Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”). I want now to look just at the Interpreter, so just at a small part of the whole system. The Interpreter is itself a system with parts, not a simple thing. I have given (an oversimplified) diagram of the Interpreter System below:
The Interpreter System starts with (so-called) Long-Term Memory (LTM). Humans have experiences in the world and store these experiences in LTM. There seems to be no shortage of space in LTM. However, humans are built to store certain sorts of experience better than others. When experiences have been what I will call “well-designed” they are stored more deeply and fully and are better integrated with other memories in LTM.
What makes an experience “well-designed”? Experiences are well-designed for human beings when the human has an action (or actions) to take in the experience, whose outcome the human affectively (emotionally) cares about. Since experience can be overwhelming in terms of details, people need good ways of managing their attention and knowing what to pay attention to and what to background or ignore altogether in an experience in order to accomplish their actions If people are new to a type of experience (trying to learn something new), they often need help managing their attention. So, the three primary factors of well-designed experiences are: Action, Caring, and Attention Management.
The term “Long-Term Memory” is quite misleading when we are talking about human beings. Humans use the material “stored” in LTM to engage in three (related) processes (or types of processing): recall, imagination, and sense-making. It is best to start with imagination, since this is the most important function of the three. By imagination I mean our human ability to draw on memories (in whole or by mixing and matching their parts) to simulate (imagine) things and events in our head. Very often we use these simulations to think about, role-play, and plan for the future. We simulate things in our heads before we act so that we can act better with less risk and more chance of success. This is the future-oriented function of LTM and it is more important to humans than the past-oriented recall function.
The recall function of LTM is obviously used to recall past events, what we often just call “memory”. We recall events (or bits and pieces of events) in part to use them in imagination to prepare for future action, as we have just seen. But we also recall past experiences to make sense of things, tell stories, and communicate to others and to ourselves “who we are”, what our “history” has been.
When humans use a memory (a stored past experience) fin LTM or any function, they very often change parts of it (adding and subtracting to it and modifying it in various other ways). Since humans constantly transform their memories through use, human memory is often quite poor as a veridical record of the past, as has long been known from the extreme unreliability of eye-witness testimony in court rooms. Human “memory” is primarily focused on sense-making and preparing for the future, not on being “true” in any literal sense.
Human imagination and sense-making builds on memories in LTM. However, humans treat experiences they have had with media (e.g., books and films) in pretty much the same way they treat real-life experiences they have outside of media (hence, we cry in movies). Indeed, they sometimes forget which is which. So, the “experience bank” of events and images that humans use for imagination and sense-making is composed of “real” and “media” experiences (and they can get mixed, matched, and messed together in a variety of ways).
Recall, imagination, and sense-making all fuel the decisions we reach and the choices we make. The input into these decisions and choices are partly things we are consciously aware of (the material we retrieve from LTM and information we gain from talk, texts, and media of various sorts). However, as we have mentioned, the “decisions” about how we should feel, think, or act that our many non-conscious brain modules reach (on the basis of inputs and processing we are not consciously aware of) also influence our conscious decisions and choices. This, of course, means we are often making decisions and choices based on the basis of inputs only some of which we are aware of and use in our “rational” computations.
The Interpreter System, which we have sketched here, is not oriented to truth, but to functioning (survival). First, we have seen that the system uses lots of inputs from brain modules whose working we are not consciously aware of. Second, we have seen that memories in LTM are changed when they are used and so are not a good basis for seeking truth in and of themselves. Third, we use LTM to prepare for the future and to make sense of the past and present. On evolutionary grounds, if the “reasons” we use to act in the future or make sense of the world function to help us survive, but are not true, they are more likely to be entrenched than reasons that are true, but not similarly helpful.
Claims like “Everything happens for a good reason”, “That’s the way things were meant to be”, “I will see my departed relatives in another world”, or “Us is better than Them”, claims for which we have no good empirical grounds to believe, are, nonetheless, deeply entrenched in many people and are rarely removed by appeals to “facts” alone. It is highly likely that many a religious claim survived because it helped people survive (cope, function, sometimes flourish), not because it was true in any factual sense.