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Memory is Everything

-4 Post author: Qwake 22 August 2014 04:48AM

I have found (there is some (evidence)[http://mentalfloss.com/article/52586/why-do-our-best-ideas-come-us-shower] to suggest this) that showers are a great place to think. While I am taking a shower I find that I can think about things in a whole new perspective and it's very refreshing. Well today, while I was taking a shower, an interesting thing popped into my head. Memory is everything. Your memory contains you, it contains your thoughts, it contains your own unique perception of reality. Imagine going to bed tonight and waking up with absolutely no memory of your past. Would you still consider that person yourself? There is no question that our memories/experiences influence our behavior in every possible way. If you were born in a different environment with different stimuli you would've responded to your environment differently and became a different person. How different? I don't want to get involved in the nature/nurture debate but I think there is no question that humans are influenced by their environment. How are humans influenced by our environment? Through learning from our past experiences, which are contained in our memory. I'm getting off topic and I have no idea what my point is... So I propose a thought experiment!

 

Omega the supercomputer gives you 3 Options. Option 1 is for you to pay Omega $1,000,000,000 and Omega will grant you unlimited utility potential for 1 week in which Omega will basically provide to your every wish. You will have absolutely no memory of the experience after the week is up. Option 2 is for Omega to pay you $1,000,000,000 but you must be willing to suffer unlimited negative utility potential for a week (you will not be harmed physically or mentally you will simply experience excruciating pain). You will also have absolutely memory of this experience after the week (your subconscious will also not be affected). Finally, Option 3 is simply to refuse Option 1 and 2 and maintain the status quo.

 

At first glance, it may seem that Option 2 is simply not choosable. It seems insane to subject yourself to torture when you have the option of nirvana. But it requires more thought than that. If you compare Option 1 to Option 2 after the week is up there is no difference between the options except that Option 2 nets you 2 billion dollars compared to Option 1. In both Options you have absolutely no memory of either weeks. The question that I'm trying to put forward in this thought experiment is this. If you have no memory of an experience does that experience still matter? Is it worth experiencing something for the experience alone or is it the memory of an experience that matters? Those are some questions that I have been thinking about lately. Any feedback or criticism is appreciated.

One last thing, if you are interested in the concept and importance of memory two excellent movies on the subject are [Memento](http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209144/) and [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind](http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338013/0). I know they both of these movies aren't scientific but I thought them to be very intriguing and thought provoking.    

Comments (32)

Comment author: wadavis 22 August 2014 05:26:24PM *  6 points [-]

Option 1 is for you to pay Omega $1,000,000,000 and Omega will grant you unlimited utility potential for 1 week in which Omega will basically provide to your every wish. You will have absolutely no memory of the experience after the week is up.

Partying during university.

Option 2 is for Omega to pay you $1,000,000,000 but you must be willing to suffer unlimited negative utility potential for a week.

Summer jobs during university.

What I'm seeing is an extension to the extremes of normal life. I'm going to work on these watered down cases, because they are relatable.

Working the highest paying job available regardless of hellish working conditions in order to pay for university and the fun had at university sucked. I even practiced meditation to try to pretend I was somewhere else and to try to separate myself from the torment of the work. But it was a price paid to accomplish my goals.

Partying during university was a blast, but it was very costly. And this fits fairly well with your memory loss nirvana. Your results may vary, but I liked drunk me. He acted in a manner I fully approved of and did nothing that I was truly ashamed of. As happens with hard drinking, memory loss started to occur. As mentioned this was not a reputation/shame problem, I was still acting in a manner true to my ethics and goals in a way I approved of, but I did not remember the joy had. Not remembering the joy had took all the fun out of it. Joy had without the memory of joy had is worthless.

This is my attempt to move away from the far ends of the spectrum and engage the topic. I'd like to hear your feedback.

Comment author: army1987 22 August 2014 08:50:41PM 3 points [-]

My intuition says that things that I can't remember (nor give me PTSD, nor affect me any other way) don't matter, but given that after I die I won't rememer anything anyway my intuition must be wrong.

Comment author: Dentin 23 August 2014 03:44:53AM 2 points [-]

The clear and obvious "you'd have to be retarded not to take it" answer for me is option 2. I would take option 2 with extreme prejudice.

Comment author: shminux 22 August 2014 05:14:41PM 2 points [-]

I think this post belongs in reddit.com/r/showerthoughts.

