Sunday 17 November 2013

Workshop on Memory in Adelaide

University of Adelaide
On Friday, November 15th, a workshop on the philosophy of memory took place at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. This workshop was organized by Suzanne Bliss and myself, and it was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council for a project on the debate between the 'false memory' approach versus the 'recovered memory' approach to reports of long-forgotten memories of sexual abuse.

The project is now finalizing its first phase, which has dealt with conceptual issues on the metaphysics of memory (what kind of causal history must a mental state have to count as a memory), the epistemology of memory (what kind of knowledge do we have of our own memories?) and the phenomenology of memory (what aspects of what it is like to remember something episodically are essential to memory, and what aspects could be missing from memory?). The workshop concentrated on conceptual issues for that reason.

We were very fortunate to have four outstanding philosophers to share their views on memory with us at the workshop: John Sutton and Chris McCarroll from Macquarie University, David Braddon-Mitchell from the University of Sydney, and Daniel Stoljar from the Australian National University.

In a joint-authored paper, Sutton and McCarroll discussed the phenomenon of 'observer memory' wherein the subject seems to remember a scene that she perceived in the past from the outside, as it were (from the point of view that a hypothetical past observer would have needed to occupy in order to perceive the scene with the subject in it). It is controversial whether this type of mental state does qualify as a memory or not within philosophy, whereas it is widely accepted that it does count as a memory within psychology. McCarroll and Sutton discussed several challenges to the idea that observer memories are genuine memories, and defended the view that mental states of this type are indeed memories.

Braddon-Mitchell discussed the relevance of empirical research on memory for the question of whether the supervenience basis of the experience that we undergo when we have certain memories might not be instantaneous with those memories and, instead, it may be extended in time. The significance of this issue is that if this research did yield such an outcome, then presentism (the view according to which only present things exist) would be false. Braddon-Mitchell did not defend presentism, but he did argue that the available empirical research on memory does not settle the issue of whether the supervenience basis of memories can be extended in time or not.

Stoljar addressed the issue of how we know that we remember a proposition. He discussed three possible options, and highlighted the pros and cons of each of the options. Of special relevance for this blog might be the 'transparency' option, on which I submitted a different post for this blog. According to the version of the transparency view that I defend, if I form a belief on the basis of one of my episodic memories, then I know that I have that belief on the basis of the very same episodic memory on which the belief was formed. 
Stoljar raised some compelling challenges for this view, which will keep me busy for a while ...

I myself gave a paper on whether memory merely preserves epistemic justification over time, or it can generate such justification. Most philosophers seem to think the former. I argued that the reason for this is that the 'copy model' of memory, according to which the contents of episodic memories are copies of the contents of the experiences on which they originate, still constrains our philosophical thinking about the epistemic role of memory. I defended an alternative model of memory, on which memories represent their own causal histories. 
This model yields the result that content is being generated, and not just preserved, through memory and, on the basis of that result, I defended the view that memory can generate epistemic justification, and not only preserve it.

At least one more workshop on memory will be organized at the University of Adelaide during 2014 or, more likely, 2015. Given the success of the event last Friday, we're thinking of the same format (one day; just a few speakers). I encourage all of you to attend the next workshop if you happen to be in Australia at the relevant time!

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