Monday, December 12, 2005

Say Goodbye to Unwanted Memories.

This is a photo of scientist Brian Greene. Be nice to scientists, but do not feed them.




Sandor Ferenczi, the Hungarian psychoanalyst, wrote that "our real aim in life is to be loved," and that any other observable activity is really a detour, an indirect path towards this goal.

Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (New York: Bantam, 1990), p. 21.

Gaia Vince, "Rewriting Your Past," The New Scientist, December 3-9, 2005, at p. 32.
Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala, 1996), pp. 265-269.

In a somewhat breathless tone, reminiscent of those fifties love songs to technology, this article anounces that ...

Significant advances in our understanding of the way the brain forms and retrieves memories are leading neuroscientists to test drugs that specifically block or erase problem memories at the molecular level. For chronic post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] sufferers it's a potential lifeline that few dared dream of, with early results suggesting a much better success rate than existing treatments.

Better yet:

And, if it were possible to home in on fearful memories in this way, what about other kinds of emotional memory? It might even be possible to develop drugs that cosmetically adjust our memories, removing traces of shame, guilt or grief.

This biotechnological project amounts to nothing less than a reversal of the psychoanalytic mission of providing healing through the recovery of memories, which may then lead to greater freedom for the individual, resulting from enhanced self-awareness and self-understanding, even if this comes with increased pain.

This hope for liberation through self-awareness can be traced to Hegel's Phenomenology, but also to Augustine and the ancients. I suppose it may lead us all the way back to the Delphic Oracle's advice to Socrates (or the motherly Oracle's advice to Neo, in the Matrix) "know thyself." And it's O.K. to have a cookie too.

The question not asked by this scientific writer or by those devoted to the cause of developing these wonder drugs is: What is memory? And how is memory connected to the idea of a person and to identity as a project in time? Also, how is memory connected to emotional wisdom and reasoning, leading to the best human insights about the self?

For John Locke, memory is essential to the concept of personal identity. Your memories, especially the painful ones -- and your constant effort to come to terms with and learn from those memories -- is the material out of which identity is made, or even won. Who you are cannot be extricated from your recollections, so that to erase those memories is to erase you, as a subject of rights and responsibilities. Compare the films, Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Memory, of course, includes not only the individual's recollections of what has happened to him or her, filtered through judgments and evaluations -- those ever-shifting perspectives of a life unfolding in the "river of becoming" (Norman Mailer) that is "time" -- but memory is also a cultural-linguistic phenomenon. Without language, there can be no real or lasting memories. This is to suggest that memory and thinking are linguistic and social phenomena, whatever else they may be.

To the existentialist objection that we are what we do and not our memories, some fellow existentialists have discovered that the best response is to point out that whether and how we remember, will determine what we "do" anyway. A person who does not remember the pain resulting from a burn, will feel no concern about placing his or her hand in fire. Only another recollection of something priceless that accompanies such pain will make this gesture, the willing acceptance of the flames, worthwhile.

In a consumer culture devoted to what are called "creature comforts," I can certainly understand that a choice of "willed suffering," will appear incomprehensible to psychobabblers, as opposed to genuine therapists. Yet "willed suffering" is another description for the human condition -- or love. And humanity is always a choice as well as an achievement. It should be each individual's choice to define his or her humanity in relation to the pain and joy of life.

To become a person, inheriting a particular culture, language, political history, religious tradition is to acquire collective memories. For Jung, the archetypes found in the collective subconscious -- the shared "deep memory" of humanity (is there an analogy to mathematics?) -- have the crucial purpose of providing lessons and wisdom to guide us through life-changes or alterations that are also deemed "universal" for the species.

Thus, transitions from childhood to adulthood, from youth to age, and achievement of everything from individuation to the acceptance of death is possible through the archetypal wisdom found in the collective subconscious. Think of Nietzsche's tirades about "becoming who you are." The archetypes help us to do exactly that. The archetypes allow us to discover who and what we are together -- in our particularity -- which is, paradoxically, what makes us universal. Genes, to say nothing of "memes," have also been described as transmitters of memory.

The language of the subconscious is not merely verbal. All languages are repositories of memories. They are a great "Gringott's Bank," like in the Harry Potter stories. Languages primarily function in terms of images, shapes or archetypes, as I say, found in the world's religions and philosophies. All of this is highly relevant to cinema and other arts.

These shared "species-memories" (Jung) are the gift of our ancestors to us, containing their learning and tools for coping with suffering and evil. This insight about the social nature of humans is found in Aristotle's and Marx's philosophies, but also in the writings of many other philosophers. You are welcome to supply your own footnotes at this point. (See my essay "Where are thoughts located?")

To be fully human is to stand within a tradition, a culture, to place ourselves within a set of collective narratives (Western civilization, Christianity, the history of the United States of America and its legal traditions), but also in the chronicle of a particular family and an individual self. It is to be "plugged-in" to our sources, by interpreting inherited and personal memories, in addition to what is universal or collective. (See my post on Ronald Dworkin's jurisprudence of "Law as Interpretation.") We "jack in" to the "matrix of culture" in order to become ourselves by participating in the lives of others.

