Your review has definitely raised very valid points that require clarification, elaboration, or refutation so I wrote some responses to particular points you raised that I feel merit a response. I’ve bolded the paragraphs from your review that I’m responding to and placed my text in regular below.
Though Bitton’s Jewish identity looms large, God is perhaps surprisingly (but wisely) left out of his philosophical edifice. He does find examples for his points in the Bible. Pertinent to his memory theme, for instance, he cites God doing various benevolent things because he remembers to. (Kind of odd for a being supposedly omniscient. And much he did was atrocious.)
I’m delighted you recognized that in my describing memory and memorability in ancient cultures evoking God and the Bible was not for any theological purpose. But it may sound like since, as you keenly noted, my “Jewish identity looms large,” therefore, I found some anecdotal reference in my favorite book and that’s why I’ve included it. So I would just add one qualification. The central claim of the book is that, on some level, humanity and society, individual and collective, consciously or subconsciously seek some degree of cosmic significance which tends to get expressed most often and most enduringly as a desire to be remembered. The starting point of my exploration was to determine if this theory had already manifested in earlier times and how so. Thus, I noted (p. 5) how neanderthal burial plots dated to 130,000 BP were one of the earliest hints at a human need to literally and physically mark the places of death for individuals, demonstrating a level of conferred significance (it’s quite an effort to bury a human being properly, let alone with the ritual accoutrements later ancient gravesites were found to possess) and commitment to memorability (otherwise, why designate a particular spot with unique markings if not to remember its location and return?).
It can be argued to what extent neanderthals acted with these notions in mind, but trying to determine that was not my point, as it serves only as one of the first detectable precursors to what became abundantly clear by the time homo sapiens, the most “social animal” of hominids, fully roamed and ruled the planet. And that’s what brought me to ancient Egypt as one example and ancient Israel as another. The former because of the length of its imperial existence and the wealth of archaeological history it offers. And the latter because whatever had been initiated in ancient times has continued to this day, making Jewish people a particularly pertinent category to study and examine when considering what the meaning of memory was, is, or can be to any culture, religion, people, or society.
It was important also to demonstrate the contrast between the two ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt significance was afforded through various memorabilia on a massive scale (pyramids, tombs, sphinxes, regnal lists, temples, etc.) almost exclusively to the pharaohs themselves as they were demigods, equivalents of the sun, moon, even time itself. In that way, ancient Egypt is instructive as a sort of totalitarian approach to significance and memorability (which has its modern corollaries in fascist and communist totalitarianism) where it was “all for one” and one for himself—in such societies only the “great leader” is worthy of and due significance and memorability.
Ancient Israel, which if it did not emerge from Egypt was close enough to have direct contact with it, provided a most obvious, immediate and useful case study to contrast. For starters, unlike in the Egyptian context where this application of significance and memorability could be inferred but was not explicitly stated, the ancient Israelites made “memory”—in a variety of meanings and applications—central to its theology and daily rituals. In this context, memory was democratized, it was afforded to every individual through various means and made reciprocal and cyclical, generating the beginning of a long and unbroken chain of transgenerational memory.
My guiding initial question was to determine who, when, and where this theory may have manifested. Therefore, what matters is understanding how various groups thought of these concepts for themselves. In that sense, the Bible offers a wealth of data on what the ancient Israelites thought about the concept of memory and the necessity “to remember” just as Egyptian archaeology is instructive as to who was worthy of mass-scale glorification. Likewise, the Greek and Roman philosophers also offered a great deal of texts on memory and I quote them aplenty, but invoking them does not imply any value judgement as to their “ultimate truth”—a point I’m grateful you noted, is not what I care to pursue, knowing it to be utterly futile.
