The Question of Identity is Crucial
IF I ask: 'Will I survive bodily death?' I find myself facing an even deeper
question: 'Who or what is this "I"? How can it be identified?'
The 'I'-thinker is an inescapable reality
That one cannot deny the existence of one's own essential selfhood without
thereby reasserting it has been pointed out in Chapter 14. My essential selfhood
consists in whatever it is that is referred to by the subject of the verbs 'I
observe', and 'I act'.
The 'I'-thinker observes and acts in dreams
Now this conscious observer-operator who is referred to by the pronoun 'I' is
active not only in the outer world of the senses, but also in my imagination, my
rememberings, and my dreams. It observes and acts in those exceedingly vivid and
clear dreams in which I become aware that I am dreaming and still go on with the
dream. It has been the observer-operator in certain telepathically shared dreams
which I have experienced and recorded. I assume that a similar 'I'-thinker has
observed and acted in the shared dreams which others have recorded.
Identity, and the 'I'-thinker's memories
One of the characteristics of all normal 'I'-thinkers is the sense of personal
identity. Vital to this self-identification is the recognition of the chain of
one's own memories as being one's own. 'My past' is essential to my own sense of
identity. When a person loses his memory (as in amnesia) he has to ask: 'Who am
Professor C. D. Broad, in his lecture in 1958 on 'Personal Identity and
Survival', took the following position:
'The disembodied personality might remember
experiences had by the deceased human being, just as a human being in his waking
state at one time remembers experiences had by him in his earlier waking states.
In that case, and in that alone, could we say that the personality of the
deceased human being had survived the death of his body in the full sense in
which one's waking personality is reinstated after each period of normal sleep.'
The 'I'-thinker's values are also part of his
My identity projects itself, not only into the past, but also into the future.
'My purposes, my plans, my goals, my values' are vital to my selfhood. If a
young man goes to college or enters military service with one set of values and
purposes (such as to marry a certain girl, to be a doctor, and to serve
humanity) and then later comes back with wholly different purposes (such as to
marry a different girl, to get rich fast and unscrupulously, and to enjoy the
thrills of high-stake gambling) his former friends are apt to say: 'He is so
changed that he is a different person!'
My body is part of my earth-life identity
When questions of identity arise in courts of law they practically always hinge
on the identification of the physical body. Recognition of the face, the bodily
appearance, the scars, the distinctive gestures and the like is often crucial.
Identification of finger-prints is still more conclusive.
The After-life as an Embodied Existence
During earth-life, 'my memories', 'my values', and
'my purposes' are vitally related to 'my physical body'. Murphy pointed out in
1945: ''The biological point of view makes it difficult to think of any aspect of
awareness as continuing independently of the very substratum which has given it
its place in nature' - namely, the physical body.' Flew asked in 1953: 'How can
such objects as people survive physical dissolution? This is a massive
But need survival be disembodied?
Professor Broad pointed out:
'Of all the hundreds of millions of men in every age
and clime who have believed ... in human survival, hardly any have believed in
survival without a body... It seems to me rather futile for a modern
philosopher to discuss the possibility of human survival on an assumption which
would have been unhesitatingly rejected by almost everyone, lay or learned, who
ever claimed seriously to believe in it.'
The dream body is an objective reality
The question of having a body after death may well be approached by way of
intermediate psychological and psychic phenomena. Take first those rare but
unquestionable experiences in which a dreamer becomes fully aware that he is
occupying a body which is visible, tangible, solid, and capable of voluntary
One is aware that this is not one's physical body - that body is back in
the bedroom, lying in the bed. Moreover, this dream-world body can rise into the
air, untrammelled by gravity.
This dream body is the vehicle of consciousness. One seems to be located in it
just as, in waking life, one is located in one's physical body. One's sense of
personal identity is vivid. Memory is available. Values are keen.
Now take the case of the shared dream. In such an experience each of the
participants has a dream body which seems real. Moreover, one dreamer may
recognize the other participant as having much the same facial and bodily
appearance as in physical life.
One has a body when 'out of the body'
The fact that various individuals have found themselves observing and acting - and
at the same time have been observed as apparitions - at distances away from their
physical bodies, has been brought out in Chapters 10 and 12. Evidence that such
experiences have occurred in scores of cases was published in 1954 in my article
on 'ESP Projection: Spontaneous Cases and the Experimental Method'. Details of
experiences reported in forty-one such cases have been tabulated, in 1956, in
'Six Theories About Apparitions'.
In all these cases the person who experienced ESP projection was aware of having
a body other than his physical one. Moreover, in all these cases this projected
body was seen by those who perceived the apparition. The apparitional body was
both a vehicle for observing and acting by the appearer and also an object
observed by the outside percipient.
