Just recently, a new book by the great physicist Stephen Hawking was released posthumously following his recent death this past March; the book dealing with how information that was once thought to be lost forever inside a black hole in space could be re-emitted once the black hole evaporates. Consequently, information and knowledge that was once thought to be gone for good could actually return in the form of imaginary light rays known as soft hair, which serve to encode information on the surface of the black hole. Taking to heart the findings of Hawking along with those scientists with whom he wrote his recent paper on the subject prior to his death, some physicists believe that this may be the key to understanding the paradox of how information and knowledge can actually disappear only to one day return.
During the course of his life, Hawking not only studied black holes in space, but likewise speculated often on the information paradox; traversing the boundaries of how information from the past might be potentially both lost and preserved. And as a recent article in the New York Times in which Hawking’s most recent work was mentioned alluded to, all of us somehow find a way to make peace with the idea that our own personal timelines will one day come to an end, but at the same time we take some measure of comfort in knowing that someone will remember us, and that our genes, books, and names will be be able to somehow carry on.
Yet what if knowledge, information, and the past are even more fleeting than most of us assume them to be? What if the past is merely a function of memory, which is itself merely a function of our attempt to imperfectly create memories through the illusory nature of our thoughts? And that would appear to beg the question: Does the past really exist at all? And if not, does any type of information or knowledge have any permanence whatsoever? That is to say, in order to get at the root of how permanent or impermanent knowledge and information might really be, a black hole in space might not exactly be the best place to look. Rather, the answer might reside in how thought creates memory, memory creates the past, and knowledge may be only a function of that past.
This idea of the inevitable impermanence of everything is probably something that greatly troubles most people simply because they want to be able to hold onto something permanent that they feel will give their life meaning. And of course most scientists want to be able to hold onto the idea that knowledge is something permanent so that they won’t feel that they are laboring in vain. Unfortunately, in this new digital age of ours it may become increasingly difficult to apprehend the true nature of memory and the past, and their exact relationship with our thinking minds simply because our working memories and thought processes are becoming so compromised by the glut of information on our digital devices and how we are obsessively using them.
From massive search engines such as Google, memory and communication devices such as Amazon’s echo dot and Alexa, to the distracted awareness being engendered in people by their obsessive use of smart phones and PCs, to a potential loss of our previous capacity to follow a stream of thought all the way to its source brought about by all of the current multitasking in which people are now engaged, our conscious minds may well be under assault by the digital world in ways which might eventually leave people incapable of examining the reality of memory, the past, and even knowledge. It would be as if certain valuable data which would allow Stephen Hawking to examine black holes in space or the information paradox suddenly became inaccessible to him.
As was mentioned in the New York Times article on Hawking, in his iconic song Atlantic City Bruce Springsteen sang of how everything that dies some day comes back. Yet what if it’s true that everything that dies someday comes back simply because we are unable to let go of it? This is where an examination of thought, memory, the past, and knowledge itself might potentially lead us if we are brave enough to face this particular quest.