The time notes

A collection of philosophical essays on the subject of causality, determinism and time in general

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On the ability to memorize and on the way our thinking becomes more and more dogmatic over time due to mental images and goals which are mistaken for the actual world.

Practitioners of mnemonics have long realized that the easiest way to remember a bunch of unconnected pieces of information is to just make up some connections between them. This is because our brain cannot capture raw perception data - it can only capture mental images and causal connections i.e. we only remember events that are connected with one another.

0. Because we necessarily see them as connected, all events that we remember form a structure that is known as a causal chain.

An event that has nothing to do with our causal chain is simply not perceived by us (or, it is perceived but not remembered even for a second). So in many ways, placing the event in the causal chain is perception itself.

However, as we humans have only one causal chain i.e. we don’t have several ways to perceive a given collection of events that we can switch between, putting an event on the causal chain also means replacing it with a mental image.

1. Because of the way that memories work, mental images have the power to reinforce themselves with time - having the image of `A ⇒  B` in our head, we would see `A`-s and `B`-s all over the place. 

One of the biggest biases of our perception of time, that we already talked about, is our inability to differentiate between the mental images representing the world (M) and W, the world itself, resulting in us thinking that our perceptions represent a state of the affairs whereas they are merely a record of our mental images. Memories are probably the chief reason for this bias, as they can multiply it indefinitely: the moment we perceive a given “frame” the memory of it is super rich in terms of sensory (empirical) data, which can be further analyzed and interpreted. But as soon as we perceive the next frame, many aspects of the previous one are compressed, leaving only those that provide context for it (the next frame). Then when a third frame is perceived the two that we already have are packaged together again, leaving only the aspects that are useful for it’s perception, only there isn’t a way to actually know which aspects would be really useful for providing a context in the future.

Like with causality, we naively think of our memories as true representation of reality because they “work” i.e. have good success rate at predicting future events, but, as with any other mental image, we don’t have a clear criteria for what it means for them (memories) to “work”. Like any other mental image, memories represent an interpretation of reality, but they (memories) are also immutable - once an event in the past is “categorized” under a mental image, let’s say A, it cannot be taken to mean anything else than A, even if we start using better and more accurate mental images for such events in the future.

3. The interpretation of past events cannot be modified and different interpretations cannot be compared with one another, as the raw perceptive data is lost when details of the event are forgotten. Let's say that we experience an event that we label `A` in time `T1` and then then later, at time `T2`, we "upgrade" and learn to categorize the same class of events under a new related mental image - `A'` (we can think of `A'` as better and more accurate, whether it is so is actually irrelevant for our example). Now, although it would affect all future events, this upgrade in our worldview would not affect the way the event the experienced at time `T1` is categorized - it will still be `A` and because sensory data is lost there would be no way for us to know whether it was actually `A'` or not.

(i.e. past events that we remember are mere projections of the mental images that we used at this instant, they are as unstable and as subjective to change as our future projections.)

Furthermore, events that are part of the causal chain can be compressed further, by imposing additional structure with time - e.g. if I remember that I went to school yesterday, I don’t remember going out of the house, locking the door, waiting for the bus etc. as all this is implicit (some computer compression algorithms are based on the same principle). This compression process is repeated more and more times as our memories become older (e.g. in 10 years you wouldn’t remember every day you spent at school, you’d just have some very abstract image of the time you spent there). However this compression algorithm is what we call a “lossy” one - the loss in this case is that our memories become more and more abstract over time - we remember less and less of what we really happened in the form of actual events and more and more in the form of abstract mental images.

The more abstract a concept is (or a memory, or a mental image), the less real it is (or rather the less it has to do with the concept of realness). However, because memories are images, and not raw perception data, we cannot modify our perception of past events, and the more distant an event is the more abstract and “stylized” it is i.e. connected with the mental images that we had used when we perceived it. Because of this, we cannot really use our memories to make any new mental images, but only to extrapolate on the images that we already have. This is why older people are always more dogmatic that younger ones - we accumulate more mental images with time and therefore perceive less, the only way to prevent that is to not have memories at all.

The default interpretation

This makes memories very unreliable source for understanding reality, an unreliability which we should take into account when we want to make any conclusion based on memories. Our stance as humans, however, is not like this as some, many, of these images are clearly embedded into our minds.

It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different results - this saying clearly embodies one of if main (if not the main) postulates of all human societies - in just a few words, it describes both the function that all people have in a society (making the world behave uniformally for everyone) and what to do with the people who refuse to take part in that task (label them as “insane” i.e. abolish them from it).

In reality, this principle is not quite true. Let’s take an example - let’s say that I experience something that brings me positive emotions. According to this principle, I would associate the emotions with the thing (or more precisely with its appearance) and I would strive to do that same thing over and over again in order to get the same result i.e. I’d think that “More is better”, but there are many occasions in which it is not actually true, for example, consuming more food is not always better.

Someone would say that the example is stupid and that anyone in their right mind would know when they should stop eating. I’d argue that the reality of it is that most of us don’t know (or we know in theory but not in practice), so we eat too much too often and we get fat. So even this stupid and elementary fallacy is something that we have issues grasping, and is, I think, enough to show my point - thoughts such a as “more is better” are an inherent defect of the causality law and in the way we perceive the world, which cannot in any way be removed, without undermining causality itself.


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