Alas, the point of employing the Jewish people as a case study was to demonstrate how “memory” became a fundamental component of daily life, individually and collectively for a social group; how a commitment to such memorabilia as oral traditions and biblical texts could have served to enable a conquered and dispersed peoples to retain their core identity, remaining firmly attached to their cultural memory against all odds; and how the study of epigenetics makes it abundantly clear that whether one cares to be remembered or not, if they produce offspring they will be passing on a range of memories, the depths of which science is only beginning to comprehend. Demonstrating the above is not intended to argue for what is the singular orthopraxy or orthodoxy of memory. It’s only meant to demonstrate how an explicitly stated and well developed theological and theosophical commitment to memory has been expressed in various ways over time in a way that can be, thanks to archaeology and historiography, accurately traced. The goal isn’t to get anyone to agree with the Jewish conception of memory but, only to understand it, how it’s been perceived by its beholders, and what science can tell us about its effects and consequences beyond the subjective phenomenology of the individual nous.
The book points out that Judaism says almost nothing about any afterlife, instead stressing living in the present. For Bitton this underlines the importance of being remembered. We wouldn’t be so concerned with living in memory if expecting to live on in Heaven. But while Bitton focuses on being recalled positively, if mere remembrance were the objective, then evil can confer an immortality at least equally potent. Bitton himself remembers Hitler, almost obsessively.
This is an important point to clarify since “significance” can have extended meaning and implications. Significance is not a value statement. Hitler, it’s true though I despise him, is a significant figure in history. Just as is Stalin, Pol Pot, and Bin Laden. The significance of such personages comes not from their heinous acts nor does the fact of being significant exonerate anyone of their crimes. Instead, they’re significant for one simple reason: they are remembered by a great many. Those who are remembered by more people, in the simplest sense, are more significant. But that too is where the meaning of significance needs to be circumscribed. To be remembered by millions, even thousands or hundreds is not a worthwhile goal, neither theologically nor philosophically as it need not, and almost automatically does not, imply the ends achieved will be positive. Thus, when a person is balanced and healthy they don’t need to be adored and remembered by millions of people to feel significant in themselves. Significance is not a value statement, so being significant after one’s death by being remembered in the minds of millions offers nothing tangible to the individual. But does that mean significance and memorability are no longer at play? I emphasized how this theory did not conclude with any “self help” panacea where these ideas somehow lead to one correct path but, to the contrary, how so much in this equation is out of our hands, fleeting, and impossible to control even during one’s lifetime—as you pointed out, the events of January 6th are a good example of how even contemporary collective memory is malleable (which also demonstrates the significance of the way people choose to remember or accept to be fed “correct” memories in real-time).
Yes, Hitler is significant because he is remembered by so many people and he will remain a significant figure just as ancient rulers continually figure into our realities today through the memorabilia they left behind thousands of years ago in various forms. And just because greater memorability corresponds with greater significance it does not mean that for the average person their desire for significance and memorability will lead them to unhealthy extremes and ends: the totalitarian end on the collective memory scale. So, although a horrible human specimen like Hitler must be acknowledged as significant, as I argued in the book, most healthy-minded humans will suffice with even the bare minimum, having a single individual for whom they are significant. In reality, the vast majority of people actually have a handful of people that offer them a more nuanced range of significance: at home, work, school, community, neighbors, etc. And that’s why I brought up the examples of Viktor Frankl and Edith Eva Eger, because in their first hand testimonies they described how concentration camp inmates were barely able to hold onto their lives but as soon as someone learned of the news that their last known living loved one perished, they gave up their will to live and succumbed to their torment. Most humans don’t need millions of people to remember them for good reasons or bad reasons by more than a qualitative handful. Likewise, few are concerned with being remembered for eternity or millennia, but I have yet to hear testimony from a single individual (and I’ve asked many by now) who would concede that at the moment of their death, if such a thing were possible, they would assent to having every known physical/digital trace of their having ever existed erased. Obliterated. Struck from the record. I’m not saying there aren’t people who, in various mental states, could proclaim to not give a damn about anything or their own life. Surely, someone who says and acts in nihilistic ways that show they don’t care about their life would not articulate a concern for being remembered by anyone after they’re gone. But clearly the suicidal state of mind is not the norm, not the baseline, and I have yet to find someone who values their life who would also be willing to dispense with its any and every last memory trace the moment they’re gone. Likewise, there are people who express unhealthy desires to be known by the masses, and history lacks no shortage of examples of those who sought fame but have become enshrined in infamy instead (i.e., Herostratus). But they too, are in the tiny minority as most people are not seeking worldwide fame and renown, just minimal recognition that their existence matters.
