The Memory Criterion and the Problem of Backward Causation
Hershenov (David)
Source: International Philosophical Quarterly. 47:2:186, June 2007, 181-85
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. Locke famously wrote “And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person, it is the same self now with this present one that now reflects on it, that this action was done.” This and similar passages have been interpreted as providing a memory criterion for personal identity.
  2. Lockeans, as well as their critics, have pointed out that the memory criterion is likely to mean that none of us were ever fetuses1 or even infants due to the lack of direct psychological connections between then and now. But what has been overlooked is that the memory criterion leads to either
    1. backward causation2 and a violation of Locke’s own very plausible principle that we can have only one origin, or
    2. backward causation3 and a number of overlapping people where we thought there was just one.
  3. I will argue that such problems cannot be avoided by replacing direct psychological connections with overlapping chains of connectedness – what has been called “psychological continuity4.” The most famous account of psychological continuity5, that of Derek Parfit6, will still fall prey to these problems for he understands psychological continuity7 to consist of overlapping chains of strong psychological connectedness, the latter defined as involving “at least half the number of direct connections that hold, over every day, in the lives of nearly every actual person.”
  4. Moreover, even if these problems can be avoided by some revamped account of psychological continuity8, it will not do justice to what is Locke’s insight - recognized by David Lewis as well as Parfit9 - about the importance to our identity of our consciousness being directly extended into the past.


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