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In the novel Alien Influences by Kristine Kathryn Rusch an alien species is presented with no concept of past. In the novel they have some other way of accessing older knowledge, but let's assume some intelligent alien species have no concept of past and concrete memories are fading fast (while learned things like language or work routine is kept). Could such a species develop a civilization and which problems it would face?

EDIT (influenced by some comments): While they have no concious concept of past, they may have one on the subconcious level. They have a consept of the future. They can finish work or conservations they started, so enough short-term-memory for such tasks is available. They may learn to seed crops at certain times (maybe if the stars indicate it).

To clarify on the learning aspect: everyone of us has learned his native language, but no one (I assume) remembers directly the learning process. That way it would be for this species. They can learn stuff, and keep processes, but will have forgotten tomorrow what happened today.

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  • $\begingroup$ So it's essentially an entire species with anterograde amnesia? I predict this species would develop writing really early on. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jun 12 '15 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ They also have no concept of past, not only missing memories. $\endgroup$ – Mnementh Jun 12 '15 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Do they have any comprehension of time at all - can they hold a conversation, and know that someone asked them a question 2 seconds ago? Or do they literally live in a sea of disconnected instances with no way to tie them all together? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Jun 12 '15 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ I assume they can hold an conversation and stay on a task they started, but forget past events. They can certainly learn stuff, but will have no memory of the teaching. The Dancers that are the inspiration for this question work this way, they can learn things, can keep conversations and can do work or rituals, which all would be impossible if they instantly forget what they do. $\endgroup$ – Mnementh Jun 12 '15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Correct me if I'm wrong, but ants have no memory and form relatively complex societies. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Jun 12 '15 at 14:56
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Society? quite probably, as Vincent points out in the comments above. However, civilization I find very unlikely. I think a civilization needs to be based on (at least a few) individuals thinking, especially new thoughts in new ways and being able to spread those thoughts to others.

If you don't remember what happened yesterday, how can you know that next week is the time to plant crops. Or that following a set of animal tracks will lead you to prey, or even that animal tracks were MADE by prey?

Learning is a form of remembering the past, both the rewards and consequences of previous actions. If you can't actively remember, then you are operating completely by instinct, and that can form a society, but not a civilization.

Civilization needs planning and you can only plan for the future if you can remember the past. (Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it)

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  • $\begingroup$ As I said, it is possible for them to learn. So they could learn to plant crops if the stars stand at x position. They could learn to detect animal tracks. They would have no concrete accessible memory, but they would have memorized routines. $\endgroup$ – Mnementh Jun 12 '15 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Mnementh If they can't remember WHY or HOW, they learned it then it is instinct. You can't plan for the future if you can't remember the past. civilization needs planning. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jun 12 '15 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ I think instinct is something we inherit, not learn. Other than that this comment offers an answer, a civilization needs planning. $\endgroup$ – Mnementh Jun 12 '15 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Mnementh I also added it to my answer. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jun 12 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @KRyan But how would you create a civilization with that? All these people benefit from the rest of us with a memory. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jun 12 '15 at 19:33
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This will be a serious impediment to societal or individual development for them to work around.

I'm honestly not sure you can have a self-aware, conscious intelligence with the IQ to develop any kind of society or language but with no concept of past (or time passing) and no memory of past events.

The concept of the past naturally follows from having memory. If you can recall a memory and compare it the current situation, it follows that there is a what-is and a what-was. If you have continuity of memory, you can follow the chain from a given what-was and see how all of the previous moments led up to the current moment.

Do you mean that they don't even have a moment-to-moment working procedural memory? I'm not sure how you could avoid them having an abstract concept of the past without one—even if it's just the recent past—but I'm not sure how you can have conscious intelligence without one. Object permanence is out, and that's something humans develop as infants. Most of the smarter animals manage it just fine, and none of them have anything we'd call a "society" much less language or abstract conceptualization.

I guess they can learn things by rote conditioning, like animals can, but without a concept or memory of the past, they have no way to direct it, and thus no way to learn anything on purpose. They lack any way to have purpose at all. Even if they make a decision, how do they carry through on it without being able to remember that they made it? They'd constantly be like the guy who walks into a room and forgets what he came in there for, except on a complete and existential level. The guy in Memento had it easy compared to them.

How would they even develop speech, writing, or record keeping with no way to compare the symbol they see or the sound they hear with the memory of learning what it means? How could they become tool-users if they don't have a way to remember what problem a given tool can be used to solve?

Without a concept of the past or memory of it, you can't really have a personality, habits, purpose, learning—not even by trial and error—the ability to assign meaning to events, or the emotions that follow from those meanings (except maybe surprise), or any sense of individuality. Experimentation is out, and so is the development of the scientific method. They can't predict the future based on past events. They can't generalize a solution to a current problem if they can't remember how they solved similar problems in the past, so they're forever reinventing the wheel. Literally. Fire's really convenient for warmth when lightning happens to create it, but they're darned if they can recall how to get some more of it when they're cold.

They're really missing the basic tools to get a society off of the ground.

I'm also not sure how they could have any idea of the future without an idea of time that includes the concept of the past. Without the ability to conceive of things that don't exist but could in the future, how could they act so as to make that future goal a reality?

I'm not saying there couldn't be some alien species that meets your requirements but still has intelligence, but I think they'd be so utterly alien that we'd have a very difficult time interacting with them or even recognizing them as intelligent. That intelligence would have to be some kind of emergent, group-based property that doesn't exist at an individual level.

