You are here

5. Continuous Identity

5. Continuous Identity
There are extensive portions of my life as it would normally be taken to be of which I have no proper recollection and which in the normal course of things I am never likely to be able to recall. There may be exceptional techniques or drugs or some other device by which a person may be induced to remember much of his life which he has otherwise quite forgotten. But I do not think we have to wait for anything of this sort to bring the occluded stretches of our lives within the ambit of my main concern at present. Let us then simply say in the first place that there is much of my life as we would generally regard it of which I have no proper remembrance. But I can be assured all the same of what must have happened in these forgotten interludes. This is because I can determine from independent evidence how things have gone for a person outwardly continuous with the person of whom in various episodes I have firm recollection and who must therefore at those times have been certainly me the person I know myself to be.

It is in this sense initially that I will say such things as the following: I went to the local school from an early age and later to a grammar school. The records will confirm this. Except for periods fortunately few of minor ailments and the holidays I was regularly at those schools from nine to four for several years. If one could lay hands on an old time-table of our lessons we would learn that on Tuesdays let us say form four of the grammar school in the year I was in it had its Latin lesson from 11.15 a.m. to 12 noon. I can be confident that unless it was one of the days on which I may have been ill I was in the classroom for that form at the Latin lesson on any Tuesday during term in that year. But I do not remember any such occasion and it is not to be expected that I would do so unless something out of the ordinary happened.

The most that I have is a general impression of what our Latin lessons were like what the teacher was like and the classroom. ‘Oh yes’ I might say ‘I remember old so and so very well I can see him now’. This general impression is not without significance for it is a remembrance; and how could I have acquired it and a host of like impressions if I had not been in the appropriate classes during those years? But none of this amounts to a firm recollection of being in the class for the Latin lesson on a particular day. There are only very special episodes of my boyhood that I remember in that way.
We need not however be perturbed by these gaps. For in addition to the over-all remembrances I have just noted there is the easy dovetailing of all that I can independently establish about myself from records etc. into the episodes of which there can be no question of my being the person involved. It is conceivable that in the episodes and stretches of experience undergone by a person outwardly continuous with me and dovetailing into the events I remember but no longer remembered by me there was the obtrusion of some other subject or person or a number of them. If such a substitution can be thought possible at all it would be very strange indeed that it should coincide with the episodes I have forgotten most of all when the boundaries of this are fluid and are variable according to interest or stress.
It could of course be argued that in the episodes I have forgotten another subject was involved — and that this is the reason for my forgetting. But the passing of recent very complete remembrances like my remembering in fairly full detail all I did yesterday into dim or totally faded memories in a short while very strongly suggests that this has also been the fate of much I lived through in the past which I am no longer in our normal states able to recall. In short whatever may be strictly conceivable we seem to be pushing philosophic doubt and scepticism beyond all reasonable limits if once assured of my undoubted identity in the episodes I do remember from various periods of my life I hesitate to build up around this all I can establish or assume about other events involving the same outward continuity. We are in fact home as far as concerns the continued existence of the person I now know myself to be for the whole of the story that involves the same outward continuity — we are home in this way as far as any reasonable misgiving is in question the moment it is clear that I must have been the person I am now in all of which I have a proper remembrance.
If we should wish to give serious thought to the possibility to which I have just alluded that at various stages or episodes of what would normally be taken to be the continuous life of one person one subject or agent may be replaced by another there would be the following additional difficulties.
In any particular stretch or episode of my life a great deal of my past is involved. Past experience much affects the way I view things now not only in perception itself but in the significance I attach to all that is passing. If I am speaking to someone who has called to see me let us say about arrangements for a journey all that has happened earlier about this project is involved; and likewise my attitude to my visitor himself is affected by what I have come to know about him or about persons like him. These are only some of the more explicit ways in which my past affects the present. There is in fact a vast and subtle network of ways in which my past ‘lives on’ in the present determining the way I understand the present situation and my attitudes and reactions in it. This moreover happens extensively in the shaping of my attitudes by stretches of experience of which I have no explicit recollection. It would be remarkable if all this affected only particular stretches of what is outwardly one life while other past events shaped and determined the subsequent experience of another person or a number of persons alternating with me in what presents itself outwardly and to myself as well as a continuous story in spite of sharp changes of fortune and attitudes. The necessary dovetailing of the different lives into one another in such a way that neither I myself nor those who observe me have the faintest hint of it would be astonishing indeed.
It is worth recalling here how much of our understanding is shaped not by exclusively physical conditions or determinants of experience however important or indispensable these may be but also by nuances and other inherent inter-relations of thoughts and experiences themselves the way meaning determines meaning. This brings its own accentuation of the difficulties of the notion of alternating agents in what is outwardly a continuous story.
