We retain ‘life experience’ as memory, a function of the mind. If our minds fail us it is as if we’ve never lived that experience. Isn’t it possible that what we have perceived as experience of life is simply an illusion we’ve created in our minds, logically bringing into question our perception of reality to this moment? In other words, how reliable are our memories?
That’s a lot of question Andrew.
It must be admitted as a possibility that everything is illusion, and everything is in reality different from our perceptions, and if that is the case, then nothing else matters. It is an untestable hypothesis, an unfalseifiable, and as far as possibilities go, a highly improbable one (would have to be a god with a seriously twisted sense of humour to set us up in such a system) – so I have to admit of the possibility, as I also have to admit of the possibility that a small black hole will pass through the space that I occupy in 10 seconds and eliminate me from this existence (didn’t happen, but ….).
On the more serious side, you raise some very profound issues, of how to we know stuff, and what does it mean to us to know something.
From my current scientific paradigm, it is clear to me that we cannot have absolute certainty about anything in reality.
It seems very probable that we exist in this universe as a set of end points of some 14 billion years of existence. Big bang, stars forming from light atoms (hydrogen, helium, lithium) then making heavier elements via stellar nucleosynthesis (where the intense pressures and temperatures and nuclear radiation in the core of those early stars formed all the heavier elements up to iron in the periodic table). All elements heavier than iron seem to have been formed in the supermassive explosions that bought those first generation stars to their ends.
Our sun and planetary system seems to have formed from the debris of one or more of those explosions, and all life on this earth seems to have evolved by a process of evolution by natural selection over the last 3.5 billion or so years of life on this earth.
Our brains seem to have evolved a peculiar ability to handle symbolic language, and from that, language has evolved to ever higher levels of abstraction and connection.
This leaves us being different people, all using language, in many different ways (same words, but with sometimes radically different meanings associated with those words).
It seems that there are two major distinct classes of activity happening in the brains of each of us, with many streams of each type of activity happening in parallel, and with our conscious awareness being one of the results of these many streams of software activity in our brains.
One class of activity can be loosely described as habitual – these are patterns that we learn and repeat in appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) contexts.
The other class of activity can be loosely described as intuitive – which are processes that create pattern from stored experience based upon context (this seems to be a side effect of the way in which our brains store and retrieve information as interference patterns, and that is a big discussion in itself).
So it seems that it is our intuitive side that delivers our real creativity, and it appears that the process that delivers intuitions is driven directly from our perceptions (in the first instance and later the mix of perceptions and conceptions – they are all just patterns of neural activity to the systems themselves).
So it seems that our neural systems have the ability to create these self referential loops of pattern, and to do so recursively at multiple levels simultaneously.
There are many other aspects to the question also.
How reliable is that data from our senses going to our brains?
How reliable is the interpretation of that data by our neural networks?
How reliable is the storage of information?
How reliable is the retrieval of information?
How reliable is the association of different aspects of memory (sight, sound, emotions, judgements, higher level contexts, etc)?
The answers to all of those questions seem to fall into the same general sort of answer.
They are more reliable in the contexts in which our ancient ancestors evolved, and less reliable in other contexts.
They are more reliable in contexts that are familiar to us, and less reliable in the unfamiliar.
Professional magicians make use of both categories of error, in leading us to believe the things they make us believe.
All of this leads on to the deeper questions of what do we really mean when we use terms like real, reality, true, false, right, wrong, good, bad.
The answers seem to change significantly depending on the amount and type of life experience we have.
A child’s conception of each term is likely to be very different from that which any of us might mean, and the child’s conception might be a useful first order approximation to that which we mean, which might be a higher order approximation to reality (whatever reality actually is).
To me, all of this is very important in terms of developing systems that support every individual in living a life of security and freedom (the need for security necessarily constraining some aspects of freedom).
To me, it seems to be vitally important for the security of all of us that we find effective ways of getting people past those simple first order approximations of children to things like true/false, right/wrong, good/bad; and on to paradigms that actually allow infinite diversity to coexist without threat.
As all of us get all of our initial ideas from our respective cultures, unquestioned and unexamined, and many cultures come with strict taboos against questioning and examining their central tenets (including almost everything that goes under the heading religion), then there is a serious conflict of ideas in the very near offing.
Might not have been exactly what you expected, and great question Andrew.
I strongly recommend Ginger Campbell’s brain science podcast for a great insight into some of the latest scientific thinking on the nature of brain. I started studying biochemistry and neurphysiology 40 years ago, and have followed that with 40 years of computer systems design and support at all levels (I have written and assembler and a language and many thousands of programs at systems and user level), while keeping up with an hour or so reading a day on mind/brain matters.
There are many ways in which the complex system of memory recall can be interfered with:
At the context identification level;
At the search level;
At the retrieval level;
At the presentation level;
And probably at quite a few other process levels within how the brain of any particular individual actually works.
The evidence seems very clear that there are at least three different sorts of memory in humans – loosely categorised as short, medium and long term memory.
The evidence is also very clear, that there is no such thing as an I, separate from the organic complex of brain, with all of its many processes and capacities. It seems clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that we are software entities resident in the hardware of brain, individual, unique, creative; partly the result of culture, partly the result of environmental interaction, partly the result of chance, and partly the result of our own choices in all matters. No absolutes, no predestination, just probabilities, possibilities, choices and habits; all built on many successive levels of processes, from atomic on upward.
If we lose access to aspects of our memories, then we are affected to the extend of the involvement of those aspects in who we get to be in any instant.
Our technology is not yet quite able to prevent or reverse stroke or other mind destroying diseases, and it does seem to be a realistic possibility for the not too distant future (provided we don’t get too hung up on money).
So hang in there, and never give up.
Not at all.
In my world, quanta (units of things, like atoms, or photons, or individual people) always have degrees of freedom, that can be defined as probability functions (this aligns well with Quantum Mechanics).
I do not experience living in a world that is tightly bound by rules. Certainly there are rules, like gravity, and there are also things like wings and propellers, and balloons, and magnetic levitation, that allow things to float and fly.
In my world we are certainly subject to laws, like gravity and many others, and we also have freedom. Neither exists with certainty. There is a balance. Complete freedom is a myth, complete constraint is a myth. There is a middle path.
On that middle path, there are many old sayings that still hold true (though the context may have changed significantly), like “nature to be commanded must first be obeyed”, and “those who fail to understand history are likely to repeat it”.
What I see is a world that allows intentionality to develop out of this mix of lawfulness and randomness, through a process of evolution by natural selection (in which process cooperation is just as powerful as competition in the development of higher level systems).
What I see from this view of life is that it is critical for all life, that we as human culture take our ability to cooperate to the next level, where we work cooperatively (and independently – ie freely) with all other human and non human life forms, in ever increasing diversity and abundance.
These patterns are simple and clear to me, and they come from an understanding of complexity that takes decades to become familiar with. To me it is the simplicity beyond complexity that is important, simplicity that precedes complexity is a necessary stage in growth and is often very dangerous (analogous to teenage years).
So I can align with aspects of many ancient traditions, including many religious and mystic traditions, though not with the explanatory frameworks that have grown around their practices.
Several answers to “why strive”?
It seems to me that in the past it has all ended in oblivion, and there does seem to be several real possibilities of it continuing in the future.
At another level, this is the life we have. We have the choice to strive or not strive. Most people seem to choose “not strive” – maybe I’m just bloody minded and don’t like going with the herd 😉
It seems to be the game we have to play, might as well choose to play it.