The topic has been discussed many times here, for example (by searching for torture and amnesia): http://lesswrong.com/lw/eap/expected_utility_and_utility_after_time/
http://lesswrong.com/lw/8wi/inverse_pzombies_the_other_direction_in_the_hard/
http://lesswrong.com/lw/eu/off_topic_thread_may_2009/bhc

Comment author: ChristianKl 22 August 2014 07:18:56AM 1 point [-]

That basically the kind of philosophy that got young children tortured in the past because they supposedly were to young to form memories.

The idea of experiencing something without it having an effect on your psychological state is wrong. Memories are not really required for that to happen. You expect the concept of memories to behave in a way that it doesn't. Discussing memories based on bad concept of what it happens to be isn't very useful.

Memories are for example not required for Pavlovian conditioning.

Comment author: army1987 22 August 2014 08:47:56PM 4 points [-]

The OP says “your subconscious will also not be affected”, so ISTM you're fighting the hypothetical.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 August 2014 05:25:57PM 2 points [-]

If the hypothesis is contrary to how humans really work, our intuitions may be less relevant here (because they were formed by the real world).

Comment author: army1987 26 August 2014 12:51:32PM 0 points [-]

Good point, though there are many many more thought experiments that applies to.

Comment author: ChristianKl 22 August 2014 09:08:24PM -1 points [-]

The OP says “your subconscious will also not be affected”, so ISTM you're fighting the hypothetical.

Of course I'm fighting the hypothetical thought experiment. I think the notion of experience without being affected doesn't make any sense.

Comment author: army1987 23 August 2014 01:23:01PM 1 point [-]

IMO the question whether you would still value giving your sister penicillin if it didn't cure her pneumonia doesn't completely stop make sense even if it's impossible for penicillin to not cure pneumonia¹, though it does become less useful. Do we value experiences we won't remember terminally, besides their instrumental value for not getting PTSD or whatnot in the future?


  1. Not true for literal penicillin and literal pneumonia anyway, but still.
Comment author: ChristianKl 23 August 2014 01:36:28PM 0 points [-]

That isn't what I'm arguing. In arguing that his notion of experience fundamentally flawed.

If you engage in thought experiments that are build on mistaken assumptions about human cognition you likely won't move in a direction of understanding the subject matter better. Instead you propagate errors across your whole belief system.

There are much nicer real world examples that you can use when you want to speak about trade off between remembered experience and experience as felt in the moment. Problems that actually matter for day to day actions.

Comment author: bogdanb 25 August 2014 08:29:05PM 0 points [-]

It seems rather silly to argue about that, when the thought experiment starts with Omega and bets for amounts of a billion dollars. That allows glossing over a lot of details. Your position is like objecting to a physics thought experiment that assumes frictionless surfaces, while the same thought experiment also assumes mass-less objects.

As a simple example: Omega might make a ridiculously precise scan of your entire body, subject you to the experiment (depending on which branch you chose), then restore each molecule to the same position and state it was during the initial scan, within the precision limits of the initial scan. Sure, there’ll be quantum uncertainty and such, but there’s no obvious reason why the differences would be greater than, say, the differences appearing during nodding off for a couple minutes. Omega even has the option of anesthetizing and freezing you during the scan and restoration, to reduce errors. You’d remember that part of the procedure, but you still wouldn’t be affected by what happened in-between.

(If you think about it, that’s very nearly equivalent to applying the conditions of the bet, with extremely high time acceleration, or while you’re suspended, to a very accurate simulation of yourself. The end effect is the same: an instance of you experienced torture/ultra-pampering for a week, and then an instance of you, which doesn’t remember the first part, experiences gaining/loosing a billion dollars.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 25 August 2014 08:56:44PM 0 points [-]

Your position is like objecting to a physics thought experiment that assumes frictionless surfaces, while the same thought experiment also assumes mass-less objects.

If the goal of the thought experiment is to think about the notion of mass and how it affects frictions that's indeed a bad thought experiment.

Your rephrasing essentially says that you torture an identical copy of a person for a week. It raises all sorts of issues around identity and copying but it ceases to be an experiment that's about memory.

Comment author: bogdanb 31 August 2014 07:15:10AM 0 points [-]

Your rephrasing essentially says that you torture an identical copy of a person for a week.

If you read it carefully, my first rephrasing actually says that you torture the original person for a week, and then you (almost) perfectly erase their memories (and physical changes) during that week.

