Staph bacteria. Picture courtesy of Janice Carr/CDC via BBC.

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Could there be minds without memories?

If the existence of memory in an organism is not a sufficient ground for saying that an organism has mental states, then we should also ask whether it is a necessary one. Could there be organisms that are capable of low-level mental states (e.g. perceptions and "raw feels") but incapable of remembering anything? Certainly, it seems perfectly conceivable that such organisms should exist. However, logical conceivability is not the same thing as ontological possibility, let alone physical possibility. Our line of inquiry in this thesis is a practical one: if we can describe an organism's capacities using mind-neutral terminology - e.g. a third-person or a goal-centred intentional stance - then the ascription of mental states to it should be avoided, on methodological grounds. The question we have to ask is whether we could ever be justified in imputing mental states to an organism with no memory capacity. (I am using the word "memory" in a minimal sense, such as we might ascribe to a computer, rather than the richer meaning of "conscious recall".) An organism with no memory capacity might exhibit sensitivity to stimuli, but as we have seen, this is not a sufficient warrant for saying that it possesses mental states (Conclusion S.5).

As I see it, the major cognitive limitation of an organism lacking memory capacity is that it would be unable to acquire new patterns of behaving, as new patterns would have to be stored or encoded somewhere in the organism. How could an organism show that it had cognitive mental states, if it was unable to acquire new patterns of behaviour?

We can tentatively formulate the following conclusion:

N.10 The existence of memory capacity in an organism is a necessary condition for ascribing cognitive mental states to it.

(We will re-visit this conclusion below, in our discussion of Conclusion S.7, which gives it a firmer basis. Affective mental states will be discussed in chapter 3.)

What we have been considering here is an organism which never manifests a capacity to remember at any stage of its development. Such an organism lacks what might be called a "natural capacity" to form memories: that is, the internal program that directs its biological development does not encode for the creation of structures with a memory capacity. Following the methodology adopted here, such an organism should be regarded as mindless.

The situation is different if we consider the case of an impaired individual which has lost its capacity to remember, due to physical deterioration or trauma. Let us suppose that the individual's behavioural repertoire was rich enough to warrant our ascribing mental states to it while it had a memory. We might be inclined to say that such an individual retained the capacity to perceive or feel, despite losing its memory, if it retained enough of its old behavioural repertoire. Incidentally, there are no cases of human individuals (not even the celebrated H.M.) who have completely lost their capacities to form memories.

The upshot of our enquiry into memory is that the existence of memory capacity in an organism is a necessary but not a sufficient ground for ascribing cognitive mental states to it.

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*** SUMMARY of Conclusions reached References