20080102

If Memory Serves...

I had a random philosophical whim and thought to share it.

Imagine if we remembered the future, but never the past. This kind of existence has all sorts of mind-warping possibilities, the most obvious of which would be a working knowledge of everything that would happen to you until the day you day. We could spend endless amounts of time exploring the viability of free will or predetermination in these circumstances, but those are somewhat obvious compared to other interesting facets of such an existence.

Instead, let us think about how people define themselves. In our current mode, we view people as an extension of everything they've ever done. People evolve and change overtime to become what they are in the present, and their memories are a sometimes clear, sometimes fuzzy map of that. How we shape ourselves is determined by what has happened before, and what is happening now.

Supposing that we instead live in a backwards world where we remember things that are going to happen rather than things that did, defining ourselves would be rather different. As memory remains a fickle thing, we would still likely be unable to clearly remember anything but the reasonably near future, with smattering of random thoughts and moments strewn throughout the greater future, and perhaps a few far flung ones toward the end of life.

However, in stark contrast we would have absolutely no working knowledge of anything we'd ever done. The past would be an fearsome black hole of lost existence. Horoscopes would prognosticate what you had already done, rather than what you would do. Alfred Hitchcock's works would drive their suspense not by surprising events but by fear of the unknown past, a plethora of super-Memento films. It would be a very different world.

I could probably write a science fiction novel in which at some arbitrary date everyone's memory switched between these two modes. Then again, writing such a novel would be excruciatingly difficult. How does someone who only remembers the future think? Can one even have a train of thought under such circumstances?

I have mused enough for now, but it'd be a fun topic to explore further with someone able to stand the constant paradigm destruction.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The Once and Future King" by T.H. White amusingly represented Merlin as living backwards in time. All his magic was derived from his ability to remember the future.

What is the difference between future and past anyway? Isn't it all just part of a continuum of dates and times? The way we can tell them apart is that the past is what we can remember, and the future is what we fear or hope for.

Physicist Paul Davies write the book "About Time" which delves into the meaning of time, including how it might flow backwards in some regions of the universe. I didn't get that part.

RAGE said...

It creates a bit of an interesting loop actually. If you can't remember what you did, but have foreknowledge of what you will do, you will define yourself by future actions instead of past actions. But if what you will do is defined by who you are, which is defined by the aforementioned action, what is the first cause? Have fun with that.

RAGE said...

And not to get into freewill vs. predestination, but it is fairly inevitable in this scenario. Under normal circumstances, the future is unknown, the present at least has the illusion of free will, but the past is permanent and static. In order for the future to function is this scenario then the future needs be as static as our past, otherwise your foreknowledge would constantly shift with every new action.

In the past you can face a situation and make a choice. Let's say it's the choice between giving a homeless man some loose change or stabbing him in the gut. The nature of your character defines the action you will take, but as the action settles into the static past it will also affect your character. Even if you're cruel enough to take the stabbing option you may still be overcome with a sense of guilt because of it, thereby reshaping your character and personality.

This can't really apply to strict foreknowledge of events because it's fairly hard to feel guilty about something you haven't yet done. And if you are the type to feel guilty you might want to change that future, but again this scenario only successfully functions if we presume that the future is as static as our past. But at that one moment when future becomes present the options for free will arise. Your choices are charity for a homeless man or murder. In the pre-ordained future you selected murder. So do you murder him because foreknowledge dictates it? The illusion here isn't choice but rather the illusion is the lack of choice. You may choose to defy the static history and allow the man to live, thereby destroying reality. And if you realize this, do you stab him to save the world? Of course, if you are evil enough to stab him then you have to admit that the destruction of reality becomes a very viable choice. The choice always exists but the only alternative is universal annihilation (and neither quantum physics nor string theory support some kind of "Sliders" multiverse).

Maybe that's the real trick behind free will. We never really have a choice, but we also can't see beyond the nanosecond of the present. The choice we make is the only and inevitable choice, but how would we know?

Matoushin said...

If we assume that knowledge of the future is accurate and the events themselves unchangeable, then we have a rather grim scenario. People would likely live each moment in fear of finding out what they would be doing next. Imagine the sudden anxiety of finding out you're going to murder your beloved right as you're proposing!

However, this outlook overlooks a number of aspects of memory.

First of all, memory is not a 100% accurate mechanism. Even moments later one's recollection of an event can be thoroughly flawed, and logically so would one's precollection. While, as I stated before, the accuracy would increase in proximity to the event, some events would be grossly misunderstood until the occurred.

Secondly, memory is not a 100% complete mechanism. Everything both important and unimportant can be lost. Even at the imminent moment before the future became the present, our perception of it would not be a complete puzzle (let alone accurate, as stated before).

Thirdly, memory can be fabricated. Through the warping and combination of events, or through pure synthesis false memories can be made. In the same way, we might "premember" events that never were going to be. More scarily, we might actually make them happen.

These points all taken together present a somewhat confusing image of the future. Free will and predestination are both possible, because there isn't any method to say which is actually happening. Was that event that didn't happen a false memory or was it avoided by free will?

They also paint a rather grim image of such a world. Not only is there no past, but the future is only marginally less shaky than it is in ours. Our past is similarly shaky, but we're rarely confronted with it head on.

I think I'm happy with how things are currently. I really wouldn't want to live in such a world as the one we're describing.

RAGE said...

Hey, you're the one who started this.

Matoushin said...

I wasn't saying I wanted to stop considering it, I was only saying that it's rather clear that I wouldn't want to live in such a world, however interesting it is to theorize about it.