Do we say, “The cloud is raining” or “It is raining”?
Of course, we say “It is raining”.
Now then, do we say “I am thinking” or “It is thinking?”
Of course, we say “I am thinking”.
But this is inconsistent. If we say “it is raining” then we should say “it is thinking”. Otherwise, if we say “I am thinking” then we should say “The cloud is raining”.
But, you may say, language is full of inconsistencies. But is this just a technical issue of language or something more profound?
Well, let’s consider rain in more detail.
What is rain?
Firslty, we need to consider a cloud.
Well, we know that water droplets stick together. And when the tiny droplets in air stick together to form bigger clumps, this is what we see as white water vapour. And when there is a large region of lots of these clumps in the sky, we call this whole region of the sky a cloud.
It is worth pointing out that a cloud is not separate from the sky. A cloud is part of the sky. Now, how does a cloud decide to rain? Does it have a choice? Of course not.
We know that the process of water droplets sticking together continues throughout the life of a cloud. Once the cloud is white, clouds come together with other clouds and water droplets come together with other droplets. As this happens, the colour of the cloud changes from white to darker and darker shades of grey. Eventually, when the water droplets are so big, they fall from the cloud to the ground. If one droplet falls, nobody really notices. When lots fall at the same time, we call this process rain.
So, of course, the cloud didn’t decide to let go of the water droplets. It just happened as part of a bigger process.
And, of course, a single water droplet moving is not what we call rain. There needs to be lots of them falling at the same time for it to be rain.
But, returing to the question, what is rain?
Can you grab rain and put it under the microscope to study? No.
When the water droplets are still in the cloud, we don’t really call them anything.
When a single droplet falls, we don’t really call it anything.
When the water droplets have arrived on Earth, we now call it something else, like a puddle. When a number of water droplets fall from a cloud to the surface of the Earth, that process is rain.
In a way, rain is just water droplets. But not just any water droplets. The water droplets need to be in the process of moving from a cloud to the Earth. If they are falling from a mountain, they are called something else. If they are falling from a bucket, they are called something else. Before they left the cloud, they are not called rain. Once they have arrived they are not called rain. They must be in motion. And they must be in motion under a specific context.
Rain is therefore a process. Rain is not a thing. Rain is not caused by a decision. Rain does not belong to any particular thing. That is why we say “It is raining”.
Now let’s consider thinking in the same way. What is thought?
Firstlly, we need to consider a body.
Well, we know that a body is a collection of cells. And some of these cells are connected to each other directly. This connectivity is called the nervous system. And a particularly type of cell that is part of this nervous system is called a neuron. Where there is a large collection of these neurons in a head, we call that region a brain.
It is worth pointing out that a brain is not separate from the body. A brain is part of a body. Now, how does a brain decide to think? Does it have a choice?
Of course not. (Hang on, we normally say it does, don’t we?)
We know that the process of nerve cells sending information between them happens throughout the life of a body. If a ball comes towards you and some light enters the eyeball, the light will interact with nerve cells in the back of the eye, and those cells send electrical signals to neurons in the brain. Each neuron then sends an electrical signal to at least one other neuron and now there’s a complex system of electrical messaging happening. If the ball then hits you in the head, the interaction between the ball and your head causes electrical signals to be sent from the nerve cells in your head to more neurons in your brain. Once again, these neurons send signals to other nerurons, adding to the complexity of the electrical signalling that’s happening. It’s like rush hour in the city. When neurons in your brain send electrical signals to your muscles in your arm, your muscle cells tighten and your arm moves. All of this electrical messaging that is happening in your brain is called “thinking”.
So, of course, the brain didn’t decide to get information from the eye or the skin. It just happened as part of a bigger process. And, of course, the brain didn’t decide to send electrical signals to your muscles. It just naturally happened as part of a bigger process. (No, hang on, that’s not what we normally say, is it?)
And, of course, a single electrical signal moving between cells is not what we call a though. There needs to be lots of them moving at the same time for it to be a thought.
But, returing to the question, what is thought?
Can you grab a thought and put it under the microscope to study? No. When the electrical energy is in the form of an energised cell in the back of the eye, that’s not a thought. When an electrical signal arrives at a neuron in the brain, we don’t call it a thought. When a single electrical signal is sent between two neurons, we don’t really call it a thought. When a large number of electrical signals are moving between a large number of neurons in the brain, this process is called thinking.
In a way, a thought is just electrical signals. But not just any electrical signals. The electrical signals need to be in the process of moving between neurons in the brain. If electrical signals are moving from a nerve cell in the skin, they are called something else. If electrical signals are moving from a ball to an eye, they are called something else. Before the signals arrive at the brain, they are not called thoughts. Once the signals have left the brain, they are not called thoughts. The signals must be in motion within the brain.
A thought is therefore a process. A thought is not a thing. A thought is not caused by a decision. A thought does not belong to any particular neuron or thing. That is why we say “It is thinking”.
Hang on, that’s not what we say. A thought is a thing. It is caused by a decision. It belongs to the brain. Does it? Or does it belong to you?
I’m sorry, I didn’t mention anybody’s name in my example of how the brain works. Did I miss out the important bit where a Fat Controller decides to tell the neurons what to do? Like a cloud decides to tell the water droplets to fall from the sky. Or do the neurons just do what they do? Like water droplets do what they do.
Is raining really that much different to thinking?