If this strikes you as a strange question to ask in context of the debate over God’s existence, it’s likely that you haven’t read anything by prominent atheist Alex Rosenberg. He’s firmly of the opinion that our thoughts aren’t about anything at all:
Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 162)
This may sound like utter nonsense (and it is). But, if you are a materialist, Rosenberg has a point. The “aboutness” of thoughts isn’t something that can be reduced to brain states alone. There is simply no way that any interaction of neurons, by itself, can objectively be about anything but itself–and nothing can be subjectively about anything without an interpreter already present. This would mean that we have to assume a mind in order to explain the mind.
As such, it might “feel” as if you have thoughts about things, or thoughts at all, but (so the argument goes) this is all illusion.
If you’re thinking that Rosenberg is a bit off his rocker, you’re not alone. What is an illusion after all, if it isn’t a thought? Rosenberg doesn’t actually tell us, but he compares it to trickery, sleight of hand, and several other things that make no sense whatsoever unless they involve (false) thoughts about things.
But he isn’t claiming that our thoughts are false; he’s claiming that they are literally about nothing at all.
Most might think that Rosenberg has given us a beautiful reductio ad absurdum of his materialist-atheist view. If the materialism which is the core of nearly all defense of atheism breaks down into denying that thought even exists (as Rosenberg shows later in his book), well, it might seem hard to imagine anything the theist could say to make this philosophy appear more inane than it already seems.
There is, however, one more thing.
Rosenberg never mentions the fact that science (so beloved by him and other materialists) is founded on trust of the human capacity to think about things. If materialism leads us to reject thought altogether, it leads us to completely reject science–which depends on thought. Hence, Rosenberg’s materialism is more deeply anti-science than anything the most fundamentalist preacher ever dreamed of saying.
The utter incoherence of this is striking, but there is nothing Rosenberg claims which doesn’t follow from his materialism. In this way, he’s simply being more consistent and clear-headed than most materialists. The act of rejecting the existence of anything that can’t be backed by experimental data has come around to reject itself, and science along with it.
So, if one isn’t willing to follow Rosenberg down this trail, one needs to reject the idea that there is nothing more to the mind than brain states.
But do to this is to reject materialism.