“The Deceptive Memory”
[“The Deceptive Nature of Memory”]
Surely it is everybody’s belief that the past had once existed. It naturally is everybody’s belief too that the childhood period that we had once gone through did exist. It sounds as if we are passing our time sequentially, which consequently makes it sound natural for us to refer to time that has passed as “the past” and time that will come as “the future.” As it turns out, there is a lot of confusion about this. Indeed, there is one big difference between past and future though: We know about the past, but we don't know about the future. It is all these uncertainties about the issue that has eventually given rise to a number of questions.
Is it true that at the present what we always “experience” is actually the past condition of our surroundings? Is it true that Man constantly “finds himself to be in the present” throughout his lifetime? Is it possible that the assumption that there is a “past” and a “future” is but a mere result of the human ability to recall those memories on the previous condition imprinted in his brain? Could it be that there’s something about it that we have simply overlooked? While we believe that there have been quite a considerable number of scientists who must have been feeling the same and discussing this issue, in this paper, however, we are going to discuss it from a different angle.
The Concept of Time
To answer these questions, it is indispensable that we trace the origin of the concept of time. In ancient times all people were able to say was that when the sun rose above them or when there was brightness then that would mean daytime; on the other hand, when darkness befell them, then that would mean night. Later, when they became more advanced, for the sake of accuracy in communicating meanings and by means a device which they themselves invented, brightness or day was divided into 12, and so was darkness or night. In conformity with the further improvements they achieved in communications, they then divided the hour into sixty minutes, and the minute into sixty seconds. It was since then that we have come to know such terms as hours, minutes and seconds, and even one-hundredth of a second. From the revolution of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun we have such things as months and years. Apart from that, new “meanings” were added to it that since then the hours that have passed have always been known as “the past,” the hours we are in right now as “the present,” and the hours to come as “the future.” Our growth from being an infant to becoming an adult further confirms that we have always been undergoing a condition in terms of time, which leads us to acknowledge that such things as the “past,” “present,” and “future” do exist. Yet, a further look into the concept of “time” tells us that we are using the rotation of the earth around its axis as a unit of measurement to measure the various movements in nature.
What Do We Mean by “To Experience”?
Considering the fact that we are consistently experiencing movements or changes of condition from time to time, it is perhaps worthwhile for us to spend some time discussing what we mean by “to experience” here. A sure and easy way to get a clearer explanation about the meaning of the word is, of course, by looking up in a dictionary. In the Random House Webster’s dictionary, for instance, experience as a verb, is defined as to live through or undergo. The Collins Concise Dictionary Plus defines it as to be moved by or feel, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as to feel. In fact, there are as many definitions of the word as there are people who think about it.
But let’s now examine the limitations of the existing definitions. “To experience” in general involves two things: the condition of our external environment and that of our bodies. Because we have the five senses, we are certainly able to receive the various external stimuli, which are then instantly passed on to the brain such that we become aware of the presence of something coming from outside of our bodies. The phrase “to experience” is generally associated with our senses, particularly our sense of sight. As it turns out, not all external matter is felt by our senses. There are things that we are just unable to monitor, such as the electromagnetic waves, certain kinds of rays, magnetic fields, and certain pitches of sounds, etc. Apart from these, failures to feel the presence of external matter can also be attributed to certain functional disorders or abnormalities of the receiving end. Now, what if our bodies receive external stimuli in a manner as described above: Could we still say that we have actually been experiencing something, despite the fact that we did not feel it? Are we entitled to say that we have just experienced an operation, despite the fact that we did not feel it because we have been anesthetized? What about those lepers, whose affected parts of their bodies are just unable to feel anything at all, because their nerves have become dysfunctional? Now, what if we are unable to recall certain memories stored in our brains due to amnesia or other causes? Are we justified to say that we have never experienced such and such a thing? So blurry is the meaning of “to experience” that to establish an accurate definition of the phrase could really be a demanding job.
