Memories are environmental indices
To be a living being is to spit in the eye of thermodynamics. Sure, on a universal scale, the house always wins, and all order will gradually be erased until everything is complete uniformity. But you can still win at your own game, taking in more than your “fair share” of energy to send the pattern of “here’s how you can take in more than your fair share of energy to send a pattern forward in time” forward in time.
To be a living being with memory is to spit in the eye of thermodynamics and then slap it square in the face. You’re locally reversing entropy on two levels: your genome and your lived experience. 1 When you eat food to sustain yourself, you’re both sending “here’s how you send a brain that can remember” forward in time and sending the things that your brain is remembering forward in time.
Picture yourself in the middle of a Minnesota winter, walking to work in -20F. The environment is supplying more than the usual resistance to your information flowing into the future, trying harder than usual to replace your highly complex self with uniformity. If you’re going to be out in those conditions, you’d better have a nice thick winter coat. The winter coat is a piece of barrier technology that reduces the resistance to your information flow, making it easier to send your information forward in time. When we say it’s “objectively true” that you should wear a nice thick winter coat when it’s twenty below, this is what we’re talking about: the indisputable fact that your coat is thermodynamically meaningful to the preservation of your pattern. This also means that a zipped up coat is more meaningful than a coat that isn’t zipped.
But let’s say your zipper is pretty old and bent. It doesn’t generally like to move when you tug it. You have to jiggle it just so to make it zip up. It’s your coat and you’re the only one to use it, so you don’t really mind the extra fuss. You know how to zip it, and that’s good enough. So one of those memories you’re sending forward is “how to zip up this coat”, and because zipping up the coat makes it more meaningful, that memory is meaningful too. But what sort of information is that memory? It’s not about coats or zippers in general. It’s an observation that as of this time, sending these nervous impulses to these hands while wearing this coat moved that zipper to a more meaningful state.
An “index” is a general term that more-or-less means “information about where information is stored”. Your coat was made with purpose, encoding empirical experience on how to slow down the transfer of heat between what’s in and what’s out. The zipper stores a mechanical dance to hold things in place. Your hands hold both sorts of thermodynamic defiance, the information on how to tell some cells to make a hand and the experiences those hands have been through. Your memories aren’t storing these things themselves - how many people know the molecular picture of what their coat is doing, how a zipper works, or the cell divisions that led to their hands? You’re storing references to the things themselves, knowledge of how to take the cognition strewn about the environment and fit it together just so to reach a more meaningful state.
There will always be more ways to put things together than there are things. To even speak of general concepts like “coats” presupposes that enough of these environmental indices exist to make the concept relevant. So these lookups for interactions between fragments of environmental cognition are necessary for the creation of knowledge as it is generally understood, but they aren’t the knowledge themselves, just like an index card with a call number of a library book isn’t a book itself.
This asymmetry — the broad number of indices it takes to secure small pieces of “general knowledge” — gets even worse when you add in the dimension of time. This coat, that zipper, those hands: these are objects that were not, now briefly are, but soon shall never be again. The environmental indices supporting our general knowledge are not the stable base of an informational pyramid but a roiling sea of experience, waves cresting for a moment before crashing on the shore. The work is never done, since your memories aren’t inherent truths but pointers to places where truths once were stored.
Now that know what meaning is actually made of, let’s ask one of those identity questions philosophers love to chew on: when does a coat stop being a coat? Well, when it stops being meaningful; that is, when there does not exist an environmental index of local meaning that includes that coat as an object. As a coat gets rattier over time, it takes more and more work keep it around in an index. But there isn’t a single, constant amount of work that will go into a given environmental index; perhaps one person is obsessed with appearances and quick to abandon beat-up things, while another is given to sentimentality and works longer than their peers would find reasonable to find a local peak of meaningful warmth that includes that coat. So when we say meaning is always interactive and contextual, we’re not talking about any sort of mysticism around human agency, but a straightforward consequence of applied thermodynamics.
This division between genomic pattern and “memory” pattern is much less strict and straightforward than I’m making it look. Things like epigenetics somewhat do what I’m ascribing to “memory” here, as do some purely “mechanical” things. But the point I’m making is much more intelligible if we use biological memory as our conceptual guide.↩︎