One night a few months back I signed up with Lumosity in the hopes to stimulate brain exercise as I figured that might help with the old noggin’ in the later years. As part of the process of signing up, I also began receiving email notifications of various discounts, offers, and reminders to return to the site to complete the daily regimen. Their latest particular advertisement immediately caught my attention as I noticed that it offered an exhortation to continue in brain training since
“Memories make us who we are.”
This statement struck me as peculiar as I began to wonder what Lumosity was trying to say here. Were they merely suggesting that our personality is shaped by our past experiences? Or was there some deeper philosophical meaning; that is, if one were to lose his memories (say from traumatic brain injury or stroke), were they suggesting that he would thus lose his identity and consequently cease to be him?
There are those who hold to the latter view which is otherwise referred to as the memory view of empiricism (MVE). MVE essentially states that,
“The reason that you are the ‘same’ person as the person who got up this morning is that you currently have most of the ‘same’ memories as the person who got up… [In other words] memories constitute sameness of person.”
I think MVE is ultimately lacking and can be shown to be from two different angles. First, proponents of the view are usually materialists; that is they believe that the material brain is the source of memories as well as our sense of self. The problem is that the brain is a collection of separable parts (i.e. temporal, frontal, parietal, occipital lobes, etc.) yet our experience of ourselves is unified by an indivisible and enduring “I”. Enduring in the sense that the same person who began writing this post is identical to the person currently writing this sentence – me, N.P. Sala. Indivisible in the sense that, were I to lose half my brain tomorrow, I would not be half myself but still fully me. I might not be able to speak or walk properly with half my brain missing but one certainly wouldn’t say that half of N.P. doesn’t exist anymore. My self is still indivisible regardless of what parts of the body I lose.
Second, imagine two people – Steve and Lily – side by side on two operating tables while a neurosurgeon transplants half of Lily’s memories into Steve’s mind. After the surgery Steve awakes to discover that he possesses portions of both his and Lily’s memories. Would it make sense, then, to say that Steve is simultaneously Steve and Lily? No, clearly Steve has Lily’s memories but he is still Steve and she is still Lily. Now imagine if half of Lily’s memories were removed and placed into a clone of Lily. Would it be appropriate to say that Lily is herself and the clone simultaneously? No, we would say that the clone has some of Lily’s memories and that Lily is still herself. The fact is the enduring “I” of the self is not like a table where portions of it can be removed and built into other objects. The enduring “I” is the unified mental subject that remains the same through constantly changing experiences.
Understanding this fact goes quite a ways in discovering what is true about ourselves; that is, we cannot simply be our bodies, memories, or character traits. Persons may have these things but they are not identical to them. This substance I’m referring to that unifies our experiences from a first-person perspective must be the soul. And the existence of my soul is why I will never lose my identity regardless of how much of my memories I retain.
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 292.