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Towards the Fringe
By Eldon Taylor
One of the most important questions each of us will at some time in some way deal with has been stated in the admonition: Above all else, know thyself. How does one know themselves?
Each of us sense a state that is the "stuff" of self, but what do we mean by that? Serious thought usually yields the idea of mind. The self is somehow inextricably tied up with mind. The world around us changes, the body changes, over time one looks different than they did in their earliest memories of self. It's relatively easy for all of us to imagine being without a body, at least in some spiritual sense, and yet the notion of self somehow remains constant throughout. Why?
What is mind? Is mind a thing? Does it exist independent of brain? If it does, what do we mean by exist? Does it have a location, a size, a temporality? Is it the "stuff" of the universe? Is it energy--subject to the laws of energy? Does it make any sense to talk about mind in this way?
How do we know there are other minds? Of course, we all assume that there are--but why? We can't see them or touch them or weigh them or even measure them. As close as we can get is the tracing of what they do. Electrical activity in the brain, behavior, intelligibility, memory--the tracings of mind? And what about memory? Do any of us know ourselves without memory? What would that entail? Is it possible?
I think not. Memory is the key to how we know ourselves. Without knowledge of ourselves, we're not apt to infer that anyone else has knowledge of themselves.
Let's imagine an isolated scientist working on time travel. Somehow he is successful at opening a time/space corridor and travels at near the speed of light for one hundred earth years. To him this journey takes much less time--approximately ten years. Somehow he is vaulted back into contemporary time, the time of earth. However, he hits his head upon arrival and suffers amnesia. He has no identification. His appearance seems odd (strange clothing) but apart from that he is just a human being with a head injury. He is taken to a hospital and diagnosed as an amnesiac. He is given the name John Doe as an operating identification until his true identity is discovered. Pictures of our scientist are circulated in the media, but no one comes forward to identify him. Time passes and he acquires new friends, a job, a home and so forth. Then one day his memories begin to return. "Wow," he announces to his friends, "I remember. I'm Albert Einstein."
Who do you think will believe him? Let's supcounted his scientific contribution? Of course not. Just as General George Patent, who knew of his prior military lifetime, was not discounted as the military genius that he was in the lifetime as Patent (especially not by the Germans) so an Einstein asserting Newton memories would not have discounted his genius.
Let's change the scenario a little. Imagine that our 100 plus year old returned scientist had a love for the piano. He sits down to the piano with no memory of playing in the past. However, just as with all amnesiacs, his motor memory is intact. The first thing he plays is a Bach fugue. He plays it perfectly. One would certainly conclude that he had been a piano player, a musician, or something akin. Suppose his skill was extraordinary. One might then begin to search the record of missing musicians who fit the identity of our scientist. Now, think of Bach. A so-called child prodigy that apparently did sit down and begin to play just as though he were remembering an ability.
What is information that we have no memory of how it was obtained? Generally, with the exception of demonstratable genius, it is suspect information. That is, if I do not know how I know something, then perhaps I don't really know it. The memory of how information is acquired seems critical to the credibility of the information. Memory again. What is it I don't remember?
I remember a favorite song. I haven't heard it in years. I have been unable to find anyone that remembers it. I don't remember the entire song or the title. I do remember certain lyrics and the tune. No one recognizes the lyrics or the tune. Does the song exist? Now I don't mean exist like a chair or a house exists.
Imagine we watch a video cassette. It contains the digital data that represents a motion picture--a wonderful film. The film is very touching. It is the best we have ever seen. The acting is superb. The characters live on the television screen for two hours. Then the tape comes to an end and in some Mission Impossible self-destruct style, disintegrates. Only you and I have seen the movie. No one else has heard of this movie. No one else has seen this movie. No one has heard of the actors. Does the movie exist?
Well, it exists in our minds. We can replay it as we wish--can't we? No, in fact, memory research shows us clearly that each time a memory is recalled, it is altered. Sooner or later, the movie becomes a shadow of itself in our minds. Whole scenes are lost, detail is altered by recall, and so forth. Does that imply that now part of the original movie is dead? It no longer exists?
If mind is memory, then how do we know ourselves? If mind is not memory, is it possible to know ourselves? If I remember myself being other than I am at this moment, fully recall the feeling and thoughts and behavior, do I become the me I remember? Am I both? Do we not see ourselves as constant, even somewhat predictable, based upon our memories? Who are we then if we lose our memory?
Now the animal is strange to us. Is this our dog? Before you object to the dog being self-aware in the first place, what is the difference between the memory loop of the dog and that of the human? If memory is self awareness, is the dog self-aware?
Most would object to reducing the awareness of a human mind to that of a dog. The principle argument would no doubt have something to do with the difference in cognition. The human being is self-aware. This is a circular argument. It is no more than a tautology if self-aware means memory. No, for there to be a difference, there must be a fundamental difference in the memory. Perhaps the dog does not lay in front of the door thinking how it can be a better dog. Therefore, the dog might fail the test of self-improvement memory. Perhaps the dog cannot think about itself at all. Okay, now it fails the memory of thinking about itself test.
Is the human condition different only because we reflect on ourselves in a unique memory manner? Is it our method of memory, or type of memory, that sets us apart from other animals? Is our use of tools, our development of science and technology, our interest in religion and so forth, only a unique self-reflective pattern of memory? Perhaps our brain evolution produced the capacity to hold a new kind of memory--ala, the development of homosapien sapien.
I once prepared a paper titled Memory Dependent Wellness. Today, I wonder if the paper could not be a little more inclusive. Perhaps its title should be Memory Dependent Self. Perhaps, if I wish to change something about myself, self-correct, self-improve, then I should look to change my memory of self.
Copyright 2005 Eldon Taylor
About The Author
Eldon Taylor is the author of hundreds of books and self improvement programs (www.innertalk.com). He is the director of Progressive Awareness Research, Inc. and received the 2005 International Peace Prize for his work teaching self responsibility.