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The Harvard Review of Philosophy

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published on July 28, 2020

Felipe De Brigard

The Explanatory Indispensability of Memory Traces

During the first half of the twentieth century, many philosophers of memory opposed the postulation of memory traces based on the claim that a satisfactory account of remembering need not include references to causal processes involved in recollection. However, in 1966, an influential paper by Martin and Deutscher showed that causal claims are indeed necessary for a proper account of remembering. This, however, did not settle the issue, as in 1977 Malcolm argued that even if one were to buy Martin and Deutscher’s argument for causal claims, we still don’t need to postulate the existence of memory traces. This paper reconstructs the dialectic between realists and anti-realists about memory traces, suggesting that ultimately realists’ arguments amount to inferences to the best explanation. I then argue that Malcolm’s anti-realist strategy consists in the suggestion that causal explanations that do not invoke memory traces are at least as good as those that do. But then, Malcolm, I argue that there are a large number of memory phenomena for which explanations that do not postulate the existence of memory traces are definitively worse than explanations that do postulate them. Next, I offer a causal model based on an interventionist framework to illustrate when memory traces can help to explain memory phenomena and proceed to substantiate the model with details coming from extant findings in the neuroscience of memory.

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