The central features of a self are its sense of agency and its autobiographical memory, and I generally think of these as inherent in and specific to one organism. Last Friday I saw a news story on TV that pushed the bounds of positivism hard. Here is the link: http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/boy-says-he-remembers-past-life-hollywood-agent-n327506.
A 10 year old boy (since the age of 6?) reports having a past life. He gives many details about career changes, interests, house, address, and age of death. His mother, who is evidently a Baptist, listens and skeptically wonders. One day they are looking at a book about old Hollywood movies and the kid points to a man in a picture and says that was me. The man is not identified in the book; he is just an extra in a movie. Now comes in Dr. Jim Tucker, a psychiatrist at UVA who has documented many such cases, this one in his book, Return to Life. Dr. Tucker talks to the kid and proceeds to check out the story by identifying the man in the picture and tracing his life. He reports that the kid missed a few details but was mainly right. Even further, the kid said he died at age 61 while the official death certificate for the man says 59, but somehow Dr. Tucker found out that this was an error–the man did die at age 61.
I love it. The kid had his own sense of agency and autobiographical memory and the memory of someone else. Other empirically minded researchers remain skeptical, saying these are only anecdotes but to my mind empiricism is not limited to controlled experiments as some moderns hold. Empiricism, and science specifically, is based upon the idea that we cannot know what reality is, so that we must test and formulate and test and seek. Humans did not embark on agriculture or metallurgy or fermentation of good wine and beer without empirical efforts and as poorly controlled as they were, we had some good results. So these are anecdotes? Then we have a place to start. We don’t have a way of knowing what comes after death or before birth of any individual life (yet?), so then we have a mystery (or, as I like to say, a hard knot of ignorance to untangle). That this boy’s story is not fabricated is patently true, so then we must search for an explanation through other scientific means. This was the behest of William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience and I take it quite seriously.