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Remembering and Forgetting

Remembering and Forgetting

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009


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The Natural Poesis of Remembering and Forgetting
Frederick TurnerWhy do we remember the past but don't remember the future?What's the difference between memory and physical continuity?What's the difference between cause and logical inference?If the present state of something is all that has survived of it from its past, how can we saythat its past state was different from its present state? (If some aspect of it has survived, itis not in the past but the present; if it has not survived, then it does not exist and wecannot know it, can we?)What is the function of forgetting?Can the same cause have two different effects? If so, how do the branched or bifurcatedtimelines that result relate to each other?How far down the evolutionary scale does the capacity for memory go? How far downdoes forgetting?These questions answer each other in a rather peculiar fashion, requiring an upending of our familiar way of making definitions, an exchange of figure for ground. In doing so wewill be following the example of our founder J. T. Fraser, whose profound insight it wasthat objects don't exist in time, but time exists in objects. If we exchange figure andground we will find that we cannot define remembering in terms of the past and future,but must define past and future in terms of remembering--the past is what can only beremembered, the future is what can only be
. We must see memory not as a smallsubset of what physically survives, but rather as the
of what physically survives.We must see cause as the opposite of logical inference--a multitude of premises gives riseto a single logical inference, while a cause gives rise to multiple effect-worlds, whichmust be either reconciled with one another or rejected and forgotten. We must see themain function of memory as forgetting. We must extend the concepts of both memoryand forgetting to be characteristics (weaker as we descend our evolutionary tree into thepast, but never entirely absent) of the whole of the physical universe.Time, goes the old joke, is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen atonce. Like many jokes, this one has a fairly large grain of truth. If two states of the sameobject are allowed by the universe, such as being red and being green, or being in oneplace and being in another--or if two objects, such as two fundamental particles of thesame mass, spin, and charge, can occupy exactly the same state and place--then majorproblems arise. Either, in the first case, the principle of identity is violated--is it oneobject or two?--or, in the second case, there is not room in space for both objects at once
(in physics, this problem is known as the Pauli exclusion principle). In a universe of purespace, without time, either only one distinct state and place could be allowed for eachobject (which is empirically false) or the laws of science could not exist because identityand location could not be reliably established.Time gives the universe a way of connecting different states of the same object (first itwas red, then it turned green; first it was in one place, then it was in another) and of spacing out events and objects so that they do not get in each other's way (first one atomwas there, then another). Further, if one of the states or locations of an object has to existif the other is to exist, time provides an order of events. The tree cannot exist unless itsseedling has earlier existed, nor the seedling without the seed; whereas the seedling couldexist without the tree but not without the seed. An object with velocity has to have beensomewhere else before it was there. Time is whatever space a logical scheduling problemrequires for its solution.We can actually study situations where time almost doesn't exist. In the tiny and alwaysminutely brief world of quantum mechanics there is so little time that identity andlocation do indeed lose a good deal of their clarity and indeed their distinction from oneanother: a particle can exist in a state of superposition, in which two different things aretrue of the same object, and it can exist very tenuously in two places at once. A clump of a few dozen beryllium atoms in a very cold Bose-Einstein condensate has been made todo just that. But for objects with more solidity and persistence, time is necessary not justtautologically for them to exist "in" but also as the only noncontradictory way of resolving paradoxes of being and location.The Enlightenment description of time, which is familiar to us all--and which even afterninety years has not been replaced in our intuitive imagination by relativity theory, letalone other modifications of it--sounds like the simplest way of providing the "spacing-out" and scheduling function that is so important to the universe. What it says is that timeis very like a spatial dimension--say, length--extending out in a straight line, and thateverything in the universe at any given moment is at the same point on that line; what ison one side of us is the past, what is on the other is the future, and where we all are is thepresent.But wait: all is not well here. When it comes to the "passing" of time, the familiar modelbegins to get complicated. In the received account the present moment moves along theline in a futureward direction providing each point in it with an infinitesimal moment of reality--or, in the opinion of some physicists and philosophers, the whole line is alwaysalready real, and our consciousness moves along the line, like a spotlight, giving us the2
illusion of encountering a new future and leaving behind a dead past. But the spaceanalogy has already begun to break down. Our experience of space doesn't necessarilyinclude a "passing of space"; there's no necessary point of maximal existence along a line,or maximal human attention to it, and there's no place on a spatial line that all of theuniverse is at. And if either reality or our awareness moves along the timeline, in whattime is it moving? How fast? How many minutes per what? Can it accelerate? Howcould we tell the difference between slow and fast?--and if we can't, how could we tell if it had or hadn't stopped altogether? What does "move" mean if there's no discernibledistinction? Is there a second time in which reality or awareness moves along the line of the first time? Then why not a third time in which the reality of the reality or theawareness of the awareness moves along the second? And so on.If the whole timeline is already there, moreover, then the future is merely awaiting itsactualization or our attention to it, and cannot be changed. So we are bound to the rails of fate and such fundamental values as morality, freedom, responsibility and creativity areillusions. This reflection might be bearable for a philosopher who preferred truth tomoralistic wishful thinking, if it did not also imply that the philosopher's own cogitationsare part of the same clockwork, and the feeling that something must be logically true istoo, so truth is also an illusion. And there is no way of checking whether such anautomaton is correctly calibrated, so as to verify that the illusion of truth coincides withits reality.Equally problematic is the
of time. Space doesn't have a preferred direction. Inspace one can get from London to Paris and from Paris to London, but whereas one canget from A. D. 1980 to A. D. 2004 in time, one can't, as one could with space, get a returnticket. Nineteenth century thermodynamics showed that thermal and energetic events inthe universe always went one way--toward the increase of entropy. You can burn a log butnot unburn it, you can let perfume diffuse out of an open bottle but not suck it back inagain, you can turn work into heat and heat into work but only if you pay a tax or interestof work energy on the exchange each time. But then the study of biological metabolismand evolution seemed to show that living systems can feed upon the flow of the increaseof entropy, like paddle-wheels in a torrent. Without violating the Second Law of thermodynamics, a tree can turn ash (soil) and smoke (atmospheric CO2) and heat(sunlight) back into a log, and a rose can suck chemicals out of air and soil and makeperfume. So not only can time possess at least two directions, different kinds of organized systems can take different directions.In the twentieth century, relativity theory showed that the universe is not all at the samepoint in the line; a present moment is not something simply given to the universe, but3

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