The phrase “to experience” in this article denotes a state wherein our bodies come into contact with anything external to our bodies; or a state wherein we are dealing with issues that occur within our bodies themselves; or a state wherein we are dealing with issues from within our brains, regardless of whether we feel it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we are able to recall it or not.
1. We always experience the past condition of our surroundings
When we look up at the sky, especially at night, the stars we see in the sky are in their past condition—the lights radiated by these objects need time to reach our eyes. The stars that we see at this very moment could be in their condition of one year ago, or ten years ago, or perhaps even millions of years ago. In fact, it is also possible that among these numerous celestial bodies that we see as tangible objects, some may have either utterly changed, or moved else where, or completely diminished. Similarly, all those things around us need time to get to our eyes and further to our brain. An object a meter away from us needs 1/300,000,000 of a second to get to our eyes. Thus, we can say that this object that we see is in its condition of 1/300,000,000 of a second ago. This holds true not only for those external conditions transmitted by light but also for those transmitted by the air. When, for instance, a gun two miles away from us is fired, it will only be about eight seconds later that we will hear the gunshot—not to mention the time that the impression of the sound takes to reach the brain, which must certainly be also taken into account no matter how short it can be. Similarly is the case with the feelings captured by the skin, the various compounds tasted by the tongue, or the various molecules that enter our nostrils—all these take time to reach the brain, don’t they? Viewed in the sense of experience as defined above, it could, therefore, be said that we are always belated in our knowledge of the external conditions, though this could be only as short as 1/3.000.000.000 of a second. However since different people have different body condition, the rate of this belatedness rightly varies from person to person. Other factors that are also determinative of this rate of belatedness are our locality and the medium being used in the delivery of the external stimuli. As such, whatever our definition of the word “experience” is, we can still say for certain that at present human beings are always experiencing “the past of everything around them.” It is as if we were experiencing/undergoing different periods of time, or a number of past and present, simultaneously. Apparently, compared with the other senses, our eyes are the ones that play a greater role here. This means that what we see around us at present is not the present state of things, which makes it reasonable for us to say that those things around us are but mere illusions. Thus, no matter how the dictionaries may define the word “experience,” one thing remains true: That at the present all we see around us is the “past condition” of things. If according to the physicist these are just common natural phenomena, where then does this term “to experience” fit in? Why are we able to see the “past” of the various celestial objects and also of our surroundings? Could it be that the word “past” has all this time been misinterpreted and misused? Anyway, let’s just leave this for a while and carry on to another issue.
2. Man feels that he always exists at “the present” throughout his lifetime
It is said that because we are here as a form of “existence,” we ourselves must, therefore, be able to feel our very existence. Is it not a fact that even at this very moment we feel that we exist? This is what we precisely mean when we say that we have “the feeling of existence.” Please note that the “feeling of existence” discussed here is by no means the same as those feelings produced by our senses or emotional feelings. To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at one simple movement that we normally make in our daily life. Let’s say that at this very moment our arms are at rest, hanging down by our sides. Now, the instant we raise our arms, what could possibly be said of them would be that seconds ago they were hanging down by our sides. Why is it that in either situation, arms up or arms down, our feeling of existence seems to tell us that we are consistently at the “present”? You can try this, if you like, and then take some time to ponder! Perhaps, because the time span between arms down and arms up is extremely short you may come to think that there’s nothing unusual about it and can readily accept such an explanation. The same thing holds true even for movements that require a longer time span, perhaps an hour or a day, or a year: You will always feel that your existence is consistently at the “present.”
It is only because we are constantly experiencing different conditions, and due to the fact that our external and internal conditions keep changing that we feel as if our existence is being subject to the alternate periods of “time.” We are being carried by the rotation of the earth—now facing the sun that we have day, then turning our faces away from the sun that we have night, yet still feeling that “we are always at the present.” Since our childhood we have always felt that we “consistently exist” at the “present.” Even with the entry of external substances into our bodies which turns us into adults, we keep feeling that we consistently exist at the present (relate this with the feeling of existence elaborated below). To say that childhood is a condition of “the past” would, therefore, seem to be contradictory to the existing “feeling of existence.”