But there is a further considerable complication in the sustaining of our experiences for most if not the whole of the time in our present existence by physical or neuro-physiological conditions of great complexity in one highly integrated system. Could this be at the disposal of a number of quite distinct subjects? We can easily understand how a car can be shared by a number of persons. Now I take it to do all I need and then hand it over to my wife or a friend the hired car is driven today by one man the next by another. But as the maligned Descartes himself insisted we are not in our bodies like pilots in a vessel. The continued interaction is much more subtle and sustained than that. This is indeed the strength of the materialist case. I have argued that it does not require materialism or strict materialistic determination. All the same the supposition that so peculiarly close and integrated a system as the brain and the whole of the neuro-physiology of one body could be alternately responsive to a number of distinct agents or even of just two calls for assumptions which hardly begin to be plausible.
If we could isolate parts of the neuro-physiological system or even some patterning of its functioning so as to relegate one to the service of one agent another to the other we might find the suggestion tolerable but that the peculiar intricacies of one such system as a whole should as one whole which very extensively at least it must be notwithstanding that some parts are more directly involved in one functioning than another — that all this should be a vehicle for a number of distinct agents is hardly credible. The gaps and the variations would break the system. The intricacies which prompt my recollections and enter into my attitudes would overlap those of the twin ‘possessor’ of my body and block them at every point. Although we would occupy the body at different times the effect would be like a computer being programmed in incompatible ways at the same time. Consider how a very slight damage to a brain can bring extensive paralysis of the whole system.
There would also be the peculiar problem of the lot or status of the twin occupant of my body when it fell to me to be ‘in’ it and of mine when it was his turn. Does the subject who is not in residence cease to be for a period? This is not so inconceivable a possibility as might appear at first as we shall see shortly when we consider dreamless sleep. Or does my twin when he makes way for me ‘enter’ some other body. How does it come about that vacancies are conveniently available just as required? Or does the absent occupant have recourse to some non-physical or quasi body or subsist in a wholly bodiless state? Whichever possibility we favour it is strange that most of us at least have no recollecttion in the course of our normal embodied existence of these incursions into a radically different situation. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising if such metamorphoses occur for we certainly become very rapidly oblivious of most of our dreams — they usually fade the moment we are fully conscious. But we do remember some dreams and it is difficult to believe that for much of the time we are leading some radically different existence of which in our normal embodied existence we have not the remotest hint.
For those reasons I do not think we can seriously entertain the idea of a number of different subjects or agents interacting with the same body in some sustained and continuous way which could make a seemingly continuous history in fact a series of interweaving dovetailing lives of a number of persons outwardly one but in fact many. We may sum it up tersely but not I hope dogmatically by saying — one body one person; and if the arguments I have earlier advanced are correct we may conclude that the person whose continued identity is most expressly established in cases of strict memory must also be credited with all the experiences and activities we associate with one continuous bodily existence.
This does not preclude there being occasional and limited interference with the neuro-physiological system of one person by another mind. Indeed in one way this is happening all the time. Other persons can determine what my brain states will be or at least influence them by placing me in a certain position or obstructing my view; all communication involves interference of this kind. But it is possible to affect my brain state in other than the normal ways. A drug could be administered to me that would make me delirious a doctor could operate on my brain and stimulate it in the process as he might achieve a like result with electric currents. But in all these cases some other physical factor is involved. Could a mind have a more direct impact on the brain of another?
I do not see why this might not happen. It would clearly be paranormal. But the evidence strongly suggests that some paranormal events do happen. Telepathy might take the form in question though it could also be understood to be a direct influence on the mind itself. If other minds perhaps non-human ones or the spirits of the departed could as is sometimes alleged take over or possess our bodies that might take the form of their being able either deliberately or otherwise to affect our brains in some paranormal way. If the possession of a medium during a trance were not to be deemed a fraud or some purely psychological excitation of the medium himself some welling up of elements from a subdued sub-conscious then it might not be unreasonable to conclude that in the medium’s ecstatic state some of the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system is modified in the course of the paranormal impact of another mind upon it. Mediums have been known to provide significant information which it does not appear likely that they could have obtained in the normal way. Clairvoyance might not cover all such cases.
In that event however an explanation in terms of some direct impact upon the brain — not the only possibility as we have seen — would not at all amount to a proper take-over of the brain and nervous system or the ousting of one occupant of the body to make way for a rival. For a limited impact upon the brain however startling and one not of a long duration would be very different from being totally responsive to that brain and receiving stimulus from it in the way our normal experience is conditioned by and dependent upon certain states of our brains and our bodies generally. Even if it proved possible as is sometimes envisaged in science fiction to exercise considerable control over a person by electrically affecting and controlling his brain this would still be ‘one-way’ business. It would not amount to a complete new embodiment. The difficulties in the way of the latter seem to me so considerable as to rule out any but the most remote and fanciful entertainment of it.
