|The logical necessity of the survival of personal memory after bodily death|
|To what extent can we be certain that our memories will survive the death of our bodies?|
The logical necessity of the survival of personal memory after
bodily death: To what extent can we be certain that our memories will
survive the death of our bodies?
Paper presented at the conference on the Survival of Human
Personality at Rajsamand (Udaipur, Rajasthan), 1991, read by Dr. B.
by Titus Rivas, The Netherlands
In this theoretical lecture I want to address the question to what
extent the survival of personal memory after bodily death is certain. I
will hold that it is an apriori certainty that our memory will indeed
generally survive death to the same extent
that it survives during physical life, given a general theory of the
constancy of psychological laws. In the first parts of the lecture I
will show the logical proof of this position. Finally, I will look at
some of its implications.
So let me now explore to what extent the survival of memory after death is an a priori certainty.
First of all, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the term
"personal memory". I think that by this term we notably mean the
following three things:
a. conceptual and semantic memory, i.e. memories of concepts and categories, such as the concepts 'house', 'War in the Gulf', 'India', etc.
b. episodic memory, i.e. memories of events and episodes, such as the celebration of a birthday.
c. motoric memory, i.e. memory of motor skils, such as playing the guitar, or swimming.
Now, reductive materialist thought has it
that al of personal memory is embodied in the brain. In other words,
there would not be even a single memory representation in the mind (as
a non-physical entity) itself, and memory representations would just be
brain configurations. If this materialist position is right, then of
course memories could never survive death, since memories would be
formal representations in the grey matter which, as everybody knows,
does not survive physical death.
There are dualists, such as John Eccles, who basically agree that the real memory representations are located in the brain, but who at the same time believe that there are also subjective memory experiences. By "reading" the brain, mind would get memory information, which it can transform into conscious experiences.
there are two different positions, one reductive matenalist, the other
dualist, which both contend that memory representation as such is in
located the brain. The main difference between the two positions is
that reductive materialism does not accept the existence of irreducible
subjective (and therefore non-physical) memories.
II. Criticism of the cerebral memory theory
After having pointed out the two variants of the cerebral memory-theory, let me now attack it.
First of all, I do not think I have to spend much time demonstrating
the existence of subjective memories. Subjective memory is the
phenomenon upon which all serious theorizing in the field is based.
Without subjective memory, there is no need to theorize about memory,
because "memory" would be an empty word without meaning. Thus, if I may
say so, the reductive materialist theory of memory is not at all
interesting and should be abandoned without any further consideration.
However, the dualist version of cerebral memory theorizing is less
absurd. For one thing, it grants the obvious existence of subjective
memory and furthermore it recognizes a more or less active role for the
mind in the process of remembering.
Therefore, I wish to dedicate more effort to the logically demonstrable
impossibility of a personal memory representation that is totally
embodied in brain structures.
My point is that there must be an extra-cerebral, psychical memory.
Let me try to convince you.
a memory representation to be cerebral, it must totally conform to
properties that can be completely realized in the brain. In other
words, as stressed by theoreticians in the field of Artificial
Intelligence, cerebral memory representations must be seen as formal
(purely quantitative or mathematical, as in: the mathematical form
of a physical configuration) structures of the brain. Therefore, if we
can show that at least some memory representations cannot in principle
be formal (in the afore mentioned sense of purely mathematical), we
will have shown at the same time that the cerebral memory-theory does
not work for them. In that case, we would have logically proven the
existence of an extra-cerebral, psychical memory. Now, are there any
such non-formal memory representations, my anxious audience will want
to know. The cheerful answer must be: Yes, there are! It has
cost me a considerable amount of time to reach this conclusion, but -
as usual - now that I have reached it; it seems rather simple. Please
listen carefully nonetheless.
The non-formal memory representations must be memory representations of
entities which are non-formal themselves. This is so, because it is
always possible to give formal descriptions of formal properties of the
world, but it is always impossible
to do the same for non-formal, i.e. non-mathematical properties. Now,
there may be many non-formal entities or properties in the world, but
there is at least one category of them whose existence cannot be
doubted, namely subjective experience.
