Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Nonpersistence of Memory

Dear Reader,

I based my description of the picture in the previous entry on the photo's timestamp recorded by the camera, but Beverly pointed out that (1) the timestamp was wrong and (2) the kitties are wearing their collars. Surya hates to be restrained and escaped her collar within the first few days we had her home, and only a day or so later she got Rashid out of his. Hence, this photograph was probably taken the day we brought them home.

Once my brain is in the proper time framework, other elements of the photo corroborate the true timeframe. First, when we brought Rashid home his fur was wiry, but after a month on the good food we fed them it turned soft and glossy. In this picture, you can see how coarse it is. Second, knowing the size of the chair, the size of the kittens is revealed to be much smaller than I interpreted it when I first posted this picture, too small to be a month after we brought them home. A month of gorging themselves on yums helped them grow rapidly.

I had forgotten about Surya's immediate escape act, so the purple of Rashid's collar failed remind me of the timeframe, and the subtler clues escaped me, too.

This all illustrates a central tenet of Heraclitus's philosophy, that we look the cosmos in the face and fail to recognize it for what it is, that the truth is right in front of us and sometimes fully visible but we still fail to attend to it properly. When he wrote that the hidden harmony is best and that nature loves to hide, he was writing as much about the subjective as the objective; that is, it is not just that the deep principles that organize and power reality are often literally invisible, but also that when the meanings of things are overt and visible usually we still fail to recognize them.

Contrary to the fairy tale of objectivity, we perceive the world through the lenses of ourselves, with our minds packed with preconceptions and preoccupations before we even begin to perceive a situation, with every perception premolded to conform to the shape of our mind and its current concerns even before we begin to pay attention. The attending itself that we imagine involves a direct transfer of the complete reality before us into a reliable and continuously accessible memory instead consists of moving a laser-pinpoint spotlight of consciousness across the field of "perception" before us, haphazardly selecting isolated details and impressions according to whatever combination of mood, questions, and attractions has us in its thrall at the moment. Once the direct stimulus of perception has passed, when we turn away, every other element of the reality we faced vanishes from our "awareness" as though it had never been present, and of the isolated details we abstracted into our memories few survive more than a handful of minutes. When later we ponder what we "saw," in truth we use the few blurry points of detail we remember as an empty framework we fill to "remember" it; we connect the dots with our own idiosyncratic inner logic and flesh out the details with our imagination and expectations about how things work in the real world, and we call the result a reliable memory. With that chimera as a starting point, substituting for truth, we then begin to make associations and deductions, deriving meaningful conclusions that were we wise and awake enough we would realize carry more meaning about ourselves based on how we composed the memory than about the reality left so far behind.

All this activity involved in recollection is unconscious to us. For us memory is like magic: it just happens or it doesn't. Though we claim it as a deliberate act, its actual workings are never visible to us while we engage in it. This is why almost everyone believes more or less in the integrity and validity of his own memory, why so few of us attend to studies that demonstrate the radical unreliable of witness testimony, why the few who do attend so often fall into the religion of numbers, believing that if they can discipline and organize this horrifically unreliable process to generate numbers, that the resulting precision will somehow substitute for its lack of reality.

Also Heraclitean is the realization that man does not stand apart from nature but rather that we are of it, that it flows through us, creates us, develops us, erodes us, and disperses us. So we should not be too surprised that we can look directly into the face of human nature too and not see it for what it is either, "seeing" instead evidence of whatever faith we cling to, scientific or otherwise, proven by the details of human nature our own unconscious natures have selected to fit their own preconceptions and preoccupations.

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul writes "for now we see through a glass darkly . . ." but he does not linger over this Heraclitean insight to explore why we do so, eager as he is to move on to his revolutionary vision of emancipation from human nature. But Heraclitus, skeptical of such self-escape, would linger over this, one of his favorite motifs, would stress that we see darkly through the glass of ourselves, that if we would see more clearly we must improve that glass, cultivate excellence in ourselves, struggle always toward wisdom. Where other men imagine wisdom to be an extravagance they can safely postpone until their end of days, when they can spare the time, as their last duty, Heraclitus realized that the cultivation of wisdom is man's first duty, the prerequisite for doing anything else, because without it we are fools who will do the wrong things, remember the wrong things, see the wrong things. Even with a photograph to help us remember.

This is why Heraclitus wrote "wisdom stands apart from all else."

Yours truly,

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