A Short Piece
How not remembering what happened makes us always right and justified to be passionate about our positions, whereas memory can make us uncertain and humble
We’ve spoken in the past about how “ideas not being experiences” contributes to history repeating, which suggests why “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” is a good mental model (even if misattributed to Hegel), but here we will explore how forgetfulness is also part of the problem. Theoretically, if it was impossible for me to remember anything, I couldn’t learn, but that also means I would never be wrong. In this way, there might be incentive to possess bad memory.
It is hard to admit when we are wrong, and all of us naturally like to be right. If we remember how things went in the past, positions we held, what we did, etc., then it’s possible for us to compare what we did then with how things have unfolded now, and so it becomes possible for us to be wrong. Yes, it’s possible for us also to be confirmed, but this isn’t really a “value add” (or at least not a big one) Why? Well, because I naturally feel right now, which is to say the benefits of memory are marginal compared to my current state. However, the benefits of forgetfulness, at least in terms of preserving my ideology and existential stability, are very tangible, creating problematic incentives.
If I took a hard position on the Invasion of Iraq a decade ago and the present made it clear that I was wrong, as long as I don’t remember the position I took, I cannot be unveiled as wrong; if I told you that becoming an artist would be a waste of your talents and you ended up a success, as long as I don’t remember telling you not to become an artist, I can fancy myself as always supporting your dreams (patterns and errors cannot haunt the forgetful). At the very least, if I don’t remember myself adamantly telling you that becoming an artist was a waste of time (and this is usually what happens versus “totally forgetting”), which is to say I was speaking out of “loving caution,” a place of “just letting you know” — that I didn’t strongly mean you shouldn’t be an artist — then I can remember myself as someone who didn’t try to kill your dreams, only someone who reasonably cautioned you. In this way, there can be strong incentive to exercise bad memory and/or to let memory change and shift.
I know these are obvious and even comical examples, but I make extreme points to highlight similar points on a gradient, mainly that there can be “incentives to be forgetful.” We often talk as if it’s “obviously better” to have good memory than bad, but that might be an act of our ideology convincing us that we actually are more intellectually responsible than we are in practice. The main point I want to make is that incentives for “good memory” require our main metrics to be “gaining truth,” for otherwise, if our metric is “being right,” then there are far more incentives for us to have “bad memory” (a point which brings to mind “The Game Theory on Why Many Conversations Are Bad and Democracy Likely Doomed” by O.G. Rose.)
We likely all “practically” feel like we’re “right enough” presently, or otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this article and instead be working to correct ourselves. We’d struggle to function if we didn’t “feel right,” and this is what we naturally seek to feel (more so than “determining truth”). Sure, we need to believe that we “feel right” because “we know the truth,” but the point is that the categories of “feeling right” and “being true” don’t necessarily have to overlap. They might, but not necessarily. And the point of this is to highlight that we naturally prefer “being right,” which is to say that if we must choose between “true” and “right,” we will naturally pick the later. We are in the business of seeking and finding “existential stability,” and truth does us little good for that business if it doesn’t also help us “feel right.” To not feel this way, we would require a radical shift in our “metric” and philosophical training, both of which we have “natural incentive” not to do so that we don’t feel like we are missing out on anything.
Good memory often functions against “existential stability,” which is to say it tends to help us determine truth more than “feel right.” Well, this is a problem, for it suggests that we may have incentive to only develop our memory to the degree that is absolutely necessary and no more. To elaborate: when we try to remember something, we can struggle to remember all the details correctly, can feel uneasy about where our minds go, and can feel “convicted” by what happened in the past and what we are doing now. The whole experience of memory can be emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually challenging, both in that we can wonder if we are remembering details correctly, and in that we can start to “glimpse” scenes and images that unveil our current way of thinking as based on a misunderstanding and error. Memory is risky: it is prone to unveil to us that we should trust our thoughts less than we do. And so we can avoid memory, which invites pathology, I fear, seeing as “memory is the mind’s air.”
It seems “probable” that memory works against “feeling right” more often than not: for every time memory “confirms we were right,” there are ten other times when it makes us feel wrong. Not always or for everyone, but I do wonder if probability works against us engaging in and using memory. And what do I meant that we “avoid memory”: people use memory constantly. Well, I mean that we avoid “systematic” and “deeply intentional” uses of memory in favor of “fleeting moments” where we try to remember where we left our keys or try to remember the name of a celebrity. Our “natural mode” of engaging in memory is random, reactionary, and lacking in contemplation: we do not tend to engage in memory deeply. It seems natural for us to use memory when we must and to do so “thoughtlessly,” and it would seem to me that the reason we use memory this way is because we are in the business of using memory to “feel right” and “be stable” — a deep use of memory would risk unveiling us as wrong and devoid of truth.
