Memory Addition and The Clock/Torture Experiment

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Tue Apr 01 2008 - 23:57:28 MDT

Stuart writes

> [Lee wrote]
>> Question: would you prefer
>> (A) to be tortured for an hour in the old-fashioned way
>> (B) for records of such an hour merely to be retrieved from
>> a galaxy far, far away a long time ago in which you were
>> tortured just the same, and merely the states for that hour
>> interval brought to Earth and at the proper moment merely
>> looked up?
> From a philosophical point of view, I can see [the point made
> by Stathis that (A) and (B) are indifferent to him] - but I'd
> like to inject some practical caveats here. If I was given such a
> choice, I would jump at (B) instantly. Partly because of anticipation
> of pain (which is much more important to me right now than
> anticipation of the end of pain).

I do believe that Stathis would also anticipate the pain in (B) just
as you and I and he would in (A). Our anticipation is a feeling,
however, and I'll have to post a link to an essay I have called
"The Anticipation Dilemma" wherein I attempt to show that
this feeling cannot be made entirely consistent with itself under
what-have-to-be-equivalent circumstances. Anyway, I don't
think that anticipation is quite relevant to the discussion that
Stathis and I were having. But is *very* relevant here in this

> But mainly because if we tweak this example, we get highly
> non-intuitive consequences. What about "get tortured now,
> and left to live for ten years while slowly recuperating" vs.
> "in ten year's time, have a distant memory of being tortured"?

Well, I totally agree that any kind of memory addition is truly
preferable to actually experiencing severe torture.

> The evolution of our memories - vivid events become less vivid,
> sometimes get erased entirely - seems to militate against total
> equivalence between "C happened" and "everyone remembers
> that C happened (but it didn't)".

I completely agree. But consider the hideous Clock/Torture

You are held captive in on the stage of a large auditorium and
must undergo terrible pain or at least memory of having had
terrible pain. All the people in the audience, who you can see,
hope and pray for what is truly best for you, and can be taken
as what you would prefer could a different one of your selves
also sit in the audience.

You can see the hands of a large clock, the only important part
being the second hand that revolves once a minute between 0
seconds, all the way round to 59 seconds, and then recommences
the cycle.

During the time 50-60 seconds, you may press button A or button
B, with the following consequences which have been explained to
you ahead of time, and which you understand completely.

A: You are tortured hideously for 40 seconds, but then the
      memory is erased, and you have a relatively very pleasant
      20 seconds before the cycle begins again

B. You have a very pleasant 40 seconds, able to engage in
      conversation with your friends and relatives, watch TV,
      or continue reading a book. But at 40 seconds, a false
      memory is added of being tortured hideously from 0 to
      40, although your memory is otherwise not molested:
      It's very much as though you remember reading your
      book or whatever for 40 seconds and then underwent
      terrible and unbearable pain for 40 more seconds somehow.

Logically, you should choose B, because memory addition isn't
true experience (forgetting the follow-up experience of remembering
and shuddering). You may succeed for quite a while continuing to
choose B, especially since your friends and family, who fully know
the situation, keep encouraging you to make this sensible decision.

But the horrible memory and anticipatory dread of another 40
seconds of unbearable pain finally compel you to give A a shot.
You instantly regret the decision during the next 40 seconds, as
the actual experience is even worse than merely "having" the
memories had been. But then, at the end of the 40 seconds, your
memory of the torture for this minute is completely erased.

What does it then seem like happened to you? It seems to you
that by choosing A, the clock hand suddenly jumped from 0 to
40, and you avoided (you intuit) anything unpleasant. Despite
seeing your friends and family in tears, and despite your own
best knowledge of the entire setup, you gradually come to choose
A all of the time. Dreadful, but true. Perhaps some readers are
shocked. I was.


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