Is my memory an important part of who I am or can I be ME without my memories?

Read another response by Gabriel Segal
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Is my memory an important part of who I am or can I be ME without my memories?

Good question. My own take on this is inspired by works of Richard Wollheim, “The Thread of Life”, Derek Parfit , “Personal Identity” and Bernard Williams “The Self and the Future” (though Williams argues for an opposed view).

I distinguish between on the one hand, my body and brain, and on the other, my mind. I choose to think of myself as my mind. I think my mind is made of, or, as we say, ‘realized by’, my brain, in something roughly like the way a statue is made out of, or realized by, a piece of clay. The piece of clay is not identical with the statue. It existed before the statue came to be. And if the clay in the statue were very gradually replaced with new clay, over time, the statue would survive without the help of the original clay from which it was made. I also think my mind is, or is like, a set of computer programs. In manmade computers the programs are usually realized by patterns of silicon chips. The chips could exist without making the patterns, as the clay could exist without being the statue. And the programs could persist with a replacement of chips. In biological computers, the programs are normally realized by patterns of neurones.

Right now, I seem to myself to be a centre of consciousness, a thing that is aware of itself and the world around it from particular, subjective point of view. The way I and the world appear to myself in consciousness is the causal upshot of the interaction of very complex and sophisticated programs in my brain (and perhaps other processes of feeling and consciousness realised by the brain in ways we do not yet understand and perhaps never will) and the external world which affects my skin, retinas, nostrils etc. (along with internal bodily processes).

The way I and the world appear to me is thoroughly coloured by my own interpretive processes, thoughts, feelings, and preconceptions. Memory to some extent preserves this highly first-personal viewpoint. This highly personal, subjective experience, of the way things, including myself, appear to me now, will to some extent be accessible to a being tomorrow ... it will remember this.. from ‘the inside’, from its subjective first-person point of view at that time. It will remember what it is like to be me now and this will inform.. infuse, colour.. what it is like to be it then. I certainly hope so anyway, because if any being tomorrow is me, then that will be the one.

This kind of memory seems to me to be the most important thing about the persistence and survival of the self. If you wiped the memories from my brain and installed some new programs.. some other person’s memories or fake memories or whatever, then my brain and body would survive. But as far as I am concerned, that would not be me. It is like the statue and the piece of clay. If you take a statue, of say, a unicorn, then remodel the clay into the shape of say, Saturn, you would have the same clay and a new statue, but the old one would be gone. Memories shape us to make us who we are.

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