Saturday, March 10, 2012

On Memory & Memories

“Reported memories are (to be sure) directly causally connected with the experiences they describe, and what is at least as important, no memory qualifies as a memory unless it is veridical. But every reported memory is an interpretation of the original experience: memories as they live and breathe come in phrases and visualizations rather than in propositions. They are emotionally charged, infused with fears and desires: and cannot be separated from the purely cognitive or verifiable aspect of what is remembered from a vast array of other tonalities of what is imagined, fantasied, hoped.”—Amélie Oksenberg Rorty in Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (1988) (cf. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931)

“In the 1970s the initial enthusiasm for the computer as a psychological metaphor and simulation as a scientific tool gradually gave way to realism. The flood of computer simulations in the early days of AI and cognitive science had an unintended result, quite opposite to that expected. It was established that psychological processes, even the ‘higher ones,’ have a much less rectilinear and rational course than was presupposed in the simulations. Thinking and reasoning turned out to be mosaic-like processes, in which intuitions and suppositions played equal parts as logical deductions and statistically sound deductions. Gardner called this result the ‘computational paradox:’ the intensive attempts to simulate mental processes emphasised the differences rather than the similarities. The paradox applies in its full extent to memory. The memory of the computer is too good. Its infallibility is its principal short-coming. Human memory is an instrument which, if the need arises, lies and deceives. It distorts, sifts and deforms, takes better care of some things than others. Unlike the computer memory it disobeys commands.”—Douwe Draaisma in Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind (English tr., 2000)

“Contrary to the claims of many neuroscientists, full-blown memories, such as you and I experience all the time, and more broadly the explicit temporal depth of our lives, cannot be captured by a neural account of the mind. [….] When I remember something I have experienced, the memory is not merely a recurrence of the experience. Nor is it, as the philosopher David Hume suggested, a ‘pale’ or less vivid copy of the experience. No, when I recall something that is past I am aware that it is past; remembered red is not just like a present experience of faded red. I have a sense of place in time, outside the present, in which what was experienced, what the memory is about, took place. Supposing I remember that yesterday you asked me to do something. Although my memory is necessarily a present event it is aware that it is about something that is not present. The memory is not only the presence of something that is absent but also the presence of something that is explicitly absent. When I remember your request, however clear my memory, however precise the mental image I might have of you making the request, I am not deceived into thinking that you are now making the request. Your request is firmly located in the past. As for the past, it is an extraordinarily elaborated and structured realm. It is layered; it is both personal (memory) and collective (history); it is randomly visited and timetabled; it is accessed through facts, through vague impressions, through images steeped in nostalgia. This realm has no place in the physical world.

The physical world is what it is. It is not haunted by what has been (or, indeed, by what it might become): by what was and will be. There are, in short, no tenses in the material world. This is beautifully expressed by Albert Einstein in a letter written in the last year of his life, to the widow of his oldest friend, Michael Besso: ‘People like me,’ he said, ‘who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present and future, is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’ Tenses are not, of course, illusions, unless the only reality that is accepted is the world as revealed to physics. But they have no place in the physical world. And they therefore have no place in a piece of the physical world: a material object such as the brain. The only presence that the past has in the material present is in virtue of the contents of the present being the effects of the past. [And]…being an effect of past events does not of itself amount to being the presence of the past.”—Raymond Tallis in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011)

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