We can see our human ability for elaborate abstract thought as an evolutionary experiment.
Thoughts as tools
Thoughts are tools. They help us orient and navigate in the world.
They provide us with mental maps of the world. They give us images of the past, present, and possible futures. They provide us with the opportunity to mentally test out actions before we make them.
All of this makes it possible for us to function in the world.
Thoughts mimic senses & language
Thoughts seem to mimic our physical senses and, in our case, language.
In our case, we have thoughts mimicking sight, sounds, sensations, movement, and words (mental images and sounds).
Other species may have thoughts mimicking their own senses, whatever these are.
A helpful way of using this tool
What’s the optimal way to use this tool of thought?
It seems that the best way to use this particular tool is to recognize thoughts as thoughts. They are questions about the world. They help us orient and navigate. They provide maps about the world. They have a very important practical function. They are provisional. They are not what they appear to refer to. And none of them hold any final or absolute truth.
When we recognize this, we can hold them more lightly. We can find the validity in them, question them, find the validity in their reversals and other views, and use them more consciously as a tool. We recognize their value and their inherent limitations.
Misuse of the tool of thoughts
How can this tool be misused?
The easiest is to hold a thought as true. When we do, we identify with the viewpoint with the thought. We take ourselves as the viewpoint of the thought, make it into an identity for ourselves, create a sense of I and other, and feel a need to prop it up, elaborate on it, and defend it if it’s threatened.
When we hold a thought as true – either consciously or a part of us holds it as true – we perceive and live as if it’s true. We get out of alignment with reality since no thought can hold any final or absolute truth, and a thought and its reversals all hold some validity.
This is how a huge amount of human suffering is created, and it’s also how we create a good deal of problems for ourselves and others.
Thoughts as an evolutionary experiment
I assume many types of animals have some form of thought.
Specifically, they may have thoughts mimicking their senses. They may have mental maps of their surroundings. Mental representations of friends and foes. Mental representations of however they communicate. And so on. In most cases, these may not be conscious thoughts.
Human thought has gone a couple of steps further into abstraction. We have developed complex language and mental representations of this language, and that allows us to imagine and explore a wide range of things in our minds. Our minds are immensely creative.
This form of more abstract and elaborate thought is, in a sense, an evolutionary experiment. It’s as if nature said to itself: let’s see what happens with this species if they have this ability. Let’s see how they use it, and whether it aids their survival or becomes their undoing.
We can see how it has indeed aided our survival and made us into a powerful species. And we can also see how it has brought about conflicts, war, and immense suffering, and brought the ecosystems we are dependent on for our own survival to the brink of ecological collapse.
Abstract and complex thought as a new evolutionary experiment
This more elaborate form of abstract thought is a relatively new evolutionary experiment. It may have evolved over just a few hundred thousand years.
In an evolutionary sense, this is a very new tool for us. We are still learning how to use it.
We are systematically misusing it by assuming thoughts can do more for us than they can. They are powerful, and they have helped us create this civilization, technology, culture and so on. At the same time, they have their limits. They can’t hold any final or absolute truth, and we often perceive and live as if they can.
I assume that if we survive long enough, we may also learn to relate to thoughts more consciously. We may learn to recognize what they can and cannot do for us, and their inherent limitations. If this ever happens on a collective scale, it will mean a revolution in human evolution and history.
How we can explore this for ourselves
We can explore many aspects of this for ourselves.
We can explore our sense fields – sight, sound, smell, taste, sensations, and mental representations – and see how mental representations combine with the other sense fields to create our experience of the world.
We may recognize how our mind associates certain thoughts with certain sensations, so the sensations lend a sense of substance and reality to the thoughts, and the thoughts give a sense of meaning to the sensations. (Traditional Buddhist inquiry, Living Inquiries.)
We can examine any thought we hold as true and find what’s more true for us. (The Work of Byron Katie.)
We can use basic meditation to notice and allow our experience as it is. This helps us notice and allow thoughts, recognize that they live their own life, and perhaps soften identification with them and hold them a bit more lightly.
In a sense, through examining our thoughts and our relationship with thoughts, and learning to relate to them more consciously, we take the next evolutionary step in our own life. We find a more sane and healthy relationship with thoughts, and that is one of the things that can most help humanity today. Read More