This relates closely to many ‘problem cases’ as they are sometimes called for example the alleged interchange of personalities in the same body as in the celebrated case of Eve-White and Eve-Black. The simplistic explanation here is that two distinct persons took over the same body in turn and it was from this that the subsequent film drew its main dramatic effect. But the facts do not seem to call for nearly so drastic an explanation. It could be just a less startling case of so-called ‘dual personality’ combined with extensive loss of memory to occlude in one personality all knowledge of the other while retaining much other information common to both states. It would still be a remarkable phenomenon but not so remarkable or so fraught with radical difficulty as the more popular rough assumption. I have already indicated what the latter difficulty would be — where for example was Eve-White when Eve-Black was in occupation? There seems little doubt that cases of dual or split personality occur. But what we must suppose here — and that is how experts proceed in handling such cases — is that it is the same person who is involved all the time but with drastically different traits of character coming to the fore in the alternating states together with total loss of memory in the one case of the occurrence of the other. It is indeed astonishing that there should be such complete loss of memory of very recent events as would happen with the onset of the change. But we have a parallel familiar to all in dreams. We do remember and tell some dreams but there is ample evidence that we dream a great deal more than we remember and most people have the often frustrating experience of remembering a dream well for a very short interval of becoming awake only to lose it entirely the moment we are fully awake — or very soon after. Yet no one suggests that the person in the dream experience is other than the person awake later. In the same way in essentials it comes about owing to special conditions in which physical factors would have an exceptional place and perhaps be the total explanation that in extreme cases of schizophrenia one and the same individual passes from one state to the other with radically different traits of character involved — and extensive loss of memory. This is strange enough but the evidence does not usually call for anything more dramatic.
In schizophrenia the person who suffers this is not aware — or at least not normally aware — of being identical with the person in the other state simply because he is not aware at the time of there being another state. But his total unawareness of it does not preclude his being the same person in his role of Dr Jekyll as in that of Mr Hyde. We all undergo substantial changes of mood and inclination. In the abnormality considered here the change would be much more extreme and involve an extraordinary loss of memory. This may be invoked in extenuation of guilt or as a complete adequate excuse more often than is warranted. But there do appear to be many genuine cases. But there is nothing in them to require the more startling and dramatic explanations sometimes offered of extreme instances. If memory were the essence of continued identity the case would be different but I have invoked it merely as the firmest way of establishing our continued identity.
Other persons than the sufferer himself will of course know if they can observe him in the alternating states that the behaviour in both states is associated or involves the same body and for the reasons already adduced will be reluctant to admit any exception to the principle of one body one person without evidence which irresistibly calls for it. Some cases of schizophrenia are in any case not complete and this also strongly suggests that the extreme cases are intensifications of conditions which neither require nor admit an explanation in terms of strictly distinct agents.
The position will be different however for those who adopt a different view of personal identity. If we think of identity in terms of patterns or continuities of experience — a view we shall note more closely in due course — there will not be the same finality about where we draw the line as to where one personality ends and another begins. But this in itself tends to cast doubt on the soundness of that theory to the extent at least of its being rather far removed from what we are normally inclined to think.
If the question were pressed as to what sort of evidence would seem to establish that in some cases of schizophrenia a genuinely distinct person must be thought to ‘take over’ this would have it seems to me to be on the basis of some information exhibited by one of the alleged personalities which could not have been obtained by either of them in the normal course of things. If it could have been obtained by one of them in an earlier schizophrenic state and thus in an existence presumably of the same person this would not be enough. For we could still regard it as information obtained by one and the same person in an exceptional state. But if it could not have been acquired by either in the normal course of their common bodily existence this suggests that one of them does lead a genuinely further existence in some form in the intervals of not being in this particular body. There could however be other explanations in terms of telepathy or clairvoyance for example notwithstanding that these would not seem to me to be initially as plausible as the more drastic explanation with all its additional perplexities. In the cases usually cited there seems to be no indication of the exceptional information required.
A closely related phenomenon which is usually cited and discussed in contexts like the present one is that of very complete loss of memory. Tragic cases of this are known and again made the basis of dramatic fiction or films. The argument usually goes that a person in this distressing turn of events has no longer any notion who he is. He can tell you nothing about himself not even his name or where he lives who he used to be; he does not recognise his former friends or familiar places. He has lost his identity we are apt to say and there is obviously a sense in which this is true. But in his unhappy state the sufferer will know himself in the full normal way as the distinct person he is and he will very probably as has been noted already bemoan the fact that ‘this has happened to me’. If evidence becomes available which will establish his identity in the normal ‘practical purposes’ sense both he himself and others will regard him as in the strict and most literal sense identical with the person whose past becomes known in this way. He will be eager to know about his past and the last thing he is likely to suppose is that his existence began at the point which his present memory reaches or when he ‘lost his memory’.
In the sense with which we are primarily concerned the phenomenon of loss of memory does nothing to upset the notion of the self as the distinct being which each one at the time knows himself to be and which can comfortably be thought to be continuous with the person presenting a bodily existence continuous with his present body.
