This chapter is about the mental phenomena of self, self-consciousness, self-identity, self-preservation, and why they occur. It also includes the important question of whether self exists after death: whether there is life after death.
If we are well in the clear conscious state, we feel that we are we, not other people. We also feel that we each is a separate unit that is distinct from others. We feel that the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and other mental processes that we can consciously be aware of are our mental processes, not others’, and we feel that the body that we each can feel and control by our mind is our body, not others’. Moreover, we feel that many things, both physical and abstract (such as clothes, house, family, name, fame, and deed), belong to us or are ours too. These mental phenomena that one is conscious or aware of oneself and oneself’s is called self-consciousness [1,2]. It occurs in all normal people, and the terms I, me, my, and mine are derived from them.
As self-consciousness is a mental phenomenon, it cannot occur spontaneously by itself but must occur from self-consciousness mental process. By Theorem I, the self-consciousness mental process cannot occur alone by itself either but must be part of the neural process that generates these perceptions. In this theory, this neural process will be called self-consciousness neural process.
Although self-consciousness seems to be deeply ingrained in the mind, it is neither inherent nor indispensable parts of the mind – it is just one functional mental process, like many other mental processes, that is created to help the mind function better but that the mind can exist and function without, such as in cases of normal infants and some brain’s pathological conditions. In cases of normal infants, they do not have self-consciousness because their self-consciousness neural processes are not developed enough to function. They will begin to have these perceptions around the ages of 15-24 months [3,4,5] when the self-consciousness neural processes become mature. In cases of pathological conditions of the brain such as diffuse cerebral concussion, minimally conscious state, or vegetative state, the self-consciousness neural processes do not function, so the awareness of self and self’s cannot occur [6-10], and there will be no I, me, my, mine and all the related phenomena even if the mind still exists. In such cases, we will live selflessly – without self-awareness and related phenomena. In this state, even if we can think, we will not be aware that it is us that think – the thinking just happens; although we each has the body, we will not be aware that it is our body – it is just a body; and when something happens to us, although we can feel that something happens, we will not feel that it happens to us in particular because there is no awareness of self and thus no we, no us, and no ours.
The function of self–consciousness
If we live without the awareness of self and self’s, we can feel all the pain or happiness and experience all its autonomic and emotional responses in our bodies, but we will neither feel that it is our pain or our happiness nor feel that all the autonomic responses (tachycardia, flushing, sweating, etc.) and emotional responses (joy, fright, anger, etc.) are ours. They just happen, and we just witness and experience them – nothing more than that. Feelings that something happens to us do not occur, and the conscious responses to the feelings that something happens to us will always be lacking. This is in contrast to if we have the awareness of self and self’s – we will feel that something happens to us and will have conscious responses to this particular feeling. Evidently, overall responses to anything in a being with self-consciousness and in a being without self-consciousness will be definitely different, and the conscious responses for the benefits of the being (in living longer, happier, with less trouble, etc.) will be definitely more in the being with self-consciousness. Therefore, there is an advantage to evolve the neural process for self-consciousness. Evidently, it must have been possible for the nervous system to evolve such a neural process, and the self-consciousness neural process must have been selected to remain in the evolutionary process because, presently, they exist at least in us (and probably in some other animals too). However, self-consciousness makes us consciously feel more about anything that happens to us than if we have no self-consciousness. The pain or the happiness that happens happens to us personally and is our pain or our happiness. While we can enjoy the good feelings personally, we will also suffer the bad feelings personally. Thus, physically considering, the basis of personal joys and sufferings lies in the neural process of self-consciousness, which has evolved to enhance our survival.
Most people feel that they are the same entity from the time they were born up until now even if, physically and mentally, they are much different from when they were infants or children. What’s more, most people feel that they tomorrow, in the next few days, months, or years, or in the far future will be the same entity that they are today. That is, there is a perception of the persistence of self-identity over time [11,12], which some call autonoetic consciousness . However, does the concept of self-identity persistence (that the mind is always the same entity throughout the time – from the far past to the present to the far future) have sound physical bases?
Let’s review the development of the mind. After the first neural process begins to function and a mind (a very rudimentary one) can be said to appear in a fetus, the brain does not stop developing. It continues to develop more neural processes, and these neural process subsequently change and mature more and more. So do the mind and mental processes, which result from the neural processes of the brain. Even after the fetus is born, the infant’s brain and all its neural processes do not cease developing but continue to change and become more and more mature for several years [14-25] until all of them reach maturity. And yet, even after they reach maturity, the neural processes do not stop changing. They continue to change in response to necessitating conditions [26-34], and they certainly change because of aging and diseases too [26-40]. What’s more, memory, learned skills, habits, and other learned information and responses are kept within the neural circuits by modifying characteristics of their synapses, synaptic transmission, and the way they function [29,32]. Thus, the neural processes and the brain are ever-changing entities, so are the mental processes and the mind, which result from the neural processes. Consequently, the mind is never the same identical mind throughout the time, from the past to the present to the future. Therefore, the perception that the mind is always the same entity throughout the time is not correct and does not have physical bases.