This is not changing the nature of the thought experiment in the OP; it is exactly the same experiment, plus a hypothetical example of how it could be achieved technically, because you implied that the experiment in the OP is impossible to achieve and thus ill-posed.

Or, at least, that’s how I interpreted “Of course I'm fighting the hypothetical thought experiment. I think the notion of experience without being affected doesn't make any sense.” I just gave an example of how one can experience something and not be affected. It was a somewhat extreme example, but it seems appropriate when Omega is involved.

Comment author: ChristianKl 31 August 2014 08:27:06AM 0 points [-]

If you read it carefully, my first rephrasing actually says that you torture the original person for a week, and then you (almost) perfectly erase their memories (and physical changes) during that week.

This depends very much on the definition of "original" and notions of identity. You can't expect that they behave in a common sense manner in such a thought experiment.

Comment author: bogdanb 31 August 2014 08:56:40AM 0 points [-]

Sure, but then why do you expect memory and experience would also behave in a common sense manner? (At least, that’s what I think you did in your first comment.)

I interpreted the OP as “I’m confused about memory and experience; let’s try a thought experiment about a very uncommon situation just to see what we think it would happen”. And your first comment reads to me as “you picked a bad thought experiment, because you’re not describing a common situation”. Which seems to completely miss the point, the whole purpose of the thought experiment was to investigate the consequences of something very distinct from situations where “common sense” has real experience to rely on.

The part about torturing children I don’t even get at all. Wondering about something seems to me almost the opposite of the philosophy of “doing something because you think you know the answer”. Should we never do thought experiments, because someone might act on mistaken assumptions about those ideas? Not thinking about something before doing it sounds to me like exactly the opposite of the correct strategy.

Comment author: DanielLC 22 August 2014 04:18:07PM 1 point [-]

If you have no memory of an experience does that experience still matter?

What matters is the total utility. You have the utility of how you feel during the event, and how you feel remembering it later.

If memory was all that mattered, considering we're all going to die eventually and we won't remember anything, nothing would matter.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 23 August 2014 12:12:52PM *  2 points [-]

The OPs argument is a typical case of: If you drive an argument/hypothetical/behavior to its extreme/infinity, then it a) becomes trivially true/ (or false) or b) stops to make sense.

And the reason in cases where humans are involved is usually because driving it to extremes as a side effect involves removeing the complexity of human value - and than the extreme situation no longer applies to humans (or human intuition).

Comment author: Matthew_Opitz 24 August 2014 02:38:12PM 2 points [-]

You seem to be objecting that this is an unfair thought experiment because humans were not designed to contemplate these extreme cases.

But that's precisely the point! These extreme cases might not have been present in our ancestral environment. They might not be present now. But there is a decent chance that they are coming...that, someday, we will be literally offered this choice or something analogous to it by a superintelligence AI who, even if friendly, honestly just wants to ascertain our preferences. Perhaps the superintelligent AI can create a utopia for us, but during the week in which it is being constructed by nano-robots, the Earth's surface will be scoured to bits and resemble a living hell. Would we still want it?

That's why this post poses a good, relevant question. And I see that most people seem to just want to squirm in their seats and complain about the tough question rather than answer it.

Me, I would take option 2, assuming that the billion dollars I would get afterwards would enable more than a week of bliss of a magnitude in the positive direction equal to or greater than the magnitude of suffering I would experience for that horrible week.

Plus, no matter how back that first week of torture is, I will know in the back of my head during all of that that I can look forward to a billion dollars at the end of it. Now, if part of the torture involves temporarily deleting my memory of having made the deal and making me confused about why I am being tortured and how long it will last (possibly forever), it would make me think a bit harder about the deal, but I would still take option 2.

Comment author: ChristianKl 24 August 2014 03:01:27PM 1 point [-]

Perhaps the superintelligent AI can create a utopia for us, but during the week in which it is being constructed by nano-robots, the Earth's surface will be scoured to bits and resemble a living hell.

That a very different scenario then the one proposed. In that scenario the AI can simply put all humans for the week in a coma.

Plus, no matter how back that first week of torture is, I will know in the back of my head during all of that that I can look forward to a billion dollars at the end of it.

I don't think you understand the concept of maximum negative utility. There are certainly ways to make you believe that you would suffer the state for ever.