There is nothing "unscientific" about this. After all, Jung was hardly alone in his view, which does not involve acceptance of the discredited Lamarckian biology. For instance, molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod states:

"Everything comes from experience, yet not from actual experience, reiterated by each individual with each generation, but instead from experience accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species in the course of its evolution."

Summarizing the role of the archetypes, Anthony Stevens says:

Thus, the Jungian archetype is no more scientifically disreputable than the ethological IRM. Just as the behavioral repertoire of each species is encoded in its central nervous system as innate releasing mechanisms which are activated in the course of development by appropriate sign stimuli, so Jung conceived of the programme for human life to be encoded in the collective unconscious as a series of archetypal determinants which are actualized in response to a series of inner and outer events in the course of the life-cycle.

The deeper we search within ourselves, the more we encounter what is universal in us, as members of a slightly bizarre species. I have spoken elsewhere of Roger Scruton's concept of "angel infancy," but there is also Augustine's idea of God as the ultimate foundation of human memory.

To discover what is deepest and truest in ourselves may be not only to uncover what is universal, but -- for the religious believer -- it is to find the divine ("source," Dr. Wayne Dyer says, "is the root of the word 'sorcerer'"), that is, memory leads to the divine within ourselves. It is to discover what is particular, even as we find what is most widely shared. This is to suggest that we discover our "concrete universality," in F.H. Bradley's and Hegel's terminology. In the words of F.H. Bradley, writing more than a century ago:

With religion we may here compare science and art. The artist and poet, however obscurely, do feel and believe that beauty, where it is not seen, yet somewhere and somehow is and is real; though not as a mere idea in people's heads, nor yet as anything in the visible world. And science, however dimly, starts from and rests upon the preconception that, even against appearances, reason not only ought to be, but really is.

There is truth and beauty "out there" and "in here," both in the world and within the self, whether we discover it or not. We are meant to discover it. And so we may trust that we will, if we persevere.

God is not regarded by many contemporary Western theologians -- the East has always known this -- as something entirely beyond us, existing elsewhere, in some distant heaven, but a Being imminent in His or Her creation (and yes, for atheists, these are metaphors), here and now, like Bradley's Absolute, or Blake's "universe in a wild flower." What is utterly beyond us is to "think" all of God; experiencing the numinous, however, may be unavoidable, despite the limitations of language and such clumsy words as "God."

Ironically, it may be God that the scientists discover in the beauties they see under their microscopes or in the farthest reaches of the universe or all around us. If the word "God" is a problem, then forget it. Use the word "symmetries" or maybe the term "connections" to (and for) ourselves. How about "love" or "intersubjective zap"? This is Duncan Kennedy's "nifty" phrase from another context. My favorite is the simple word "love." I am gesturing at a kind of "fit" -- in a mathematical sense -- between ourselves and all that is, which includes us, in an overwhelmingly beautiful and elegant pattern, experienced as what we call -- love.

Philosophers have called the animating force in nature "will" (Schopenhauer), or elan vital (Bergson), also lots of other things, and scientists (since Newton) speak of "energy," but we can call it "Antonio" and "Melanie," or "Lucy" and "Desi," if you like.

It is not too important what name we give to this intuition of a fundamental compatibility between ourselves and our universe that is "uni" (one). What is crucial is to recognize this, to see ourselves as expressive of the beauty that we discover (and to which we contribute) in nature. We should not be surprised if a universe that produces consciousness is somehow, at its deepest level, compatible with conscious understanding. I am reminded of George Santayana's observation that "... nature, in the works of the metaphysicians, held the mirror up to man." Keep the idea of a mirror in mind.

We should not be surprised if we can share in the pain and joy of our genetic cousins, our fellow human beings and perhaps of all animals, in whom we detect not only flaws and imperfections, but likeness or even sameness.

Is it that "sameness" that really frightens us? Are we really so disturbed by the identity we discover between ourselves and other animals on the planet? 98% of our genes are shared with apes, for example. After all, at the level of the basic building blocks of matter, we are all made of the same star "stuff."

If it is true that the products of consciousness reveal its existence and can only be expressive of it, then the existence of consciousness anywhere in the universe (in us, for instance) -- as the products and results of that universe -- implies a kind of self-discovery by the universe. In Hegelian terms, "Spirit comes to know itself as Spirit."

Where is consciousness or mind in the act of apprehending truths that are shared? In knowing something to be true, beautiful or good, am I not immediately a member of a community that includes all who have known the same? If so, then is this not even more the case when we love? To love another human being is to experience, perhaps, the most fundamental human emotion, though it is expressed differently in various cultures, so that through loving we discover (or create?) a different identity that is shared with all who have loved before us or who will love others some day. To love and suffer for it is to share in the primal human experience. The image of a crucifix is inescpable at this point, but there are other such symbols.