Mention has already been made of dreams and their significance in this context. To those like Professor Norman Malcolm who hold that dreaming is not an on-going experience like waking consciousness there is no help to be found here in the fact that we dream. But there has been so much severe criticism of Malcolm’s view including a lengthy discussion by me in chapter VI of The Elusive Mind that I shall not open this issue again but simply proceed on the common assumption that dreams are an actual experience. In our dreams I submit we have exactly the same awareness of ourselves as the unique person that each finds himself to be as we have at all other times. But our actual physical body plays no direct part in this for the simple reason that I am not aware in my dream (and most certainly not normally aware) of the disposition of my body at the time. If when fast asleep in bed I dream that I am playing tennis I remain quite oblivious of my actual body curled up in bed. My actual body plays no part in the way I continue to think of myself as the person I am on other occasions. I just know myself to be me in the dream in precisely the same way as I do now writing these words. I shall likewise in the dream remember much about myself on other occasions and invoke much understanding of myself and my environment. This does not mean that the body is quite inoperative in the dream. Far from it. The way I dream will depend much on the state of my body and especially my brain — in much the same way as in waking consciousness that is the brain state will condition the course of my dreaming without completely determining it; other more specifically mental factors including associations meanings attitudes shaped by past experience will come in also. We may thus fully allow for such familiar facts as the weight of clothes on the bed over-eating or a loud noise penetrating the dream state affecting a dream. But I am not in the dream except in the twilight condition of slowly awakening or falling asleep aware of the these factors. I fully take myself to be playing tennis my opponent is for me a real person not a dream person or image I am quite convinced that I am hitting a real ball; and very rarely indeed although there do seem to be cases of so-called ‘vivid’ dreams when people know they are dreaming have we the slightest notion that we are dreaming or the faintest awareness of the actual state of the body curled up in bed.
In spite of this I have no more difficulty in identifying myself and thinking of myself in the normal way (in the dream) than I have in waking experience. In fact there is no radical difference in the experience itself. It is simply not as coherent or stable as waking experience and like hallucinatory states not related causally to the course of events in the physical world. If I dream that I am cutting down a tree in my garden the tree is still there when I come out of my dream and we say ‘It was just a dream’. But I did have an experience very similar to cutting down a tree and some dreams have reasonable continuity and coherence within themselves — perhaps they have more than we think if we could remember them better. Within this experience I have precisely the same awareness of myself as the person I always find myself to be as in waking consciousness. If it seems in the dream that I am about to be hurt if my hand is being thrust into the flame I am frightened because of what seems about to happen to me. This will carry with it much remembrance of past experience but that is not itself constitutive of what I understand myself to be as the distinct being that I am.
In my dream I will have a dream body; I shall swing my arms to hit the tennis ball or slip and perspire. But my consciousness of myself as myself has nothing to do with noting resemblances between my dream body and my real body or recognising myself bodily. Normally in dreams we are too much absorbed in the total passing scene to note our own bodies and if we did and found some sharp discrepancy if the lame dreamt that he was healed there would be no question of wondering who he was but surprise and in this case joy at finding himself so much changed physically. The change would be of his seeming bodily state.
Our consideration of dreams brings us to a further problem which many critics will consider a very serious one for a Cartesian. What would the situation be if we lapsed into totally dreamless sleep? Whether this ever happens is not so easy to settle for the absence of the eye movements by which a dreaming state is taken to be most unmistakably indicated might not strictly imply that there was no dreaming at all — it might merely mean that there were some dream states which did not reflect themselves in this overt physical condition. Plato seems to have thought that the more soundly we slept the more alert our minds would be. But be that as it may we cannot rule out the possibility improbable though it seems to me that we sometimes fall when asleep or in some like state of unconsciousness into a totally dreamless state in which we have no experience of any sort however faint. If this comes about what do we say about the self? Does it at least persist?
There are many doctrines of a ‘pure self’ which find no difficulty here. The aim of some religious disciplines seems to be just to detach the self as completely as possible from all outward existence to withdraw into pure consciousness. This paves the way also in many forms of mystical monism for the identification of all selves with one another or their absorption into the one Supreme Self. In a recent study Professor W. T. Stace commends just this view.1 For my own part I have never been able to make much of this position quite apart from its wider metaphysical implications. Just what would it be like to simply exist as a subject having no sort of content of experience whatsoever sensing nothing imaging nothing thinking nothing intending nothing a state of consciousness directed to nothing whatsoever? According to some thinkers this is a highly rarefied and most precious state of being but for my own part I find it difficult even to conceive of it or make it meaningful much less attach the highest worth to it.
To be relieved of some preoccupations which may be obsessive or too dominant to break away as a discipline from limiting concerns and cultivate greater detachment this may be very fine at least as an occasional discipline. But what it would be like not merely to be deprived of all external stimulus or perception but of any similitude of these and of all content of thought in any form whatsoever to be suspended as pure being in a total void emptied even of all private cogitation of any form or its like of that I can form no conception at all. When I attended mainly as an observer a short meditation course in Japan under the expert guidance of Professor Masao Abe the advice constantly given to me by my mentor was — ‘Stop thinking’. But in this I never began to succeed although I could well understand what it would normally mean to leave aside my usual ways of thinking. To stop thinking in every sense not even think about not thinking to make one’s mind a total blank this seems to me not just exceptionally difficult and far beyond the reach of a novice not extensively committed to arduous disciplines but inherently impossible. I fully allow for all that is said in these contexts for the emptiness which is also fullness and shall return to the wider aspects of the subject as a major concern elsewhere. But taken in its strictest most literal sense I must confess that I can make nothing of the notion of a totally empty consciousness a mind that is not minding anything whatsoever pure rarefied being the self and nothing but self.