It is ironic indeed that while on the one hand we are “always belated in our knowledge of the actual condition of our surroundings,” on the other hand we feel or realize that we “consistently exist at the present.” It sounds as if we are now being faced with a bigger question mark on the use of the word “past.” This, of course, is an issue that is inseparable from the “assumptions” Man has of his surroundings.
3. The Time Span of “the Present”
However by frequently expressing the phrase, “the present,” one may appear to admit that the three sequences of time do exist. Do we have an accurate definition of “the present”? Actually, how long is the time span that we call now or the present? Is it one second, 0.1 second, 1/100,000,000 of a second, or close to 0 second? Considering the fact that no matter how short a time span is people can always split it into “the past” and “the present,” one can thus deduce that 0 second, being the point at which no more division could be made, would be the most accurate figure. In other words, at this point, terms such as “the past” and “the present,” as normally used by people, should no longer hold. Now that we have come this far, what is your opinion of “time”? Firstly, we are at present experiencing the past condition of things. Secondly, we feel our existence to be always at the present. Finally, we have failed to appropriately determine the “span of time” of what we mean by “the present.” Could it be that such incongruities are but a mere result of the simplicity of the concept of time as initially introduced by the ancient humans with all their limitations? If we are to argue that this Man-made time is just an attempt to “draw a division” between the changing conditions, as they relate to the rotation of the earth, why then has this meaning of “time” become so complicated?
Note: Now that we have come so far, we may begin to have our doubts about the appropriateness of the use of the word “time.” Nevertheless, due to language constraints we will, in our discussions here, keep using the various adverbs of time.
Concerning “the Past”
Is it possible that we have all this time had a mistaken assumption of our surroundings? Let’s take a look at another issue which could possibly lead us to some conclusive judgment. When we try to recall our past, the death of someone a year ago, and events a few hours back, are these not just a present attempt to retrieve the things stored as a memory? When we throw a ball from points A to B, for instance, we tend to say that the ball was at point A. Does this not mean that at the time the ball was at point A, the rays reflected by the ball left an impression or are recorded in our brain, which we try to retrace at the present? Even a photograph of the past is no indication of the presence of the past, because what is considered the past, which is immortalized by the photograph, is a mere assumption we make at the present. Physically speaking, the photograph itself is in its present condition, though it may have by now been discolored, or faded. We feel that we have “a past” only because the past condition leaves a trace in our brains.
Is it true that what Man calls the “future” is but a mere result of his ability to recall the memories on the previous condition that is imprinted in his brain? It is common knowledge that all of us, particularly those who live within the equatorial regions, experience day and night alternately every day. The fact that after the morning comes the afternoon, and then comes the night, after which we have the morning again and so on, has eventually caused the sequential change of conditions to be strongly recorded as memories. This, further, makes it very easy for us to recall at any time the presence of the “sequenced conditions.” The fact that we have quite often kept saying such words as “later,” “after that,” “tomorrow,” is proof enough that those conditions are so well preserved in our brains that we find it very easy to recall them. Thus, it is very natural if we insist that such things like “the future” or “tomorrow” do exist. As such, it could thus be said that all those plans for tomorrow are but just an imagination added to the outcome of the recollection of “the presence of tomorrow.” If, for instance, we say that we are going to New York City tomorrow, what actually occurs is that an imagination is being created at present of our going there tomorrow. This is so because our idea that there is “a tomorrow” has already been recorded in our brain, and we can recall it. However, since conditions keep changing and we continue to exist, we inevitably pass the night condition. During the time we are in our night condition, we tend to condition ourselves for our sleeping condition. Eventually, we arrive at our morning condition, that is, the time set for us to leave for New York. This is something that we experience daily in our life. Nevertheless, because we have the ability to recall the custom of having a tomorrow, we can at that time imagine what we expect to ensue the next day. Obviously, all these have been made possible because we are able to recall the memories that had once been stored in our brain, or we have been able to condition our selves into a position where we can relate our thoughts with the memories stored in our brain. In sum it could then be said that all those talks about “the past” and “the future” have been made possible only because “previous conditions” have left traces in our brain, which at the time of their “recollection” has enabled us to feel all “the past” that we had once gone through, and all “the future” following it.
