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Self after Death

by Bill Meacham on April 27th, 2021

This essay continues my earlier “Fearing Death“. There I explored how different assumptions as to whether there is life after the physical body dies have led thinkers in different directions. Here I explore further the implications of the idea of an afterlife. It brings up an interesting philosophical question, the nature of personal identity.

We do not need to affirm belief in an afterlife to consider the idea; instead, we can look on it as a thought experiment. If you did live on in some form after the physical body dies, how would you know that you are you? All this is speculative, of course, but apparently the transition from one form of existence, the physical, to another, whatever that may be, involves shedding layers of what we might call our self. The more that are shed, the closer the remainder would be to the essence of selfhood.

The layers I have in mind were delineated nicely by William James in his monumental Principles of Psychology(1896). He contrasts two senses of the term “self,” the empirical self and the pure ego.(1) The empirical self comprises everything that each of us can be conscious of and call “me.” The pure ego is what is conscious of all those things. In this thought experiment I focus only on the empirical self. Psychological research into the workings of the brain, the neurological substrates of perception and thought and the like has advanced greatly since James’ time, but his broad categories of selfhood are still quite applicable. There are three aspects to the empirical self, he says: the material, the social and what he calls the “spiritual,” which nowadays we should rather call the mental or psychological.(2)

The material self is our body. Each of us is a physical thing separate from other physical things. If someone asks where we are, the answer is where our physical body is located. If someone asks who ate the cookies, the culprit, if honest, says “I did,” meaning that his (or her or their) body physically ingested them. In such cases we identify ourself with our body; that is, we think of ourself as our body.

The social self is similar, but in the interpersonal realm rather than the physical. Each of us appears to and is known by other people. Insofar as we have an idea of how we appear, we can think of ourself as the person that the others know us as. In each relationship or in each social situation we have a persona or public personality; this is what James calls the social self. He says “A [person’s] Social Self is the recognition which he [or she or they] gets from his [or her or their] mates.”(3)

Finally, James speaks of the spiritual self, by which he means “[one’s] inner or subjective being, [one’s] psychic faculties or dispositions.”(4) This use of the term “spiritual” is a bit archaic; nowadays we would say “mental” or “psychological.” A better term might be “subjective self.”

With these categories in mind, let’s consider what might happen to you at the time of death. You would be removed from one world and inserted into another. I suppose it would be a bit like going through the transporter in Star Trek, in which one is beamed from one place to another instantaneously. Your surroundings would change, and you would find yourself all of a sudden someplace else.

But there is an obvious difference: you wouldn’t have a body. Nothing that has mass would accompany you to the afterlife. In Star Trek your whole body is transported and you with it; but in the moment of death, the physical body dies and is left behind. You would not have the bodily feelings that form a large part of your sense of self as a continuous entity. You might have memories and anticipations of such feelings, but over time your memories would fade and your anticipations, diminish. For those who have emotional attachment, perhaps pride, in their body, this might come as a shock. For those who lived their final days in pain, it might be quite a relief. But in any case, what James calls the material self would be gone, and you could not use it to know that you are you.

But you would be someplace; you would have a world surrounding you. How could this be? By definition in this thought experiment, the physical world is left behind. The answer is that your world would not be physical, but mental. It would be rather like a dream or a computer simulation or a virtual reality. And in this world you would most likely find other people. Your social self would survive.

Your sense of who you are depends on how people treat you. If they treat you as the same person over time, then you take yourself to be that person. In our thought experiment, we can assume that other people will be there, so you would have a sense of yourself as social. But what specifically shall we assume? Different religions paint different pictures. You might be with people you know or with people you don’t. You might be with angels. Or demons. You might be in a paradise or a hell or some kind of purgatory in between. The story is indeterminate; it could well be different for each person. (If you want more detail, please feel free to fill in here what makes sense to you.) Instead of positing specific scenarios, we can consider the structural characteristics of such a world.

One such characteristic is that the world, being something like a simulated virtual reality, would be formed by the minds of each of its participants. You would be living in a sort of shared hallucination. So long as everyone agrees on its features, the world would be stable. But you need not agree. You could exert some control over that world. The physical world has a certain stubbornness, a resistance to change. You can’t just make it different by wishing it so. But the mental world of the afterlife, we can assume, would be more mutable, just as your thoughts and imagination are now. If you have some presence of mind and find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, you might be able to change it. (The techniques for acquiring such presence of mind and making such changes are taught in various wisdom traditions, but discussing them would take us too far away from our thought experiment.) If this assumption is correct, then a sense of yourself as an agent would endure. You would be an agent with respect to your surroundings by having some mental control over them. But that control would be limited by the others around you, who have similar powers. As in the physical world, you would be an agent among other agents in a social world.

