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Instrument or Impediment?

Buddhist Perspectives on Memory and Intelligence

· memory,Buddhism

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.

Thinking in terms of storage and preservation of data is of course, and quite literally, a conservative way of looking at intelligence. When we say that activities of upkeep and maintenance are integral, we thereby also downplay the innovative, if not outright revolutionary, aspects of intelligent capacity. Beyond the sweeping successes of neural networks and machine learning, the scientific community continues to pursue optimized, revised, or entirely new ways of visualizing and modeling intelligence. Part of that work involves questioning our intuitions about intelligence—even, or especially, when they seem most natural. Aiming to contribute to such constructive questioning, we will here introduce an account that in significant ways sees conflict, rather than relation, between memory and intelligence.
With its doctrine of causally produced universal suffering (suffering defined as a range of unpleasant phenomena, from vague dissatisfaction to intense difficulty), Buddhism aligns memory preservation with ignorance. At the same time, Buddhist accounts of awakening and enlightenment are focused on the cultivation of causally embedded, intelligent cognition, and they often carry deep commitments regarding the achievability of general super-intelligence. In other words, Buddhist perspectives develop a thoroughgoing critique of our intuitions and expectations regarding the retention of past subject matter, arguing that the development of vast and exact knowledge is in fact linked with skilful relinquishment of accumulated experience. According to the “truth of suffering,” an acknowledgement of universal failure is in this way seen as key to the emergence of unbounded brilliance. What follows is a set of basic observations regarding this ambitious and in many ways counterintuitive idea of a path to intelligence.

The World as Suffering

The Buddhist project is pragmatic in its orientation, seeking to solve a problem—pervasive suffering. But the problem that Buddhism aims to tackle is so all-encompassing that the very idea of a remedy soon becomes challenging to conceive of. On an individual level, the Buddhist “truth of suffering” presents an account of dissatisfaction and pain that extends from this life to a life before it, and so on, infinitely into the past. Based on a basic failure to understand things as they actually are, suffering is for every sentient being in this way a condition that has no beginning yet crystalizes in the brief moment of the present—a present moment that is itself replete with the potential for perpetuating dissatisfaction. On this Buddhist account, all instances of “suffering” need not immediately be sensed as painful or uncomfortable, but they nonetheless all partake of and contribute to the beginning-less, causal arising of error and dissatisfaction. In this way, the factors of suffering also include perceptions of pleasure and happiness that despite—and indeed often because of—their immediate attraction and desirability still serve to engender future experiences of manifest pain. Moreover, whether initially felt as pleasure or pain, all factors of suffering can on a closer look be seen to be utterly unstable and transient, from one moment to the next. This condition of painful re-existence also extends infinitely in space, because such beginning-less sequences of miserable life are innumerable: Suffering sentient beings are said to be infinitely many, as limitless as the field within which they emerge. According to this account, suffering is then pervasive for it is the stuff that the entire world of self and other is made of. In such a scenario, clearly nothing could be trustworthy or reliable; everything and everybody either falls or stands to fall.
The predicament in need of a remedying cure is then profound, for suffering is according to this perspective ever-present and primordial on both an individual and a universal scale. Setting aside the question of a remedy, perhaps it is even hard to conceive of a problem that could be so pervasive that it interferes with and undermines all that we might think of as promising or good. At any rate, if in this way the world is built of painful causes and effects, how might one possibly think of a way out? When could there conceivably occur a break in the causal sequences that have allegedly maintained the framework of suffering since time without beginning? If the universal disease of ignorance that Buddhism diagnoces is a curable condition, then what type of intelligence would be capable of identifying the remedy? If indeed such intelligence is conceivable, then how might it be accessed or employed, given the fact that on this account our starting point remains primal ignorance, and has done so since time without beginning? If we take the account of the world as suffering seriously, then questions like these are natural.

Four Truths

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.’

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 the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’

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.

Remembering What?
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.

According to the account in the Sūtra of the Wheel of Dharma, true insight is an encounter with “what had not previously been heard.” When the Buddha nonetheless next proceeds to make heard the contents of his insight he reports seeing “suffering” and that this is how he has developed “insight, knowledge, understanding, and realization.” Let us for now set aside the question of how it might be possible to, as it were, step outside of the entire world of suffering only to return with a bird’s eye view of it—literally transcending all concrete expressions of sentient life but returning with a factual account of what life is. For our present purposes, let us instead just notice that the Buddha appears to find everything at hand and within cognitive reach to be unsatisfactory and flawed. This comprehensive judgement and dismissal then expresses itself in an immediate acknowledgement of the causes of error, the potential absence of the effects of error, and the path of successful correction. A dismissal of the very project of relying on the world, or even improving upon it, seems then to be required for the emergence of an intelligence that is genuinely factual and efficient. In the sutra, the Buddha—quite miraculously it would seem—appears to communicate the nature of such world-transcending intelligence from within the world of suffering, despite the world-transcending character of that intelligence. But let us for now simply conclude that while mindful recollection clearly has important roles to play in the Buddhist project, true intelligence arguably emerges by a break with the past—not by its recollection.

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?


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