False Memories

Earlier this week, we ate matzah and told the story of Haggadah. Today, we attended Easter services, where we affirmed the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

Unique among world religions, Christianity and Judaism are obsessed with history. Jewish fathers are commanded to tell Haggadah to their children, and the story is meant to be taken as actual historical fact. Christ’s resurrection is the central historical fact of the Christian faith. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, the entire Christian faith falls apart. These historical events define the collective identity: By definition, Jews are the people who remember that we were delivered from Egypt, and Christians are people who remember that Christ died for our sins and rose again.

Is Your Life a Lie?

This raises a very interesting issue. Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers. If you suddenly developed complete amnesia, relocated to a place where nobody knew you, and had your brain loaded up with detailed false memories; you would, for all practical purposes, be a different person. If people from your old life somehow managed to find you, and tried to convince you that your new identity was a sham, you would no more believe them than if they accused you of being Napoleon.

Such involuntary identity swaps are quite rare for individuals. Slightly more common are individual identity swaps that begin as fraud, but become indistinguishable from truth in the mind of the impostors. When the authorities first accused Clark Rockefeller of being Christian Gerhartsreiter, he probably thought they were the crazy ones.

Things get especially interesting when the identity swap spans generations. If we weren’t there to witness the Exodus or Christ’s resurrection, we have to trust the testimony passed down to us. Imagine that you are growing up in Buenos Aires, believing that you are the grandchild of a refugee from WWII Europe. One day, you learn that your grandfather is an impostor who adopted a false identity shortly before having your father. Your grandfather was actually a Nazi war criminal known for conducting experiments on twins. What does this revelation do to your sense of identity? What if you learn that the patriarch of your nation was an impostor who stole the birthright from his twin brother, thousands of years ago? What if, like the protagonist of the film “Down In the Delta“, you learn that your family patriarch is actually a nickname for a piece of jewelry stolen violently from one of your ancestor’s slave masters?

Why Not Fake It?

Many Christians who are alive today can trace ancestry back to the Saxons, who in recent history were converted en masse to Christianity by Charlemagne, around the same time that Bulan was converting his people en masse to Judaism. It’s virtually certain that Bulan’s ancestors were not present at the Exodus — but who are we to say that his modern descendants have no right to tell Haggadah> to their children? Perhaps, like the Catholic convert to Judaism who went by the name “Moses Ashkenazi“, these recent adopters of ancient collective memories are the most zealous.

When faced with the realization that our collective memories are often adopted from others, there is a temptation to “improve” things. If Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, why can’t we likewise defraud our way through life? Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

Paul’s Twist

Paul’s commentary on the resurrection slams the door on this impulse. With Paul, as with Moses Ashkenazi, there can always be the suspicion that he was adopting a secondhand myth out of utilitarian motives. We know that Paul never knew Christ in the flesh. Instead, he based his conversion on his religious experience of a blinding light, the testimony of others, and his belief that all of creation testified to Christ. However, despite never having met Christ in the flesh, Paul felt confident enough to base his entire faith on Christ’s resurrection.

Seen through this lens, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 takes on new meaning. Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ is contingent upon his sober judgment of the historicity of the resurrection. Paul is saying that his faith in Christ convinces him that the historicity of the resurrection is beyond question. The difference is enormous.

To Paul, Christ resurrected is the only history that harmonizes with his personal experience, the testimony of his peers, and his understanding of the natural world. In other words, Christ resurrected is the only history that is consistent with Paul’s identity. If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

This is quite the opposite of Paul making a choice between two options. It is not Paul doing the choosing, but God. Paul is not soberly evaluating the evidence and deciding whether or not Christ was resurrected. Paul’s personal memories, his history with his peers, and his innate understanding of the world, render him incapable of believing otherwise. If Paul were transported by time machine to the tomb of Christ, and saw that Christ was not resurrected, Paul would undoubtedly conclude that the time machine was defective. Paul has not made a choice to become God’s son. Instead, in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, God proclaimed a decree to Paul: “You are my son; today I have become your father”.

