Irrational People, Irrational Minds: The Unreliability of Memory and the Practice of Meaning Making

Remembering is an act of storytelling, 

Robert Nash

Back at the turn of the calendar year I started to give some intentional focus to a research project on the topic of memory that I had been sitting on for quite some time. The research project was inspired by a particular experience I had years ago when I found myself really struggling with life and contemplating suicide. I had recently abandoned the faith that I had once held, and consumed by research into life and its inner workings had come to the conclusion, based on the facts, that if I could not come up with a truly rational reason “not” to commit suicide, then based on my life and who I am it felt like it just might be the most compelling answer to life’s questions that I could find. If meaning in life is constructed, people with my story were simply taking up space, and there were many, many reasons to suggest that meaning is not only constructed but temporary and highly selective. If one of the greatest challenges to prolongued human existence and survival is over population, and my life exists near the most insignificant rung at the bottom of that ladder, then it not only made significant sense not to add to the problem through procreation, but some of the most signficant voices and theories looking to the future were correct in that at some point in time this selective nature would have to take precedence over any created meaning. That was or is simply the hard truth that we chose to ignore in order to create meaning on a daily basis.

This rationalized thought process hinged on the understanding that what science tells us is that any and all human activity that is involved in meaning making of any form is at its heart irrational. This is what compelled me all those years ago, is that while I had abandoned my faith as something inherently irrational at its core, wish fullfilment and a self indulging process of meaning making, what was equally true is that in this supposedly rational world I was now occupying, the only way I could actually live in it was to actually tell myself the lie every morning that this life actually holds meaning, and to do so knowing that this meaning is illusionary at best, destructive and harmful at its worst. I was in effect having to be even more irrational in my thought process than I was before, because at least my prior faith delusions could offer me a sense of conviction that I truly believed was true. From where I now sat I had to be intentional about lying to myself knowing that I was doing precisely this very thing on a rational basis. The problem was, the more I came to know, the more knowledge became my new god, my driving force, the point of my existence. And when this knowledge, untainted by those irrtational thoughts, consistently told me that I was meaningless and irrational at my core, it became harder and harder to reconcile this in the day to day workings of propping up these irrational choices and decisions and experiences. When you know how the sausage is made (and what it is made from and the death necessary to make it) the sausage is no longer appetizing. I have to willingly ignore these facts in order to eat it and enjoy it (and even then it can leave me feeling gross more often that not in my human tendency to over indulge).

The evidence to me seemed to be undeniable. If I cannot fully justify my life without abandoning my sense of reason, then there was no good reason for me not to commit suicide, especially when it seemed I actually wanted to die in this moment. This is when I had an experience that I could not explain away. I had come to this conclusion, and I felt my last ditch effort to convince myself that faith was not actually true was a prayer to God. I felt if the notion of God was true then God would interject and intercede. And so I prayed the most honest prayer of my life with little to no expectation anything would come of it, alone with my experiences and my thoughts in the darkness of the night. I did not expect God to answer. And yet the result of that prayer was God speaking to someone who I did not know in an effort to save and repurpose my physical existence. That person was given words to write down that were meant specifically from God for me, not knowing my situation nor why they needed to share them. It recounted my prayer word for word, and called me to this one task- to remember.

And so I gave myself to this task of remembering. Remembering my memories.

So why I am bringing all of this up? I recently finished two books that brought me back to this space and that drummed up all of these thoughts once again. The first is the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, in which author Dan Ariely walks through all of the ways in which who we are is shaped by external forces.

The stuff that we believe, the stuff that we argue, the stuff that we think, whether conscious or unconsciously flows from these external forces. There is small evidence that from time to time we can circumvent these influences and forces and redirect them, but by and large that is the exception to the rule, and even when we do there is no guarantee that this circumventing will lead to something positive or negative. That appears to be not a matter of logic or rational direction, but rather more a measure of luck and naturally derived determination.

The second book was called Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason.