Maybe the individual aliens are just nodes in some kind of larger, possibly planet-wide, neural net or groupmind? Alone, they're just animals, but enough of them together can form a hivemind that can do abstraction, learn, make a decision, and then split up into its component parts to execute those decisions, leaving the individuals (albeit, without any concept of themselves as individuals) with no real concept of why they are doing what they are doing but just doing it by rote anyway.

I think you've really got to fudge or fuzz at least a few the usual concepts of "memory," "the past," "intelligence," or "individual" to manage this.

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I'd imagine the society would be quite robitic in their forms of tasks. They'll just continue doing their daily routines and would struggle to make any advancement to things that they do.

Depending on how much of the past they can remember, experimenting wouldn't be their greatest achievements. If they quickly forget what they've recently done, there would be no "trial and error" experiments.

However if they successfully discover something new without testing (playing around with pieces of flint and creating fire) and use this newfound knowledge in their daily routines then they'd slowly start to develop.

This all really depends on how much of the past they can remember and how significant an event has to be for them to actually memorise.

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Lets say yes and go from there.

With no concept of Past, they probably wouldn't have a real concept of Future like we know it, but they could/would have goals and instincts, at least on a society level if not personal level. Some kind of hive mentality like bees or ants.
With the addition of sentience you would probably have some level of personal goals too, but it would be instinctual as much as anything.

"I don't really know why, but I need to have a large amount of food stored up while it's plentiful, because something is telling me it might not be later."

But really some kind of genetic memory like some insects/animals have would be key. Instinct again... This instinctual knowledge could be passed on to others verbally:

Day 1: subject A eats the purple berries, has bad reaction.
Day 2: subject A sees subject B reach for purple berries and instinctually knows they aren't good, and so warns subject B.
Day 3: subject B sees purple berries, and instinctually knows they wouldn't be good, and so passes them.

They could still have memory with no sense of past. I know something happened, but not when it happened because there is nothing before this moment... Cause and effect might be hard to develop in this system.

Civilization could be difficult, but depending on the level that instinctual knowledge is communicated it could be possible. It would form around societal/hive goals, and may be unrecognizable to us, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a civilization.

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This method of living is extolled by many Earthbound groups, under the phrasing "live in the moment." We can look at how they do it, and extrapolate to aliens.

Why do we need the past anyway? After all, we have senses that can tell us what the present is like, and we have effectors like muscles to help us shape what the future can be, why not simply look at the current situation, and act accordingly? The answer is that some things happen faster than we would choose to act. If we did not prepare for them, they would affect us too fast for us to adapt to them. A conscious concept of the past is one way to solve this issue.

The other approach is to craft a world around you with sufficient harmony that you are never forced to act faster than you can sense the world around you. You subconsciously nurture the environment around you to be your protection and gather energy for you. Any hostile intentions must come from outside this harmonious environment, so it must plow through layer after layer of it. If this act of plowing through layers causes you to shift your position to simply not be where the hostile thought you were, there is no need to remember complex histories to identify that hostile as hostile. You simply react to the world around you.

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    $\begingroup$ For example, Amazonian Pirahã people (who can also whistle their language, apparently). I would also add that they get by without extensive history because everything they need to know is constantly being used and shared by people who currently need it. Extra information not necessary for daily survival is naturally lost. As long as their daily survival needs don't change (being isolated in the rainforest for ages has facilitated this), there's no need for anything more than the necessities. $\endgroup$ – talrnu Jun 12 '15 at 16:35
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You might be interested in the story of Henry Molaison as a model. After extensive brain surgery to prevent epileptic seizures, he lost his ability to form new episodic memories (remembering specific events) but still had the ability to create implicit (intuitive memories), especially through repetition.

I think the ability of the brain to form very strong learning based on intense emotional information (primarily the Hippocampus, I believe) would also be intact. I could see that an extended childhood, perhaps teaching through repetitive songs, stable multi-generational families and long lives that would promoting the transmission of knowledge.

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There was a Star Trek episode revolving around a species who communicated only through references to past events.

It makes me wonder if a society could emerge without history by weaving or developing their language from, essentially, shared memes that embody history without really considering it history. Thus cultural knowledge and experience could be passed on without having explicit stories - it's the only language they have and know, so the knowledge is obvious, even though the reasoning or history behind it is long gone.

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On a different tact, consider the Pirah Trab of the Amazon

As far as the Pirahã have related to researchers, their culture is concerned solely with matters that fall within direct personal experience, and thus there is no history beyond living memory. Pirahã have a simple kinship system that includes baíxi (parent, grandparent, or elder), xahaigí (sibling, male or female), hoagí or hoísai (son), kai (daughter), and piihí (stepchild, favorite child, child with at least one deceased parent, and more).[4] (pp86–87)

What's really interesting is that they share many similarities to what Anthropologists believe to be early hunter-gatherers: belief in spirits as opposed to gods, no means of counting or numeric system, and engaged in primitive, non-coercive form of communism.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, rodentry. Please note that the Worldbuilding SE is dedicated to providing detailed answers to specific questions. One- or two-line answers espousing a link to an external site are strongly discouraged and frequently deleted as inadequate to the task of answering the question. If could edit this post to expand on the ideas in the link and indicate how it answers the OP's question, the community would appreciate it. If you haven't already, feel free to take the tour to get a better understanding of the site. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 12 '17 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ Duly noted & edits applied. $\endgroup$ – rodentry Sep 13 '17 at 2:30

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