Denying all the premises proposed above would not only imply that we are experiencing two different times simultaneously, i.e. the past and the present, but also contradict with our own feeling of existence that we are constantly living in the present.
Let’s now try to reflect on what we mean by “condition” here. If, for instance, someone happens to ask you to describe the condition of a certain object, what he expects to hear from you is usually everything you know about the object as a whole. In your description, you may then have to include such things as its properties; its relationship with other objects, its age; its quality; its weight, its volume, its origin, its legitimacy to the society; etc. Similarly, when someone asks you to describe the condition of a certain area, what he needs from you is everything you know about the area as a whole. Whenever we talk about a “certain condition” of a city, what we normally have in mind here is the “local condition.” The fact, however, is that no matter how small an area is, there constantly occurs a situation of mutual influence between the area and the universe as a whole. That the lights from the various stars and also from our sun have reached the area is one proof of such an influence. Under no circumstances could one localize the condition of something, except for such reasons as to ease understanding in communication. There is just no way by which we could split up the open space or the sky up there just for the sake of completely localizing conditions. It is only because of the visionary partition created by Man in his brain to localize conditions that we are prevented from perceiving things in its more holistic sense.
It is, in fact, due to the changes of conditions that the contents of the universe seem to be “moving” which though at variant speeds, are yet in one common condition of the universe. Thus, any change of condition that we may be undergoing is concurrently a change of condition of the universe as a whole.
One might ask, “Why is it that we have been putting a stronger emphasis on ‘condition’ than on ‘movement’?” The writer has intentionally avoided the use of the term “movement” due to its relativity—what is it that moves, towards what, in which direction, at what speed, in what kind of environment, etc. “Condition” is a more comprehensive term in that it covers all external environment, including the whole contents of the universe.
Because Man’s brain has been accordingly conditioned, the various impressions, particularly those of light, can thus adhere to it. The memory is then stored and can be even recalled; consequently, he assumes all these to be “the past.” Have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like if you were unable to recall all the memories stored in your brain? Clearly, you would still be able to see all the changes taking place in the universe, but you wouldn’t be able to recall what it was that you had just been through. It is as if you were seeing things undergoing a series of change, but without having the slightest recollection of any of the conditions prior to the latest change. You would not be able to remember your family members, not even yourself. You would not be able to express yourself in words, not even in your mind, because all these require the ability to recall things. After all these discussions we should by now have already understood the reason why we know about the past, and why we don’t know about the future.
We are all fully aware that in our childhood we had had a variety of experiences. The question now is, “Where have all these childhood experiences of ours, which had in fact been recorded as memories in our brains, gone?” Verily, a larger part of our childhood body condition has remained preserved, together with all our childhood memories, in our adult bodies. Similarly, a larger part of our adult body condition has remained preserved in our aged bodies. Thus, at the time a person recalls all his childhood kite-flying experiences, for instance, he seems to feel the childhood period that he had once had and all the things he had once experienced. Now, if you still find it difficult to comprehend where your childhood body has gone then, let’s just take a balloon as an analogy. Let’s say, to inflate the balloon to a particular size you need five seconds. Now, inflate it for another ten seconds to make it bigger, and inflate it again for another twenty seconds to make it even bigger. The question now is where has the balloon at its smallest size gone? Certainly, the answer is: The matter of the balloon, which was then at it’s smallest, is still inside the balloon, which by now is at its biggest. Naturally, the word “seconds” used for the balloon has to be replaced with the word “years” when it comes to talking about the growth of Man. What we are trying to imply by our experiment with the balloon above is that even with our bodies growing to such conditions as they are at the present, we are still preserving a larger part of that matter of our childhood bodies. If during its inflation, whereby it becomes bigger and bigger by the second, the balloon still exists at the present, the same thing holds true for the human body following its years of growth; Man always feels himself to be consistently at the present. (Relate this with “the feeling of existence” below.)