Author Justin Smith does a masterful job at demonstrating how all of this effort by the enlightenment thinkers and subsequent inventors of modernity to replace the old gods with the gods of knowledge and reason have actually led to a more irrational society based purely on the fact that we have been trained to think we are inherently rational beings. This has led to some of the most violent and destructive tendencies and actions in human history, and, if the West can be taken as evidence of this inevitable trajectory, some of the most irrational societies in natural history. It’s basic premise suggests that at our core we are necessarily irrational beings. We have to be in order to make sense of life in the face of death. By ignoring this fact we actually end up becomming more irrational, and worse yet this irrationality becomes a weapon that creates destruction. And one of the biggest challenges facing the often presumed superiority of the West and Western thought, lined with its addiction to knowledge, reason and progress as the highest virtues, is coming to terms with the limiting nature of reason and rationality itself.

Both of these books should have come with trigger warnings. They brought me back to that space and uncovered that part of my journey once again. They reminded me of a revelatory moment I had when reading through a recommended book a friend bought for me called How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie years ago. I remember when I finished that book being struck by the fact that we are all inherently predicatable and thus inherently manipulatable. So much so that the science of this fact can be replicated over and over again without fail even when we are aware that we are being manipulated. In truth, as Justin Smith points out, we are all far more aware of this fact than we care to admit. We just choose to ignore it so that we can actually live.

More so, they got me thinking more about this particular research project. One of the reasons I decided to research memory is precisely because, when measured against reason and rationalism, memory is known to be an unreliable source of information. They are the way we tell and retell our stories, but more so they are the way we reconstruct the narratives that give our life meaning. As Psychologist David Clear writes regarding the science of memory,

Each time you remember something, you’re not retrieving some immutable image of what happened. You’re actually reconstructing it. In other words, you’re repainting the retrieved image when you’re remembering it. 

David B. Clear

In other words, on the surface it would appear that memories are in effect lies. Falsehoods. Untruths that we tell ourselves on a daily basis in order to give our life some sense of context and identity. They are the shaping of our own personal myths in the enlightnment sense of the word, which is to say a story that is untrue but that attempts to breathe meaningful ideas into our existence as small letter truth. The fact that in the highly rational and reasoned Western world this is what gives myth its power is of course an obviously contradictory exercise, and yet as Justin Smith so aptly outlines, we continue to do it because we can’t live without it.

I am currently neck deep in my research on memory with a lot of scattered information that desperately needs organization, but at a fundamental level the two books I mentioned above sparked a resurgence and reawareness of why this subject matters to me and of the material that has been emerging through my research with consistent measure. In James Gleick’s wonderful book Time Travel: A History, he proposes that we break down into two highly generalized and very basic camps as a human species- those who would choose, if time travel existed, to travel to the future, and those who would choose to travel to the past. There is a bit of irony to the fact that the Western world as a whole is obsessed with the future while I am someone who is obsessed with the past. This explains my affection for these Old world-New World dichotomies. I am someone given to the art of nostalgia, and I value the memory making process above all else. Because I know that without memories our life and our sense of meaning fades. We are shaped either by our own memories, or in the case of our inability to remember, the memories others are able to carry on our behalf.

If memories are so integral to our sense of being, to our ability to exist and to live and to have meaning, then somehow and in someway these memories must be more than lies and untruths. They literally hold the power to shape our stories and to define who it is that we are and how we make sense of the world. And their most powerful iteration is in fact as story. Memory making is at its heart a storytelling exercise, which is why we find this notion of memory driving the very heart and substance of those old world mythologies. It’s why we see it at the heart of all cultural development. It’s why, as a Christian, memory lies is at the center of all Christian practice. The Western world and civilization, in its striving to locate and retrieve some form of individuality out of the collectivism it has long tended to demonize, has forgotten what memory is, ironically speaking, precisely because of its necessary infatuation with the future. And this is not surprising, because when rationalism and reason uncover the true meaninglessness of the human story, what remains is this constant push then to reinvent, to progress, to move forward. Because if we aren’t we are either regressing into the past or getting lost in the senselessness of the present. The end result though is that we tend to move forward without context, without that necessary story that grounds us in that necessary sense of meaning that flows from memory and the memory making process. This defines one of the greatest challenges facing Western society, which is our disconnect from history as truth and from histories ability to tell a truthful story of our world, our societies and our sense of identity. To remember the past and for the past to hold meaning, we must be able to see it and recognize it as trustworthy, as being able to say something true about who we are. This demands that we be able to let go of these Old World-New World conflicts between rationalism/reason and supposed superstion and faslehoods, and recover some sense of truth about who we are, what humanity is, and, in a necessary sense for me personally, who and what God is. This is why God remains important for me, and this task to remember remains vital to my understanding of God. If truth is merely created and manifested by way of lies and falsehoods we intentionally ignore in order to find meaning in our lives, then truth is not only subjective and relative, it is the ultimate unreliable narrator. If Truth is something that is given, revealed and discovered, something that sits above us and informs our existence whether we are aware of it or not, then that gives us something to trust in, something to believe in. Something to place our faith in. This doesn’t necessarily demand a god in the deified sense, but to me it does demand us to turn something into a god. For the Western world that god is rationalism, reason, knowledge and progress. To me those gods have been left wanting, or at least unable to afford us meaning in its truest sense. It is simply playing the role of a necessary, functional god that we have concocted in order to keep moving forward. It is completely future oriented, and it is dependent entirely on where we are headed and what we accomplish. It is the deification of truth made in our (or natures) own image.