Thus, there are scales of significance and memorability and more doesn’t mean better or good. Many celebrities can describe how much they regret becoming an object of public attention because their significance and memorability fuels greater interest in a self-perpetuating cycle that more often than not ends up being to the detriment of the subject (think Princess Diana as a classic example, though there is no shortage). Hence, increased significance as a result of increased memorability is a statement of fact akin to stating more water in a cup means it’ll be more filled up. I never argue as to what level every individual’s cup ought to be filled for their level of significance and memorability to be considered “good”—as that’s a value judgement that only matters from and within the phenomenological self. And that is the very point of my entire exposition. Not to say this or that way has been or is the right way to see and interact with memory phenomena. But to demonstrate how inescapable the entire memory complex is and, therefore, to drive the point home that one ought to think into the matter for themselves to determine what is the right level of being a “memory agent”—from totally detached to totally committed. There isn’t a single right way, but ungraspable phenomena experienced more than seven billion different ways and my goal is simply to make people aware of just how central memory, in all senses, is to our daily lives and lifetimes, individually, collectively, and universally.
Let’s unpack Bitton’s philosophy. Start with memory as the essence of the universe. A better rendering might be information as the core of things. Using that word too not in its everyday sense, but referring to all things being describable and definable as information bits. No information, no existence. And, yes, this might be seen as embedding a memory of everything that went before to arrive at what exists now. Yet that’s a pretty esoteric concept whose relevance to the psychology of how any person lives their life is far from clear.
I realize that the claim, “memory is fundamental to the physical universe,” evokes vague notions that seem “esoteric,” as that is a possibility anytime the word “universal” is invoked. But since this very point is arguably the most central to my entire thesis, it requires some elaboration and shouldn’t be left vague.
Indeed, “information” is the better rendering and appears in my text numerous times, in tandem with descriptions of memory. The most succinct description I offered was (p. 119):
When we utter the word “memory,” almost instinctively, the association is with past experiences. And therefore, it is mostly thought of as a purely cognitive feature. But let us break memory down. There are three primary components: memory, as a capacity to record, store, and retrieve memories; memories, the actual data, knowledge, information that is being recorded, stored and retrieved; and the rememberer, the one who is using the capacity of memory to remember and behold retrieved memories. We will call this collection of capacities and functions the memory machine.
In the book I then demonstrated how this description accounts for the basis upon which every molecule and particle functions and interacts with each other. With that said, I extended the notion of memory from a purely cognitive feature, one of many, to the most fundamental of cognitive features that underlies all sub-functions as well as one that inheres in all matter. I also differentiated between explicit memory capabilities which manifest in higher order sentients like humans and animals, and implicit memory which is what inheres universally in all matter. Thus, when considering how neuroscientists understand these three primary functions of cognitive memory, understanding how the very same descriptions account for all biochemical processes should not, at the end, be vague. It’s a tripartite system, a division of roles, functions, modes and tasks to execute that offers very particular criteria which can be superimposed onto other contexts to determine if the same system accurately corresponds. In other words, my contention is that memory capacity (which implies an implicit memory of self-function) and contents (the very substance and data to be processed) are themselves universal descriptions of the bare minimum of what occurs at every level of physical existence: particles are constantly colliding, an encounter that engages the capacity and contents of every subatomic particle to determine how they are to react. Water and oil have implicit memory that determines their inability to mix. If oil didn’t contain implicit memory of its oily texture it would not separate from water as it does. Thus, capacity and contents, what we’ve said is information, but is actually also the neuroscientific description of cognitive memory is above all else another way of categorizing the dual, bifurcated, process-output dichotomy that exists at every examinable level of universal matter. What is a hard drive and its contents? What is communication between two people? What is a biochemical process? Memory machinery at work. On another level, it’s not just another way of saying the same thing as a very central part of my thesis is how our most up to date notions of memory, the way neuroscientists describe the functions of the mind, have been long overlooked for their universal applicability. And that is what I hope to demonstrate.
