‘How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot;
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d’
(Alexander Pope, Eloisa and Abelard)
Yesterday I took a class on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. For those who don’t know the story, it is about a salesman, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to discover he has turned into an insect. We discussed, amongst other things, the importance of identity and how this is bound up in things, such as items that have a particular connection to oneself, for Gregor was distressed that the furniture from his room was being removed: even though this meant that, as an insect, it gave him greater physical freedom, it also meant it removed much of his humanity; the physical memories of his life previous to being an insect.
The same day, a small group watched Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind as part of the Philosophy and Film series. It gave us an opportunity to reflect once more on memory: if it were indeed possible to erase unhappy memories then why wouldn’t you? Also, would such an erasure really make any fundamental difference as to what constitutes you? Is it our memories that makes us what we are?
That evening, I returned to my apartment and turned on the TV to watch a new series called Caprica. The ‘functionalist’ premise here is that, with such advanced technology, it would be possible to collect together all the public memories of one individual and create a copy of that person. Think about it: only one hundred years ago a person who has died would have left very little physical memory; a journal perhaps, some photos maybe, letters, a birth certificate,public records, a skeleton…But someone born today will leave behind vast megabytes of ‘data’, a digital memory of themselves, stored on hard drives, databases, photos, videos, text messages, emails, social networking sites, YouTube, hospital records (brain scans, x-rays), blogs…But even if you did collate this all together into some ‘avatar’ would this really be anything remotely like the original? Are we not made of more than our public, third-person memories? What of the ‘what’s-it-likeness’. of qualia, of…dare I say it…soul?
…Another day in the life of a philosopher…