Think you know Christopher Nolan’s Memento? Think again, buddy.
Memento is a film that boggles the mind. Is it a film about a guy who can’t make new memories but remembers enough to know that his wife was murdered and is seeking revenge? Or is it a film about a guy who can’t make new memories that accidentally killed his wife with an insulin overdose whose revenge mission is completely groundless? One thing we can be sure of is that it is another film bursting with philosophical ideas that deserves exploration via an article on the internet.
We’re forced to piece together what’s going on in the same way Leonard does, and our knowledge is based on limited evidence
For those who haven’t seen Memento or need a quick reminder, director Christopher Nolan places us in the same position as protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce), who can’t seem to create new memories. The main storyline is played out in reverse chronological order and it is as though we, the audience, have the same psychological problem of creating short-term memories. We have to try and piece together what is going on in the same way Leonard does, and our knowledge is based on limited empirical evidence such as Polaroids, tattoos and notes-to-self. The film works as a platform for viewers to look at and consider aspects of the branches of philosophy known as the philosophy of mind, and personal identity.
Many philosophers, known as physicalists, believe that the mind is located in the brain. But this does not mean that the mind can be reduced to physical states or processes – it would seem counter-intuitive to say that my beliefs and desires were physical. If we have a CD, the music is not the physical state and process of the disc, but the music is “in” the disc – it is physically located there. It is feasible to imagine that if a small part of my brain stopped working, I could replace it with a chip that would perform the same tasks. We would still say that my mind continues to exist and we must therefore accept that it is possible for my mind to be realised by some other physical material. The fact that Leonard’s mind in Memento seems accessible via physical objects is actually an extension of this idea – it’s a genuine philosophical position in the philosophy of mind.
This is known formally as the extended mind theory. This theory says that some external objects should be viewed as proper parts of our minds. If I wrote an essay, forgot about it and you destroyed my computer, it could be argued that you were destroying a part of my mind. If my friend reminds me every Wednesday that it’s bin day, she would also be considered an extended part of my mind. This theory is taken quite literally in Memento – Leonard’s mind, in effect, can be seen as constituted almost exclusively of external mementos. When Teddy says to Leonard that he doesn’t know anything, external mind theorists would argue that he does, he just doesn’t use memory in order to get to knowledge.
The film shows, however, that the extended mind theory is faulty. It leaves us never ‘knowing’ how Leonard’s wife died, and there is something about the extended mind theory that is missing in our understanding of the mind. Leonard’s system doesn’t work because no matter how fast he writes, what he writes isn’t in the right form or location. He can misinterpret pieces of information, be tricked or even lose parts of his mind by simply misplacing a memento. He can’t access and process information in the normal way that allows him to develop a reasonable common sense picture of the world, and this is why we shouldn’t accept the extended mind theory as legitimate.
Is Leonard the same Leonard that sold insurance before his wife’s death? Does he continue to exist every time his memory is wiped?
The film works as a thought experiment of what it would be like to only have an external mind and we are shown just how disastrous and insufficient this would be as part of the definition of what we consider a mind. The film also raises massive issues regarding personal identity; Irving Copi put forward the following mindfuck: “If a changing thing really changes, there can’t literally be one and the same thing before and after the change. However, if there isn’t literally one and the same thing before and after the change, then no thing has really undergone any change.”
This can be illustrated with a famous thought experiment. Would a ship remain if its parts were entirely replaced, bit by bit, so that no single remnant of its original body remained? Or would we have a whole new ship? Similarly, can we say that a person is numerically the same one person if they have undergone numerous qualitative changes? Is Leonard still the same Leonard that sold insurance before his wife’s death? Does Leonard continue to exist every time his memory is wiped?
On the bodily continuity theory – Leonard is still Leonard. As long as Leonard is a particular human body, he remains Leonard until that body ceases to exist, even if it is always changing. This theory is too simple however, and fails to take into account identity in the way we normally understand it. If someone we know develops Alzheimer’s, there would be a point at which we would say that they’re no longer “themselves” anymore. Or if I had my memory wiped I would no longer be Katherine – I would be a Katherine-shaped zombie.
How about psychological continuity theory? A person remains the same over time if there is some sort of psychological linking relation across time. John Locke put forward memory as the linking technique. This leaves Memento’s Leonard in quite the metaphysical pickle. He has no recent memories of his recent past, so is he no longer the guy who got married and had a wife? This seems implausible. But we can argue that Leonard does fit into this theory, as he has memories that link him to his past, just not recent memories.
The themes that permeate Memento allow me to identify it as one of the most philosophically relevant films of all time
Those who argue that Leonard doesn’t fit in the theory are setting the bar too high and are saying that at each moment in time, a person at later times has to be linked to a genuine memory of that earlier time. This would mean that every time I got drunk and blacked out I would no longer be “me” because I can’t link my memory back to that specific point. Therefore the film can be seen as arguing for this continuity theory whilst pointing out a major misconception of the theory that might leave someone like Leonard left outside if it is not modified and explained properly.
There are many more philosophical themes in Memento, but these are the most prominent. Nolan broke the mould when he made this film and the themes that permeate it allow me to personally identify it as one of the most philosophically relevant films of all time.
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All images: Summit Entertainment