In that case what of dreamless sleep? The proper answer it seems to me is that in the event of strictly dreamless sleep we simply cease to be. Is that disconcerting? In no way it seems to me though many will find it so. Have we then been dead for some period? This is largely a matter of words. The body will certainly have continued to function in the normal way and the health of the body will not have been impaired in any way — or if that is not the case a state of dreamless sleep will not be something that happens in the case of normal sleep; we would know that something untoward had happened and might be able to connect it with such evidence as we have of a probably dreamless state. That is not our normal supposition. When we entertain the idea of dreamless sleep we assume it to be a state into which we have lapsed without any consequent malfunction or any normally observable indication of it much less anything catastrophic. Our lives resume their courses in the normal way without any consequence we should especially deplore.
The most that we seem to have missed in that case is a few minutes of dreaming existence which would in any case be presumably a very low grade of dreaming consciousness on the borders of a blank unconsciousness. Even if many minutes are involved that would not seem to deprive us of anything we would particularly value or which could have a place of any importance in the serious concerns of our lives. What do we miss then if in supposedly dreamless sleep we simply pass out of existence for a period provided that everything afterwards assumes its normal course — we begin to dream again and later wake up with our normal memories and faculties unimpaired? Practically nothing would have happened to cause us alarm or distress.
But it will be said the real difficulty arises at the theoretical or conceptual level. If a person is the subject or agent and not itself in any sense corporeal we must be pronounced dead on the present assumptions in dreamless sleep whatever may be appropriate to say for clinical purposes. I should not myself seriously object to its being put in that way but it would I fear be apt to be misleading as we associate death with a finality of physiological functioning not compatible with the normal resumption of awareness and conduct in this life. If death merely means missing out on some minutes of low-grade awareness then it is not disconcerting to suppose that we have been dead for a period during which the conditions of our revival and continued existence were maintained. Some might still worry about the prospect if they understood it but it would be an unreasonable fear. Indeed if sleeping and dreaming were very rare occurrences most of us might feel some nervousness in being told we were about to undergo them. The main point is that everything is as it was before in the event of a period of dreamless sleep. But is it — if that involves a period of non-existence? Can this be bridged on the submissions I have been making?
This is where the conceptual difficulty will be pressed. How can personal identity be maintained across a gap which involves the total suspension or annulment of the subject. I fail however to see any genuine difficulty here. Admittedly the position would appear simpler if we thought of our identity in terms of some continuities of experience and attitudes in the view to which I shall return. But in what sense does a distinct and ultimate entity maintain its identity beyond periods when it totally ceases to be? This point may be pressed but I confess that I find no serious difficulty in it. I know myself at any time as the person I find myself to be and I know from strict memories and other supplementary ways as indicated already that I am the same as the person who had other experiences in the past which I describe as my life. I do not know in the last analysis how this comes about or is possible except in the sense of knowing the physiological conditions on which it depends in our present existence. I just find that in certain conditions which may or may not be dispensable in some other existence that my own being is in fact continued at least over extensive periods and as we have good reason to believe for most at least that would be regarded as my life. This may be just something we find to be the case; or we may look for further reasons for it such as our being maintained in existence by a superior being or a creator god. Those are further questions which may be handled in various ways from secular or pious agnosticism to firm theistic belief. But they do not concern us at present. All that matters now is that in some way of which we can give no explicit account ourselves we do find ourselves as distinct entities maintained in existence from one moment to the next.
In that case there is nothing peculiarly bewildering in the supposition that the identity of the self is maintained beyond a period of its total suspension if that ever happens. I find myself now to be the person I was half an hour ago but I have no notion how this is possible in the last resort. The position would be no different if I found myself continuing to exist in the same way after what I had reason to believe or to suspect had been a period of total non-existence. I would have my normal awareness of being the person I am and I would have my recollections of my previous states which I have the normal reasons to trust and which make a coherent continuous experience. There is nothing in my knowledge of myself to make this inherently inevitable but where in any case do we find such inevitability in the world around us? We certainly do not sustain ourselves in being except in the sense here irrelevant of attending to the healthy condition of our bodies on which we find our present existence to depend. Our being the persons we are after a possible period of annulment or suspension of being and of our having ways of being aware of this is no more remarkable in the last resort and no more amenable to an explanation explicitly within our own grasp than the fact of our existence in any respect whatever.
