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. Shamsukha.
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.
. So 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.
For 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 truly extra-cerebral.
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 time.
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 research.
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 anymore.
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.
Rather, 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.