Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Partial amnesia and fission

Some cases of partial amnesia present a prima facie problem for memory theories of personal identity (the theorist will bite the bullet on total amnesia, of course). At 9 pm, Bob starts to drink. At 11 pm, he makes a fool of himself. At midnight, he passes out. At 9 am, he wakes up remembering nothing that happened after 10 pm. Obviously, at 9 am, it’s the same person as the one who made a fool of himself the night before, but there is no chain of memories from the 9 am self to the 10 pm self.

There is a simple solution: don’t talk about chains of memories, but instead talk of chains of memory-links. Memories are unidirectional (you remember later what happened earlier) but memory-links are bidirectional: when at t2 you remember what happened at t1, there is a memory link from t1 to t2 as well as from t2 to t1. And now we have a chain of memory links: the morning-after self is memory linked to the 9 pm night-before self, and the 9 pm night-before self is linked to the 11 pm night-before self (Bob at 11 pm remembers starting to drink at 9 pm). So the morning-after self is the same as the 11 pm night-before self, much as he might wish he weren’t.

But here is an interesting thing. If we think about this scenario, formally this is a case of fission. There are two memory branches:

  1. starting at 9 pm, then going on to 10 pm, 11 pm, and up to midnight, and then fizzling out forever

  2. starting at 9 pm, then going on for a little bit, then skipping until 9 am.

So, partial amnesia cases like the above are actually cases of fission. And in cases of fission, most people do not want to say that we have the same person in the two branches. The most popular solution is that fission is death, and a second option is a four-dimensionalist one on which the occurrence of fission shows that there were two people there all along. But neither option is plausible for our partial amnesia case. It is absurd to say that Bob automatically dies around between 9 and 11 pm. And it is absurd to say that there used to be two people in Bob’s body all along. Those are extreme solutions that might fit science-fictional cases, but surely are not appropriate for all-too-common cases like Bob’s.

Perhaps we can say this: real fission requires there to be two simultaneous branches. So now our theory is this:

  1. when memories branch, and the two branches are simultaneous, then something metaphysically weird happens (either there were two people before the branching or the pre-branching person has died).

But (3) fails in time-travel cases. Suppose Bob owns a time-machine. At 9 pm, Bob goes into a time-machine set for midnight. He keeps on drinking in the machine for two more hours, until 2 am. Then he passes out and loses the memory of the last two hours of drinking while the time-machines auto-pilot pulls him back to midnight and dumps him in his bed. We now have two branches starting at midnight: Bob drinking in the time-machine for two hours and Bob sleeping in bed with loss of memory of two hours of drinking. But it seems wrong to say that by adding a time-machine to the original partial-amnesia story, thereby making the two branches simultaneous, we would get the weirdness of having Bob perish or having always had two persons there.

Suppose you think backwards time-travel is impossible because of the paradoxes that result. You should still think of forwards time-travel as possible. Indeed, non-instaneous forwards time-travel is possible: that’s what happens in the twin paradox from relativity theory. But there is nothing logically absurd about instantaneous forwards time-travel. But any case of simultaneous-branch fission can be transformed into a case of non-simultaneous-branch fission by forward traveling one branch right after branching to a future time after the other branch has perished. Thus, we really shouldn’t treat simultaneous and non-simultaneous branchings differently.

I think this is a serious problem for memory theories of personal identity.

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