So, we assume for the sake of this thought experiment, you would find yourself in a social world. Many people fervently hope to be reunited with loved ones and friends who have passed on. If such hopes come to fruition, then the social self would remain; you would know yourself as you despite the lack of a body. But what if familiar people were nowhere to be found? In that case, what would remain of you would be less substantial. You would have only your characteristic way of relating to people, your personality; you would not have expectations of their knowing who you are and treating you as who you have been. But you would still be social.

What if there were no people at all? That scenario could very well be quite unpleasant, especially for extraverts. We evolved in tribes, dependent on others for aid; and they in turn were dependent on us (or rather, our ancestors). “Mutual dependence is key” says ethologist Frans de Waal. “Human societies are support systems within which weakness does not automatically spell death.”(5) Banishment and solitary confinement are harsh punishments. If you were left completely alone, it might be terrifying.

But for others, the more introverted, it might not be a problem at all. For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume that you would not be in isolated hellish anguish, but only in a place with no people. Eventually your social self would fade away. Your personas, the ways you present yourself to others, would be gone. The only thing left would be your subjective or psychological self.

That self includes lots of things: thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, memories, anticipations, plans, regrets, theories, conjectures, faculties, dispositions and more. Most, if not all, of these arise in relation to things and people external to us. As the physical and the interpersonal worlds fade away, so would most of the contents of your subjective self. Minute-to-minute incessant chatter would be silenced. Emotions would dissolve. You might run through favorite memories of what has passed and compulsive fantasies of what might have been, but after a time even these would become tiresome. Eventually the only thing remaining would be your core attitude toward life (or afterlife). For some of us, that attitude might be calm curiosity or benevolent interest; for others, fear or anger or despair.

What this analysis suggests is that the fundamental nature of selfhood is the manner in which one relates to one’s world. At the core of selfhood we do not find an enduring substantial thing like the Christian soul or the Hindu atman. Nor do we find a mere nothingness or void, as some interpretations of Buddhism and Taoism would have it. Instead, the core of selfhood is attitude, one’s fundamental approach to being in the world.

I think it best to end the thought experiment here. If we go any further, the self vanishes entirely. The result might be indistinguishable from death. Or it might be what the Buddhists call Nirvana, the extinguishing of the sense of a separate self into a state of happy quietude.(6) In either case, there is no need to fear it. What we can focus on instead is our manner of being in the here and now.


(1) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 291.

(2) Material in this section comes from James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, and Psychology (Briefer Course), chapter XII.

(3) James, Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, chapter X, p. 293.

(4) Idem, p. 296.

(5) de Waal, Our Inner Ape, p. 187.

(6) Wikipedia, “Nirvana.”


de Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

James, William. Psychology (Briefer Course). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1892. Online publication as of 19 January 2021.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication as of 16 November 2020.

Wikipedia. “Nirvana.” Online publication as of 17 April 2021.

From → Philosophy

  1. Ralph permalink

    Hi Bill. You have posed a most interesting question; that of considering the nature of personal identity. You also propose a thought experiment, I am supposing with the objective of learning from logical and/or reasonable extrapolations regarding somewhat reliable assumptions about one’s personal identity. The analysis, the thought experiment itself, seemed lacking to me. Therefore, my conclusions, logically speaking, are tenuous at best where I understand your position to be – let’s say, less tenuous than mine.

    What I find most obviously lacking in James’ analysis is the spiritual aspect of the empirical self. Suffice it to say, the identification of objects of this view of the spiritual/psychological self are all elements of self-reflection. This misses the source of “looking out from” that David Chalmers referred to as “the hard problem of consciousness”. You might expect a reference to Rene Descartes also but his cogito still depends on attributes of self-reflection (at least the way I read it).

    I do have a belief in the persistence of a soul/ego/consciousness/spirit/atman but would agree that explaining the self-identity of what it is, is mostly materially and informationally out of reach. So, my belief is more of “that it is” rather than a “how it is”.

    Avoiding religious speculations, I also have a great deal of wonder about what of oneself persists. I have a diabetic niece who some years ago went into a diabetic coma and was considered dead. She was rolled into a morgue or pre-morgue area for later processing. She experienced an out-of-body experience at that time – no white lights or other things frequently reported in these sorts of experiences. She recalled events going on around her and in the adjacent room where she received treatment and recounted conversations from that room after she had been rolled out (so I was told). No doubt, an identity is present and functional for perception to take place, though foundationally as part of the perception process rather than a focus of selfhood. Whether she was actually dead isn’t the question here, rather that the composition of what it is that looks out seems (at least to me) as being identifiable and unique to each person. What the extent of that aspect of identity is and how enmeshed it is with the whole of ego and empirical identity is still up for grabs. The objects of self-perception do seem necessary for one to have a sense of self, perhaps as a confirmation of the not-so-easily-observable self, but do not account for the whole of self.

