A critique of the causal theory of memory

Dissertation, Ecole des Hautes Etudes En Sciences Sociales (2010)
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Abstract

In this Master's dissertation, I try to show that the causal theory of memory, which is the only theory developed so far that at first view seems more plausible and that could be integrated with psychological explanations and investigations of memory, shows some conceptual and ontological problems that go beyond the internal inconsistencies that each version can present. On one hand, the memory phenomenon analyzed is very limited: in general it is reduced to the conscious act of remembering expressed in a propositional format: the idea of an agent who can control his memory reports, in contrast to a passive subject who merely retrieve his encoded memories, is not even considered. Furthermore, the representational function of memory is the only function taken into account; and all the diachronic changes that could entail a dynamic conception of memory are ignored, as is the consideration of context in a broad sense of the term. On the other hand, causal theories make some implicit assumptions that are obviously questionable (e.g., the difference between facts and events) and leave some of their key concepts unexplained, like the nature of the causality, the isomorphism between the memory trace and the memory event, etc. Nonetheless, the principal point that we criticized is the idea of a correspondence between a past event or representation of it, the correspondent memory trace and the memory representation of it. Psychological models of memory, with the exception of the spatial analogy, question some of these assumptions and suggest that memory information is organized in a way other than that implied by the causal theory. But it is distributed connectionism that actually challenges the causal theory of memory, not only through some of its basic postulates, like the superpositional conception of memory traces, their mutual influence and constant state of change, but also because it is compatible with a more situated approach to memory phenomena as well as with the idea that memory in reality accomplishes a variety of functions that go beyond the representational one. The explicit and implicit ideas provided by distributed connectionism, together with the previous criticisms that we made to of causal theory, clearly suggest the possibility of developing another kind of philosophical theory of memory, different from existing theories. This task, nonetheless, implies: (a) A much deeper study of connectionism principles and memory models, as well as of the rival candidate, symbolism, plus the evaluation of these models in the light of psychological and neurophysiological empirical research, which unfortunately I have not dealt with in this work. (b) An analysis of the metaphysical nature of events and facts, in order to see if we should decide in favor of a realist or a non-realist account. It is also clear that this decision can’t be taken without an examination of perception studies (and not exclusively philosophical ones) which would be crucial for determining what is encoded in memory, and studies devoted to language, which, I suspect, plays an important role in the segmentation of reality. (c) A clarification of the notion of causality, because we wouldn’t like to deny any kind entail the complete disappearance of boundaries between memory and imagination. And even if I suspect that my future work will question the existence of absolute boundaries between these two capacities, the notion of causality can’t be completely erase from the theory of memory without erasing the memory phenomenon itself. But this causality, as we’ve already showed, can’t consist in the naïve conception adopted by the causal accounts of memory, nor can it be explained in counterfactual terms. If we think of the reconsolidation concept, of the interdependence between all the memory system, and of the deciding influence of context, it’s almost sure that more than one notion of causality will need to be invoked in order to explain memory. (d) Because I do not want to reduce the study of memory exclusively to cases of remembering, it’s essential to analyze how memory intervenes not only in imagination, but also in perception, reasoning and future projection, for example. In this respect, we could quote the interesting articles of Atance & O’Neill (2001) and Bucker & Carroll (2006), the first concerning the relationship between episodic memory and episodic future thinking, the second concerning the relationship between episodic memory and all kinds of self-projection, such as navigation and theory of mind, relations that would also have to be explored from a philosophical perspective, in particular to overcome the tendency to suppose that representation is the only function of memory. I will also mention the necessity of combining the notion of metamemory with that of memory to some extent; as I have already remarked, it is implausible to suppose that a subject who consciously remembers something is unable to exert any kind of control over his memory reports. (e) Finally, in order to integrate a situated conception of memory into a philosophical account, it will also be indispensable to take into consideration what is known as “everyday memory research” as well as studies in social and collective memory.

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