Monday, May 30, 2016

Living on in people's memories

There is a philosophical (in the popular sense of the word--professional philosophers don't tend to defend this) outlook on death that says that we live on in people's memories of us. I was discussing this view with students in my Death and Afterlife class, and one of them connected this to the memory theory of personal identity. My first reaction was that this was completely confused. But after reflection, I thought that there was a deep point about the memory theory of personal identity there.

Start by observing how unsatisfying this kind of "afterlife" in people's memories is--it's not really "living on". Now, the student's potential confusion was that on canonical versions of the memory theory of personal identity, we live on through a chain of first-person memories, while the memories through which we are said to live on are third-person ones. But does that point matter? Suppose one or more of the people through whose memories I was said to live on actually managed to acquire first-person (apparent) episodic memory of my life, say by thinking about me so much. That's a bit creepy, but it's no more satisfying as an afterlife than when the memories were third-person.

Of course the proponent of the memory theory can say I am unfair. The memory theory requires that there be only a single person with those memories, and it has restrictions on what sort of causal chain is allowed to pass the memories on. But these matters of detail do not, I think, affect whether I am living on in any robust sense through a person who has memories of my life.


Nick said...

Eric Schwitzgebel has thought about this and has written a story about it:

Heath White said...

I think you can put an even sharper point on this.

First of all, Parfit has defended (at one point, anyway) the idea that personal identity is constituted by "quasi-memories" (i.e. putative first-person memories), and whatever had those would be the thing remembering. So the question is whether memories in (what we would ordinarily call) another person's mind could count as quasi-memories.

Well, there are different kinds of memories. Some are visual or sensory, while others are propositional. I'm not aware of any argument or reason that the memory theory would have for restricting identity-constituting memories to the sensory kind. So suppose I just have a bunch of propositional memories of my past.

Then, I tell these stories, over and over, to my children. One of them really comes to "identify" with the memories, and begins thinking of them in first-person terms. Now, on the memory theory, what theoretical reason is there to think this is not a case of identity over time?

Alexander R Pruss said...


One response is that the memories must have the right kind of causal chain to the events they are memories of. But I don't think the causal chain matters to us. Suppose that I am going to undergo some trauma that is likely to cause damage to my memories. And so my memories are recorded to a hard drive. The trauma happens. And then the memories are all restored from the hard drive. Surely it doesn't matter to me that normally memory chains don't go through hard drives.

Heath White said...

Also, once you have a right kind of causal chain, why wouldn't _that_ be the criterion of identity over time? Just forget about the memories.

Sean Killackey said...

How do false memories fit in in this view of personal identity?