But Bitton goes too far in reducing all human motivations to manifestations of the will to significance. Take power. Sure, it does make you feel important, but has many other attributes pleasurable for their own sakes. The food is good. And we’re programmed by evolution to seek power and status in order to get more mates and sex. Sex too is pleasurable in itself, a key motivator, wholly apart from any others. Bitton clearly errs in positing that we seek such pleasures actually as a means to some other end, significance. No — pleasures are rewarding without that.
It’s true that my thesis claims the will to significance and memorability as “the most central” of all human drives. But central need not imply only. Indeed, we often operate with multiple and varying motivations, consciously and subconsciously. So, the extent of my claim, with its representation here as sort of absolute, needs to be clarified.
When I say significance is the most central human motivator and that expressions of a will to power and pleasure are means to significant ends it does not eliminate a person’s sexual drive or hunger for power which are both very much active factors. What it boils down to then are the conditions in which we examine this question: what is the most central human drive (if any)? Well, it depends, during good times or bad? When things are good, we tend to not be forced to confront the most existential of questions we can pose ourselves. But how about when a person knows the end is near? What this dichotomy reveals is not that our most essential of motivations depends on whether life is good or bad but that when life is bad we’re forced to reckon with that essential motivation whether we like it or not. One can think existentially when life is good too, but the point of depicting that grim view on the book cover, looking up from the grave, was to emphasize that whether we like it or not we shall all face our mortality and answer difficult questions for ourselves: What to do with one’s last energies and breaths? Why were we here? Did it matter that we were? What is left behind if anything? Does that matter? How will we define for ourselves if our life mattered?
The point being that when we strip away the “luxurious” pursuits of such innate human drivers as pleasure and power during bad times we find that what truly motivates people when pleasures no longer offer actual pleasure (do most sane people desire one last shag whilst on their deathbed? Data suggests not) is significance through memorability. Indeed, in a range of studies on last testaments made by people on their deathbeds the word “remember” recurs quite regularly as do most accounts refer to cherished memories that offer immeasurable meaning, implying that in those final moments, when examining the totality of their lives, people don’t spend their last breaths bragging about their sexual conquests or treasures amassed, but of opportunities (missed by some) for meaningful memory creation with significant others.
Seen in that way, the will to significance and memorability do not force an either/or choice between it and the wills to pleasure and power, rather it reorders them into a hierarchy and sinks to the background so that, of course, in our daily lives, we nary think of each mundane or pleasurable act as working towards establishing our cosmic significance and leaving a memorable footprint behind. But that doesn’t make the will to power or pleasure the most central simply because they tend to consume the individual’s consciousness. For the moment circumstances conspire to force individuals to ponder the existential questions they can no longer avoid, we’d be hard pressed to find someone still primarily driven by fleeting pleasures and intangible power rather than the question of their life’s significance and memorability.
Furthermore, you stated, “Pleasures are rewarding without [significance].” It’s true, the physical pleasure of a sexual act or a tasty bite need not be significant to anyone else to be enjoyed by and pleasurable to the self. So, first, keeping it within the self, if the pleasure had significance would the individual not per force remember it? Moreover, don’t individuals take a certain and unique pleasure not only in the moment of the gratifying experience itself but in remembering the pleasurable experience time and again, at will? Don’t many people, all the more in today’s selfie generation, spend an incredible amount of their time experiencing a pleasure also recording it with one means of memory capture or another? Going beyond the individual to shared pleasures, sure one can go to a concert or sports game on their own, but for many their most cherished pleasures tend to involve another person(s). Naturally, shared experiences tend to hold more significance. They also, studies show, tend to leave much stronger cognitive impressions in the human mind. And that is to be expected and makes sense in a human species that has evolved and adapted to interdependence and the social contract. That doesn’t mean someone can’t really enjoy a wonderful bath at home alone, but will that same person ever testify that enjoying a bath alone is the most important motivator in their lives? That experiencing the pleasure of that bath is the most important thing ever? Of course, it’s possible to find some or even many who are willing to say so, flippantly, but I would check back with them when their existential moment of truth comes (for some it doesn’t come at the end of life, but can be brought in at various points for a variety of reasons) and see if their primary motivator hasn’t been reduced to its most essential of drives.