Whether or not the you that get's tortured is actually getting a billion dollar also depends a lot of your definition of personal identity. The only way of getting through the inherent issues of the question would be to say that they "you" that gets the billion dollar is an exact copy of the you before the week of torture and not an extension of the person that's through the week of experiencing torture.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 August 2014 11:58:08AM 0 points [-]

The only way of getting through the inherent issues of the question would be to say that they "you" that gets the billion dollar is an exact copy of the you before the week of torture and not an extension of the person that's through the week of experiencing torture.

Exactly. Whether I'm prepared to sacrifice the copy of me that suffers thru the week of hell depends on the amount of empathy I have for the other me. Or how my ultility claculation comes out. Like in the Branches of the tree of time where the protagonists sacrifice their clones from differnt timelines to rescue the important timeline.

Comment author: Matthew_Opitz 26 August 2014 02:02:49PM 1 point [-]

I think if we rephrase the scenario to be slightly more plausible and familiar, it will become clearer to people:

Imagine that some eccentric millionaire approaches you with the following deal: she will give you a million dollars if: *You agree to go to a dentist and undergo a root canal operation without anesthesia (nevermind the fact that you probably don't need a root canal), BUT: *You DO get to have a heaping dose of Versed, which, while it won't dull the pain during the operation, will prevent you from remembering anything about it after the fact.

Would you take the million dollars and do the operation? I would!

Now, as to the question of whether the person undergoing the root canal operation is the real me, I would say, YES! I will experience it. Now, is the copy of the pre-operation me that gets restored after the operation also me? I say YES! I will also experience that body.

Ultimately, the deciding factor for me ends up being the fact that the root canal will only take an hour or two of extreme pain, but the million dollars will bring me enjoyment for far longer. The fact that I won't remember the root canal operation does nothing to influence my estimation of how bad the root canal operation will be. The fact that I won't remember the root canal operation only changes my estimation of how pleasant the post-root canal experience will be (because I will know that I won't be haunted by nightmares of root canal pain while I am enjoying my million dollars).

Even though the memory of the root canal operation will cease to exist for me at some point, the experience still factors into my overall calculations of utility. It's just that normal events that we remember factor into our calculations of utility in two discrete terms: how nice/bad they are in the moment + how nice/bad their memory after-effects are. In the case of amnesia, you are just lopping off the right hand side of that sum.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 August 2014 04:20:22PM 1 point [-]

Would you take the million dollars and do the operation?

Sure. But that is strictly a different - and much less extreme - though experiment than the former. I wouldn't treat the narcotized me as a different person. There is a lot of continuity in this szenario. And a lot of real-life risks and consequences too.

Comment author: Matthew_Opitz 28 August 2014 02:00:51AM 1 point [-]

Okay...but why wouldn't you treat the narcotized you as a different person, but you would treat the memory-erased you as a different person in the other scenario? Is this not being inconsistent? The same thing is being done in both scenarios--your memory is being erased--but by different means.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 28 August 2014 06:39:44AM 0 points [-]

I am not just my memory. My identity and being is closely entangled with my life, my environment, the people I interact with, the physical effects on me and my body. Everything that has an effect on my future self basically (weighted by causal distance or something).

And the scenarios differ in that: The branch Omega tortures has practically no causal effect on my future self after the week (except my absence for a week, which is a comparatively small effect given that many people leave their home for muh longer times without much effect).

The millionaire on the other hand may plausibly have a much more stronger effect. At least that is how I model it. Part of it surely is that the Omega example is constructed to have no other effects - thus I assume all other lfe-entangement-effects to be small. Whereas for the millionaire example all my caveats regarding humans proposing deals apply.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 August 2014 11:54:19AM 0 points [-]

You seem to be objecting that this is an unfair thought experiment because humans were not designed to contemplate these extreme cases.

You got me wrong. I'm not objecting. The though experiment is a valid and interesting one. It's just that the answers it elicidates fall into a certain class of problems which I pointed out.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 22 August 2014 01:21:07PM 0 points [-]

you will not be harmed physically or mentally; you will simply experience excruciating pain

That's not possible. A full week of unending pain beyond extreme thresholds will leave you with serious PTSD. If you get Obliviated afterwards, that will only get you more screwed up, with persistent anxiety for no discernible reason.

Comment author: Qwake 23 August 2014 04:05:32AM 2 points [-]

That might be true in reality but in the hypothetical for omega to completely erase the event from both your conscious and subconscience