Nevertheless, even if our minds now are quite different from our minds when we each was a fetus, an infant, a baby, a child, an adolescent, or an adult years ago, we feel that we each is the same being all through the time. When we recall events in the past from our autobiographic memory, we naturally feel that it is us who experienced those events, not another person. The pain, the suffering, the happiness, the joy, etc. that happened to the subject in our autobiographic memory happened to us, not to another person. So, there must be some mental processes in our mind that make us feel this way. As every mental process must be part of a neural process (Theorem I), there must be some neural process that functions to produce this feeling. It will be called self–identity perception neural process in this theory. As there is awareness of self and self’s involved in the perception of self-identity, this neural process must work in conjunction with the self-consciousness process. They are often deranged together in pathological conditions, such as cerebral contusion, encephalitis, or psychosis from various causes. Loss of self and self-identity perceptions usually occur together in these conditions.
The function of self–identity
What is the function of the self-identity perception neural process? Obviously, if the subject in the events in the autobiographic memory is perceived to be someone else, the being will not have strong stimuli to avoid the disadvantages and the danger that happened to it in the past, nor will it have strong stimuli to seek the advantages and the safety that it found because those past incidents are personally irrelevant to itself now. The being will care less and use less of its learned information, and that will lessen the chance of its survival. The same is true if the being feels that itself in the future is not the same entity as itself today. It will have no motive to plan and struggle for the continuation of itself into the future. Thus, like self-consciousness, self-identity perception helps us survive in the complex environment better. And it must have been evolutionarily selected to persist in the nervous system up until now.
The mental process that is as vital to the survival of an animal as the self-consciousness and self-identity perception mental processes is the self-preservation  mental process. Every animal, when it is developed enough to take care of itself, will usually try to preserve its life as the first and foremost goal of living. Although some of the means to survive have to be learned, either by itself or by teaching from other members in the group, the urge to survive is instinctive. This survival or self-preservation instinct is universally strong and present in all animal species. It is imaginable that any animal species that lacks this instinct will not persist long and will become quickly extinct in the evolutionary process. Again, mental processes that function for self-preservation instinct cannot occur by themselves but must be part of some neural processes (Theorem I). Because this instinct involves complex responses from various mental processes (emotion, autonomic, cognition, motor, etc.), the neural processes for this function are likely to consist of a network of various neural processes that will generate complex reflexive (i.e., instinctive) responses to keep the animal survive in the face of danger. And like the neural process for self-consciousness, the neural processes for self-preservation instinct must have been evolutionarily selected to persist in the nervous system up until now.
When we think of the end of our lives and the time in the future when there is no us – no our “selves”, many of us will feel dreaded. This is natural because the neural process network for self-preservation will be stimulated by that thought to function and send signals to other parts of the brain such as the emotion center and sympathetic center. When we are faced with a danger that can end our lives, we do not only feel dreaded but also think and try our best to escape it because our thinking processes will be stimulated by this network into action too. However, our minds are not influenced by this instinct alone; there are other instincts (such as instinct to seek happiness, instinct to avoid sufferings, and instinct to preserve offspring), emotions (such as depression, sadness, and anger), and cognitive mental processes (such as reasoning, believing [in a cause, ideology, faith, religion, etc.], or delusions) that affect our mind too. Sometimes, an override from any of these instincts, emotions, or cognitive mental processes may result in letting go of one’s life, such as in cases of severe pain or terminal illness, mother’s sacrificing her life to save her child, soldiers’ sacrificing their lives for their nation, and group suicide in some cults. So, the self-preservation instinct does not reign supreme, and the decision to escape death – the end of oneself – is not mandatory but depends on the complex interaction between various mental processes of the mind.
Thus, although self-preservation is a strong instinct that exists in the mind, it is just one of the mental processes that have evolved to help increase survival chance of the being. Strong emotions, sympathetic responses, and behavioral responses that result from this instinct are just its natural results. If we are devoid of this instinct, we will live without fear of death – which can give us peace of mind but will shorten our lives. Thus, functionally considering, all the ill feelings, sympathetic responses, and other reactions when we think of or encounter death occur just to lengthen our lives – they are the price to pay for the better chance of survival.
