Tuesday, June 12, 2012

[PHI 1000] Erasing Memories and Killing Persons

Many authors on personal identity accept a version of the psychological approach. According to this approach, some psychological relation is necessary or sufficient (or both) for one to persist as a person over time. One psychological relation that is usually singled out in that respect is memory. That is to say, it is argued that personal identity consists in continuity of memory:
  • Person 1 who exists at time 1 is identical with person 2 who exists at time 2 if and only if person 2 at time 2 remembers an experience that person 1 had at time 1.
  • If person 2 who exists at time 2 does not remember an experience that person 1 had at time 1, then person 1 and person 2 are not identical (i.e., they are not the same person).
Now, consider the possibility of erasing memories.

If personal identity consists in continuity of memory, and if we erase a person's memory, are we committed to saying that we have killed a person? In other words, assuming that the memory criterion of personal identity is true, we could argue as follows:
  1. If we erase person 1's memories at time 1, then person 1 is not identical with person 2 at time 2.
  2. If person 1 is not identical with person 2 at time 2, then person 1 ceases to exist at time 2.
  3. Therefore, if we erase person 1's memories at time 1, then person 1 ceases to exist at time 2.
So, if we brought about the end of person 1's existence, have we killed person 1 by erasing his/her memories?


  1. Gabriel Ilyayev

    Yes, I believe that if a person loses all of his memories, then he/she is not the same person anymore and is technically dead. A person’s life consists of numerous memories. If a person forgets all of these memories, this person is not the same anymore; he/she is lost. It’s the memories of a human being that ultimately define the human identity. Without our memories, who would we be? We would lose our identities and be aimlessly lost in this world. It’s as if we cease to exist anymore.

    Here is an example.

    I am raised in New York, from a loving Jewish family who speaks Russian. I have best friends named Arthur and Yakov, I love playing basketball, and am pursuing a career in pharmacy. I am currently attending St. John’s University. I have many memories spent with loved ones, friends and many others. I remember my moments on the basketball court as a short five foot seven guard who had short brown hair and who made those timely shots at the end of games when they were most needed. This display of the game arose to a nickname called Mr. Clutch. I remember my passion for the game. I remember when I had my first girlfriend. I remember my first day of Kindergarten. The memories can go on forever. Let’s say that all of these memories are suddenly just erased from my mind. Gone, just like that. Now, I live in Spain, with none of those memories. I just have memories of my life here in Spain. This new me has red hair, is five foot nine, has a new family, plays soccer every day, and dropped out of school because he is going to be an international singing sensation. This new me is not the old me. They are two completely different people. The old me has died because the memories that the old me had had have been entirely erased. The new me is alive without any idea of the fact that the old me existed because of those erased memories. These memories that were erased defined the old me. The existence of the old me has perished because the memories of the old me have perished along with it.

    Therefore, if a person loses all of his/her memories, he/she does not exist anymore and is proclaimed dead.

  2. To answer the first question, I do not believe that erasing someone’s memory leads us to say that we have killed them. Now, I only say this because I believe that the word “kill” is used too harshly and indicates that we have taken the life of the person without their consent. When families are forced to “pull the plug” on a loved family member who has been in a vegetative state for years we do not refer to them as killers. While it was not the person who made the choice their family thought it was for the best and neither the doctor nor family is labeled as a killer. A better example is one in which a person commits suicide by using a blade to cut themselves and us not labeling the company that provided the blade as a killer. That is the problem that I see with saying that you have killed the person; It is much more likely that if the person’s mind was erased, they willingly went somewhere to have their memory erased so they could start over. That is of course until later in the future where they might invent mobile “mind erasing” technology that could comfortably fit in your pocket to use secretly against enemies.
    I agree with Gabriel when he says that if the person loses all memory of their life then they are technically dead. While their body may continue to roam the earth, the memories they have from their life would no longer guide their actions. They will not have any lessons or reasons for doing things, until they relearn everything. The mere fact that they have relearn everything means that they cannot have the same experiences as their original self had and therefore they can never be the same person again. At the moment that the memories are erased and if there does not exist an “undo” button then the person is gone and is dead.
    This would however, be a new form of dead where the person’s body continues to live but their identity is gone. As stated in one of the other posts, The Memory Theory of personal identity explains that what makes a person identical with herself over time is her remembering or being able to remember the events to which she was witness or agent. I believe it is not merely the memories that make you who you are but also what you take away from these memories. Everything we do is guided by our past experiences or the experiences of others. Without those memories we will no longer act in the same manner and we will not be the same person. That person would die along with the memories.

    -Ivon Salas.


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