Persistence of Memory


Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Salvador Dali named one of his paintings: Persistence of Memory. Dali accepted the character of recollection to be a “persistence”of something. A dictionary definition of memory suggests an act, process or power of recalling to “mind” past experiences or facts previously learned. The word “mind” derives from roots that mean memory and connotes memory in many dictionary definitions. Mind and memory are part of the same knot.

What is memory? Does it persist? Is it the stuff of philosophical logical positivism or is it a metaphysical construct, like soul, god, eternity, heaven? If it is the stuff of scientific, non-metaphysical inquiry (in the classical philosophical sense), does it have measurable qualities, weight, mass, shape, size? Is it something that can be stored in the basement, like potatoes or beans, and later brought to the kitchen for winter meals? Will it remain intact, usable as potatoes or beans, or will the act of storage make changes in the character? How can it be that Dali, at age 80 retrieves his own past experiences, re-experiencing them and describing them as a persistent memory? How can we think about memory?

I inhale a particular perfume and immediately a certain girl and time are evoked in me, somewhere, somehow. It is difficult enough to ask about the thing evoked, but as I ask, a new conundrum emerges: which “I” asks the question. It feels as if it is asked by someone else, not by the I who inhales the aroma and “sees” the image of the girl. But I do not see the girl, do I? Or, do I?

Many questions of this kind were asked by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett in their book: “The Mind’s I.” The questions are not trivial; they evoke Escher’s drawing of a hand drawing itself. My mind thinking about my mind seems an odd event. My mind seeing something my eyes do not see is also odd. Imagining something related to her and to the specific perfume, causing time and place related feelings/emotions, odd.

I make the assertion that I “think” (if I do think) in images, emotions and feelings. Others share this belief–another troublesome word. All words are troublesome, for they are not the primary unit of thought, emotion, or image, especially in the context of my assertion. Words come later in the process. Like an asymptote, words approach but do not meet the end point they seek; words are replacement devices for the thing, event or experience being referenced. Ludwig Wittgenstein worried, appropriately, about this matter, concluding that all human social problems arise from misunderstanding and mistakes in logical grammar. There is something afoot here, something enigmatic. I can continue to hope these enigmas will be soluble. But perhaps my goal is too lofty.

It seems to me that somewhere along this pathway the reader and I are must agree upon some matters. Wittgenstein suggested this: for a listener to know what is meant by, say, the word brick, the speaker would have to walk up to a brick wall, or to a pile of bricks, and point with his finger to the specific brick he meant: “That brick, right there.”

I would have difficulty physically pointing to the matters about which I write these words. I make the assumption that the “I” in question is a combination of elements, proteins, water, and so forth, of which animal matter is constituted and which is alive, in the sense that the entire combo, body and brain together, are capable of all the things we tend to agree about when we speak of a live person.

But do we always agree? There are those who assert that life is one thing only, definable as such; others disagree. Some could point to a bacterium with a motile flagella and say that this one-celled bacterium is alive. In that sense, even if I were, “dead,” that is to say, not alive, I would have parts of me that are alive, not dead, spermatozoa for example, which might be extracted from my epididymis with a needle and examined, found to be moving, capable of fertilizing a human egg, alive, like the motile bacterium. Or, I might be alive, breathing, my heart beating, my limbs capable of retracting to pain, my eyes responsive to light, my nose to noxious stimuli, but all of these controlling and response-reacting systems in my brain stem separated, by accident, from the anatomically more superficially located cerebral/brain areas. As a human, I would be dead, at least not very interesting to be with, though alive. A newborn incapable of reasoning seems little different from this. A fetus will not even withstand definitions as limited as this. But, all of these human states are commonly held as life by some.

So I point to this man, me, who is keying-in these words on this particular computer at about 4:30 pm on Wednesday, June 7, 2000, and say that this entity contains and is responsible for the one of the I-nesses to which reference is made (notice the passive tense). It is necessary to employ this tense to avoid conjuring-up an image of this entity making reference to itself–hands drawing themselves, minds thinking themselves and so forth.

“I am typing, “ I say to myself. Hmm. There’s that problem again. It would displace the I/me entity were I to say out loud: “I typed the words I now see on the screen.” In some sense, having typed the words in the past allows a causality which implies just one entity–just one “me.” Saying the words aloud, without also saying or implying that one of the “I” entities was listening and heard those words, keeps alive the essence of single-entityness. But as soon as I use common language, it gets muddled.

Does this mean I must first explore the matter of language before I can go further? The short answer is: “yes.” Ten thousand years of pedagogy and a curiously unsatisfactory conversation with your spouse over coffee this morning notwithstanding, I say that no one has but the foggiest idea of what is going on inside another person or what brains states, images, feelings, emotions, neural systems generate the choice of words when two or more persons are trading words, having a discussion. Jerry Fodor suggests this: “Because perception is saturated by cognition, observation by theory, values by culture, science by class, and metaphysics by language, [discussion] can take place only within the framework of assumptions that--as a matter of geographical, historical, or sociological accident--the [discussants] happen to share.” A fancy way to say we are unlikely to understand each other even (perhaps particularly) in close social units–families for example. Gender differences are not specified by Fodor, but women and men tend to communicate tangentially at best. Poetry’s role in human understanding is unclear. If you recall (oh oh) the attempts your primary school teacher made to engage your interest in Shelley and Keats, you may have noted then that you either got the message or you didn’t. A few poets of note know this and realize that they are sending a message to a very special few who share something fundamental with the poet. Words are a problem. Some assert that most of communication is non-verbal, some say as high as 85%, words thus constituting a minority of message being passed between two individuals. If body language gets the job done, why did language develop? Again, some assert that it developed for purposes of lying, of obfuscating, of placing “English” on the message being sent more directly by other means.

I assert that all matters human and animal exist for survival. All modifications existing today as alterations of an underlying system achieved their success through their enhancement of species survival. No discussion of any element of neuroscience can take place outside that context. It is possible for me to imagine language as a vehicle for obfuscation or deceit to be of significant survival value. Those who study this matter need to show this in any of their theories.

But what if it turns out that language is simply an adjunctive device, important as a characteristic differentiating Jack Sapiens from Larry Lemur, like the trunk of the elephant, unique and specific, but not everything. The elephant without a trunk would still possess elephantness. A human who cannot read, write, or speak is still a human. From the above, it is possible to conclude that language is a clever add-on, for lots of good reasons it helped humans swarm the globe, but is there any reason to believe that a modern American technomechanocrat’s life is an improvement over that of a Buddhist monk with a rice bowl?