Mini-Feature: If Your Memory was Wiped, what Would You Be?

If all your memories were erased, what kind of person would you be?

This question hits at the heart of what we are. Lurking underneath it is whether or not we purely material, and if so is our "kind of person" something we could to some degree in principle switch out and update like software? Erase our memory, erase our person? Or is there a deeper question here: without memory, can we function at all? It seems apparent that a very young child begins to ascertain universals via some form of memory as they sense the world around them. If all your memory were erased, would not one have to start at the very beginning, learning how to walk again as well as that the stove is hot?

But start with this: what the devil is memory? As we test the relationship of soul and body to the limit this century, as digital technology transforms human behavior and the structure of politics, as well as redefining military and commercial power, this question is a deep and significant. Digital technology is the inscribing of information into grains of sand for easy retrieval: it is merely the power of memory, at root. That's what it truly is. AI, machine learning, etc. as well as social media and the like all come out of our ability to use digital technology, which is ultimately the ability to store and retrieve ever more information: memory. Collect. Recollection. Store and Restore. Storation and Restoration.

Much depends on memory. Getting it wrong in terms of human beings ensures we will get it wrong as we build new digital idols of great power. Getting it wrong means these idols might, as often happens, cause us great ruin as this century unfolds. The asinine nonchalance many people have had towards digital technology in general (not to mention AI) reveals our ignorance and assumption that memory is easy to define when it comes to human beings. It reveals a flat and ridiculously simply understanding of what humans are. But what memory is is not a settled question. It is an extremely difficult and open ended one.

Never start with the asinine works of today. We are mostly children playing on the ruins of greater civilizational minds. There are shards of truth regarding memory in modern science but they need to be put together into a new whole by means of thinking through greater, more ancient frameworks that have long been forgotten. There is more truth in Aristotle (think about what he says in III.3 of De Anima and the short On Memory treatise), Plotinus, and figures like St. Gregory of Nyssa (see On the Soul and Resurrection), never mind Aquinas (and his commentary on Aristotle's On Memory). At the same time, one would also need to think very seriously through questions like what we might call the first version of AI - the memory palace, or method of loci, and what this means for what memory is. But most laugh at such texts and ideas, and few today can understand them—never mind mine them for the diamonds that might help guide us today.

But this is normal in human life. Actual philosophy/science is often mocked when most needful. The majority embrace unquestioned assumptions that ensure they can only reason to very wrong and often dangerous conclusions. Meanwhile, the very open-ended question of memory is one of the most vital we could ask about today. As we continue to develop powerful tools we do not understand, the fate of our civilization and the globe may depend upon it. And on we hurtle.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Even a baby has some memories. What kind of person is a person with their memories erased hinges in part on who or what erased them. As far as we can see, only a human, a god, or a bot could possibly erase all existing memories. 

It is hard to see how a god who zaps away all one’s memories would be anything but evil, unless the context is reincarnation. (Possibly this shows why folk sympathy toward the idea of reincarnation is so easy and prevalent.) A bot that wipes all your memories would probably be characteristically seen not as evil but just as an enemy or a hazard, something to be fought or avoided or (by turns) both. 

But the likelihood is that any such bot would be the ultimate responsibility of a person or group of people. And it is hard to see how any person could erase memories without the aid of a bot. So we must ask what is the nature of the relationship between a person wiped of their memory—presumably including the memory of having all memory wiped, and possibly including the formation of at least some subsequent memories—and the person responsible for the bot doing the wiping? 

Maybe that relationship is master-slave. Maybe the relation is predator-victim. Then again, someone without any old memories is something more terrible than a slave, a victim, or even an invalid. Someone unable to make any new memories would effectively cease to be human—would probably die or lose consciousness very fast—but even someone who had been zapped once would almost certainly be zapped again. At any rate, the most familiar relationship between eraser and erased is that between a monster and his creator. (It is interesting how hard we try not to give a name to the creators of monsters, although usually we gravitate—perhaps another dodge—toward something like ‘evil scientist.’)

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

If all my memories were erased, would I still be me? It depends on what counts as a memory. I remember all kinds of things that don't really matter much, like who won the Academy Awards, the order of the presidents, state capitals, birth and death years of famous writers. That level of trivia could be pared away and still leave me as me, even if I do take a certain pleasure in being able to call to mind the sort of information that people were impressed by before the age of Wikipedia. 

At another level of memory there's personal trivia--memories from my life that have significant meaning to me but nobody else would know or care about. This is like the Proust's favorite cookie type of memory, which people invest a lot of significance in as personal totems. The loss of these memories as touchstones of personality would probably strike people as a loss of self. 

Deeper still someone could forget their name, where they live, who their friends are, etc. This would be a serious loss of self. Yet, in the movies at least, people with amnesia still operate recognizably as themselves, on some kind of autopilot.

After that we enter stroke or Alzheimer's territory, where people forget how to dress themselves, eat, use the toilet, or speak. At that point I think it is safe to say that people are no longer the same, in that they can't successfully pass the Turing test of appearing human.

In sum, there's no way to conceive of erasing memory the way we can hard-reset a phone or computer. We don't have a factory setting that offers much in the way of future development.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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We have hit now on a problem of selfhood that really does keep me up at night. My mother has me reading Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score, about the physical effects of trauma on brain and body—how they linger, how they shape us. Van der Kolk is a humane and thoughtful man, but it seems to me he slips into an error common in psychiatric circles: he talks sometimes as if the permanent changes made by experience to our neurochemistry are merely physical facts about us corresponding to no spiritual reality.

But our souls are encoded into the matter of our bodies. Every scrape, every twisted neural pathway, every meeting between photons and our eyes, leaves physical marks which change our knee-jerk reactions, our spontaneous tendencies, ever so slightly. In Plato's Theaetetus you will find a metaphor for the soul as a ball of wax in which memories are literal impressions—marks left by objects whose shape remains. It was a common trope of ancient epistemology, and it is as apt as anything you will read in a peer-reviewed scientific journal today.

But if all this is so, how can we fully lose our past? Our brains are not, contrary to popular metaphor, hard drives. If you could erase a person's entire past, you could indeed erase him fully. To lose our power to recall memories is a terrible loss. But even in such cases, we retain ourselves. Ask anyone whose beloved suffers from dementia: the foot that taps at the favorite song, the eyes that widen at the sight of a grandchild, reveal that the body does indeed keep the score. 

It is perhaps significant in this context to recall the specific way in which God promises not to forget us, ever: "behold, I have engraved you in the palms of my hands" (Isaiah 49:16). A Christian cannot read these words without remembering that God's body, too, carries the scars of its past. They do not go away. If we are etched into his hands like holes from the nails of the cross, there is reason to hope that though this world eventually takes everything from us, nothing about us is ever truly lost.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind