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Friday, February 6, 2015

Memory and Future (Mahabharata Notes 5)

I have just got to the point where the wandering poet Narada sat in the Emperor's crowning party and saw, in his mind's eye, all these great kings and warriors sitting there celebrating and laughing at the moment, would soon die on the Kurukshetra, some with their heads cut off and others with arrows sticking out of their bodies. The earth was soaked in rivers of blood. It was the future that he saw. He drank and said nothing.

The obsession of seeing --- seeing the future --- haunts us. I am quite sure this is but an illusion. When we look back in time at the defining traumatic event in our lives, the mind could not remember its obliviousness in the moment before that. Rather, the memory of itself before and after becomes hopelessly mingled and we can no longer clearly remember what we knew when. We want to believe that we had known and seen before it all happened. It is a trick of the memory because ...

Because memory is a palimpsest. Because we have only one copy of the memory of the past, and every time we take it out to remember, we rewrite it, and write over it, with whatever we feel and want to believe now. There never will be a faithful original copy hidden somewhere up there, unlike the cyberspace. Enough research has shown that. We may think we have access the past (unlike the future), but this access is very unreliable.

Yet, the mind may have unknowingly grasped something about the nature of the fourth dimension. Imagine, you are driving on a highway at a constant speed. Five miles ahead, a wreck is blocking the road. You can't see it, yet, but it is sitting there, waiting, existing with you in the same universe, but you will not know it until you get there, face to face, nose to nose, with the wreck. The fact that you are moving forward and cannot yet see the wreck ahead, does not mean it is there, waiting for you to arrive. And arrive you will, because, as they say, "It is written." Like it's written in the last hundred pages of the book, but you are reading in order and cannot flip to the end without finishing all the previous pages.

I imagine that, at some point, the sages or  philosophers or yogis realized the possibility of this analogy, and began to suspect time is a fully written book that we have to live through page by page. Just because our senses cannot skip ahead, it does not mean the later chapters have not been written. One day, when we look back, do we see the past as a series of free choices scribbled on blank pages or predestined, already-printed text?


Eugene Xia said...

Many are obsessed with future and this is what science is all about, predicting the future. It is very limited, but it is the only fortune telling method that works.

There is still no effective method to pick good stocks.

Jun Yan said...

It is still mind tickling to imagine what it's like to be a creature living in a world without the time dimension, in which time lays out like the horizontal and vertical axes.

Eugene Xia said...

All physical laws are symmetric in time, except one: Entropy in Statistical Mechanics.

Oh, you should watch Feynman lectures. It is really great.

They are all great lectures, but the one on time and entropy is #4.

Eugene Xia said...

Woops, lecture 5 does time and entropy.

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