Out of my confusion about this issue of time, I had once brought up to myself a question which, though “very common” as it may sound, has yet kept nagging me for years. “A few days ago I was in city X, and at present I am here. Where then is the ‘I’, who a few days ago was in city X?” I asked myself. Now, if I were to say that the “I” here at present is the same person as the “I” there a few days back and who is now experiencing “the present,” would this not mean that the “I” is still the same person who has always been at the present, though “in a different condition”?
If I were to claim it to be an action of my past, would I then be able to prove my being in that city? If you happened to be me, you would perhaps say, “Why not? Isn’t the photo that we took together proof enough? Isn’t the document that you signed proof enough?” As already discussed above, what we assume to be a proof is but mere traces left in our brains, which we conceive as marks of our past actions. Obviously “human assumption” plays an important role here.
What seems to complicate matters is the fact that apart from having to face those changes of external conditions, we are also faced with the changes within our selves. During the night we find ourselves in a sleeping condition, while during the day we find ourselves in a variety of physical and mental states. Illnesses, emotions, the various brainwork, etc. cause us to be intensely influenced by all these changes. Further, the ability of Man to move from one place to another also adds to the complexities. In the long term, we experience a physical growth, becoming an adult and growing bigger, which makes us come to feel as if we are moving from one period of time to another period of time. What seems to make matters worse is the fact that the various units of time (with the addition of the meanings of the past, the present, and the future) have, since long ago, been accepted as part of our culture.
Let’s take some time to imagine the earth being completely still, no longer rotating on its axis, that we are constantly having daytime. If we now imagine that we are all alone in the stillness of the desert, we will perhaps be able to better feel that there is no such thing as time and that we are consistently being at the present. This experiment may perhaps be easier for us to digest the various ideas that we have discussed above.
The Feeling of Existence
The repeated mention made above about “man feeling his very existence to be always at the present throughout his lifetime” makes it necessary for us to make some mention of the rational underlying the use of the term “feeling of existence.” While we do admit that every one of us must feel it himself, yet for clarity’s sake, we still find it necessary to forward our views on what it is that makes us feel our existence, or have the “feeling of existence.” In logical terms, this is an apparently rational concept, because the very fact that Man has come into being is by itself an assurance of his ability to feel his own presence.
What’s more, as far as the feeling of existence is concerned, there is no denial that we humans are simply inseparable from the other parts of this universe. This, certainly, gives us warrant to say that Man does evolve from the various matter existent in the universe. Since the evolutionists dare say that all living creatures, including human beings, developed evolutionarily, they should also have the courage to admit that the feelings of existence present in all human beings must have originated from what nature has in it. Man is a combination of the various matter to be found in the universe, a combination to which he gives a particular meaning, just the way he gives the various objects, plants, animals their respective meanings by the way the various matter is combined. Despite the fact that the human molecules differ from any other molecules to be found in the universe, inside his body, however, all the matter that form the various atoms such as electrons, neutrons, protons, etc. is no different at all from any other matter that exists in the universe, Man grows bigger because of the entry of external matter into his body. The question now is, how it is that Man can constantly feel his own presence, or feel that he does exist? If he has this feeling of existence, then the matter from which he is made up must certainly have their feelings of existence, too. Let us discuss something else briefly, just as a simple illustration. If we hit a marble against another marble of approximately the same weight, each of them will bounce back because they “feel each other’s presence.” Could such a reaction have occurred, if each had not felt the presence of the other?
“To be able to feel the presence of the other, each of them should be able to feel its own existence. If it could not feel its own existence, how could it feel the presence of the other?”
