Friday, 21 April 2017

Memory And Identity

John C. Wright's Phaeton looks at boxes containing memories edited from his brain over three millennia for the dual purposes of saving space and preventing senility overload - exactly as happens in Poul Anderson's World Without Stars.

Is there any difference between memory and identity? If two people swapped memories, then they would think that they had swapped identities - although the legal criterion of personal identity remains (so far) spatiotemporal continuty of a body even if that body suffers total amnesia. Also, how much of someone's personality comes not from conscious memories but from the body, including unconscious cerebral connections?

Here, we considered a Poul Anderson story in which a man replaces one set of memories and apparent identity with another. I compared this to the meditative realization that I am not a separate self. The superhero-secret identity scenario is similar. Each of us perhaps has two sets of motivations, which, using Buddhist terminology, I call "enlightened" and "unenlightened." The latter motivations assume the reality of the illusory separate self: "I want..." Someone who suddenly acts instead from the enlightened motivations of wisdom and compassion is like a superhero shedding his secret identity - transcending the limitations represented by glasses and a business suit - and acting for the world.

Wright's characters with their minds augmented by AI seem to have not just two but several layers of memory and identity. Phaeton asks what is his real self. Philosophically, we must retort: is there a real self?


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    But I still think the " I " which is "me" is a real person or being. And that " I " does not have to be lacking in wisdom and compassion. Was Mother Theresa lacking in compassion despite believing, as a Catholic, that she had a real " I "?


    1. Sean,
      I think that each individual self is a temporary coming together of elements that will part at death. The feeling of being a separate self leads to self-emphasizing motivations but this feeling is different from belief in a permanent soul. Clearly those who hold this belief can be motivated by compassion.

    2. Kaor, Paul!

      Yes, we do have conflicting ideas of what is the nature of a human being. I believe there is something we all have that survives bodily death while you are at least skeptical of that idea.