The history books and our memories could just be illusions. It’s the past that tells us what we are. Without it we lose our identity.– Stephen Hawking quoted in Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know
I didn’t catch the exact context of this quote, other than that it was about black holes. (I think he was perhaps making a point of what happens inside of a black hole using this particular image?)
There are several interesting things here.
The history books and our memories happen here and now. They are not the past. They are our mental representations of the past. For us, the past is constructed here and now. Our ideas about the past can be more or less accurate in a conventional sense. And they are still created here and now. The past is not necessarily an illusion, but we do imagine the past.
It’s the past that tells us who we are. We have mental representations of us in the past, and these tells us who we are now.
Without these, we lose our identity. Or, if we recognize that our ideas about the past, future and present are imagined, we may lose our identity. Our identification with these images and stories softens, and we realize they are not ultimately what we are.
The same can happen when we find ourselves as capacity for the world, and what our field of experience happens within and as. Here too, we realize that our mental representations and what they point to are not what we ultimately are. Our images of the past, future, and present happen within and as what we are, and although they are essential for our life in the world, they are not what we ultimately are.
So perhaps without knowing it, Stephen Hawking here pointed to the essence of exploring what we really are in our own experience, when we set aside or see through what we thought we were.