Science is not morality. Logic is not morality. Statistics are definitely not morality. While these thinking tools can provide us with certain insights by which to approach the idea of morality and the development of morals, they cannot provide the answers – assuming there even are answers, which I doubt. Unfortunately, the lack of answers does not distance us from the need to apply morality, nor does it forestall the changes that will inevitably challenge our instincts about what is right and wrong.
This is the first of two related essays that I intend to write. They are, in a way, the first serious, original works of philosophy that I have generated, and they are driven, as you might imagine, by advances in science and technology, some of which are much closer to touching our everyday lives than others. Both topics arose separately, and I realized only as I began to examine them that there were common threads connecting them, one common thread in particular: the human body as a biological machine. In both cases, I had an immediate, visceral, negative reaction to the application of the science or technology in question, but I realized as I sought to examine both matters in greater detail that the morality of the question was not as clear-cut as my initial reaction would suggest.
That realization did not change how I felt, but it did force me to confront the reasons why I felt that way. I needed to know if my reactions were reasonable, if they were based in a rational, cogent, personal philosophy, and if I was right (or at least not wrong) to be in opposition to the application of such technologies. In the second essay, we will explore the application of technologies such as fitness and health tracking applications and devices, but for this first essay we will begin this philosophical exploration and moralistic introspection with the technology that is more removed from direct application (for the moment): revising memories.
In the 7 April 2022 edition of Science (Volume 376, Issue 6589), there is an essay entitled Targeting Memories to Treat Trauma. It begins with an origin story, as many of the most interesting essays do, and speaks of research regarding the interaction of the metabolism with cognition, and especially memory. That what we eat should affect our brains is not revolutionary, and even tailoring what we consume to achieve specific results is nothing new: most of us know how our moods change with our blood sugar levels, and anyone who has overindulged in alcohol knows that what we imbibe can affect memory. Food-related memories are often amongst the strongest that we have, and it may be a result of an enzyme called acetyl-CoA synthetase 2 (ACSS2), which is a metabolic enzyme that triggers the production of acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA), which helps fuel the acetylation of histones in the hippocampus – it helps active genes that reshape synaptic connections. In other words, this metabolic enzyme is involved in memory formation.
The essayist goes on to explain that their observation of ACSS2’s role led to the idea that blocking ACSS2 could be used to block “unwanted” memory formation. His specific claim, “this finding led to the idea that ACSS2 could be involved in unwanted memory formation,” was what set off my internal alarm bells, in the form of a battery of questions: what constitutes an unwanted memory, why would certain memories be unwanted, who would decide what memories would be unwanted? These are the sorts of questions that, I suspect, any avid reader of idea-heavy science fiction would start pondering when confronted with such a distinctive and new capability. To the essayist, it is enough to target potential treatments at “traumatic or burdensome memories.”
Putting aside the more extreme, drastic, Total Recall-type memory-alteration scenarios (that would be falling prey to the slippery slope fallacy), let us focus on the specific, clinical applications proposed by the essayist: that of treating conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. The essayist asserts that these conditions are “recognized as complex disorders with biological underpinnings.” A rather obvious statement. Unless we are going to have a serious discussion about the potential existence, nature, and role of the soul, which I am not interested in touching at the present time, any human condition will necessarily be the result of biology.
I have been known to assert that we are nothing but biological machines, and again assuming that we are ignoring any potential role or even the existence of the soul (if you really want to talk about the soul, I suggest that you read Plato’s Phaedo dialogue, in which Socrates speaks at length about the soul, and which I will be reviewing in a few weeks), this is a reasonable claim. If we had sufficient understanding and sufficient technologies, there is no reason that these biological machines could not be repaired, altered, duplicated, or otherwise manipulated in almost any imaginable way, just as we manipulate more traditional machines. Under this paradigm, the brain is nothing but a biological computer, and this ACSS2-based technology to “edit” that computer’s memory is perfectly reasonable. The question at hand, therefore, is not whether this is possible, or viable, but rather whether and under what conditions it would be right.
My initial reaction, as I stated previously, was revulsion. As soon as I realized that the essayist was claiming to be providing a means to alter memory in order to “treat” people, my guard went up, and my instinct was to deem the idea morally repugnant. Yet, it was presented so reasonably, as a way to help people, to do something that most would call “good;” therefore, I needed to determine whether I had a reasonable, moral basis upon which to object to the ACSS2 technology, or if I should instead disregard my instinctive suspicion and attempt to come to terms with such a capability. It was not an easy process, and involved a deep introspection on the nature of identity.
I argue that we are the product of our experiences: whether good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, happy, sad, exciting, boring, or any other form of experience. Perhaps more accurately, we are the product of our memories of our experiences, since how we remember that which we experience is itself affected by our memories of previous experiences and therefore is not a purely factual recording of events. I would not be quite the same person that I am today if I had not experienced the things that I have, and if I did not have memory of those experiences (no matter how vaguely I might be able to recall some of those memories). Our experiences, our memories, for all that they are stored on a sort of biological hard drive in our biological robotic bodies, are what make each of us unique, and with each new experience we continue to evolve.
If we start editing those memories, deleting the ones we don’t like, it is more than just deleting an unwanted file on your computer’s hard drive, therefore; rather, it is more like altering your computer’s operating system. Since these memories are not discrete, the way a computer file might be, deleting one will affect other memories of other experiences, and ultimately change who you are. There are experiences I’ve had that I prefer not to think about, but that doesn’t mean that I would want to delete those memories. Those experiences, as unpleasant as some of them might have been, were still informative, and they helped make the person that I am today.
Now, I acknowledge that those are not truly traumatic memories, for all that I might sometimes have nightmares about them. Yet, even with a truly traumatic memory, I cannot imagine myself wanting to entirely excise it. Whether or not I remember it, that experience would have happened to me, and it should therefore affect me. The struggle to come to terms with something traumatic is, I think, part of what makes us human. It’s like those questions about what I would change about my life if I could go back in time, to which my answer is always “nothing.”
This is, I think, the basis upon which my instinctive wariness of the ACSS2 technology was founded, that altering memories means altering who people are. It is avoiding a problem, instead of overcoming it. Rather than learning to come to terms with trauma, or overcome addiction, it would allow people to change who they are in order to have, from their perspective, never experienced those things. This is not me “[writing] off as morale failures of character” such conditions and disorders, for coming to terms with and overcoming those parts of our past that provide present obstacles is no less a valuable part of who each of us is and can be for being biological in origin.
I am not prepared to assert that there could never be a case in which ACSS2 technology might be of value. Extreme positions rarely account of edge cases and even more rarely endure in the face of reality. Nonetheless, I do stand by my initial reaction. This is technology that, even applied in the ways the essayist suggests, has the potential to fundamentally alter who people are, to be abused by those seeking easy solutions to their problems, just as alcohol has been abused for millennia by those seeking to forget. It is ironic that a technique in part intended to treat alcoholism would be itself a way of exploiting the same flaw in the human psyche.
5 thoughts on “Revising Memories”