Creation by Inhibition, Withdrawal, and Forgetting


Iain McGilchrist, in The Matter With Things, notes that one conception of God and the divine is that He created by withdrawing, by making a space. This is related to Lao Tzu’s Tao De Ching that comments that the essence of a cup is the hole it creates and encloses, just as a house is primarily about the space created within it. The womb in which life grows is an enclosure. Cups, houses, and wombs are characterized by absence.

Likewise, to have a thought, it is necessary to forget. To have all thoughts simultaneously is to be unable to think. One thought achieves salience, any others are inhibited. To remember something means to forget nearly everything and just retrieve a particular memory if and when it is desired. Remembering has to be optional. Our brains are, according to one conception, primarily valves and filtering and limiting devices. From a sea of the One Consciousness we pull that which we desire: channeling, limiting, excluding according to whim, character, interests, circumstance, desires and the nature of our imagination. Our thoughts become ours by getting rid of the rest. On this view, the physical brain provides resistance, creating an eddy in the flow like a rock in water, not entirely apart from the water, but nonetheless a distinct pattern discernible from the rest.

If we could not forget, we would remember everything simultaneously. We would have a kind of useless block consciousness. It would be comparable to having a permanently full stomach that did not permit eating. The stomach too is an emptiness that exists nearly as much by what it is not as what it is. Without the ability to forget, we could not think and we could not function. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) involves intrusive memories that are disruptive and is a disease of remembering. To forget nothing and have it all present all the time, one would effectively remember nothing. One would not be able to isolate one memory from the rest in order to actively remember it. We tend to remember only the important things and forget the rest. This is useful and efficient. It does make memorizing things like Latin vocabulary hard, however. Clearly, some part of us regards it as unnecessary and unrelated to our survival.

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6 thoughts on “Creation by Inhibition, Withdrawal, and Forgetting

  1. How children learn language is a puzzle.

    I can teach a foreigner the names of things by pointing to them and repeating the name (“knife,” “fork,” “spoon”), but this is because the foreigner already has a language, just not English, so he understands the concept of “naming.”

    We are assuming he also understands “pointing,” for gestures, too, are a form of language.

    Dogs don’t understand “pointing” without conditioning, such as turning their heads in the direction indicated. The HPR breeds do pick it up with training. so do Border Collies, the only breeds I know well.

    Perhaps, children are “trained” to talk, rather than being “taught,” for until they have acquired some language, no explanation is possible.

    But, really, I have no idea.

    • Children seem somehow pre-primed for language acquisition with no explanation necessary for communicating what is going on which would be impossible anyway. They can, however, miss the window of development and remain nonverbal if locked in basements, raised by wolves, etc.

  2. Deletion is the first principle of order, and so of being. A thing cannot be just itself except it forego being any other thing. So, all particularity hangs upon a prior process of deletion; which to say, of a choice of just this, and not any other that.

    Whitehead gets at this with his notion of negative prehension. In the initial stage of a novel actual occasion, it prehends or grasps or feels all its actual precedents. In the next, it positively prehends the properties apprehended in its past that it has decided to emphasize in itself, via its completed act of being; and, implicit in this positive prehension is a commensurate negative prehension of the properties of its past that it has decided it shall not emphasize in itself. Negative prehension masks the irrelevant inputs, or the less relevant. It sorts them out and discards them.

    We can see this process at work when in a noisy cocktail party we somehow mask out most of the noise, and so are able to pick out from the general welter just the voice of the woman speaking to us, and understand her. If at such a moment we turn our attention from her speech to the general melee, we instantly lose all track of what she is saying.

    Likewise in music, we are able to focus our attention on one part, or one voice, or one instrument, running along with the accompaniment of a huge orchestra.

    Last time I checked – a fairly long time ago, to be sure – we still had no idea how auditory masking works.


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