“Memories……like the corners of my distributed neural architecture…” -Barbara Streisand, Memories (Eliminativist Version).
Issues concerning the nature of memory, much like those concerning the nature of humour and of the paranormal, are underdescribed in the literature. Yes, philosophers have at one time or other recognised that memory carries with it a set of philosophical questions, and much interesting work has been done. But not as much as should have been and it is curious that it has not commanded more attention, nor achieved more centrality in areas such as the philosophy of mind. Continuity theories of the self, for example, often follow Locke to make memory a necessary condition of Smith being the same person at aged 12 as at age 30 and at age 70. Locke noticed that in order to solve the problem of the persistence of persons over time it seems insufficient to posit the existence of some substance in which experiences inhere since those same experiences could be swapped between many such substances and our intuition would remain that these experiences were of the “same” person. Memory, he argued, provides a psychological criterion of persistence which is less injurious to this intuition. Needless to say there are problems with this, not least that the ascription of memory might presuppose that the question of person-persistence is already settled. And whilst it might be the case that memory can secure our intuition that I am the same person as I was last week, is that the same claim as that I am identical to that person. Or does this not matter?
What I want to do here is to say a couple of things about the nature of memory and then to raise what might or might not be an interesting question for reductive physicalists i.e. those philsophers of mind who would want to argue that there are no features of memory which are anything more than complex features of brain function or brain chemistry.
“Memory” is not, of course, a unitary phenomenon and we can at the outset distinguish dispositional from (what I will call) the phenomenal character of memory. By dispositional memory I mean the wealth of acquired practices we display from the time we get up until the time we go to bed: dressing, brushing our teeth, eating, driving, playing chess, riding a bike, telling the time etc. All of these involve learned cognitive competences which do not necessarily disclose themselves to consciousness. When I am playing my friend at chess I am demonstrating a memory of the rules of chess without necessarily rehearsing those rules to myself as I consider my next move (it is interesting that the more competent the player the less such rules impinge -grandmasters tend to see in positions patterns which do not smoothly transpose onto the rules that are constitutive of the game). What can we say about dispositional memory from the point of view of philosophy? Not necessarily that much. Philosophers like to distinguish the hard from the soft problem of consciousness in recognition of the fact that there are certain features of consciousness that might smoothly be integrated into the developing brain and behavioural sciences (the smooth features) and certain other features (the hard features) that will resist such integration, no matter how complete our understanding of brain function, architecture and chemistry turns out to be. Qualia (or sense data or contents presented experientially) might present a hard problem for the cognitive sciences; dispositional memory, on the other hand, might be their bread and butter – we are all of us to some degree a bit Sphexish.
I retain, as it happens, a memory of my first kiss – with a young lady called Suzanne, in a park in Oxford, on a damp Wednesday afternoon just before Christmas 1983. This memory seems not to be an instance of dispositional memory as it presents itself to me as a mental episode, with a certain character, and this character is in no way exhausted by whatever dispositional properties the memory might have. This character is phenomenal in that it feels a certain way (in this case wistful and pleasant and not a little sad). We can notice straight away that there is an interesting relation between phenomenal memory and the beliefs which accompany it, and which are used to describe it. Suppose the kiss took place not on a Wednesday but on a Friday. Would this make the memory a “false” one? Surely not. It seems as if the memory can remain veridical even if some, perhaps the majority, of the attendant beliefs are revealed by my diary to be inaccurate. Could it remain so if all the beliefs are false? If it turns out that my first kiss was with Jane, in High Wycombe, in May 1984 we would surely want to say that my memory of Suzanne is a false one. Would realising this affect its phenomenal character? I suspect that it would. So we might want to say that there is a connection between an episode of phenomenal memory and our beliefs about that memory but that the connection is not one that can be easily articulated. To put it another way: phenomenal memory seems to be truth functional in a way that beliefs are not and yet the truth functionality of the latter somehow and to some degree feeds back into that of the former.
Reductive physicalists, of course, will want to assimilate phenomenal memory to the cognitive sciences. On this view my memory of Suzanne is no more than some cluster of features of my brain architecture and its content will turn out to be no more than a distributed property of certain neural activities occurring in parallel (or some such story). I wonder if the following feature of phenomenal memory might give them pause. Take two events, A and B. A occurred last year and was a major event in my life. B happened yesterday and was trivial. I remember both of these events and both these memories have what I have called a phenomenal character. As well as remembering A (MemA) and remembering B (MemB) I also have a mental episode C in which it is disclosed to me that A preceded B and that B succeeded A. In other words, there is something about the conjunction MemA and MemB which gives a phenomenal disclosure of the temporal ordering of the two episodes. C is a sort of second-order mental episode whose character is an internal relation given by MemA plus MemB. The question then is: (1) is my analysis of the phenomenology of temporal orderings of memory events plausible; and (2) if so does it present a particular problem for the reductive physicalist? My own answers to (1) and therefore to (2) tend to differ with the time of day, I’m happy to admit. So any thoughts welcome….
Adrian Cussins: The Connectionist Construction of Concepts (in The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (ed Boden 1990).
Mary Warnock: Memory (1987)
Wittgenstein: Philosophical Grammar (1974) (ed Rhees)
The Beautiful South: Song for Whoever.