You Are What You Would Do

In the Science Fiction film Total Recall, Arnold Schwartzenegger's character has his memories replaced. Meeting with a mutant who can restore his memory, he is asked why he wants it back. "To be myself again," he answers. "You are what you do," the mutant replies.

There's a philosophical assumption there that goes back to Locke that suggests our identity comes from our memories. Nina Strohminger argues that this is not plausible. When people suffer radical memory loss, their sense of self generally remains the same -- and their personalities are often quite stable.

If you are what you do, it isn't what you have done, in other words. It's what you would do.

Which claim seems right to you?


MikeD said...

I would say it is the choices we make which define us. Intentions are shadows. So from that standpoint, I think it's less of "the choices we would make" and more of "the choices we do make." I can hypothesize till I'm blue in the face what I would do if confronted by a home invader. But when faced with the reality of such a situation, what will be the outcome? Will my would become did? I can't know until it happens. By the same token, I agree that it doesn't matter if you forget what you did in a situation in the past. You are never the exact same person now as you were then. You have the benefit of experiences and knowledge that you lacked then, and you have the benefit of hindsight. Someone who forgets what they once did may lack that hindsight, but that changes very little of who they are right now.

As such, just because there are things in my past I would do differently now, does not mean they were wrong, or bad, or poor choices for then. They just were the decisions I made based upon who I was. The man I am now may make different choices. I cannot tell without being put back into those same circumstances.

So I guess, put me down for the "you are what you do camp," not in the "you are what you did."

E Hines said...

Mike is getting at the place. You're positing a choice that isn't entirely true. What a man would do is heavily informed by what he has done--it's a continuum.

Even given a radical memory loss, there hasn't been a total memory loss; a significant fraction of that informing past remains extant, even if covert. It's not the new-born's tabula rasa.

We are, to a very large extent, an amalgam of what we have done, what we do, and what we will do. All of which is fit within the straightjacket of what we can do.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

I think the tabula rasa claims are invalid even for newborns, though, which points to another issue. Human individuals have different capacities.

Now what you have done says a lot about which capacities you've developed; you may also add new capacities that way. In this way what you have done says a lot about what you could do.

The claim makes something of a hash of the plot of Total Recall, though: the idea was that replacing memories could make Quaid an actually different person morally as well. What's being argued here is that, actually, the memories lack that capacity. It's not like you're making a decision in a purely intellectual context in which you reason from past experiences. There's something more basic to moral action than just abstract reasoning about problems. Some of it comes down to who you are.

Ymar Sakar said...

The Japanese philosophy in the main stream sometimes prefer to think that people's best qualities are their memories. Not the social work hound that obeys and must work for family and nation, but the personal soul that has dreams and desires.

Without a person's memories of what they value in life, they become little more than a drone. Certainly their social actions don't change... but then again, a robot or monkey can pretty much do the same thing. Social behavior requires Obedience, not imagination or Will.

RonF said...

IT seems to me that what you will do is often influence by your understanding of what you have done. I suggest that people will try to be consistent in their actions with what they have done before. It also seems to me that if you do not remember what you have done then when faced with a similar situation you will not have experience to draw upon and may well act differently than if you did remember that experience.

Ymar Sakar said...

A person that does not remember his past, will not remember his sins and the guilt he accrues day by day without atoning for them.

A person that does not remember his past, will not remember the duty, debts, and obligations to those that have saved and helped his life.

A person that does not remember his past, will never, ever, repay back what he owes. Nor will he be able to keep promises he doesn't even remember.

A cast off rootless tree, thrashing in the void of the storm.

People, or perhaps specifically males, are stronger when defending something. Without the memories of what they are defending or living for, they are far weaker than they look.

The American psyche cannot think in certain ways, because the language was utilized to do a brain surgery on people. It cuts out ideas and beliefs, cultural and civilization amnesia. They don't know what they don't know.

Ymar Sakar said...

For example, many Americans think Lincoln was a Democrat and that this is why they support Democrat policies against racist Republicans.

Memory control is just as useful as gun control, in managing slaves and serfs.