A “self” or “soul” is simply the name we give to the point of attention which reflects upon our environment. It is one example of a thing that comes to exist only when things of a particular type come together as a unified whole.
We can understand this idea to an extent by looking at structures and machines. However, many people dislike the comparison to a common physical thing, because it violates the sense that there must be something else involved . . . some intangible “more” that we require when considering ourselves. I mean, certainly we understand a house is a different thing than a pile of construction materials, but I think what we’re after is the more elusive notion of home that often accompanies the physical structure.
So it seems reasonable to attempt to understand this idea by considering similarly intangible things that arise from component parts – like organizational affiliations. Or even individual relationships. Whenever multiple people with some understanding between them exist together, there arises a new sort of . . thing that is not present when you have only the component parts. It is an abstract, ethereal thing, but people acknowledge its presence nontheless. It alters perception and changes behaviour. Consider a military force. Or Anonymous. Or Microsoft. Or this:
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
– Matthew 18:20, 1769 Oxford King James Bible “Authorized Version”
Any organized group exists as an active entity only so long as there exist members of said group who perceive through the filter of that group’s motivation and act in its name. When these factors are in place, that group could be said to have agency1 – it can take an intentional action to effect change in its environment. It can also internalize feedback from its environment to alter itself – in this sense, a degree of reflexivity is also present. When those things fall away, the entity which emerged in their union is dissolved.
Similarly when the required components for consciousness fall away, so too does the capacity for experience and change on behalf of the unified entity to which we refer as a person.
The nature of what I consider “me” resides at the intersection of my biology and my experiences2. I am a composition of these things, which form a sort of lens through which my “point of attention” continues to perceive. That lens is tinted a particular shade that filters the “unnecessary” and highlights the “interesting”. It has a curvature which distorts the shape of reality into an image that makes sense to me. It provides a working view of the environment, but has inherent limitations based on material and design.
My biology and experiences working in concert determine my perception of the world and the direction my thoughts will take. I perceive and interpret. I connect concepts together. I build a model of the world in my mind. I run simulations. I understand. I use that understanding to interpret my next set of experiences.
If my accumulated experiences were somehow separated from my body – if the pattern representing my current understanding of the world could be taken as a snapshot and extracted (erased) from my mind – the entity that I am would cease to be. I would not exist in the body, which no longer contains any echo of my life. Neither would I exist in the extracted pattern3, as it lacks a substrate on which any further processing can occur.
Caution: A wild speculation appears!
Emergent consciousness is not really conducive to embracing the most commonly understood notions about life after death. However, I must concede that it doesn’t strictly rule out the idea that you might sort of . . . re-emerge into existence. If there were a new consciousness that came into being whose initial state synced with your final conscious state, it might be a bit like picking up where you left off. Just without all the memories cluttering everything up.
As I understand it, that is pretty much what happens when we sleep anyway, except our memories are still there when we wake. I imagine this is what provokes the feeling of continuity when considering your own existence, even though technically speaking you are a slightly different person because you have been re-wiring your brain all night. You are not exactly who you were the night before, but you are close enough that the brain has little trouble reconciling the two “snapshots” into one consistent image.
I think this is essentially how object permanence and categorization are possible. The brain doesn’t bother with exactness, and that gives us the ability to establish sameness between things based on a couple of key criteria, rather than needing them to match precisely.
And this is maybe why we can understand things via metaphor too?
1Is it conscious? I don’t know really, because whatever that new entity is, it isn’t the same as [my understanding of] a person, it just has analogous properties.
2Though technically speaking, I suppose you could view all of your biology as representing the experiences of your ancestors – in which case you could say that everything that you are is accumulated experience. However, you could also acknowledge that everything you experience is ultimately goverened by your biological reactions to external events. Your personality began to form on the basis of your initial impressions, which are rooted in physical reactions. In which case you are a biological byproduct.
3At least no more than I would exist as an image in a photograph, or a recording of my voice.