Scientists have discovered that we can make rats forget or remember something by turning a switch on and off. This is not really unusual. In fact, to Aristotle, this would not be surprising. He believed that people were bodies and souls together. Four hundred years ago, Descartes disagreed. He thought that people were souls stuck inside bodies. Since remembering is something bodies do, souls have nothing to do with memory. Memories can be described in a mechanical way. A philosophical examination of memory shows that this is not true: Descartes was wrong.

The experiment allowed the researchers to prevent rats from moving new memories into long-term memory. It also allowed them to mechanically move the memories (with a computer) rather than using natural methods. Since human brains and rats brains use similar methods of remembering, scientists believe that eventually we will be able to help people remember better with mechanical aids. It would be very surprising if this were not true.

All of this does not show that memories are merely mechanical (as Descartes claimed). Memories are all about something or other. Your memory of yesterday’s dinner is about the dinner. All memories are about things. Nothing mechanical is about something because it is mechanical. Consider a series of bars on the ground that spell out I WAS HERE. The message is about something. But the bars do not form a message because they are bars. They form a message because of their arrangement. Like the researchers, we might be able to move the bars from one place to another mechanically, but that does not mean we can create a message mechanically. So this story does not show that memories are mechanical. Furthermore, we have a good philosophical reason to believe that no memories are mechanical. That means that Aristotle was right (again) and Descartes was wrong.

What does that mean for us? It means that Aristotle may be right. Maybe we do have souls. This scientific evidence does not prove anything different. If we have souls, perhaps it is worthwhile to ask whether they are eternal (as Aristotle believed).

Tags: Greek Philosophy
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