But were these apparitional bodies dependent on the appearers' physical
The anti-survivalist (if he accepted the above statements) would probably take
the position that, since the physical body was still living in these cases, the
seat of memory and of values and purposes was actually the physical brain. The
present chapter is not the place to argue the question of survival - that has been
done in previous chapters. What we are concerned with here is to get as
reasonable an idea as we can of what is the nature of that which survives. But
it is worth noting at this point that the extremely close parallelism between
the characteristics of apparitions of the living and of the dead, together with
the mediumistic evidence as to surviving purposive personalities, and Drayton
Thomas's conclusions about the etheric bodies of his communicators, all fit into
one rational picture.
If out-of-the-body experiences do represent the same basic kind of phenomenon as
the experience of leaving one's physical body permanently, may we not gain some
insight into the nature of that after-death adventure by looking at some
non-evidential - and still respectably reported experiences?
Some Experiences of Caroline Larsen
Mrs. Caroline D. Larsen was the wife of Professor
Alfred Larsen, who taught violin at Middlebury College, in Vermont. He was
sufficiently distinguished to be listed in Who's Who in America. In her
own right, Mrs. Larsen had previously published a book of stories in the Danish
language. In 1927 she brought out a book which she called My Travels in the
Spirit World. In that book she told the following experiences.
Her first experience out of her body
One evening, in the autumn of 1918, she had retired rather early. The next thing
she knew, she found herself standing on the floor, looking down at her own
physical body lying in her bed. She recognized every line in her own familiar
face, but saw it pale and still, as if in death. Then she looked around the
room. Everything looked as natural as ever. There was the little table with
books and trinkets on it; there was the bureau, the dresser, the big armchair,
the smaller chairs, the green carpet on the floor, the red wall paper with its
pattern of urns and flowers.
She glanced once more at the body which to all appearances seemed dead. Then she
turned and walked to the bathroom. As she passed the stairway she heard the
music coming up from below, where her husband was rehearsing a string quartet.
She recognized with delight the lovely Adagio from Beethoven's Opus 127 Quartet.
She then approached a large mirror hanging above the wash-bowl. Through force of
habit she went through the motions, of turning on the electric light but found
that her fingers did not move the switch. However, there was no need for
Looking into the mirror she became aware for the first time that she had
undergone an astonishing transformation. Instead of seeing a middle-aged woman,
she beheld the figure of a girl about eighteen years of age. She recognized the
form and features of her own girlhood, but more beautiful. She raised her hand
before her face, and closed and opened her fingers. They seemed airy and
delicate. Yet she felt no lack of strength in them, and no change of sensation
in moving them. She felt unbounded joy and enthusiasm.
She reflected: 'I will go down and present myself to my husband and to the other
members of the quartet.' No sooner had she thought of this idea than she started
to carry it out. Instead of having to operate her legs with conscious effort, as
we do in the physical body, she found that she moved with the freedom of
But she was ordered back
Just as she came to the little platform which divided the stairway into two
flights she saw, standing before her, a woman's spirit in shining clothes with
arm outstretched and with forefinger pointed upwards. There was a look of strong
determination in the spirit's face, and she said sternly: 'Where are you going?
Go back to your body!' Mrs. Larsen knew instinctively that from this command and
authority there was no appeal. Reluctantly she turned, reascended the stairs,
walked through the hall into her bedroom and up to her bed. Her physical body
lay there as still and lifeless as when she left it. She viewed it with feelings
of loathing and disappointment, but in another instant she had again rejoined
her physical form.
How a disembodied spirit feels
On the basis of this and later experiences, Mrs. Larsen reported that a
disembodied spirit appears, feels, thinks and acts very much as she did in her
first experience 'out of the body'. She stated:
'The mind undergoes no transmutation except to take
on the added facility of being capable of reading others' thoughts. One wakes in
the astral as one left the material... Nor does memory suffer in the passing
over. In the astral, I could remember every detail of my past material life. I
was perfectly aware of my own identity. I knew exactly what had transpired up to
the time when I assumed the astral.'
'Some of the departed spirits are at once fully ...
able to reflect on their conditions, just as I was able to reflect on mine.
Other spirits suspect dimly that something strange has overtaken them but they
refuse absolutely to accept the realization, and in order to shut it more
completely out of their minds they deliberately continue their familiar
activities of the world... The majority of spirits are in so confused a state of
mind that they do not suspect at all the great change they have undergone...
Everywhere in my journeys I found these new citizens of Spirit Land thronging
the streets of cities, passing in and out of houses, travelling on trains and
voyaging on steamers. In fact, wherever mortals habitate there are to be found
also denizens of the spirit world.'
