My @Quora answer to Are thoughts mental activity or do they merely correspond to mental activity?
Answer by Jim Ashby:
Thanks for the A2A,!
Thoughts occur whether you want them to or not. As Arthur Schopenhauer noted: “A man can do as he will, but not will as he will.”
The thoughts that enter our minds are determined by our genes and our experience. It is impossible to conceive of that which we have no exposure to. All the great thinkers of history have stood on the shoulders of previous great thinkers. From, "Cogito ergo sum" to String Theory, everything we think we know is traceable back to self-awareness.
Man is not an automaton. Via mental feedback, man injects himself into the stream of stimuli flooding our brains from the world around us. Thanks to feedback, we are able to understand causality and anticipate it. This is proven by the routine act of planning or forecasting. Whether it's 5 seconds from now or 55 years from now, we mentally project causality into the future and anticipate it by making arrangements in the present that will benefit us in the future.
There's a small window of opportunity introduced by being self-aware and time-aware. Think of it as a temporal advantage over causality . . . which has to play out, cascading through successive present moments . . . but we can, mentally, race ahead of it and make an educated guess about how it will unfold. That's what intelligence is: understanding of causality. And with intelligence, we can hack our own paths into the future.