11.4. Location of “self” neural processes
For a species to survive in this complex, competitive, dangerous world, it is essential that their individuals must have the mental phenomena of self, self-identity, and self-preservation. As these mental phenomena are vital to the survival of a being, and of its species as a whole, the neural processes that create them should have the capacity to resist complete destruction or complete dysfunction. Where in the brain are these vital neural processes? At present, there is evidence that self-related processing involves the complex interactions between the default mode network and multiple large-scale networks, especially the frontoparietal control networks . In more details, self-awareness and self-face recognition involve a complex right-dominated bilateral network of many cortical areas such as bilateral middle and inferior frontal gyri, medial prefrontal cortices, posterior cingulate cortex, right inferior frontoparietal cortices, right insular cortices, right inferior parietal lobule, right precuneus, and left fusiform gyrus [43-52]. And bodily self-consciousness (body ownership, self-location, and first-person perspective) involves premotor, frontoparietal, temporoparietal, posterior parietal, and extrastriate cortices [53-56]. Although a distributed pattern, compared with a localized pattern, may have some disadvantages of being uneconomical in creating and maintaining the neural processes, it has some important advantages too. Distributing the processes to various areas in the brain has a better chance of not becoming completely dysfunctional or getting completely destroyed easily than localizing the processes into one specific area.
11.5. Life after death
Is there life after death? Before we can address this question, it is necessary to define what life means. When a bacterium dies, is there the life of the bacterium after its death? When a plant dies, is there the life of the plant after its death? When an animal dies, is there the life of the animal after its death? And when a human dies, is there the life of that human after his/her death?
As a bacterium or a plant does not have a nervous system to generate mental phenomena, its life consists of only physical life. When its physical life dies, there is nothing to be suspected of remaining. (Although there are various kinds of believes that mind or soul exists in everything [panpsychism] [57,58], including a bacterium, a tree, a rock, a cloud, etc., at present, there is no scientific evidence for this, and thus this will not be discussed further in this theory.) In cases of an animal or a human, each has a nervous system to generate mental phenomena, which are the mind and mental processes; its life thus consists of both physical life and mental life. When the physical life dies, it is pertinent to consider whether the mental life ceases to exist too or continues on separately.
If life in the question “Is there life after death?” is defined as the existence of a mind as defined in chapter Introduction and Definitions – a mind is a non-material entity that exists in an animal with a nervous system and that can sense, process, and send signals – then the question can be answered in a physical sense. From Theorem I, mental processes and the mind are parts of neural processes and the functioning brain, respectively; thus, if there are no neural processes and the functioning brain, then there are no mental processes and the mind. Therefore, when a being dies and all of its neural processes and the functioning brain cease to exist, physically considering, mental processes and the mind cease to exist too. Thus, there is no mental life of that being after the death of that being – there is no life after death.
However, as it is theoretically possible to create a brain and neural processes that are identical to the previous brain and the previous neural processes of any person before he/she died (there are no contradictions to known physical laws for this to happen if the entropy of the whole universe has not reached the maximum) and as identical neural processes have identical mental processes (Theorem VI), the result will be the mind and mental processes that are identical to the ones before he/she dies. Basically, this is just like the revival of the wakeful consciousness and all other wakeful mental processes from sleeping, general anesthesia, cerebral concussion, and other similar conditions, in which these wakeful mental processes cease to exist temporarily. Thus, theoretically, death is just a temporary cessation of existence of the mind and mental processes, and they can always be resurrected into existence any time by creating all the proper neural processes. The resurrected mind and mental processes, including the awareness of self and self’s, self-identity, memory, personalities, abilities, etc. of the pre-existing mind, will be identical to the original ones. Therefore, the resurrected mind will feel that it is the original mind, not a cloned one – and, physically, it actually is the original mind. Thus, in this sense, no one ever really dies; one just ceases to exist temporarily, like being in the very long sleep. The possibility of coming back to life again always remains in this universe as long as the universe does not end.
Self-consciousness, self-identity perception, and self-preservation mental processes are important mental processes that make us feel and cherish “self”. They make us feel we are we, experience our lives as ours, hold our past, present, and future as ours, and hold everything that belongs to us as ours, and they drive us to stay alive – to live our lives. They cannot occur alone but must occur from the corresponding neural processes. These neural processes are most likely results of the evolutionary process, which select traits that increase survival chance of species. Thus, physically considering, all the happiness, the suffering, the fear of death, etc. that we consciously experience as ours, personally, are just the results of the nervous system evolution to enhance our survival. They are here just to help us survive. And death – or the seeming end of one’s self – is not truly the end of one’s self. Because the mental life is just part of the neural processes’ life and because it is always possible to recreate the neural processes’ life, the possibility of coming back to life of one’s self again always remains in this universe as long as the universe does not end.
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Keywords: self-conscious, self-awareness, self-identity, self-preservation, self-preservation instinct, life after death