Thus, one can still seek and act on pleasure and power for its own sake, consciously, without it eliminating the subconscious, ever-present desire for significance and memorability which tends to come to the fore only and whenever circumstances provoke an individual to existentially probe their lives.
He does make a strong case for the importance of memory as instilling meaning into the human project and into one’s individual life. Bitton doesn’t mention the famous case of Henry Molaison; a brain injury left him unable to form new memories, making for a life indeed rather meaningless. But being remembered by others is a different matter. It is fundamentally wrong to elevate that as the be-all and end-all of human psychology. Wrong in two fundamental ways.
I actually did cite the case of Henry Molaison (p. 95-96) but referred to him in the original H.M. acronym used by his examining doctor Brenda Milner as well as other neuroscientists like Eric Kandel and Oliver Sacks, primary sources of mine.
With that said, I wouldn’t describe the theory as an end-all be-all of human psychology as it must be seen in terms of dimensions, or rings with outer and inner layers leading to a most inner core. The case of H.M. shows within the individual how meaningless their life becomes if they can’t remember. But it’s not difficult to extend the phenomenological experience of memorability by asking ourselves: how would you feel if everyone significant to you forgot you? Would you be indifferent because, supposedly, you don’t care about being remembered and you don’t need to feel significant through others? Or would your entire reality be shattered? Or at least consciously altered in a fundamentally destabilizing way? And it’s definitely not an end-all be-all because of all human motivators we have least control over the most fundamental. Significance and memorability cannot be achieved in an instant like, say, sexual or eating pleasures. The will to pleasure must be satisfied concretely. That puts it on the level of bodily instinct. They drive us to very specific ends. But the will to significance cannot be satisfied, even for a few moments, with one single act, some sexual intercourse or a five course meal. Hence, there are dimensions of human desire, from the most primitive which come in the form of fulfilling instinctual drives (sex, food, security) to the most sentient (meaning, significance, memorability) that are constantly active, interactive, and overlapping so that one need not, ordinarily, negate the other (nor be consciously aware of their own motivations). As soon as excesses are stripped away, by choice or force, and the individual has to consider what’s most important to them in their lives, the vast majority of people will not start listing their sexual conquests, most profitable business deals, or the cars in their garage, even though they certainly took great pleasure or felt empowered by them all. Because at the end, what tends to matter—and it’s not that it only matters at the end, but that it’s only at the end where there tends to be no more room to escape what had always fundamentally mattered—is what had been done (with, for and to whom) and what of the individual’s life (not assets) shall remain.
The other and more fundamental problem is Bitton’s casting one’s prime motivation as concerning not just something happening in other minds, but happening there after you’re dead. Here too of course contemplation of posthumous phenomena can be pleasurable; but you won’t be around to witness or experience them.
That’s what death is: nonexistence, an end to all experiencing. It’s this reality you must confront in order to live an authentically meaningful life. Authentically meaningful to you. It all must unfold within the confines of your lifetime.
Yet again, you can take satisfaction from things you envision happening afterward — for example, your contributing to the future world’s betterment. But when you are dead, you yourself gain nothing further from it.