The transition to the 'astral world' is not
The out-of-the-body experiences reported in evidential cases of ESP projection
have fundamental likenesses to shared-dream experiences. The experiences of
Caroline Larsen, while not adequately evidential, are basically similar. These,
in turn, are essentially similar to experiences reported in mediumistic
communications purportedly coming from the deceased.
The objection is frequently raised that dream experiences are not real in the
sense that physically embodied experiences are. But 'reality' consists
essentially in two sets of factors: (1) shareability of the experience with
other observer-operators; and (2) logical consistency, predictability and
usability. It will be seen that the 'astral world' can and does have these
Does the Unconscious Mind Become Conscious in the
Testimony by Drayton Thomas's father
The ostensible communicators through Mrs. Leonard stated that the division of
the mind into a conscious and a subconscious part, which is characteristic of
all human minds during incarnate life, ceases with the death of the physical
body. Drayton Thomas reported in 1928 that his father had said (through Mrs.
'On our own sphere ... I seem to have but one
memory. I have the ordinary memory of physical things that I had on earth, and
this is merged into the subliminal memory which operates consciously here. When
one passes over, one's subliminal memory operates consciously...
[Here] we do not recall memory, because it is present. All is upon the one page.
Past is present in that sense with us. It is impossible to forget anything; not
that we are always looking at the past, but it is there for us to read in our
memory. It is there without any striving for it.'
While such statements are not evidential, the
indicated conception of personality has three important corollaries:
(1) It helps to explain the difficulties in mediumistic communication
Professor Broad said, in his 1955 discussion of Mrs. Leonard's mediumship, that
the ostensible communicators allege that something analogous to the division
between the conscious and unconscious mind recurs whenever they take possession
of the medium:
'Only that part which corresponds to the
conscious part in us is in control of the medium's body. This remains in
some kind of connection with the rest of the communicator's mind, but the
connection is tenuous and liable to be interrupted so long as he is possessing
the medium's body. The ostensible communicators say that, when in possession of
the medium, they sometimes forget altogether about the part of their mind which
is not in control of her body. They say that, even when this does not happen, it
is harder for them to get in touch with the contents of this part of their minds
than it is for us to avail ourselves of the contents of our own subconscious
(2) It meets the objection about senility
Professor Dodds, in 1934, raised the following as a
major argument against belief in survival:
'I find it hard to believe that growing old is
really a reversible process - that mental changes so far-reaching as those
associated with old age can be undone even when the supposed originating cause
is removed by death.'
But if the unconscious mind, with all the memories
of the personality's whole earth life, becomes fully accessible to consciousness
after the physical body dies, then old age becomes only an episode in that full
history. During our earthly existence we are far more restricted to the narrow
time-slice of the specious present. But life after death would seem to be much
broader and richer in its grasp of the time dimension.
Upon reading a preliminary draft of this chapter, Professor Dodds jotted this
question in the margin. 'Would this not result in chaos?' It seems clear that if
a person lost the power to concentrate on a reasonably restricted time interval,
his experiences might well be so inclusive as to be chaotic. But note the last
sentences of the statement by Thomas's father: 'Not that we are always looking
at the past, but it is there for us to read in our memory. It is there without
striving for it.' Thomas then asked: 'You would not experience that memory as
vividly as when the event had just happened?' His father replied: 'I could do so
if I wished, by an act of will.'
Compare this with the phenomenon discovered by
Penfield, when he touched with an electrode certain points in the brain. The
patient thereupon relived a certain past experience as though it were actually
present. If a capacity to do this, more or less at will, were characteristic of
the after-life, the conclusions of the present section would seem to follow.
(3) It suggests enriched experience
Many of the sceptics about survival have shown a disposition to reject the
sometimes naive spiritualistic conception of life after death as being a mere
continuation of life on earth, in much the same sort of four-dimensional world
as on earth. But if we accept the hypothesis that, after the death of the body,
the unconscious mind of the survivor is merged with the conscious part, so that
the entire personality becomes fully accessible to the 'I'-thinker, a new scope
of post-mortem experience becomes conceivable - even though we must admit our
present incapacity to grasp it with any close approach to full clarity.
Suggested Conclusions about What Does Survive
A basic characteristic of the inescapable
'I'-thinker is the sense of personal identity, based on recognition of the chain
of his own memories as being his own.
That the after-life (at least in its early stages) is an embodied existence, is
the conclusion which emerges from the study of ESP projection and of
apparitions, as related to shared dreams.
The full accessibility of subliminal memories to the 'I'-thinker, after death,
helps explain difficulties in mediumistic communication, meets the objection
about senility being irreversible, and suggests a new scope of post-mortem
experience. We can begin to conceive of the wider life which becomes possible
when consciousness transcends what, on earth, has been its time dimension.
The above article was taken from Hornell Hart's "The Enigma of Survival. The
Case For and Against an After Life" (London: Rider & Co., 1959).