Random Thoughts Generator

A training partner of mine labels most of his running routes in his log "Random Thoughts Generator." It's true. This is one of the functions of running. I'm not sure if it's the increased bloodflow or perhaps decreased bloodflow, or just the fall of the body into simple rhythms that relaxes that mind and causes it to move.

I thought a million thoughts on my run today.

One thing that happens upon spending years reading philosophy is that thoughts become more and more like things. Maybe this happens to everyone. We develop and hoard certain thoughts, ideas, arguments, questions, perhaps like a child accumulates toys. We have a lot of them, but use a fairly small portion of them. And among the small portion that we use, a precious few become the kind of threadbare and worn objects through which we know ourselves. These one or two mental objects we carry around with us like a child carries his favorite stuffed animal, for no reason other than that they are comfortable, that they are ours. Yes, it is strange.

Here is a thought that I keep coming back to: "Where do our thoughts come from?"

Before we get started, please keep in mind that the last thing that philosophers want is for their favorite questions to be answered. An answered question is like an empty bowl of ice cream: what's left is only the melted memory of enthusiasm, some milk stains in the bottom of the bowl. A great question is like an unending bowl of ice cream.

Let's eat.

Where do thoughts come from?

The first thought that comes to mind is, "Duh, I make them up." But closer scrutiny reveals a quite marvelous puzzle. Where is this "I" that "makes?" Is there another little Jeff that sits in the back of my mind making the thoughts that appear on the screen of my mind? Who is this Jeff? And why does he keep sending such strange material forward? What does it mean to make a thought? It is certainly something different than making a table. Or making a casserole. Thoughts appear almost full-borne, like geese in the winter sky, or trout lingering, dark shadows in a deep pool, occasionally darting through shifting light.

Another thought. Thoughts do not come at all. Socrates thought that thoughts dwell in an eternal realm, always already full and complete, and that our particular minds catch glimpses of the full forms of the universal timeless mind. The thoughts think themselves, just as the stars shine themselves, and we can turn our minds skyward and read them partially and incompletely, as we make out a hunter and his bow from the dim dots of Orion. Thoughts do not come to us; we come to them, peering through our weak and finite minds towards dim and distant objects.

Another thought. Thoughts come from complex chemical interactions within the brain. They are the ephemeral shadows of hard biological and physiological facts. They come from neurons and hormones, nerves and electricity. Thoughts are brain states, lightning storms that sweep through gray matter. They are the blood as it boils.

Another thought. Thoughts come from society. This is a favorite of my students (no wonder--they have spent most of their life in school.) Thoughts come from what groups of people think. From our parents. From the media. From the church. From the government. From the Great Philosophers. But of course this answer begs the question: where did all these groups of people get their thoughts? But my students do have a point; our thoughts come in communicable form, more or less. We think to ourselves, and we think to others. Thoughts come shaped and molded by language, and what is society other than the collection of meanings made, preserved and passed along in language.

Another thought. I don't know where thoughts come from. But there are certain things that I can do to make them come. Perhaps this is answer enough. Where do thoughts come from? They come from a solitary but not lonely twelve miler. They come from a quiet hour with a book. They come from a glass of wine with old friends and lovers. They come from fear and surprise and unexpected encounters. From the first light, the smell of crackling ozone in a thunderstorm.

The mind is not a substance or an object; it is a stream. It is a random thoughts generator. To ask where it comes from is as strange as asking where water comes from, or where birds come from, or ladybugs. The runner cannot say where he gets his ability to cover ground. He can only shrug his shoulders and sojourn on, be thankful that his legs are strong, his stride loose and responsive, that the generator keeps running, flowing, living.


  1. The biggest puzzler to me is the question of where thoughts come from when you're asleep.

    I mean, one minute you're sleeping along peacefully and the next you're nightmaring of, say, your grandmother stomping around with tarantula legs and floating eyeballs.

    What the hell is that all about? Where did THAT thought come from?


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