It Thinks

Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think we think.

--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The thought is author to the deed, as the old saying goes. But who is author to the thought? We assume there is a thinker attached to the thought, and that the thinker answers to the name of “I.” But how do we know that? Neuroscientists have made great strides lately in localizing brain functions, but they have yet to isolate a single thought, much less an entity that can reasonably be identified as the one who thought it up. If truth be told, we can’t even say for sure that thinking originates in the brain. We know if the brain is damaged in some way, it can impair one’s thinking. But that doesn’t say whether the brain is a transmitter or a receiver of thought – or both.

We have René Descartes to thank for the notion that our existence is somehow predicated on the act of thinking. In a bid for philosophical certainty, he put forward his famous proposition, I think, therefore I am. Numerous philosophers have challenged his conclusion, accusing him of overreaching. That thinking is going on there can be no doubt; however, it does not necessarily follow that the thinking is perpetrated by someone answering to the name of “I.” The philosopher Georg Lichtenberg argued that the existence of a thought does not prove the existence of a thinker. Rather than say “I think,” it would be more correct to say, “It thinks,” as one might say, “It rains.” Hume, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Russell have all made essentially the same point. Wittgenstein went so far as to insist, “There is no such thing as a subject that thinks or entertains ideas.”

We are so completely identified with our thoughts that it may be impossible to gain enough distance from them to see what is happening when a thought occurs. Philosophers, of course, spend a lot of their time deep in thought, so it should come as no surprise that some of them might look beyond the content of their thoughts to the thinking process itself. If you just go by content alone, you are apt to be led astray by their grammatical construction. Since thoughts are normally expressed in the first person singular, it’s natural to assume that “I” must be thinking them. The logic here is circular. If you look behind the thought, as David Hume did – or tried to – you won’t find anything other than the thought itself. Hume found the mind was filled with a “perpetual flux” of perceptions but nary a sign of an actual perceiver apart from what is perceived.

So where do the thoughts come from that pop into our heads? The phrase itself is telling, since we talk about thoughts popping into our heads the way we might pop into the neighborhood bar for a drink. Presumably the kernel of a thought must reside somewhere before it pops. Below the threshold of consciousness at the very least, given that we never actually see a thought being formed. Or perhaps it is manufactured off site and planted in our heads by unseen agents, a common paranoid delusion. But then, thinking of a thought as not mine is essentially no different from thinking of it as mine. The ownership is transferred but the underlying assumption is the same: there is still a thinker behind the thought, whether or not it answers to the name of “I.”

But what if there is no thinker behind the thought, no doer behind the deed? This is what Buddhists believe. Thoughts arise of their own accord and disappear into the nothingness from which they came. There is no one thinking them; indeed, the notion of a permanent thinking self is regarded as illusory. Clinging to this illusory self is the chief source of suffering, since we identify with pain in the same way we identify with thoughts. To surrender ownership of one’s thoughts is to find freedom; yet paradoxically there can be no free will if I am not the cause of my actions. And if I am not the author of the thought that is author to the deed, it might appear at first that I cannot be morally responsible for my actions. Yet in Buddhism actions are never without consequences. A kind of moral reckoning is imposed by the law of karma, which operates as impersonally and as inescapably as the law of gravity. As the Buddha himself put it, “Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it.” In the end, although I may not be a moral agent in the Judeo-Christian sense, I do not have the moral impunity I might think – or perhaps I should say, it thinks.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
David Hume, “Of Personal Identity” in A Treatise of Human Nature
Gautama Buddha, The Dhammapada


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