This is also the context in which general considerations about the nature of substance are apt to be raised it being thought that if continuity of being is to be maintained especially over periods when all activity is latent or potential there must be some substantial structure or substance in some other form to maintain these potentialities. For my own part I have little notion what a substance in any of these senses would be any more than I can understand the alleged under-pinning of our perceptual experience by the supposition of a ‘something I know not what’ altogether different from all the presentation of the world around us as we actually find it. The coherence of perceptions is sometimes thought to require a realist view in the sense of some physical reality altogether different from what is actually presented but I have never understood what explanatory functions such postulations might be thought to have — Berkeley in my view dispensed with them finally. Much less have I any notion what the self as substance could possibly be or what the postulation of it serves beyond the recognition of the self as the particular continuing entity which each of us finds himself to be. How in the last resort such entities come to be sustained beyond noting the physical conditions they have is a matter beyond explanation or direct speculation by us.
Another phenomenon which deserves to be noticed here is that of alleged ‘out of the body’ experiences. Claims to have had such experiences are very common in some cultures but in a form which is peculiarly difficult to assess or indeed to apprehend properly. The most tractable form of this claim is that which is sometimes made by patients who have been under anaesthetic for surgical treatment. Being under anaesthetic they would be quite unaware in any normal way of what was going on in the room. There would be no normal stimulation of their senses they would see and hear nothing. Yet some have been able to describe what went on in very specific ways during the operation observing it so they aver from a point of view on the ceiling or as if they were suspended from the ceiling or peeping through it. They have indeed ‘seen’ what happened in ways that would not be in their line of vision flat on the table. These claims go far beyond what an imaginative person with some knowledge of operations might have fabricated or any dream he may have had. They have detail and accuracy which takes them out of the range of normal explanation.
There are however various explanations which might be offered. The patient might have got his information telepathically from others in the room either during the operation or immediately after it. On the whole this seems to me less likely than that the patient was able to witness the actual scene in some fashion as he describes. It is hard to find an explanation that fits the facts better and where there are genuine witnesses to confirm the reports one is strongly inclined to accept the explanation at its face value. This makes one more sympathetic to wilder claims which do not admit any proper verification but which seem to be made in all sincerity and which purport to describe reasonably common occurrences in some cultures.
In India I have frequently spoken to persons who claim to pass out of their bodies quite frequently and without the stress of unusual circumstances like an operation. It is hard in such cases to suppose that the narrator is simply under a delusion he has not been dreaming but purports to describe what others can vouch for in the normal way. Credulous they may be and large allowances must be made for that but they are not repeating what they have on report from others. Nor are they just pulling our legs or setting out to impress us at all costs. Some are highly intelligent and learned persons and one is little inclined to suspect them of downright dishonesty. All the same the oddity of what is maintained often deepens one’s suspicion of its genuineness however honestly intended.2
Some indeed describe the process of exiting from their bodies in very literal terms as if they were literally leaving one frame and location to function in another like a snake leaving its skin except that it does not resume it later. Much of this is bound up with the notion of our having various bodies all the time unknown to ourselves or to most of us a gross body and an ethereal one. This raises questions into which I will not enter here. I will only say that my natural scepticism is hardened when I listen to ready accounts of leaving the body through the top of one’s head as if it were not peculiar at all — why the top of one’s head and what does this mean except as a feature of early mythology? I can take more readily the notion that one simply finds oneself having experiences from a point of view other than our bodily one of what can be normally observed of the world around us — and sometimes allegedly of a quite different but fully real world.
The important question for our purpose is — suppose it be allowed that some alleged cases of ‘out of the body’ experiences are genuine what in relation to the main themes of these chapters should we say about them? In the first place it would seem clear that it is possible to have some observation of our physical environment without the usual stimulation of our sense organs and the consequent neuro-physiological changes culminating in a brain change. The patient under anaesthetic on the operation table would not have perceived the nurse drop something and pick it up but neither did he dream it; in some sense quasi-perceptual and dependable he saw her and heard what the doctor or theatre sister said to her — how otherwise could he describe and remember it? If this as is averred does happen then it is most intriguing and significant. It means that it is possible to have an awareness of the world around us in most respects the same as in perception including perspective and a point of view independently of normal neuro-physiological processes. There is thus opened up a possibility of a mode of existence and of apprehending to which we do not often give serious thought and which most contemporary philosophers are committed to repudiate from the start.
How much does this involve? Does the patient when he sees things as from the ceiling have some kind of quasi-body as we have in dreams? If so is there anything in it as there is not in the dream-body corresponding to the neuro-physiological system? Has it a brain? The very strong presumption here is that there is not. The body if there is more than a point of view serves a psychological purpose. It does not have organs that are actually stimulated by waves of light etc. What then of the actual physical body on the table. We cannot suppose that the patient sees and hears because his real eyes and ears are stimulated — the anaesthetic has seen to that. Are the body and brain involved in some other way as they certainly are in dreams. This is certainly not precluded by the patient being ‘out of the body’ for although he has a locatable point of view and perhaps some kind of body the mind itself as I have especially insisted is not in space or spatially related to the body. This by our main contention is no requirement of the conditioning of mental processes by bodily ones. There is nothing in principle to prevent the brain being involved. At the same time the odds seem heavily against that for it is not the wild and random experiences of dreams that we have but the apprehension of events in the world around us as observed by others as well which normally only involve the brain through stimulation of sense organs relayed to it. The very strong presumption is that the actual brain and body are not involved in any way in genuine ‘out of the body’ experience especially (or perhaps we should say more obviously certain) when it is also an experience of the world around us as perceived by others. The possibility thus opened out is a novel and exciting one — and incidentally one which should give the out-and-out materialist much to think about though it is not in these exceptional cases that the main chinks in his armour are to be found.