Consciousness consists of many different kinds of qualitative, intentional and more than anything subjective
experiences. We all know of the existence of such experiences as joy,
pain, anger, brightness, noise, conscious thoughts, etc. None of these
subjective or phenomenal experiences is amenable to complete
formal descriptions. Maybe that we can simulate some aspect of them in
computers, but we can never cover them fully that way. Their existence
is the very reason why we talk of a mind-body problem, or of the nature
of the conscious self, etc.
Now, a memory representation must exhaustively "describe" or represent
the properties to be remembered subjectively. That means of course, my
honourable audience, that a cerebral memory representation of
subjective experiences could never be exhaustive! At best, it could
consist of formal representations that would themselves give rise to
particular subjective experiences. For example, it could be a
replication of a sensory pattern in the brain that in the past caused
some specific visual experience. But it could never represent the fact
that the sensory pattern did indeed lead to such an experience, nor
what the visual experience as such was like.
We have almost completed the first part of our abstract journey, so I beg you to be patient.
After having established the analytical impossibility
of an exhaustive cerebral memory pattern that could satisfactorily
represent a subjective experience of any kind, it is necessary to show
that there are indeed exhaustive memory representations of such
subjective experiences. The precious insight we are seeking lies in the
field of semantic or conceptual memory. When we are talking
about the concepts of subjective experiences or conscious awareness,
about subjective feelings, thoughts, desires, etc., etc., we show that
we have more conceptual knowledge of them than would be possible on the
basis of formal representations in the brain. We know for instance what
we mean when we distinguish between the subjective experience of say a
tooth ache and the neuronal stimulation involved in it. In other words:
we demonstrate that we know more about subjective awareness than any
formal memory representation could ever tell us. The whole vocabulary
of subjectivity testifies to this fact.
What is true for conceptual
psychical memory, whose existence in the form of non-formal and
therefore non-physical representations of concepts of different
categories I have just shown to be absolutely certain, is also valid
for the episodic memories of subjective experiences. It is on
such episodic memories that we must have built our concepts of
consciousness in the first place. If the concepts of consciousness need
to be exhaustive, the episodic memories of subjective experiences must
equally be so.
Thus, there can be no rational doubt about the certainty of a
psychical, non-physical memory, which does not reside in the brain, but
only in the mind itself. The only type of exhaustive physical
representation of anything can be a formal (mathematical) one and
therefore there can be no non-formal representations of anything in the
brain or anywhere else.
This means that whatever there may be in the brain, and whatever
the role the brain may play during the process of remembering, the
account that cerebral memory-theory gives of both is certainly wrong.
III. The survival of psychical memory
Now we reach the most exciting part of this lecture. I hope, however,
that you have not missed what went before it, because then you will
miss the joyous insight I want to offer you next.
I have established by sheer logical analysis that there must exist a
psychical memory which is not in any way embodied in the brain, because
it represents concepts and experiences that by their very nature simply
cannot be adequately represented in formal neuronal patterns. This
means, as I said before, that it only exists outside the brain and is
Now, we all know that the brain can affect personal memory. One
particularly nasty example is Alzheimer disease. So the fact that
personal memories are not physical themselves obviously does not imply
that they are immune to intrusions from the material world. We have to
ask ourselves however if this fact means that with the dissolution of
the brain, we should expect a similar destruction of personal memory.
Before I run the risk of boring you to death so that you might
experience the answer to the question personally, let me finally show
that personal memory as such cannot be destroyed by brain death.
First of all, we have seen that psychical memory is not embodied in the brain. This means that its existence is not linked to brain representations. In other words still: there is no substrate for psychical memory in the brain. Its persistence is therefore something which depends on the persistence of the mind or self,
we should conclude, rather than on the persistence of bodily
structures. However, if this is true for the persistence of personal
memory during physical life, I cannot see how this could be any
different after death. As neither the existence nor the persistence of
psychical memory representations can be thought of as the result of
brain structure or process, the destruction of cerebral structure or
the cessation of brain functioning cannot make any difference for their
existence or persistence either.
Maybe you will feel dissatisfied with this exposť. Perhaps you will
think that it is obvious that the cerebral state and functioning does
play a part in memory - as in the case I mentioned of Alzheimer or in
that of senile dementia -, and might therefore be imagined also to
cause destruction of personal memory at the hour of death. However, if
anyone in the audience does believe something like this, I'm glad to
say that he or she is wrong.
