This week, I’m writing a series of posts on my new book Memory: A Self-Referential Account (Oxford University Press, 2019). The post today concerns the topic of chapter four, the phenomenology of memory and, in particular, two aspects of the temporal phenomenology of memory.
Firstly, when we remember something, we are aware of the relevant scene as having taken place in the past. I call this the ‘feeling of pastness’ in memory. Secondly, when we remember something, we feel that we are, as it were, mentally projected or transported back to the time at which we witnessed the relevant scene. I call this the ‘experience of mental time travel’ in memory.
The view that memory involves a feeling of pastness, and the view that memory involves an experience of mental time travel, are both quite intuitive. And yet, there is an interesting tension between them. The tension is that a natural approach to the experience of mental time travel turns out to be incompatible with the view that our memories carry with them a feeling of pastness. The approach in question is that according to which, when a subject remembers some scene, what it is for a subject to be mentally transported back to the time at which they witnessed the scene in the past is for them to re-experience the scene, or to re-live that past experience.
At first glance, this seems like an attractive explanation of the metaphor of mental time travel. What we mean, when we say that, in virtue of remembering, a subject is mentally travelling to the past is simply that the subject is undergoing, for the second time, an experience that they originally had in the past. They are, so to speak, re-running that experience in their heads. The trouble for this view is that the phenomenology of the perceptual experiences that we had in the past and the phenomenology of the memories that, in the present, we have as a result of those past perceptual experiences is quite different. Specifically, our memories enjoy a feeling of pastness that the perceptual experiences in which those memories originate lacked in the past. So the idea that remembering a scene is re-experiencing that scene, or re-living the experience of that scene, seems to be quite implausible on closer inspection. The challenge is to find an explanation of the intuitive metaphor of mental time travel which is consistent with the presence of a feeling of pastness in memory.
I adopt an intentionalist approach, according to which the phenomenal features of memories are due to the contents that those memories have. Accordingly, I try to explain both the feeling of pastness and the experience of mental time travel that memories have by finding components in their contents which could be responsible for them. Responsible in what way? The thought is that these two aspects of the phenomenology of our memories are the way in which, at the personal level, we experience some of the things that we are representing when we remember something.
Take, for example, the case in which I saw a red apple a few days ago and, now, I have a memory which originates in my past perceptual experience of the apple. As I explained in my post yesterday, my proposal is that the content of my memory is that my memory comes from having perceived the red apple by having the perceptual experience at issue. The suggestion, now, is that the experience of mental time travel is the way in which I am aware of one of the things represented by my memory, namely, the perceptual experience of the apple that I had in the past.
Notice that this is a deflationary explanation of the feeling of mental time travel. Any mental state wherein I represent a perceptual experience will involve an experience of mental time travel in this sense. If I, for example, imagine what it would be like for me to look down on the world from the top of mount Everest, then, when I imagine having that visual experience, I am mentally transported to a time in which I would be having that experience. What about the feeling that the apple was in front of me in the past? My suggestion is that the feeling of pastness is the way in which I am aware of another of the things represented by my memory, namely, the causal origin of my memory; the fact that my memory comes from a particular perceptual experience.
Notice that this explanation of the feeling of pastness squares with an interesting intuition about the memories of, not mental time travellers, but time travellers simpliciter. Suppose that I get into my time travel machine, set the dial to millions of years ago, and I get out. Then, while I walk around trying to avoid dinosaurs, I may remember how I got there. I may remember getting into my time travel machine. Presumably, such a memory carries with it a feeling of pastness. So is my memory misleading, then, when it presents the scene of me getting into my time travel machine as having happened in the past? That scene will happen in the future. And yet, we do not have the intuition that, in this case, my memory is misleading. I think the reason why we don’t have this intuition is that the feeling of pastness is not an experience wherein we are aware of the temporal position of a remembered scene. Instead, it is an experience wherein we are aware of the causal link between a memory and the (typically, past) experience in which the memory originates.