Memory – A ToK Essay

6 June 2016

‘Memory – like liberty – is a fragile thing’ – Elizabeth Loftus. What does this statement suggest about memory as a way of knowing in the pursuit of ethical knowledge? Loftus suggests that memory, like liberty (i.e. freedom), is something that can easily be manipulated due to its delicate nature. The title assumes that we can recall on past events in order to draw reasonable conclusions surrounding ethical issues. In order to understand the question raised in the title more easily it could be rephrased as follows; ‘Is memory a reliable way of knowing when drawing conclusions based on ethical matters?’.

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There are weaknesses when looking at only one way of knowing because it prevents us from having a comprehensive understanding of a situation and so can lead to unreliable knowledge claims. In reality we need to evaluate a situation using several ways of knowing before it can be understood completely. In this question we are asked to consider memory, however we are not told whether this is a collective or an individual memory. When evaluating ethical issues it would be more useful to look at our collective knowledge because it would give us a better conceptual apparatus and lead to more accurate knowledge claims. This is because when looking at memories from a large group of people you are more likely to get an accurate representation of what actually occurred during an event because you can ‘filter out’ things like false memories (an apparent recollection of an event which did not actually occur).

For example, it would be better to use the collective memories of several people when evaluating the ethical issues surrounding WW2. This is because it would be useful to compare the memories of people who had actually experienced the war, for example a solider or prisoner of war, versus those of whom had only heard or read about it, in order to gain a more ‘complete’ understanding of the issues being discussed. However, using memory as a way of knowing can lead to mistakes. Memory is highly susceptible to manipulation and memories can be changed or, in some cases, they can be totally made up (false memory implantation). An example of this would be the ‘Lost In The Mall’ study; subjects were given narratives of events from their childhood, provided by family members. But, one of these narratives was a fictional story of how they got lost in a mall as a child.

Because they were told repeatedly in a very convincing manner that these events really did happen, 25% of participants were able to ‘remember’ the false event, i.e. they believed a delusion. This proves just how easily memories can be influenced and changed, and so makes me believe that using memory alone as a way of knowing is an inadequate method in which to judge ethical issues. This title led me to develop me own knowledge question:

‘Is memory an accurate way of knowing when looking at events of the past?’ The ‘Survival School Interrogation’ study explains clearly why I believe that memory is an inadequate way of knowing when looking at past events. US soldiers were subjected to abusive interrogation techniques and afterwards were asked to identify their interrogator. However, they were asked misleading questions about their interrogator’s appearance (e.g. ‘He was the man with the beard, wasn’t he?’) and so over 50% of the soldiers falsely identified the interrogator (false identification).

This is because the soldiers felt subjected to normative conformity. They wanted to fit in with what was being suggested to them by their peers and so, perhaps knowingly, gave the wrong answer. It is conceivable that the soldiers also gave the wrong answers due to the pressure of informational conformity; people of a higher status suggested traits of the interrogator and so they assumed them to be true. These reasons clearly demonstrate how easily and drastically memories can be changed and so, I believe that using memory as the only way of knowing when looking at past events is extremely unreliable, making it an inadequate way of knowing.

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