This was inspired by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, spoiler alert.
If you were to wipe the memory of an event from your mind, has it still happened? Clearly, yes, because there’s (assuming you’re not a total nihilist) still an objective world out there in which events are recorded. Other people continue to have the experiences in their own memory and will behave accordingly.The record of the event is engrained on the world in terms of physical evidence and will manifest in the physical world accordingly. Even if you wipe out the physical evidence, in principle the chain of causality exists and can be traced back to show an event happening.
But, did it happen to you?
One might naively say “yes” for the same reasons above. Except, consider who you are. How do you want to define “you” in this sense. Is it the physical atoms that compose your body, or the emergent patterns that compose your mind? These aren’t the same thing, that much is obvious.
If it’s just the atoms, then it would suffice to trim someone’s finger nails and place these cuttings in prison for their crime of theft. If it’s just atoms, with no emergent properties, then we would string a handgun up with a noose and hang it, not the person who pulled the trigger, for murder. If it as just the atoms, then even if we wanted to imprison a human body, we would let them out at most a year or two later when every cell in their body had cycled through and the original molecules had decomposed and been replaced. Red blood cells last three months at least, taste buds on the order of days. A life in prison wouldn’t last long under these parameters.
If you, like most sensible people, accept that the mind is the pattern caused independently of the material, then from the perspective of justice, it makes no sense to punish just the material itself. Hence why we don’t release people from prison after they’ve scrubbed a certain number of dead epidermal cells from their skin and we don’t punish firearms for shooting.
So, if you erase an event from someone’s memory, does it make sense to punish them for it?
In White Bear, our (initially nameless) main character is revealed to not really be inhabiting a weird world where everyone is brainwashed (well, they are, but that’s a different point), but is actually living out a form of punishment. Her memory is erased each night and she’s made to relive an episode based on the experience child murder victim that she filmed on a camera phone. This is only revealed at the end, after her confusing day being chased and tormented. Her entire experience is reduced to being an amusement park, and the people following her are actually visitors wanting to see this odd form of justice up close. Her mind is wiped at the end of the day and the whole thing starts fresh once more with no clue of the revelation of what she had previously done until it was all over.
But with her memory erased, is justice even being served? Is the person who was complicit in a murder actually being punished? Such a thing, as strange a sci-fi concept as it is, might sound desirable to some people – wouldn’t they all like a punishment to fit the crime like the rhetoric-spewing table-thumpers they are? – but your memories are a key part of your personality, your experience and your mental state. Without those memories, or with different memories in place, you’re not the same person. What happens in White Bear is that the people all geared up to punish a murderer were, in reality, only punishing an empty shell. Using the proper terms, they’d explicitly removed the mens rea prior to punishment. That makes the punishment unjust. It makes it pointless. I’m pretty sure Charlie Brooker is smart enough to know that this is the feeling people should take from it, but probably don’t.
If anything, considering the inferences she made (and behaviour exhibited) upon waking up with no memory, they’re punishing a very caring person and a very good person – not an evil person or a maniac. There’s no sense of teaching anyone anything, or making them learn. There’s no sense of improvement made anywhere. Only a sense of sating an animalistic inability to separate the emergent mind from the shell that carries it.
You start White Bear thinking that people have been brainwashed into voyeurs by a mysterious alien force. But really, they’ve been brainwashed by their own bloodlust for punishment at all costs – even if that cost is the entire point of punishment and repentance. It’s the people who watch White Bear and think “I wish we could really do that to people” that the episode takes a long, firm, judgemental stare at.