How much is memory and its accumulation a requirement for the emergence and expansion of intelligence? It is compelling to assume that the two are naturally linked, and that intelligent agents hence necessarily display their prowess through the production, upkeep, and employment of memory. Nevertheless, in the post before this one we noted that memory could not simply be the retention of past facts, and we suggested that “memory of the past” therefore is a deeply constructive process. But whether we think in terms of pure recall of the past or processes of construction in the present, memory building can still be considered constitutive of intelligent operations.
The World as Suffering
Being introduced to the “truth of suffering” appears then to be quite the opposite of receiving good news. Yet from the very beginning of Buddhist teaching as we know it, the recognition of suffering has in fact been seen as intrinsically linked with its disappearance. In the Sūtra of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha describes his newfound insight to the very first members of his community of followers, thereby setting in motion “the wheel of the teachings” for the first time:
Monks, regarding things that I had not previously heard, as I reflected thoroughly, the vision arose, and the insight, knowledge, understanding, and realization arose: ‘This is suffering, the truth of noble beings.’
The Buddha’s insights are, he explains, not founded on prior learning or on wisdom passed on. Instead, his contemplations have taken him into uncharted territory. According to legend (for a canonical account, see The Play in Full), the renunciant prince who was later to become the Buddha had in the past studied with the brightest, and he had contemplated under the guidance of the greatest of sages. Yet on the verge of his awakening, the future Buddha leaves the cumulative knowledge of the world behind. For some unexplained reason, he is then suddenly able to see reality as it is, beyond prior description and secondhand knowledge. In a cognitive super-feat, he somehow succeeds in setting aside all what had previously been heard and received. In the Sūtra of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha’s ensuing, novel experience of naked fact is explained in terms of four truths—suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering. And although the historic roots of Buddhism evade the reach of current research, to this day these four “truths of noble beings” remain a classic summary of the Buddha’s insight and his teaching for the world. For our purposes, let us here notice that this story of awakening is an account of (1) flawless empirical encounter and (2) ethical perfection achieved through recognizing universal imperfection.
For an aspiring follower of such a teaching, memory is at best a double-edged sword and must always be viewed with suspicion. Even if the received truths of Buddhism are to be recollected and taken to heart, the only point at which they can be said to have been genuinely internalized is when they are transcended in pure facticity. Moreover, according to the first truth to be acknowledged, the world and its beings—including indeed the subject and its thoughts—are generally characterized as manifest suffering. In other words, although some among our remembrances may be deemed virtuous or skilful, this does not detract from their embeddedness within the causal matrices of suffering. What then to keep in mind, hold on to, and remember? According to the paradigm of the four truths, the apparent relation between memory and intelligence is then deceptive, even if it seems undeniable.
Taking a Fresh Look
How then to encourage the manifestation and growth of intelligence within a pervasive and complex framework of factors that appear devoid of, or even hostile to, genuinely intelligent life? This question is foundational for the dream of general artificial intelligence, and if we combine (1) the teaching on the world as suffering with (2) the doctrine of complete awakening, it would seem that the Buddha is telling us he’s got an excellent answer. Even if the details appear to be forthcoming. Looking, as we have here, at Buddhist accounts of cognition beyond the world of suffering, can be motivating for a fresh look at the phenomena of intelligence. The accentuated tension between memory as impediment and implement that such accounts express can provide inspiration for revision and reformulations of the paradigms of cognition that we employ, whether in the context of biological or artificial intelligence. The notes that we have presented here should therefore also be useful as we begin to explore the notion of substrate vs. emergent intelligent agency in the contexts of AI and Buddhism, humans and machines. If memory is potentially both a means and an obstacle for intelligence, who—humans or machines—might be better suited to embrace and/or cut through the structures of memory building?