Does this relate also to questions of self-identity? It certainly does. For the person — the patient in our example — who has the ‘out of the body’ experience will undoubtedly report it as an experience he has had. He does not doubt that it is so himself any more than others of us do in dreams. He will report what he has ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ and here we have therefore a sense of one’s own identity taken to be similar in all respects to our normal awareness of our selves but in which the actual physical body is even less involved than in dreams. Whether such a person in the course of this experience has some kind of body for which a dream body would presumably be our model or simply ‘sees’ things from a point of view or perspective similar to that of normal perception he is able to observe as an experience as much his own as normal waking consciousness the scene to which others in the theatre also bear witness. It has been thought that in the absence of our usual somatic sensations we would lose the sense of our identity. This seems clearly belied if ‘out of the body’ experiences occur in the way described. It seems unlikely that even if the patient is aware of having some body as in dreams he will also have somatic sensations and if he has they are highly unlikely to be those he would have as directly occasioned by the state of his body. Total sensory deprivation we are told would lead to a total dissolution of one’s sense of identity. We do not have such total deprivation in all respects in the cases considered. For the patient does ‘see’ and ‘hear’ in some way. But we are certainly approaching a state of the absence of all which our actual physical body sustains.
The facts as we have supposed them to be would of course be consistent with an account of our awareness of our own identity in other terms for example some continuity of experience if such an account commended itself in respect to normal experience. But if the account as offered in these pages is sound we must assume in the absence of any indication that self-awareness is different in ‘out of the body’ experience — and how could it be when the patient reports what he ‘saw’ while under anaesthetic etc.? — that in these cases of at least greater independence of the bodily state than normal almost total independence of it the sense of one’s distinct identity remains and memory reports of the experience have nothing to distinguish them radically from the sort of memories we normally have. This has much relevance to questions of identity in a possible future existence.
The reference which I was making a short while ago to substance brings me to an objection to my general thesis to which I am often thought to be very open. I am not much attracted to a severely realist view of the external world favouring (as indicated) more a somewhat Berkeleyan form of phenomenalism not as will be very evident in the sense which Berkeley also would be most concerned to reject namely that we and the world around us can be wholly understood in terms of the flow of our experiences. Indeed like Berkeley also I not only insist on a genuine self that is known independently of what the particular course of my experience discloses but that also in our presentations in perception we are confronted by what is over-against us not ourselves or states of our own minds. The coloured surface is certainly not a state of my mind whatever we say of the smell or the hardness in the resistance to touch. There is I maintain a world of nature which is not me. At the same time I find it difficult to conceive what this can be that is not dependent on the way it is presented in experience. It is not my perceiving but can any of it properly exist when not perceived?
When I look out on the field outside my window my state of mind is not green. I apprehend the greenness but could this particular green expanse with just the shade I apprehend at this very moment exist except as perceived by me? If it does what of all the slightly different shades and shapes which others see and which I have seen during intervals of looking out on the same scene? Are all these independent and abiding? If we start to think that way we are in no time on the slope that leads to naive realism. Can anyone go along with that today now that the implications of it have been made very clear? Bertrand Russell could at one stage in his career but not for long. But short of supposing that an endless number of hues and shapes which might be presented to our senses in all varieties of conditions literally exist all the time now some being disclosed now others we must if we adhere to a strictly realist view of the external world present it as some kind of further structure which we invoke or postulate to account for all that is presented to our senses but of which nothing is known in other ways.
But nothing seems to be gained for our understanding of the world in this way. I have little love of the principle of parsimony in itself. The simpler explanation should not be perferred just because it is simpler. We must account for all that we find to be the case. But we have no contact with any alleged physical reality in any more direct way than as an explanation of what comes to us in our presentations and the supposition of there being that reality as some quite distinct existence seems to add nothing to what can be fully accounted for in terms of the irresistibility and marvellous coherence of all our presentations. This from the point of view of common sense makes the world around us very odd in some respects but it is bound to be that in any case and philosophers must follow the wind of the argument wherever it takes them. Is there any point in postulating something short of transcendence itself of whose nature we have not the faintest notion and which affords us no explanation of the facts which is not already available to us?
It is sometimes thought that we do have in basic scientific concepts some notion of what the constituents of a realist physical world would be. But this just begs the issue for what are these non-observable physical entities which are not compounded out of the amazing intricacies of the way things happen and can be anticipated in the world as it is in fact presented? The case of our non-observable mental processes and our own identity is quite different. For here I have maintained we do have immediate apprehension in one’s own case of these realities on their own account and not as explanatory principles. They are also given and we know how we think of them however little there is to say. There is nothing corresponding to this in the notion of pyhsical entities somehow supporting the world as we actually find it.
