Thoughts is one of life’s risky experiments.
It seems to work pretty well for non-human species. I assume many non-human species too have thoughts that mimic the senses. Imagined sensory information that helps them remember the past, plan for the future, and function in the present.
We humans have gone one step further. We have created language out of a combination of images and sounds. That’s another level of abstraction, and one that is both powerful and dangerous.
It’s powerful since it allows us to explore the world in the abstract. It allows us to take what’s already there in less abstract thought, and create everything human civilization has created – from agriculture and cities to science, art, and technology.
It’s dangerous. When we take our thoughts to be real and true, it creates suffering for ourselves and can easily do so for others as well. And that happens at social (war, religion, oppression) and individual levels.
And it’s a risky experiment from life’s side. It may not work out for very long. We may self-destruct because of our inability to use thoughts in the most beneficial way. And we may take some ecosystems and other species with us. Of course, it’s not really that risky since everything dies anyway – species, ecosystems, living planets, solar systems, and the universe as a whole. It may just speed up the death of some species. And as we know from Earth’s history, mass extinctions create room for new species, ecosystems, and life innovations. (It’s also not “risky” since it’s not a planned evolutionary step, it just happened because it happened to give our species a survival advantage.)
Thoughts can be a very useful tool. As mentioned above, it seems to work pretty well in its less abstract version, prior to more complex language. And even with higher levels of abstraction, it can work well. We can recognize thoughts as a tool of limited value. They are very valuable in helping us orient and function in the world. And yet, they can’t do anything more. They are questions about the world. They have no absolute or final truth to them.
Who knows, perhaps humans will eventually evolve so a majority of us inherently know that thoughts are tools only. If so, humanity may have a long lifespan.
From a Darwinist point of view, this will require those who are less inclined to believe thoughts to have a survival advantage and produce more offspring. On the surface, that may not seem to be happening. Although who knows. If we are around for long enough, we – as a species – will see.