In a recent paper Tero Piiroinen suggests that “if we all just suddenly lost our memories and other relevant neural dispositions—if no one was able to remember his or her own name, let alone relatives, friends, possessions, occupation, place of residence, and so on—there would be nothing left of social relations and structures”. This is a science fiction scenario I actually find extremely interesting. Consider that one day, as a result of a natural disaster or fiendish scheme by an evil scientist, “memory and neural dispositions” were suddenly erased at one moment in time. What would the world look like afterwards? I think it would briefly look very similar to the world before the event. For instance the spatial positioning of people within a workplace would be structurally conditioned, likewise how they were co-located (or not), how they were dressed, the length of time they had been present at the workplace that day and what they had been doing up until the memory wipe. It’s certainly unlikely that these structural features of the workplace would be reproduced after the memory wipe but this simply reflects the activity-dependence of social structure i.e. they rely on agential doings for their reproduction or transformation. The enduring causal power of past structures is precisely the point that social realists are making against the central conflation that Piiroinen espouses. I’d maintain that you couldn’t explain the unfolding of events in this scenario without reference to the causal power of past structures i.e. the responses would be patterned rather than atomistically chaotic.
But a lot also depends upon precisely how many “relevant neural dispositions” have been lost in the mind wipe. In a workplace that has card based access systems, the physical possession of the card and its power to enable access to certain locations within the workplace would be unaffected by the mind wipe. People would still have credit cards, mobile phones and personal computers which with sufficient remaining ‘neural dispositions’ could be leveraged to make sense of the undoubtedly confusing situation in which they now found themselves. In fact if the memory wipe were not worldwide but rather something localised to a particular region, or even a workplace, it’s not difficult to imagine how aggregated individual actions of those subject to the mind wipe would provoke collective intervention by authorities that could in turn lead to the reproduction of those structures Piiroinen suggests would be ‘lost’. In short I think there would be something left of social relations and structures. We wouldn’t be able to see it directly but we would be able to see its effects. This obviously hinges upon the acceptance of the causal criterion but even so it seems that Piiroinen hasn’t grasped the point that’s being made here in an otherwise interesting and sophisticated critique of social realism.