Letter to Philosophy Now

Published in June/July 2017 edition, Issue 120

Dear Editor

Professor Tallis says (Issue 119) that there is no way that the brain, even with its estimated 86 billion neurons, countless trillions of synapses and various specialised areas, can provide us with the episodic memories* which we all have. He proposes instead that there is a part of us, ungoverned by the laws of physics, which somehow does what is necessary.

Now I know that your columnist does not think much of computer analogies as explanations for the working of the mind, so let us start with old technology. If I had kept diaries of my life’s twists and turns, and wanted to know more about what happened on a particular day, I could look at the relevant diary to find out what had happened and any feelings I had recorded.  If though I had kept my diaries in electronic form, then I could go further and find out when I last mentioned, say, eating jelly and ice-cream (such as I was offered a few hours ago) and then read the entry in full to find out what I had recorded about that episode in my life.  To achieve this, the data would have to be in a searchable form.  So then, as a minimum, each day should have a few relevant key words allocated to it which the software could match with the chosen search terms.  If, as I would suggest, this is an in-principle description of how our minds work then, contrary to Professor Tallis’s assumption, I would not have to know in advance what the entire entry looked like, or even that there was an entry, in order to find data which may correspond in some way with the sort of thing I was looking for. Neither need the memory be destroyed on being accessed as he suggests. Of course, I may be disappointed, if the keyword ‘jelly’ were in fact a reference to ‘gelignite’.

What is equally important, however, is the reason for starting to look for such an entry in the first place. The recall of my episodic memories seems to be prompted by events currently going on around me, including other memories playing out in my mind, a process which I take to have evolutionary benefit. The point is that I don’t deliberately search for memories out of the blue, wholly unrelated to my present circumstances, as Professor Tallis seems to imply. This therefore means that I don’t have to first remember what it is I want to remember. I would suggest instead that memories are automatically retrieved in a continual, contextual, necessarily imprecise, search process.  Professor Tallis, though, says that having memories triggered by events would result in chaos because, in his view, everything is in some way related to everything-else.  But this presumes a search process which is far less sophisticated than, for instance, Google has managed to create to make money from us.  Precisely how my memories are indexed and the search criteria applied, I do not know, but I see no infinite regress getting in the way of describing the process in this way.  Neither do I see the need for a Philosopher’s Soul to explain it.


Thomas Jeffreys, Coleshill, Warwickshire

*episodic memories - memories of episodes in our lives, rather than, for instance, the names we give to objects.

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