Amnesiac Vacation and Meaning in Life

I was re-reading Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow and came across this thought experiment about a hypothetical vacation:

At the end of the vacation, all pictures and videos will be destroyed. Furthermore, you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation.

How would this prospect affect your vacation plans? How much would you be willing to pay for it, relative to a normally memorable vacation?

Some presented with this thought experiment treat themselves like they would treat an amnesiac stranger by choosing to visit a place they have enjoyed in the past. This strikes me as a perfectly respectable strategy. But others would not go on the vacation at all.

This is strange because we are living this thought experiment, or at least many of us believe we are. If you do not believe in an afterlife, life is an amnesiac vacation. Same goes if you believe in an afterlife that has no memory-connection to this life (e.g. many views of reincarnation).

When someone refuses an amnesiac vacation they express the belief that the goods of a vacation–notably pleasure–are strictly remembered goods. But if we are living an amnesiac vacation, this view amounts to a denial that nothing in life is of value. Even if there is an afterlife, and we are not all amnesiacs on vacation, it is startling to think that this life should only have value from the stance a life after this one.

The refuser may not have thought things through entirely, just as Kahnemann could have been cleverer in constructing his thought experiment. This is because there are many goods other than pleasure. An amnesiac vacationer could create a work of lasting value (say, a novel) while on vacation. She could make a new friend or do charity work. Any of this could benefit the vacationer later on, even if she has no recollection of the experience.

But even supposing the refuser didn’t think things through, she seems to believe that the pleasure of a experience is only valuable insofar as it is remembered. Considering our lot in life, this seems to be placing the bar altogether too high.

My advice is go on the vacation.