Good point, but that’s precisely it. As I make no claim to what happens after death I wouldn’t claim that memorability would offer a pleasure to be derived in the hereafter. Rather, it is possible to be motivated in the here and now by how we will be remembered after. It’s not difficult to see this manifest as with how presidents and political leaders work on establishing their legacies (if they won’t be around after they die, why should they care how they are perceived or if they suddenly become totally disliked?). Clearly, they care about how they will be remembered when they won’t be around to enjoy its fruits so it follows they derive something from their efforts while still alive—even if only imaginary and fleeting. Namely, comfort. Most humans don’t need to know that they will be remembered by millions of people for thousands of years. But most humans also don’t want to approach their graves without any sense of who or how they will be remembered. Not everyone needs monuments or big displays that testify to their existence. But studies show that at the end of life one of the most important factors for dying what is considered a “good death” is being surrounded by significant others. No one wants to die alone. Typically. No one wants to live an unknown life or be immediately forgotten upon death. Thus, what’s comforting to us during our lives is not some fleeting guarantee of how we will be remembered, only that we aren’t exiting this questionable existence without any recognition whatsoever of having ever entered it. Regardless of eschatological claims, clearly there is psychological benefit derived in one’s lifetime by knowing their life mattered enough that people or someone will care enough to preserve the shreds of evidence that attest to a significant existence.
Bitton gives numerous examples of people craving to be remembered. Like Achilles choosing to live on in glory, rather than a long earthly life in obscurity. In my own youth, I too imagined my life would be meaningless without fame (or at least “significance”). The corrective came when I authored a book that did give me my “fifteen minutes” of fame (albeit just locally). I thought it would apotheosize me to a higher plane of existence. It did not. That eventually gave me the understanding I’ve tried to express here. Julius Caesar’s fame has long outlived him, but what good does that do him now?
And how long does remembrance last anyway? In the cosmic scheme of things, only an eyeblink. Will even Caesar be thought about in a million years? A billion? Premising your life on memorability must be in vain because everyone is ultimately forgotten. Immortality is a chimera.
Furthermore, while it’s rational to be concerned with remembrance by people important in your own life, Achillean or Caesarean glory is something in the minds of strangers unconnected to you. Its meaning for you is a false sort of meaning. It literally should not matter to you.
Here, you’re absolutely right. It should not matter. That’s what I wrote when I described how it’s not something we can work on directly but aim towards generally which is why I didn’t offer any “Ten Steps to Becoming More Significant and Memorable,” because it doesn’t work that way. But there’s a difference between something consciously mattering to an individual and it being an implicit factor nonetheless. Significance is fundamental to our psychology and memorability is what renders us significant and that remains a factor whether or not it is consciously important to an individual. Indeed, as shown, for some individuals like Achilles being remembered gloriously by others was worth shortening their own life for (of course, it’s perfectly arguable if Achilles did something good or not, but that value assessment isn’t a conclusion I sought). For Herostratus it meant burning a temple so he could ensure his fame. But of course, “It literally should not matter to you,” as the examples of those for whom it mattered above all else don’t bode well. And that’s precisely the point. Because this type of significance is double-edged, it’s fundamental to our internal conceptions of self-significance while residing partially in the minds of others, going after it almost always ends up in infamy not glorious fame. It should not matter. But it’s always a factor, which is why it lends itself to being abused by those who are so unhealthy and lacking such a great degree of self-significance that they go to repugnant ends to ensure any sort of significance, even negative. Infamy, for the fame-hungry, is fame no less. Seeking fame is the unhealthy expression of the will to significance. Seeking meaningful experiences with significant others is what becomes innately worthy of memorability and memorialization. Ultimately, the will to significance and memorability is best served by focusing on being a good and decent percent through life’s many opportunities for meaningful, interpersonal exchange.
Do not live with the goal of being remembered. Live a good and rewarding life for its own sake, in the here and now. That’s all we get. Nothing happening after can tickle your bones crumbling in your grave.
Indeed, I would never counsel anyone to do anything just to be significant or memorable to others for all the reasons stated above. Rather, I counseled treating others as you yourself want to be treated because in a world of cycles—atomic, social, and universal—what goes around comes around. So, if it’s important for one to be remembered by, say, their children or friends, a good measure for what to expect of their memorialization can be found in how they remembered their parents or friends. There are certainly people who don’t care to see anyone in their final moments, and want to die alone. But the exceptions don’t invalidate the rule, they prove it.