What memory could be truer than that?

6 thoughts on “False Memories”

  1. I think it is clear we disagree on this, but to persist:

    You said,

    Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers.

    So if peers constantly change and your memories disappear much easier that other folks, that this thing you call “identity” is very unstable. But your habitual tendencies would stay — these tendencies of behavior and thought seem to be a better candidate for “indentity” than history.

    Your example of a huge felt shift in identity when someone finds out their father was a Nazi just shows the delusion of the idea that identity is your history. The surprise is caused by reality undermining your false beliefs.

    You said,

    Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

    But that is exactly what did happen at sometime for every culture. They got made up by someone. Some stuck and were passed on, others just burned out with the campfire that night.

    You said,

    Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ…

    .
    I forgot, have you posted somewhere why a deterministic Calvinist would even worry about talking about their faith in an evangelical way?

    You said,

    If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

    But lots of people have given up their faiths and would not contend they gave up their identities. Hindus stopped being Hindus and stopped worshipping Krishna. Mormons stopped their silliness and still felt like themselves.

    That is because identity is one’s habitual emotional habits and tendencies, memories are a weaker component and beliefs are weaker yet, I’d contend.

    I am sure I have that order wrong, and besides, I really have an issue with the importance of “identity” outside of habits of mind. But hopefully I have offered one or two half-way interesting challenges.

  2. I am sure I have that order wrong, and besides, I really have an issue with the importance of “identity” outside of habits of mind. But hopefully I have offered one or two half-way interesting challenges.

    As always, I appreciate the challenges. I’m still a bit suspicious that I might have committed a circular reasoning fallacy somewhere in here, and I’m still not satisfied with my level of ability at arranging my arguments logically. I think I still have far too much tendency to rely on rhetoric. Having people challenge things helps me try to improve.

    So if peers constantly change and your memories disappear much easier that other folks, that this thing you call “identity” is very unstable. But your habitual tendencies would stay — these tendencies of behavior and thought seem to be a better candidate for “identity” than history.

    Yes, exactly, your “self” is changing continually; sometimes gradually and sometimes quickly. I don’t think it really matters how long your identity endures relative to other people’s. What’s important is that you have some history at any moment that you use to make decisions: “I remember that I threw up last time I ate a hot dog, so I’m going to order a hamburger instead”.

    I’m not sure about identifying someone by bundles of enduring characteristics. That seems more like description than identification — “Bobby has a quick temper and a phobia of high places”. Having a quick temper and a phobia of high places may be a perfectly accurate description, but it doesn’t allow you to distinguish Bobby uniquely from others.

    The surprise is caused by reality undermining your false beliefs.

    Of course. It’s reasonable, though, to say that the guy was living unknowingly under a false identity before. The fact that his sense of identity now tracks more closely to reality doesn’t mean that his sense of identity hasn’t changed.

    It’s questionable how closely our identities (to ourselves and among our peers) track to reality anyway. We invariably have a lot of embellishment and omission, and we just roll with it. Let’s assume that you actually didn’t throw up from eating hot dogs, and you’re falsely remembering it because of a story a friend told you. As long as you believe you did, it’s going to influence your behavior.

    But lots of people have given up their faiths and would not contend they gave up their identities.

    Very true. The comment about Paul was a rhetorical flourish, since Paul changed his name from Saul to Paul upon having a personal experience of Christ. For him, that was the memory that abruptly caused a crisis of identity. If he later decided that the vision was a hallucination, it seems reasonable to assume that he would revert to being Saul.

    I forgot, have you posted somewhere why a deterministic Calvinist would even worry about talking about their faith in an evangelical way?

    Because he’s predestined to do so? 🙂 Actually, the answer is that determinism is not fatalism. Calvinists and many atheist naturalists like Dawkins and Dennett ascribe to compatibilism, which is a method of reconciling our sense of free will with determinism while retaining moral culpability. Immanuel Kant called compatibilism a “wretched subterfuge”, but I don’t see any way to avoid it.

    It’s a great question though. I will try to dig up a good post clearing the confusion about Calvinism and evangelism.

