Help Wanted: An Epistemological Concern

I need help. Problems in philosophy are as old as time, and what I’m doing I’m sure is just putting my own personal spin on a conundrum that many, many people have encountered. Nevertheless, I’d love some guidance about how to approach the issue.

I lived in Korea for seven years on Yongsan Garrison, an American military base in the middle of the capital city, Seoul. I graduated from both Seoul American Middle School and Seoul American High School, living, studying, and growing up between the sluggish base and the bright Korean metropolis.

Prior to moving to Seoul, we moved from place to place, spending no longer than 2-3 years in each location. Once we left, we never returned. All I have left of each location I grew up are the memories of those places (and of course, the corroborating accounts of the people in my family who moved with me).

Once I graduated high school, I left Seoul to go to college in New York. As of today, I have spent about three years away from the place where I spent my formative years. With one exception (a one-week reunion with my best friend from high school) I have not had any direct contact with anyone I knew in Korea who isn’t my direct family. The only remnants I’ve seen of my life in Korea are the occasional social media updates that old teachers and students post.

You might be getting some idea about where this story is going. It’s going to take a dramatic turn. The US Military has recently declared that Yongsan Garrison will close in 2019. The place where I did the most growing up is going to be wiped off the face of the map and replaced with a park. Politically speaking, this move was a long time coming. Americans really don’t need to be occupying the most valuable real estate in Korea with a bunch of ugly, outdated military buildings from the 50s.

This is pretty nostalgia-worthy on its own, but more importantly, it got me thinking about the criteria we use to verify our own memories. Let’s say that I have coffee with my friend Matt at Coffee Shop X at time T. A day later, I want to verify that the thing that I remember, this memory I have of drinking coffee with Matt, actually occurred. An obvious thing to do would be to find Matt and see if he has the same memory, and if it accords with mine, then conclude that this is enough evidence for my memory to have happened.

But if the issue at hand is that I want to have some criteria of verifying my own (human) memory, then it doesn’t really make any sense to use someone else’s own (human) memories as evidence for the veracity of mine. The thing that bothers me about this solution is that I’m looking for an independent criterion to verify my own memory, one that doesn’t depend on the memories of others.

So the next obvious thing for me to do is to return to Coffee Shop X. By doing this, I can examine the way the coffee shop looks and smells, its location, the hardness of the tables, even the taste of the coffee I ordered, and if this sensory evidence accords with my memory of coffee yesterday with Matt, then it seems that I have some way of independently establishing some kind of evidence for the veracity of my memories.

It seems to me that at least superficially, something important is to be gained by going back to the location that we remember memories taking place. Which is where my own conundrum comes in:

Going back to the location of my memories of my middle and high schools is unavailable to me. All physical evidence of the base will be gone (well, not entirely: as I understand a museum of the history of the base will be built in the park, but for the purposes of this discussion that doesn’t seem too relevant). If going back to the location of a memory is a good way to independently verify memories, then how can I verify the memories I have of living on base and going to school there for seven years?

To make this more concrete, I want to give a toy example. Let’s say in high school, I hid a pencil somewhere in my school (perhaps in a secret compartment in one of the walls) and didn’t tell anyone about it. Nobody but me knows, and there is not the slightest chance that anyone but me will find the pencil. Once the school is gone, the physical evidence of my hiding the pencil is also gone. The surest way for me to independently find evidence for the truth of my memory (i.e., finding the pencil) is also gone. Is the memory of my hiding the pencil any less legitimate than my memory of making my bed in the morning, which can be easily verified by walking into my room and seeing my bed made?

Whether going back to the location of a memory and examining the physical evidence to verify a memory is enough evidence to judge the veracity of a memory is a good question. In discussions with friends and professors, it seems like a common line of reasoning is that all human experiences that are not occurring at this very moment are memories. Since everything is in flux, and no memory’s setting is exactly the same when we revisit it, no memories can be trusted and so my dramatic case is no different from the ordinary case. Not being able to confirm our memories is just a fact we have to deal with.

But this objection doesn’t negate the central worry: it only provides a degree of graduation. Surely, when we recognize the setting of a memory, it means something. Even if we can’t accept the idea that we can completely verify a memory’s veracity, if the feeling of recognition exists, then being able to go back to the setting of a memory and gaining that bit of evidence provides more certainty than otherwise. So are my memories less legitimate than the memories of someone who can go back to their old school and find the pencil that they hid there?

So, to sum it up, here are the questions I have: what, if any, are good ways to independently verify that memories have occurred? If revisiting the setting of a memory is a good way to do this, then does it follow that my memories of high school are less legitimate than the average high school memory (because I have less of a setting to go back to than others)? Is there then a way for me to “reclaim” my memories? Is there something I’ve missed or haven’t considered thoroughly yet?

I’d love to hear your point of view or perhaps some written sources about this conundrum. It’s difficult to sift through the wealth of epistemological work without some guidance (and I’m sure this problem has been discussed at length many times). Thanks in advance!