It should be stressed that a difference must be made between what I
have called here "memory representations" and "subjective memories".
Memory representations are those particular entities that make it
possible to have subjective memories which are based on them. We can
only have subjective memories if there is something in our mind which
can cause them, namely memory representations or 'dispositions' in our
unconscious minds. Now, we obviously know that the conscious retrieval
of memories can indeed be infiuenced by the workings of the brain.
However, this does not mean that the memory representations themselves
can really be destroyed by cerebral dysfunctioning.
On the other hand we know for certain now that there are no specifice
cerebral representations exhaustively underlying psychical memory
representations. This is because no exhaustive match is possible
between cerebral representations and psychical memory representations.
Therefore, the psychical memory representations cannot depend on such
hypothetical cerebral representations.
Nevertheless psychical memory does obviously exist and it also persists
in the mind through the passage of time; otherwise we could never use
it. So, whereas the retrieval of memories is indeed influenced by some
unknown laws of brain-mind interaction, the brain is not the cause of
personal memory nor therefore the source of its persistence through
What about possible psychological memory mechanisms that could 'erase'
certain memory representations or replace them by new memory
representations? I do not want to exclude the existence of such
mechanisms, but I do not see any reason to think that after death such
mechanisms would be substituted by other mechanisms. In other words, given the constancy of psychological memory mechanisms in general, both during life and after death, personal memory will survive to the same extent that it does during physical life.
I hope that I have convinced anyone doubting my logical proof of the survival of psychical memory after death.
Let me summarize:
1.Many concepts and episodic memories cannot be the result of formal
memory representation, as they concern non-formal, mental properties.
2.Therefore they cannot be embodied in the brain and must exist only in the mind.
3.Since there can be no exhaustive cerebral substrates for the
existence or persistence of stored psychical memory representation as
such, the latter must be said to exist and persist independently of
specific brain structures or processes.
4.As the existence of personal memory cannot depend on a specific state
or processing of the brain, this implies - given the constancy of
psychological mechanisms - survival of personal memory representations
after brain death, i.e. after the brain has ceased to function. If we start from the constancy of psychological mechanisms in the mind,
we simply must conclude that memory representations in the mind will
persist or survive after death to the same extent as during life.
5. The impact of the brain on the functioning of personal memory
is compatible with the latter's existential independence of the brain.
The manifestation of subjective memories and the functioning of
personal memory in general may be influenced by brain processes, but
not the existence or persistence of memory representations in the mind.
IV. Motor skills
Although our analysis does not
directly touch upon the survival of motor skills in the mind, I would
like to make the following remark. If we accept the existence and
persistence of a personal, non-physical, psychical memory for
conceptual and episodical memory representations, it is rational to
assume that this personal memory may also contain motor skills. We can
learn more about their survival through the empirical manifestation of
motor skills after death and reincarnation.
V. Some implications
After my philosophical analysis, let me mention three implications that
the certainty of the survival of psychical memory after death (given
the same psychological mechanisms as during physical life) has for
theorizing in our empirical fields of survival and reincarnation
1. Most importantly, any "empirical" criticisms of the possibility of
survival of personal memory banks after death, are immunized by the
reasoning here employed. Even the saddest cases of say organic amnesia
cannot disprove the logical certainty of memory survival given the same
psychological mechanisms as during physical life.
2. The survival of memory representation after death should from now on
be taken for granted in theories of survival. For example, in
reincarnation research, we should start from the fact that personal
memory (in the sense of stored memory representations) certainly does
survive death. There is basically nothing problematic about that
3. If reincarnation is seen as universal, as I think it should be, we
should not only ask why some children remember previous lives, but also
why most adults do not. As the personal psychical memory of each of us
would logically have to survive death, it cannot be a question of
memory representations as such.
it wil l concern conscious memory retrieval and the mental and
somatogenic mechanisms involved in this process. Conscious amnesia
concerning previous lives must therefore be seen as the result of
functional impairment and not of structural dissolution.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR ATTENTION!
Original text: 1991, some minor textual improvements: December 2006.
- Metasubjective cognition beyond the brain
- Amnesia and previous lives
|psychical research, philosophy of mind, parapsychology, personalism, reincarnation, memory, metasubjective, life after death|