    Even so, with the difficulties of this though experiment and my rejection of your analysis: “What this analysis suggests is that the fundamental nature of selfhood is the manner in which one relates to one’s world”, I find myself in complete agreement with your conclusion: “What we can focus on instead is our manner of being in the here and now.”

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Thanks for your comments, Ralph. You say I don’t address “the source of ‘looking out from’.” You are right. James calls that the “pure ego,” and I deliberately avoid dealing with it in the essay. You say that you have a belief in the persistence of a soul/ego/consciousness/spirit/atman. That’s a profound topic. Some agree with you, and some — notably the Buddhists — don’t. I hope to take up question at some point, but I did not in this essay.

      You say “the composition of what it is that looks out seems (at least to me) as being identifiable and unique to each person.” Perhaps its uniqueness comes from being a specific vantage point on all the elements of the empirical self that I talk about.

      And don’t forget that the pure ego, whatever it is, is not just something that looks out, it also acts, it does things.

      Again, thanks for your thoughtful insights.

  2. The most reliable source of information on this impossible subject would seem to be observation of nature, how the rest of the world works.

    A leaf falls from the tree, hits the ground, decays, and it’s fundamental properties are eventually brought back up in to tree.

    The leaf as a particular individual thing is gone, but something we might call “leafness” remains and is transmitted through time. Leafness has no physical properties and thus can not be said to exist, but it is nonetheless real, much as is true for math, or perhaps the vast majority of reality, space.

    As for the experience of death, it’s my sense that a taste of that is available in life.

    Sex is one example. A the moment of orgasm, life rewards us for trying to reproduce with a little taste of death. For a few brief moments the “me” is obliterated, and we’re generally pretty pleased with that.

    Death is also woven in to the fabric of daily life. Someone enters the room behind you and as you turn to look, for just a moment “me” is gone, and there is only the looking. But this happens so fast and is so utterly normal that we experience as “I am looking”.

    Finally, it might be a mistake to sidestep religious terminology. I’m not religious myself, but we can observe that religions have been thinking about such things far longer than our modern scientific culture.

  3. Leslie M permalink

    Hi Bill,
    I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic. And I agree with your conclusion about focusing on here and now.

    As a hospice volunteer, I have witnessed, as have so many others, what we call crossing over. I have seen people delighted in what they were experiencing (and what I could not see at all).

    My first hospice patient, a man named Lyle, smiled and turned to me one day and said, “Do you hear that choir over there?” I clumsily said “No.” (I have learned to say, “Tell me more about it.”).

    Another time, he asked me again if I could see or hear the choir. After witnessing these crossing over experiences many times, and with different people, I have come to look on them as something to be very curious about.

    I don’t know what to expect after death. But I am not afraid. I am curious to learn what I will find.

    Your essay is delightfully well-written and your thought experiment nicely constructed. I’m encouraged to explore my own thought experiments.

  4. carl ehlert permalink

    I always enjoy your ventures and this was no exception but I must confess that my own thinking has taken a different turn of late. Namely, I am not concerned with life after death, interesting and relevant though it might be but am concerned with the notion of what if anything remains constant throughout life. I have been operating under the assumption that I, self, mind, soul, spirit etc. are not actual entities but are social constructs by which this organism navigates this life. Another way of putting this is the baby that was born in a hospital in Chicago in 1943 has little if any connection with this 78 year old man other than perhaps my DNA. Certainly, most of the cells in my body have been replaced multiple times and certainly who I was then verses who I am now are in any way you care to measure it totally different. In fact, as I ponder the problem I suspect that beyond my physical form entities like mind, self, soul etc. are recreated instant by instant with sometimes minor and sometimes major shifts in perspective. So, Is there some essence that remains constant as we move through life or is it simply a useful and convenient strategy whereby we as organisms navigate our space? I have no definitive answer and am still in the what if stage but there it is.

  5. To me, your thought experiment sounds like the experience of dying, which is usually compressed into the space of hours or minutes, rather than the experience of afterlife; also dreaming, where, in fact, we are temporarily neurologically disconnected from the musculoskeletal system. The experience of dreaming is paradoxically very concrete, we experience being involved in things happening around us and our responses to these happenings without much reflection or thinking. I think that we are under the illusion that being disembodied would give us all the time in the world to think about things, but it could be the opposite, like dreaming we could find ourselves immersed in the world without the ability to distance ourselves or reflect on it. To me, death is a dissolution and merging with the Universe, where nothing of ourselves remains. Our selves are the product of the complex organization of our bodies and brains, and when that goes, so does the self.

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