The only recourse it seems to me that the realist can have here is to the appeal to ordinary language and the frame of mind of Dr Johnson. But this has been very much blown upon now and the effect of it appears to be to give up philosophical thinking altogether — there are tables and chairs we all know it and there is an end of it. But we do not in fact know any of these things in the sense the realist has in mind. We only suppose it to account for other things.
There are problems for the realist also about space. For the actual extended surfaces that present themselves to us according to our perspective etc. must oust one another in the competition for location in any space that is strictly continuous with the private Space in which they are actually presented to each of us. This is a much more substantial and intriguing problem than is generally realised by students of perception. I have myself tried to bring it more to the notice of philosophers.3 If I am right there is a radical privacy about Space also as it figures directly in all our experience notwithstanding that we construct out of our private Space the public Space of common sense and science.
If all this is sound then it is urged the main thesis of the preceding chapters is open to a very serious objection namely that I am not defending as I claim a properly dualistic view. I am not much concerned about the appropriate label. But more than that is involved. The argument is that in the light of the views which I have just outlined there is no proper recognition of a distinct independent material reality to be contrasted with the mental reality of states of mind and persons. I see the point of this objection but am not much daunted by it. For I have insisted especially that whatever the complexities of perceptual experience lead us to think the world that is presented to us there is in no way mental itself. My state of mind is not green when I view the field or the green patch I observe when I look out of my window. The world of nature is over-against me I encounter it and in whatever sense it may be said to be also mind-dependent I certainly do not make it it has its own laws as discovered by the scientist and we do not set those up ourselves. If a skull were opened and I looked within I should certainly not be looking at thoughts but at extended matter. Meaning and the laws of thought are quite different from extended things.
In short the question of the nature or status of the external world is a quite distinct further question which has no immediate bearing on the main views I have been advancing. Whether one inclines to a realist view of the external world and in what form or has sympathy with some kind of phenomenalism as regards the status of matter the contrast between mental existence and the external world as encountered in perception remains a radical one for which the vindication must be found in what we find mental existence to be like in our own experience. It is not merely that external things are extended but that they are apprehended as essentially of a different order from the thoughts or sensations or other constituents of our minds.
The idea has also been mooted though not very often in Western thought that the self which ‘has’ the experiences may be of some still further different order from the mental states themselves. There would be more to be said for this in my view if the self were simply posited to explain the kind of experience we have or regarded as some ‘thing in itself’ altogether outside the range of our awareness a mysterious something ‘beyond’ which we have to invoke. But it seems evident to me that this is not the case. We know the self in essentials I have maintained better than anything else however impossible it may be to describe it in the basic sense in which everyone is the person he is. But I submit the affinity of the self or subject as known in the way indicated with the experiences it has is very close — and I have stressed this more than once. I am myself in having my experiences and I do not know how we could begin to think of the ‘self’ as known in this way in any other way than as essentially of the same order of being as the mental reality of the states of mind we contrast in the most basic division we know with material things.
A further misgiving which some appear to have concerns the seeming static and unchanging character of the self as presented here. Does the self not develop it will be asked? I am not quite sure what is the real worry here. There is obviously a very important sense in which we all develop and may regress also as in acute senility. I have skills and aptitudes now which I did not have as a baby or as a little boy. All the same this is a change that has come about in me I am the one who has acquired these further skills. That the self as such is a constant factor in these changes is in no way detrimental to their importance. On the contrary I am proud or ashamed of the way I have developed just because it is myself to whom it has happened. But the me that is involved here has not itself changed I am strictly the same person as I was as a baby and I do not see how this can properly be admitted without insisting that in all changes of states of mind or dispositions there is something that remains unchanging. That this has no obvious function in the changes being the kind they are does not detract from its importance; on the contrary how could the changes matter in the way they do except as changes which one and the same person has undergone.
The root difficulty here as in so many contexts is that the model we are disposed to adopt comes so much from our thought about external things. We picture some kind of inert functionless quasi-tangible entity persisting through all changes of states and attitude. But this is just where we should most avoid models taken from external reality and consider the self as we find it sensitive dynamic the very core of our living being and also very peculiarly involved in having the particular experiences and dispositions it does have as has been very specially stressed earlier.
I see no reason therefore to abandon or modify the view that at the core of our existence and experience there is an abiding entity what each of us essentially is which remains what it is myself in the strictest sense through all changes of fortune or character and which will persist through even more radical changes of circumstance and status than we encounter in the normal course of our present lives. But in the last reflection we are getting on to another issue. For the moment we must turn to consider more explicitly than hitherto some of the alternatives to the view of self-identity I have advanced and especially the contention for which there is powerful support in recent philosophical writing that continuity of experience rather than strict identity is the vital consideration. This is what will occupy us next.

From the book: