Thought and self
What is a thought? This question is a hard nut to crack because it seems like an essential if not the fundamental aspect of being itself. To get some grasp on it I will start with an observation:
While I jot down the first notes for this article I am sitting in an airplane crossing the Atlantik ocean. At an altitude of 10km, we race towards Montreal while I have hours at my disposal and intend to use them well. But as is often the case with my mind it heads in a different direction. Instead of dissecting thought which seems strange and out of reach it deviates to another project of mine: a pencil-based recreation of all the places I call home. Immediately the airplane cabin is gone and I inhabit the first flat my wife and I rented over a decade ago. I sit in my living room and watch the place materialize while I am physically still in a box above the ocean. I traveled across time and space into a new reality without actually changing the here and now and the moment I lose hold of this thought I am back in my seat looking at the notebook’s screen in front of me, still facing a rather empty page instead of a sprawling sea of notes.
And when I convince my mind - or is it convinced for me? - to jot down some ideas a similar experience takes place and a new world materializes. I observe my thoughts and try to articulate some first understanding but while I am doing that my sensed surroundings disappear. Often it seems that what comes from without is beckoning with more vigor than anything from within but there is sometimes no clear distinction between the external world and those internal to me; and worlds they are. Sometimes even undistinguishable from the thing I call physical reality. A thought can stir my feelings, produce vivid scenes in my mind, and fill my head for hours to come. During that time, I inhabit and interact with this space which is allowed into my soul while anything else is excluded from attention.
So, what then is a thought? It is the inner creation of a new core of impressions and its surrounding understanding. But it isn’t new in the sense that streams of impressions emerge that I have never experienced before. This new core makes itself aware more like a replication of what usually is than something alien. It is the reproduction of the impressions coming from without, impressions I usually ascribe to my senses. That imitation I would give the same name Hume gave it 300 years ago: impressions of the mind. They are less detailed and have - what I can only describe as - less substance. They don’t share the same level of liveliness with my impressions of the senses which are supposed to be physical reality infiltrating my mind and I think the difference between the two is substantial enough to warrant two distinct categories.
On a tangent, the same seems to be true for dreams. While they carry me through the night of unconsciousness I take dreams as the only reality that is. It is the only reference I have because my mind is absolutely oblivious to any outside or past world. I inhabit it in its entirety until I wake up again and become painfully aware of how less colorful and tangible it was than my perceptions. And what is the difference between a dream and a thought? Don’t we call it daydreaming when I fully enter a conjured-up world of my mind’s doing and forget my surroundings for a moment? I don’t see any. A dream is nothing more than a thought that lost its connection to the external. It is the moment impressions of the mind become absolute. But that begs the question: isn’t every world I inhabit a dream in the end? Even if it is perception? How can I claim the external and physical when the only thing I have are relatives? I take a dream as absolute and real when nothing more vivid is entering consciousness. But isn’t that exactly how I assign reality to a core of impressions? It seems to me I live in a changing scenery of dreams with some being more substantial and rigid than others. Some dreams/thoughts/realities/worlds I can manipulate and change as I please others enter consciousness, pick me up, and carry me along barring any influence.
Thought it seems is plainly the creation of reality. It is a sequence of impressions forming a scene or the articulation of understanding. Its reach can be small and limited or grandiose and all-encompassing. I can for example think about the dish I want to prepare this evening. I display the ingredients to myself and observe every step I have to take during the preparation. My mind is filled with images of my kitchen, foods, tools, and a sense of action all the while perception receded slightly into the background. On the other hand, any outside world disappears when I am deeply focused on a good book.
What I find also interesting about the materialization of thoughts in my mind is the fact that almost all of them have an aspect of articulation to them. The majority are fully articulated. Taking my cooking scene as an example again, there is a sequence of impressions and a constant narration filling out missing details. Sometimes this inner voice is only a murmur in the background. Other times, it is the driving force maybe even to the point of being the sole experience. Then reality becomes pure rationalization, understanding, and making sense of ontology itself. There is no scene, no impression besides this dialogue, a flow of words, and the feeling of new connections being made between my objects of the mind. Maybe even the creation of new objects when I am lucky. Articulation is also a way of inner discovery. I use it to scrutinize thoughts, to manipulate them until they feel right. It is the tool I use to control how my thoughts are shaped. But articulation is also where the world created by my senses and those emerging from the mind differ. There seems to be no articulation needed when entering physical reality. It just exists together with its experience of understanding freed up of any rationalization and modeling. When I walk along a lonely path all by myself a new narration will establish itself but it doesn’t belong to the senses but to another thought that took over. It is often during those walks that I solve problems I couldn’t find the solution for in any other way. I remove sensed reality from attention and free it up completely, so it can focus on this single thought that represents my problem. There is also a narration happening when I start to interact with another person. But again this articulation belongs to a distinct thought, one that tries to map out the different paths this interaction can go, and through that is laying out the next steps to take and the next thing to say. Sometimes it feels as if physical reality is articulated because I am talking to someone or even to myself, but this is not more than the immediate translation of inner narration into spoken word stemming from a thought of the mind. In all that physical reality continues to be silent.
Now that I have at least some grasp on the concept of thought another question needs to be asked: where are they coming from? And I don’t mean that in any biological sense. I already concluded in a previous article that the creation of impressions, no matter if sensed or from the mind, and the source of ontology are a mystery to me. At least as long as I am limited to the tool of self-reflection. No, I try to understand if I am the one in control, if I am the agent willing thoughts and worlds into being. Sometimes it feels that way. This article series is the prime example of some kind of inner control because I force myself to stay in this thought until I figured out its end and brought it to digital paper. But during all that time my mind tries to drift away into an ocean of other, simpler thoughts. Thoughts that are created, it seems, on a constant base by ontology. There is not only a singular world existing in my unconscious mind at any moment, there are many, maybe even an infinite amount, and I just drift from one to another. Isn’t that also why I often can’t fall asleep during the night? The senses are muted but the mind is alive with realities to discover and problems to solve. The silence of the night is proof of the existence of an ocean of thought.
More often than not, thoughts materialize without any of my doing, and during those moments “I” disappear. But sometimes I guide my mind, steer attention, and become fully “me”. Those few precious moments. Or do I? What is it I actually have control over? From my perspective, I only make decisions and ask questions. I identify faults in a dream that is presented to me. It doesn’t seem that I can will any reality into being as I please. Taking a simple example illustrated the issue. When I ask myself what my favorite movies are it isn’t me who creates the set of candidates. Pictures, sounds, and names flow into my mind, some being more pronounced than others. They just appear in front of my mind’s eye and what I do is decide. This reality as small as it is was created for me. I didn’t choose any of its details but could only answer the question at hand. What does that say about thoughts that are more complex, that create an actual vivid world? If I can’t even control the structure of my simple thoughts I doubt it is different with something more complex. Even this question I asked myself was not of my doing. I needed a question to ask and it was the first one to jump into my mind. Then again, I can manipulate a conjured-up world. It may be initially created outside my sphere of influence but I can mold it into something else. As I mentioned above I have this project to reproduce all my former homes on paper and for that, I have to recreate the right look and feel. I place myself oddly enough always in a specific spot in any of the rooms and watch them materialize. But sometimes something feels wrong. Something doesn’t line up and I started to put my attention on it. Maybe this cupboard should be there or the couch is not in the right place. This feeling of wrongness and resistance initiates a discovery, a process that seems outside of my control again. I just decide something doesn’t fit and my mind is filled with alternatives. I just choose again. The same experience finally extends itself to physical reality. When confronted with two options, to go left or to go right, thoughts of potential outcomes race towards my mind, accompanied by feelings and emotions, and whoever is first, the most vivid, and feels the least wrong - or the most right - dominates and I tend to select it.
The feeling of wrongness and rightness seems to guide my decision and the continued inquiry into my thoughts. But that feeling is also external to “me”. It is a thing that makes itself aware. I just know something isn’t right. When selecting a movie I call “The Best” there is just one that feels right or, which is worse, none of them dominates and I stay confused feeling a creeping feeling of wrongness. So, what is in my control then? What is it that I will? Is it maybe the power to accept? I accept that this movie is the best, or I accept that my old flat’s living room looked like that, acknowledge those impressions and understanding, and through that let thought continue to venture on in any direction it pleases until it hits resistance again and my acceptance is required. But even saying that I have the power to accept feels wrong. Closely observed I cannot even make that argument. A myriad of thoughts, impressions, and understanding make themselves aware in every breathing moment, a cacophony of worlds that all strive for this single spot in the sun. A place of resistance, wrongness, struggle, and resolution, and “I” just sit there. “I” just experience. Whatever thought wins is decided beforehand through vivacity and a feeling of less resistance, of being more right. Neither the thought nor the feeling emerge from anything I could call “me”. Sometimes the culmination of many worlds means an interference. None can dominate so they get resolved into one, some chimera that feels more right than any single one of them, and here again, I just experience this resolution. I feel wrongness and struggle that doesn’t resolve until a change materializes that makes it more right and we all can move on. While I am writing these words the very thoughts underlying it try to disband continuously; get pushed aside by some other world that feels simpler and easier to hold on to. But I will them back. No, an inner voice - just another thought - pierces through and pronounces that I shall return to the struggle because there is a more profound feeling accompanying writing this text. There is a feeling of necessity that is pushing this struggle back into my attention.
More generally speaking, it seems to me that “I” and “me” come into being exactly when there is resistance and struggle when a world doesn’t know how to continue. At that very moment, my mind seems to expand attention, and many thoughts race through ontology to discover where it should go next. There is this feeling of broad awareness, a holistic observation from which “I” emerge and that is not only true for those inner worlds but also for physical reality. While walking the known path “I” recede or get pulled into an internal struggle that needs resolution, but when faced with novelty, be it an unknown way or something simple as a crossing that needs inspection, “I” return and become aware of all the impressions and understanding that are rushing into my mind. A decision needs to be made for what comes next but every time that decision emerges on its own terms. I just experience it from an all-encompassing point of view. “Me” therefore is the confluence of a neverending stream of worlds and the observation that a single one survives. Where there are too many thoughts resistance builds up and “I” appear. This is in stark contrast to a state of flow, a place in consciousness where there is no “me” but only pure experience. Everything feels right and time, space, and identity disappear.
But doesn’t that mean that “I” can only exist as an agent when there is a struggle, challenge, and danger? Or to put it in other words: to become self-aware don’t I have to enter the unknown, leave ontology behind, plunge into my impressions and try to follow the path untrodden? It seems that way, but there is an issue at the core of this statement: who is making that decision to venture on? Where is that motivation coming from? I have concluded that agency is an experience that emerges out of a struggle for attention and nothing more. There is no decision to make because the decision is already done. There is no opinion to form because the result gets presented to me. What does this realization do to agency? So far I don’t have a good or simple answer. I only have a more profound appreciation for experience itself, especially for those short glimpses of self-awareness.
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