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Memories are made of this

Alicia clearly remembers visiting the Parthenon in Athens, and how the sight of the crumbling ruin up close was less impressive than the view of it from a distance, perched majestically on the Acropolis. But Alicia had never been to Athens, so what she remembers is visiting the Parthenon, not her visiting the Parthenon.

It is not that Alicia is deluded. What she remembers is actually how it was. She has had a memory implant. Her friend Mayte had been to Greece for a holiday, and when she came back she went to the Kadok memory processing shop to have her holiday recollections downloaded onto a disc. Alicia had later taken this disc back to the same shop and had the mem- ories uploaded to her brain. She now has a whole set of Mayte's holiday memories, which to her have the character of all her other memories: they are all recollections from the first person point of view.

The slightly disturbing thing, however, is that Mayte and Alicia have exchanged such memories so many times that it seems they have quite literally inhabited the same past. Although Alicia knows she should really say that she remembers Mayte's holiday to Greece, it feels more natural simply to say she remembers the holiday. But how can you remember what you never did?

Sometimes thought experiments stretch our existing concepts so far they just break. This may well seem to be the case here. It doesn't seem right to say Alicia remembers going to Greece, but at the same time what she does is more than remember that Mayte went. We seem to be imagining a form of recollection that is not quite memory, but pretty close.

Philosophers have called these kinds of recollections quasi- memories, or just q-memories. They may appear to be just an interesting piece of science fiction, but in fact their very possibility is philosophically significant. Here's why.

There is a theory in the philosophy of personal identity known as psychological reductionism. On this view, the continued existence of an individual person requires, not necessarily the survival of a particular brain or body (although as a matter of fact we at present do require both), but the continuation of our mental lives. Just as long as my 'stream of consciousness' continues, I continue.

Psychological continuity requires various things, including a certain continuity of belief, memory, personality and intention. All these things may change, but they do so gradually, not all at once. The self is merely the combination of these various factors: it is not a separate entity.

But surely the individual self cannot be 'made up of' things such as belief, memory, personality and intention? Rather, the self is what has these things, and in a sense must come first. For example, say that you remember climbing the Eiffel Tower. To remember this is to presuppose that you visited the tower. But if the concept of your continued survival is presupposed by the very idea of memory, then memories cannot be that on which your continued survival depends. The self must already 'be there' if we are to have memories at all, and so memories cannot be the building blocks of the self.

The idea of q-memory, however, challenges this. What q-memories show is that there is nothing in the idea of having first-person recall that presupposes personal identity. Alicia has q-memories of experiences which weren't hers. That means first-person recollections could be some of the building blocks of the self after all. The self would be partly made up of the right kind of first-person recollections: memories not q-memories. But, of course, if we are in a sense composed of our memo- ries, what happens when our memories become confused with those of other people, such as is the case with Alicia? Or when our memories fade or trick us? Do the boundaries of the self begin to dissolve as the reliability of memory deteriorates? Our fear of dementia in old age suggests we sense that this is true, and perhaps adds weight to the claims of psychological reductionism.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 88)

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