Thursday, 2 June 2016

Mental Time Travel

In this blog post, Kourken Michelian introduces his new book Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past.

I'm a lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of Otago. Before moving to New Zealand last year, I worked for several years at Bilkent University in Turkey and at the Institut Jean-Nicod in France. My work is mostly on memory.

Everyone -- including philosophers -- knows that memory doesn't work like a tape recorder, but philosophers have a way of forgetting this fact. When working on other topics, they often assume that it's an acceptable idealization to treat memory as if it did work that way. If they then happen to read research by psychologists or others that reminds them that remembering really doesn't work like a tape recorder -- that it's a thoroughly reconstructive process, rather than simple reproductive one -- they react with surprise.

If remembering isn't a reproductive process, then what's the difference between remembering and imagining? If remembering is reconstructive rather than reproductive, how can it be a source of knowledge? At least, this was more or less my reaction when I began to look at the psychology of memory.

Since then, I've been grappling with these questions, and my book, Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past, defends my current answers to them. I argue in the book that research on remembering as mental time travel shows that traditional theories of remembering, including the influential causal theory, are inadequate. Remembering an event doesn't require a causal link with the remembered event -- instead, remembering is a matter of simulating or imagining the event.

Given that remembering an event just is imagining it, it isn't clear how memory can achieve sufficient reliability to provide us with knowledge of the past, raising the threat of a sort of empirically-grounded scepticism. I argue that there are metacognitive monitoring processes that enable simulational, imaginative remembering to meet standards of reliability sufficient for knowledge, warding off the threat of scepticism. In short, our intuitive picture of the way memory works may be inaccurate, but our instinctive trust in our own memories is justified.

Of course, there's much more to be said about mental time travel. One of the key ideas of the mental time travel framework is that there's a symmetry between remembering the past and imagining the future, and research in psychology has increasingly focused on the latter. With Stan Klein and Karl Szpunar, I've just finished editing Seeing the Future: Theoretical Perspectives on Future-Oriented Mental Time Travel, the first interdisciplinary book on future-oriented mental time travel. The book, including a number of contributions by philosophers, is in production now and won't be published until later in 2016, but in the meantime you can read our editorial introduction here.

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