Friday, January 8, 2016

Thoughts on Memory

I was sitting and thinking the other day, as I am inclined to do.  A thought occurred to me, about the nature of memory.  It's interesting that we have the ability to remember things, and to be aware of this action.  Do most animals have this awareness also, or is it perhaps something that only creatures with a higher order of brain function develop?

This got me to thinking a bit more, and I accidentally stumbled upon another idea that has been rattling around my brain for a time.  Memory, whether it be in our brains or on a computer chip, tends to require something in which to exist.  Senescence tends to be such that as the thing that holds the memory deprecates, so too does the memory.

I hit therefore upon a strange anomaly, I think, for which I don't have a simple explanation.  Let's use a computer as our example.  When a hard drive is recorded to, the memory (or data, as it were) is a real thing so long as the hard drive is a thing.  Hard drives are not special such that they seem to be aware of their own ability to recall such data, nor the entire computer for that matter.  I think it's interesting that we humans can have memories.  This led me to a more fundamental thing, concerning consciousness.

The most compelling argument I can think of, for some sort of consciousness beyond the life of the body.  We are, indeed, able to comprehend our current situation, and I find this odd indeed.  If it isn't clear to begin with, based on my previous articles, I'm not a believer in reincarnation or afterlife or any such thing as that.  However, the thought enters my head from time to time, that for me to be able to experience the present, there must be some kind of future.  It is perhaps not the most logical thought on its surface, but let me continue.

Looking back on my life, I certainly can't remember everything that's ever happened to me. However, I know that my memories exist whether they were real, or fabricated by my brain.  Nonetheless, a record of my present state remains somewhere.  Perhaps, as I've always supposed, it is simply that the future me exists that I'm able to experience the present.  However, I've another hypothesis, and this is that something does exist independent of ourselves.  This sort of consciousness would exist simultaneously within us and not.  The fact that I can think about this life now, means that perhaps in the future I'm also thinking about it.  How odd it would be to have self-awareness and yet not have any way to demonstrate it.

Certainly, the argument isn't that there is any sort of afterlife.  I don't think that makes any sense based on our science at present.  I do wonder, though, from the opposite vantage point, sometimes.  How is it possible I'm experiencing this life at all if I can't observe it from any time other than now?  Eventually dying, I think, is not unlike a hard drive that is destroyed or wiped clean.  Essentially, when the data is removed, it's exactly as though it never existed.  At some point, the last computer will record its last thought, and eventually the magnetism will fade.  No record will be left of whatever was upon it.

The main difference here is that we are not hard drives.  I do not believe that there is anything beyond life, and that's why I cherish it so.  This is something of a lacuna for me, something I can't put into words yet, but I think there's a hint of it.  How is it possible, I wonder, to experience the 'now' that we all feel (or I presume as much, based on the available evidence) if there is nothing after the 'now' that is our life/universe/timeline/etc?

Please don't be confused, this isn't an argument for a god or another plane of existence or anything, though I suppose some could use it to that end.  I'm simply explaining that I can understand why it's unnerving for some people to try to comprehend that this is all we have.  A cassette tape can be played over and over again until it wears out, and we can replay our own memories over and over again until they become unintelligible.  Is it possible that we, with our data-storing brains, are somehow like that cassette tape?  Maybe something exists even within our own universe, that can "record" our consciousness and play it back and forth, without our knowledge.

In another way of thinking, the CD in your player doesn't know you exist, but it can play the songs over and over.  From a record's perspective, if a record were sentient, would it know or care that we are playing it?  Would it only experience as linearly temporal the grooves as the needle reads it?  The current time on the track you are playing is it's current state of existence.  When the record is done, does the record die?

What if consciousness is similar?  We're living our lives in the present, simultaneously, because the cosmic needle is rocking back and forth in the grooves we can barely even comprehend?  This doesn't imply any kind of creator, nor anything to run the 'needle,' it only is an experiment in thought.  Am I simply remembering my present from a future vantage, perhaps as someone completely different from who I am?  Perhaps I am my own avatar, a strange duality of life and unlife.  In exactly the same way that I am not the bits in your e-mail, but nonetheless the e-mail records my thoughts as I type them.  Is this blog aware it's not posting things of its own accord?  Does the server think all the signals are its own, the traffic flowing through it like the experiences in front of our faces?

These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me awake sometimes.  I realize this isn't the most coherent blog post, and I know I've not really explained myself well, but I hope I've conveyed the basic idea.  What are your thoughts?