You are walking on the beach and discover a wristwatch, so you may infer that someone (capable of rationality) made this object for a purpose, there is a logic to its workings. Yes, I know about Richard Dawkins and The Blind Watchmaker. To discover rationality in the structures of the universe is nice, but even better is the mystery of consciousness that we experience in ourselves and that is, somehow, the product of that external rationality. We can figure out the wristwatch. Maybe we can build one too. We can think and know things. We may even "know" (but how?) the taste of ice cream and feelings of joy at the laughter of a child.

Just as mysterious as our discovery of a wristwatch in a deserted island beach, is our human ability to read the "text" that is this object and to figure out how it works. This personal experience of consciousness and intelligence leads us to wonder whether there are other forms of consciousness existing "out there," associated with all of that non-human rationality (that is so much greater than our own), a rationality that we discover in nature and in which we participate, through intellectual effort.

What if that wristwatch that we discover is us? We realize that this awesome rationality is instantiated in us. "Intersubjective zap" is a pretty good phrase for that "epiphany" (or realization), since I am describing the point at which we encounter ourselves in a universe that is other than ourselves. Mirrors. "The self is an image fragmented in a hall of mirrors," Sartre says. What if the same is true of the universe?

Don't worry, you can still call yourself an atheist among your intellectual friends. None of this has anything to do with faith in a personal God, necessarily, nor does it require adherence to the tenets of any religion.

I am suggesting that the idea of intelligent design may be telling us something, primarily, about ourselves as opposed to the workings of the universe. But also that the mere existence of consciousness questioning reality suggests a compatibility between that questioning and the reality under interrogation, that produces the interrogator. For this insight to be valuable, then, it is not necessary to postulate a "God gene."

To the extent that you are asking these questions -- and you can't help doing so -- what are you discovering in yourself? Rationality? Intelligence? Guess what we find in nature? On the basis of these insights, what inferences can we make, from the experience of spirituality? Not even atheists (like me) can deny the reality -- and naturalness -- of human spiritual experience. There is no human society anywhere without some kind of spiritual life. It is not possible for such experiences to exist in a universe or a species that is without "natural" spirituality. Why are spiritual experience so universal? Where does subjectivity come from?

How is it that we find spirit in a material universe? Or minds in bodies? Is all of this relevant to our struggles with Quantum mysteries and "superstrings"? I would not be surprised if it were. Maybe the universe is a gigantic "mirror neuron"?

What if memories, the universe as macro- and microcosmos, at the most fundamental level, serve as both a kind of mirror and a door? What if we inhabit a universe that is always both mirror and door? What happens when we step through the door? It may help to recall Ruben Dario's verse description of death as "an embrace at the edge of the sea."

By this understanding, the universe is a kind of cosmic "Mirror of Erised." Boy, I really have young Mr. Potter on my mind today! A mirror in which we search for what we most desire: call it love, so that it is love which, if we learn the right lessons, we become and are, but also receive. Love becomes the door to open to another self and an altered moral space. We find ourselves only when we discover it, that love that brings completion, peace and rest. (See my essay "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

The ultimate mirror and door, then, is the religious symbol, such as a crucifix or Star of David, or any other such symbol, which always means more than its physical reality. Religious symbols initiate conversations. (See my essay "Pierced Vessels.")

It is to his "love" that F.H. Bradley's "unworthy volume" (himself) is dedicated. Surely, all of us can say the same. We live in a universe that seeks unity with us ("God is subtle, but not malicious," Einstein says), even as we seek harmony with it. Nature's logic makes it understandable to "creatures" (think of what that word "creature" means) endowed with understanding. If you wish to call this mutual seeking "religion" -- defined as the reconnection (re ligare) with that same search for an understanding of nature by our ancestors, through collective memory -- then all of us are probably religious to some degree, especially scientists.

Of course, love is only meaningful in relation to what it is not; happiness is only real to the extent that it differs from something that we remember as unhappiness. However, if we are deprived of our unpleasant memories or painful subjectivities, even as we experience them and they hurt us so much, then all that we can become is a kind of bland nothingness. The writings of C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity and God in the Dock, come to mind, also the film Shadowlands.

Frank Kermode in the course of writing his memoirs "remembers" Philip Roth's caution to writers: "Even if it's only one percent you've edited out [of your memories,] that's the one percent that counts." Our best scientists are now at work on drugs that may edit out all of those painful memories -- which is most of our stock of memories, since life is painful -- leaving us empty of subjectivity, as I say, a nothingness, to be filled by ... television images, perhaps.

Most of these images will be derived, no doubt, from Alpo dog food commercials, where everyone (including Fido) is idiotically blissful. Life becomes a "Kodak moment." And we forget Oscar Wilde's observation that: "at the birth of a child and of a star, there is pain." Would a mother wish to forget so significant an event as the birth of a child, even if it was a physically painful experience? I doubt it.

Hang on to those painful memories, struggle and fight for them. I have. They define you, and the same is true for all of us. We need them.

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