Which, as I was taught early on in my journey beyond the fringes of faith, is a necessarily self focused endeavor that elevates humanity itself or the natural world as that which holds true authority. It is bent on future survival, not present existence. And for as much as the human experience intuitively needs to reconcile this gap, and for as much as we do so unconsciously on a daily basis, for me personally the only way this meaning becomes Truth that I can personally rest in and put my faith in is if something transcendent, something beyond ourselves and the seeming insignificance of this present world when seen within the bigger evolutionary picture, is imbuing it with meaning.

And yes, I also know that I was taught that science gives us this meaning simply by showing us how special the anomaly of life actually is when seen from the vantage point of the universe and our unlikely and up until now wholly unique existence, but that doesn’t hold water in a purely future oriented perspective. It’s a part of the lie we tell ourelves in order to survive in the present. It’s the predictably irrational behavior that human activity constantly manipulates and exploits. It’s the dark side of reason that proves us to be the most irrational creatures on the planet. It is precisely why we cannot trust our memories. And if we can’t trust our memories, then in our rush to get to the future, our meaning can only come from where we stand in the social constructs of our societies. It comes from our own happiness. And although altruism can scientifically and naturally imbue us with this meaning in an evolutionary sense, alturism itself quickly becomes a part of the same competitive field that renders this whole thing meaninglness, a way of distinguishing who and what is valuable, a self serving exercise molded into the larger narrative of survival that guides it. That doesn’t make it Truth, it makes it truth, and truth that is at its heart irrational.

The real question then for me is, to what end does the irrational hold meaning. To what end do my memories hold meaning if they are not trustworthy in and of themselves. To what end can I trust, for example, that my experience in prayer and answer to prayer represents some kind of Truth with a capital letter T? If I have to accept a lie in order for it to become truth, then to me the human endeavor starts to cave in on itself. It is limited and unreliable by nature of what it is. If it stands above me as something ready to be revealed and discovered, then it gives me reason to step out in faith and to allow it to inform my present and give this world, this life meaning. Which is what this new research project is really about- a stepping out in faith in order to recover the story of God, this world and my place in it. I totally understand that people can arrive at a similar place, and do all the time, without needing this notion of God to do so. But to me I just came to the place where I concluded that I can’t do it honestly. I don’t think any of us truly can. Without some notion of God I could only do this by simply accepting that this is the way things are, this is the reality we have been given, and thus this is how we allow ourselves to make sense of it and to live. We can only do it by submitting ourselves to something irrational, and that was something my rational mind couldn’t reconcile, especially because that appeared to have little to no answers for the present state of my life and the problem of social measure, inequality and oppression. It wasn’t a true motivating factor because it depended on my ability to invest in social currency or my ability to accept the social currency others were gaining by investing me, neither of which I could trust, neither of which were guaranteed, and neither of which were present at that time in my life. And both of which necessarily depended on perpetuating a lie as small letter truth, be it alone or together. It was, in other words, a kind of self help, a self improvement message wrapped up in social concern, the same kind of messages that drove me nuts and reeked of superficiality in the Church world. I needed something more. That moment in my life awakened me to something more, and this current research project hopefully will help grow my awarness of it. At least that continues to be my prayer.


Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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