Saturday, June 19, 2010

Life is made of worldly materials.

Things that ever happened in my life, if successfully registered, remains as the connection pattern between neurons in my brain.

On the first day of my elementary school, I recall that the sunbeam was reflected in a white impression on the long and straight road that lead to the school premises. On the very first class room meeting, I was at my desk with my newly found classmates, with my cheek on my hand, looking at nothing, absent-minded. Ms Arai, teacher of our class, took notice and remarked "are you now bored, my little one?"

Parents were requested to remain at school after the entrance ceremony on that day. My mother was at the back of the classroom, too, and laughed with the other parents. I brushed in shame.

There was a large sweet acorn tree near the front gate of the school. When I was in the second year, there was a "boom" of acorn eating among us. As we left the school in the after hours, we would compete to find good the ones, and would eat them on the way, with the school satchels cozily on our backs. At break times, we would play "hand baseball", in which we used our hand as the hitting bat. I remember quite well that the balls were green.

Each remembrance constitutes a "page" in my life, a part of the richness of my humble personal history. All those memories are encoded as patterns of connectivity between neurons. There would be memories long forgotten, but secretly stored in the cortical network pattern. I might happen to remember them sometime, or might never recall them. In any case, when the physical presence of my brain disintegrates, the rich storage of memory of my life would be lost forever.

Memories are integral constituents of my existence. The "self" critically depends on these memories. The removal of them would leave a "self" as a transparent "core", vibrating poignantly in the great nothingness of the universe.

In "In my life", the Beatles sing thus.

There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

These words are simple. It is as if a middle aged man is reflecting on his own life late at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand. Freed from the admittedly difficult assessment of what life means, he would recall past events in his life ; that was then, then was that.

The lyrics of "In my life" are elementary in its world view. It reflects the significant fact that an ordinary human being would reflect on his own mortal existence on this earth in such a manner. In the past, such ideas as god, heaven, hell, afterlife, and reincarnations have been regular features of the genre when one would ponder one's own life. These concepts would not find their places in the mannerisms of modern times. That the sentimental musings of an ordinary human being on his own life have become secular is one of the most important features of human spirituality today. For the modern human, how he or she actually lives in "this world" is all that there is, with nothing to be added or subtracted.

The novelist Takeshi Kaiko writes thus in his essay collection "The Last Supper": "Detective and spy novels are without doubt the secreted products of the modern times. To the extent that I came to know, such joys of the human intellect were not produced in countries where modernization has not visited."

A song like "In my life" by Beatles would be cherished only in a world where the "superstitions" about the afterlife, heaven and hell, and God with personality are long gone. A priest in the medieval times is unlikely to enjoy singing a song like "In my Life". An ordinary enough pop song. Behind it, however, are the fruits of efforts by philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists who have been trying to deepen the human understanding of life and death, and the universe that we inhabit. The commonplace view on life has become possible only though the hard-won perceptions of the world we inhabit.

In the universe, there are mysteries about ourselves and the world still out of reach for humans. We would be ill advised, however, to revive the "superstitions" so that we go from the world of "In my life" back to an ancient world in which we chant:

Oh, God, I don't ask much for this earthly life. Just let me have a wondrous life in the afterlife. Please make me reborn as somebody with a higher social status, in the next cycle of reincarnation.

To go back to such a system of superstition would be tantamount to make nothing of the efforts of the human race as a whole over centuries.

Life is made of worldly materials. Whatever we might set out to think about the world we inhabit, we need to confirm this point first and foremost.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"


jen said...

I really like your philosophy.
The qualia makes me remind of the quality of life in my life.
When I first read your essay ' I live and I die ' , I was set free from the bonds which tied me and felt like flying in the space.
Thank you for the lyrics of ' in my life'. I can enjoy humming this morning.
The qualia journal always makes me impressed and gives me deep thought. Great thanks to you!

Greg said...

Today's posting affected a change in the pattern of connections among my neurons. It also made me think about the nature of learning and the differences between experts and novices. For example, experienced farmers have encoded an immense number of sense-perceptions (e.g., textures and odors of soils, shapes and colors of plants, flavors of fruits and vegetables, etc.) in their long-term memory and constructed cognitive frameworks to organize and explain them. It is a shame that these connections will disappear when the physical "container" ceases to exist. It seems that an apprenticeship through guided experience is one way of helping another to construct a similar network of connections. A book or multimedia presentation by the same expert may convey information or promote insight, but still lake the stimuli of material experience to help construct that understanding.

The points that you raise make me consider the possibility that we may be relying too much on the technology of writing to the detriment of experience or that its capabilities in shaping perception and constructing experience and understanding are being underutilized.

straysheep said...

I will try to read I live snd die.Do I understand you?Do I comprehend me?

yuzu said...

Specially your essay makes my feeling stinging today.
I am also surprising the structure of your memories in your essay.
When you wrote "In My Life" at first in your qualia journal, I listened to this song refrain. Because it was so sink in my heart. And I listened to it refrain again today.

(ma)gog said...

I remember having been deeply impressed by this chapter when I read "Ikite Shinu Watashi" for the first time several years ago.

I traced back my memory to my own elementary school entrance ceremony day, feeling somewhat familiar with the writer as old as I was, and all the scenes from that day kept coming into my mind one after the other. What I was wearing, the excitement when the homeroom teacher was introduced, the cherry blossom in full bloom on the school ground, the new textbooks in a colorful paper bag tidily placed on the old wooden desk, a naughty boy sitting next to me...

Then the lylics "In my life" was introduced, by which one could just naturally be invited to reflect upon his/her past, some bitter, some sweet, but now mostly were dear personal memories.

And these old memories would be lost forever once "the physical presence of one's brain disintergrates", because after all "Life is made of worldly materials. Whatever we might set out to think about the world we inhabit, we need to confirm this point first and foremost."

Indeed, I was somehow agitated by your statement. Certainly, brain is made of materials, but what are "materials" after all? All the materials which appear to be solid are the constituency of electrons and quarks whose positions we cannot even identify, and what exists "between" these elements of materials? Is there nothing? If there is nothing, doesn't it mean that "nothingness" does "exist" there? Is our consciousness material? If we cannot identify our consciousness as material, what is it then? It means that there are existence in this universe other than materials, isn't it?

By such questions I have often been disturbed since I was very young, and I still don't know the answer. I cannot help thinking however, that there are many different ways to look this universe, and to define it as "the world of materials" is just one of them.