Steering the Horse from the Chariot

The metaphor of horse and rider is an ancient way of understanding the relationship of mind to body. Our control is at best partial, influencing the animal we inhabit. The metaphor is dualist of course, seeing the mind and the body as separable entities.

We now understand of course that awareness itself arises from the brain itself, intimately tied into signals coming both from the environment and from within our own bodies. Those physical appetites and values we assign to the world pull brain function in their determined direction as brain control systems do their best to steer toward goals valued in more abstracted models of how the world works. Food, shelter, stability are basic desires, but we know based on social models that a fat bank account can be used to obtain them if some immediate gratification is delayed for a future gain.

I’m working my way through the classic Jewish book “Nefesh HaChaim” (“Living Soul”) by Reb Chaim of Volozhin published after his death in 1824. In a bit of a twist on the classic horse and rider metaphor, Reb Chaim likens the body and mind to a horse and chariot. It struck me that while it evokes a deeper separation of body and mind, it captures well how the body is physically under indirect control, being steered by the man in the chariot and not under the kind of direct control we imagine. The charioteer says go and we hope gets pulled in the right direction by the horse. There’s some steering and ability to stop, but not much more than that. The brain executes behaviors in the way the horse pulls the chariot. Awareness can influence but rarely control.

The limitations of awareness and agency are truly profound. We’re operating under assumptions of control that are not very accurate when tested. As choice is so limited, the emphasis has to be on training the horse rather than somehow trying to gain more control over it, an effort that seems destined to fail.