Stephen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His interests are causality and what he deems to be the inadequacy of mechanistic theories in psychology and cognitive science. Stephen investigates multiple personalities, survival (life after death), ESP, and psychokinesis, and he is past President of the Parapsychological Association. His books include ESP and Psychokinesis: A Philosophical Examination and The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, which describes his own encounters with the paranormal. Stephen is an iconoclast. Here’s what he says about memory: “Ever since Plato proposed that memories are analogous to impressions in wax, many have suggested that memories are formed through the creation of traces, representations of the things remembered. That is still the received view among most cognitive scientists, who believe the remaining challenge is simply to determine the precise physical nature of memory traces. However, there are compelling reasons for thinking that this standard view of memory is profoundly wrongheaded — in fact, disguised nonsense…. One of the most persistent conceptual errors in philosophy, psychology, and neurophysiology is the attempt to explain memory by means of memory traces (sometimes called “engrams”). The underlying problems are very deep and difficult to dispel, and as a result, trace theories are quite seductive. In fact, in the cognitive sciences this approach to memory is ubiquitous and is almost never seriously questioned. If doubts are raised at all, they typically concern how trace mechanisms are implemented or what the physical substrate of traces might be, not whether something is profoundly wrongheaded about the very idea of a memory trace….I realize that I’m pretty much a voice in the wilderness on these issues, and I find myself in the unenviable position of having to argue that many prominent and respected scientists actually don’t know what they’re talking about. I wish there were some other, less fundamentally upsetting, way to undercut trace theories of memory. But I believe that the problems really are that deep and that the theories really are that essentially confused. However, as long as I’m being antagonistic, I see no compelling reason to stop where I left off. I might as well finish with brief obnoxious coda. As I see it, both memory researchers and parapsychologists are missing an opportunity to be genuine scientific pioneers. Rather than boldly searching for new explanatory strategies (for memory specifically and for human behavior generally), they cling instead to familiar mechanistic presuppositions, which they’ve typically never examined in any depth, but by means of which they can maintain the illusion that they’re doing science according to the allegedly tough-minded methods exemplified in some physical sciences. (Sherry Turkle has appropriately called this “physics envy.”) They can’t get past the assumption that human abilities and behavior must be analyzed in terms of lower-level processes and mechanisms. And they seem not to recognize the difference between claiming that cognitive functions are analyzable in terms of underlying physical processes and claiming instead that those functions are merely mediated by underlying physical processes. But there are novel explanatory options and strategies they never consider; there are alternative and profoundly different approaches to the understanding of human beings. However, spelling out those options is a huge project, one that must be reserved for another occasion.”
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