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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Problems of Memory


That most of our knowledge is in memory at any particular time is a given. What is perhaps surprising, however, is the degree to which even our current conscious knowledge typically depends on memory. For example, you look at the sky and come to believe that the sunset is beautiful. This is a newly formed belief about an event currently taking place. Nevertheless, its justification is no doubt dependent on other beliefs that you hold. For example, if you didn't at least tacitly believe that you were looking west or that it is evening and not morning, the belief wouldn't be justified (I assume that the phenomenology of sunsets and sunrises is indistinguishable). Now I am not, however, supposing that all knowledge of the external world is inferential. Your belief that the sky is red might well be epistemically basic. Nor am I insisting that your sunset belief is psychologically inferential. My only claim here is that many relatively simple beliefs we form about the external world typically depend for their justification on background beliefs; and background beliefs are memory beliefs.

Yet the matter of the epistemology of memory belief is important for its own sake as well. Virtually all of what we know (or are justified in believing) at any given time resides in memory. However, epistemology has been focussed almost exclusively, even if implicitly, on the epistemology of belief formation — of coming to believe a proposition. Yet it is not at all clear that the conditions necessary and sufficient for justifiably coming to believing a proposition are necessary and sufficient for justifiably maintaining it. So if we are to understand how we know the vast majority of what we know at any given time, we'll need an account of the epistemology of memory. This essay will focus on the issues that arise when one attempts to construct such a thing.

The nature of memory was hotly debated in the early modern period by British empiricists David Hume and John Locke, and by Scottish Common Sense Realist Thomas Reid. Our selective excursion into historical discussions will also include a consideration of Bertrand Russell's from The Analysis of Mind. We'll conclude our historical review with the briefest of surveys from the small literature of the second half of the last century.

With our limited survey completed, we'll next clarify the various ways that “memory belief” can be construed. This turns out to be a more complicated business than one might have thought. Having made a number of relevant distinctions and defined our terms, we'll at last be prepared to consider how different kinds of theories account for the justification of that which we remember. Finally, we'll have a look at the prospects for demonstrating the general reliability of memory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Memory has always fascinated me. I can still remember a phrase from a textbook when I was in 5th grade. The topic was Surviving on the Moon. The phrase I always remembered was: Be as close to the day/night horizon as possible, and move between the two environments to regulate your temperature.
So facts are somewhat easy to remember, and facts are not usually clouded by time or the environment.
As I read through the material on problems and issues, I was struck by how those terms are sometimes as stringent as facts are and not effected by time or the environment as are values.
Alan Kennamer HUM114