If we can’t remember the past, we can never be wrong, and we thus start to give ourselves very good reason to think we should run the world. This hints at another reason why the loss of memory and “the repetition of history” seem connected: to be forgetful is to forget our imperfection, which means we have very good reason to think we should be in control. After all, we’ve never been wrong. This suggests another incentive for why we might not want to develop good memory: we position ourselves to be worthy of authority and power. We have evidence that we should be confident in our abilities, for we don’t remember us ever failing in any deep way, and if we do remember failures, we likely remember them in a way that puts us in the best light, thus using memory in service of “being right” versus “determining truth.”
Also, if we struggle to remember, how can anyone blame us for our failures? Bad memory can absolve us of responsibility: if a child throws a ball at the car, the child can both claim that he didn’t know it was wrong to throw the ball at a car, and that he didn’t remember us telling him not do it. In this way, the child makes a claim for innocence, thanks both to being “open” to new principles applying to new situations, and thanks to having a bad memory. More examples could be made, but the point is that bad memory can help us avoid responsibility — hence another reason why we can be incentivized not to develop memory.
Now, all of us have memory (I don’t mean to suggest some people don’t), but the question is if we are incentivized to have good memory, as in memory which “accurately recalls the past.” To be fair, even those with accurate memory cannot “know for certain” that they do, but generally the incentive to “try” to accurately remember the past and to remember it well is what I am claiming is lacking. We do not really have incentive to “work hard at memory,” only to “remember enough” that we can get by and feel as if we have “good memory,” especially when this act helps us “feel right.” We want memory insomuch as we “feel right” — I am not disputing that, but rather saying there might not be incentive to “make a point” to get good at memory. Because we already by definition must “feel right enough” right now, which means memory is working “right enough” right now, and trying to get any better at memory would simply risk destabilizing the equilibrium we currently enjoy.
Generally, it is when we don’t like our present that we can have incentive to “think back” on what got us here, or when we end up in a really dramatic and traumatic situation. Then we can seek memory, but not enough then. Beyond these “special cases,” which I think are rare in many people’s lives, I want to say there is not normally incentive to get good at memory in our everydayness, which is especially a problem if “memory is the mind’s air,” as I have argued (and which could be tied to our humanity, as pointed out by Johannes Niederhauser). If memory is necessary for thinking, then this all suggests that our “everydayness” incentivizes us to be bad at thinking. This is a problem, one that we lose the capacity to recognize as a problem with the loss of thinking.
Our “everydayness” can create incentives to be bad at memory so that we can maintain a feeling of “being right,” which brings with it existential stability. To the degree we engage in memory is to the degree we can remember what makes us “feel right” and like we are good at memory, but likely no more. Yes, if we end up in personal drama because of something we forgot, or if we miss a giant bill because of bad memory, then we might be incentivized to stress memory and getting good at it, but as soon as the drama passes or problems cease to besiege us, it is natural for us to fall back into “forgetting about memory” (a “totally” significant problem). As soon as we regain “everydayness,” we will naturally fall back into not engaging regularly and intentionally with memory: it’s basic incentives.
Well, why is that a bad thing? It sounds like memory has little to offer. A fair point, but where memory is lacking it will prove difficult for us to learn or avoid “the mistakes of history”: the problem is that being bad at memory isn’t a problem until it is, and then it’s really a problem. As Nassim Taleb discusses in The Black Swan, for 364 days, the turkey is fine and “rational” to not try to escape the farm, but then Thanksgiving comes around, and suddenly what constituted “rationality” for the turkey turns out to have contributed to a trap. So it goes with how “everydayness” trains us not to emphasize memory: for twenty years, it’s “rational” not to worry about it, and then it’s an incredible problem. By then though, it’s easily too late.
A famous couplet out of The Second Coming by Yeats is relevant to our inquiry:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Hopefully, this short work has helped elaborate why Yeats is prescient. There is incentive not to develop memory, which means there is incentive to be “the worst,” those full of passion and intensity, precisely in never being wrong (to themselves). To deeply engage in memory is to risk feeling uneasy and destabilized, and we’d much rather “feel right” (and be one of “the worst”). Considering this, as discussed in Belonging Again, maintaining good memory and handling Absolute Knowing seem strongly connected.
If we combine the tendency to follow incentives into having “a bad memory” with the reality that “ideas are not experiences,” then I think we have a good model for understanding why “history repeats.” However, we still must explain why we end up avoiding memory and being compelled by experiences even when we know better, which is to say that people who intend to remember well and avoid the power of emotions still end up forgetful and problematically emotional. How? How does the brain work to make such self-deception possible? Well, that will require The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy to explore: “the question of self-deception” is deep. However, even without elaboration on that point, I still think we have a strong model for understanding why history tends to come back around.