    But that is exactly what did happen at sometime for every culture. They got made up by someone. Some stuck and were passed on, others just burned out with the campfire that night.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m driving at. Our cultural heritage will always be fictional in some sense, just by virtue of the fact that much of the historical reality will have been omitted, due to limited ability to transmit memory. We are forced to be selective. Then, in addition to necessary selectivity, there are mistakes, and it’s even possible that some of it is outright fraudulent fiction.

    What I’m getting at is that it might not matter as much as we think. You can imagine someone saying, “Screw you and your ‘reality’, I know from experience that hot dogs make me puke, and I’m not going to eat one!”. Even if the guy has never eaten a hot dog, if that’s what he believes, it’s reality for him. Paul is saying the same sort of thing here, I think — I would just add, “neither life, nor death, nor time machines”.

  3. (1) I loved the confession of rhetoric vs logic. Very important. Many academics get enamoured by rhetoric.

    (2) Heck, dogs have a history even if they don’t remember it like we do. [we don’t know, of course]. I am not invested at all in looking for enduring behaviors either (remember, I care not about a self) but I was saying that more than memory, if you are fishing for identity, then behaviors would be more meaningful. Imagine two robots: A) behaves like a deceased person “X” — including speech acts. B) has memories of “X” but doesn’t talk about them. As a former friend which robot seems like “X” — all would say (A) , no?

    (3) Distinguishing uniquely is rather boring, actually, and has little to do with identity, I think. We can uniquely identify cells, blood samples …

    I contend that the “change” from Saul to Paul is almost totally rhetorical. I have seen lots of new Christians claim and new self and watched them then just display their same old habits in new clothes. I have seen lots of Buddhists claim brilliant self-awareness from meditation and claim they are transformed but act very similar to they did prior to satori. The list goes on.

    Paul–>Saul is a story. The writer wants you to idealize it and hold it in your mind as truth — that is the function of the rhetoric.

    Your last two paragraphs confused me:

    So you are saying, “Look, we may live with myths but heck, they are us! Yeah!”

    That is all I hear. Everyone does that, don’t they. I thought you were trying to say something more interesting like: “Memory is key to having a soul. Soul is key to Christianity. Christianity is the Truth.”

    Just trying to strip the rhetoric and expose the claims.

  4. Behavior is molded by experience. I don’t know how you can talk about “behaves like deceased person ‘X'” without having a memory of how X behaved.

    Distinguishing uniquely is rather boring, actually, and has little to do with identity

    On the contrary, we’re social animals, so it’s absolutely critical to be able to identify individuals uniquely. The leading theory for why we have large brains is Robin Dunbar’s, which argues that we need to remember who did what to whom, so we can properly stay affiliated in coalitions, keep away rivals, and so on. He makes this point by comparing cerebral cortex size of social animals like dogs, chimpanzees, and humans. Size of cerebral cortex is closely correlated with the average size of the social group.

    It’s not as if you can walk up to someone and use your 5 senses to decide, “this is a person who generally behaves in a trustworthy manner”. On the contrary, you make that assessment based on a history of him.

    I thought you were trying to say something more interesting like: “Memory is key to having a soul. Soul is key to Christianity. Christianity is the Truth.”

    No, not at all. What I’m saying is that memory in animals (dogs, chimpanzees, etc.) was primarily about group survival. However, humans have hit a phase transition where that is no longer the case. Think of it like this — dogs don’t have a theory of mind; they can only record histories and base behavior on how they were treated. Chimps, on the other hand, have three orders of intentionality. They can deceive other chimps, by predicting how the other chimp will respond. Only humans can blow right past this third order into 4th and 5th order — we can watch ourselves being molded, and participate in the process. Suddenly, our use of memory/history is no longer an instinctive thing driven by group survival, but is instead something were both using to deceive others, and using to attempt to track to some truth judgment that is independent of survival.

    IMO, looking at human culture and memory as if it’s about survival, is like trying to understand reason by looking at neurons. There is something much bigger going on with culture.

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