are often set aside to simplify the logical reasoning, that's where the energy relationship is usually lost.

Similar to the umbrella spring, the energy to contract the muscles to bend the finger comes from chemicals within the muscle (ATP), whereas the trigger to contract the muscle comes from a neuronal signal. So the signal does not need to provide the energy for the muscle contraction.

what is the difference between control and causation?

All control is also causation, but not all causation is control. So control is just a special type of causation, which implies function or purpose. Control is often based on a feedback loop which can increase or decrease an influence over time to satisfy a function, like a simple thermostat keeping an oven at a temperature. It might also imply agency to justify a purpose, like bees adjusting the heat of a hive.

What is it that causes voluntary human actions?

Whether voluntary human action is caused (and how) or not is disputed and part of the mind-body-problem. So there cannot currently be a single objective answer to that question in philosophy. We can only say that the issue of energy is not relevant to it in the way suggested by the question for simple logical cause-effect relationships like the umbrella opening. Energy conservation is a common objection to dualism in the mind-body problem, the wikipedia article above explains in more detail, but that seems to be unrelated to the question.

from the comments:

What do you think about this: Cause determines the effect, control determines the cause.

This seems like simply a form of dualism, more specifically interactionism. Quoting https://iep.utm.edu/dualism-and-mind/#SH7b:

Mind could act upon physical processes by “affecting their course but not breaking in upon them” (1970, p. 54). If this is true, the dualist could maintain the conservation principle but deny a fluctuation in energy because the mind serves to “guide” or control neural events by choosing one set of quantum outcomes rather than another.

However for causal reasoning, such influence would still be a participating cause of neural events, it would just be a physically unique kind of cause that happens totally without energy transformation (Unique in the sense that this has never been observed anywhere else in nature, just as it has never scientifically been measured in the brain). So cause-and-effect would not need to be extended by a new concept "control" for that.

If that's what the question was about, the question should be changed to be specifically about Dualism/Interactionism, such as: "According to Keith Campbell, mind can influence outcomes of quantum events in the brain, would that influence logically still be a cause, or a different type of influence that can be called 'Control' instead?"

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 7:34

The former control system engineer philosophizes thus:

Causation simply means that if A happens, then the outcome will be B. A tree is struck by lightning, then its bark explodes off the trunk. If the gas pedal in my car goes to the floor, then the car speeds up, etc.

Control means an external agent can upon command either break the causal chain in which A leads to B or enable it.

The external agent can be either a human being exerting his or her will to force the system to the outcome he or she desires, or an autonomous mechanism that modulates a control signal in such a manner as to force the system to the outcome that some human desires, without the human having to intervene directly.

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