Does this not mean that, logically speaking, even objects have their “feelings of existence”? Here, it is obvious that objects not only feel the existence of others but they also feel their own presence. As Man is made up of the different matter of the world, each having its own feeling of existence, naturally the feeling of existence that he has is the combination of the feelings of existence of the different matter. Since the matter continues to remain existent, Man, being a product of their combination, must certainly continue to feel his very existence. Nonetheless, “the feeling of existence” in Man is obviously not at all the same as the “feelings of existence” of the various matter of which he is made. Given the fact that the feeling of existence of Man is a combination of the “feelings of existence of matter”—particularly the matter that forms his five senses, nerves, and brain—Man must certainly have more complex feeling of his existence than the matter has of theirs. This is reasonable, because apart from the combined “feelings of existence” of the matter inside the body, there is also the life process. In a dead person, all of his physical body is a combined “feelings of existence” of his body forming matter. On the other hand, in a Man who is in a comatose state or unconsciousness, or under total anesthesia, while the combined feelings of existence of his body-forming matter are still there in a life process, these feelings, unlike those of a conscious Man, are void of the cooperation of the senses, nerves and brain. For healthy people not only do they have the “feeling of existence” but they are also “aware of their existence,” because they have brains. However for the sake of simplicity we will still use the word “feeling of existence” referring to human beings.
It is because of our “existence” that we feel that we exist or have the “feeling of existence,” which has further led us to feel that we are constantly undergoing “the present.” This assumption that there is the “present” is further confirmed by the assumption that we have the “future” and the “past” caused by our memory. On the other hand, however, we have (as already explained above) so far failed to appropriately determine the “span of time” of what we really mean by “the present,” which consequently gives us reason enough to say that we have, throughout our life, been actually “existing” and experiencing changes of condition without “time.” When we die, however, all those body-forming matter will either decompose or be reduced to ashes (as in cremation), and eventually transform themselves into other kinds of matter or energy and scatter all over the universe. Thus, under no circumstances will this matter disappear from the universe (“law” of mass and energy conservation).
“Time,” which is considerably associated with movement, speed, acceleration, changes, etc, has become part of our daily life. Various apparatuses for measuring time can now be seen on the wall of every house, and the wrists of people and, in fact, in almost all electronic equipment. Time has become a topic of our daily conversation, seemingly becoming an integral part of our life. Now that we have come thus far in our discussion, it would perhaps be worthwhile for us to question the legitimacy of the word “time” and all what it stands for. It is perhaps worth noting here that the consequences of any misconception of such a phenomenon as discussed above could be far-reaching. Apart from the above-mentioned issues, new theories could possibly emerge from this misconception, which in the long run would lead us further astray to the extent that we find it difficult to imagine and accept the presence of an eternal entity. By removing the shackles of “time” from our selves, we may find it easier to accept that the whole universe is constantly undergoing a holistic change of condition and continues to remain existent in eternity as part of its “Creator.”
Finally, after a thorough reflection of all the above issues we may conclude that the emergence of such anomalies concerning time is apparently a result of Man’s attempt to divide time into periods. It is only because we have, throughout our lifetime, always had the “feeling of existence” that we are led into thinking that we do have “the present.” On the other hand, for as long as we have the ability to condition our selves by recalling the traces of all the memories stored in our brains from the “previous condition,” we will consequently be led into thinking that “the past” does exist. The changing condition that we go through everyday, such as morning, afternoon, and night (having been recorded as memory), we thus assume that we will inevitably undergo similar changes every day. This reasonably explains why we have always believed that “the future” is there for us to undergo. Apparently we are “being deceived” by those “impression of the previous conditions” that have remained imprinted as our memories.
Man has never had and will never have to undergo “the past,” “the present” and “the future.” What is really happening is that we are constantly undergoing “a change of condition.”
That the adoption of “time” with “all the meanings” it conveys has become part of the human culture for more than two thousand years makes it no easy task for us to attempt to change it. However, by being aware of its defects, we are at least helping ourselves to avoid going further astray from the real condition. As for what is to become of this so-called “time” thing, which we have for so long been adopting from our forebears, let’s just leave it to the experts to decide.
By Reinarto Hadipriono ……………………..…………….. Copyright © 2002
Note from the writer
Readers who approve of the above discussions concerning “time” are expected to further develop the concept and have it discussed in the interest of mankind
This article may be freely quoted or copied, provided the source is acknowledged and the article itself is not commercialized.
Comments & responds: Reinarto@Hadipriono.com