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A Head Full of Ghosts: A Review

51RuP7pBWFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen is the Exorcist. I saw it from the backseat of my parents’ car at a Drive-In theater when I was eight years old. For months I imagined Regan MacNeil popping up at the foot of my bed with her disfigured face, eyes rolling back in her head, and her horrendous growling, croaking voice pounding my eardrums. I fell asleep on many nights with my head buried in my pillow and the covers tightly drawn over my head.

I’ve read some scary books too. I was a big Poe fan in high school, and read some Lovecraft too.  I also read William Blatty’s The Exorcist, which allowed me to revisit some of my childhood fears. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining.  These were disturbing and creepy, especially when I read them alone at night.

The most terrifying book I’ve ever read, though, is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow, 2015).  Well, I should say, “read and listened to.” I experienced parts of Tremblay’s book also as an audiobook. On several occasions I listened to it while falling asleep and had horrible nightmares. On one occasion I listened to it while having a root canal. I can’t be sure how much of the fear came from Tremblay’s book and how much came from the dentist’s drill.  Nonetheless, the audio experience was just as disturbing as reading the book itself.

Stephen King said of Tremblay’s book, “it scared the hell out of me.” Yeah. Me too. In fact, I’d say that Tremblay’s book frightened me more than The Exorcist film and novel. A Head Full of Ghosts is a riveting psychological thriller and masterpiece of literary horror. It transforms the possession motif, and it does so with literary grace and philosophical sophistication. You get it. I loved the book.

The Story: A Synopsis Without (Major) Spoilers

A Head Full of Ghosts tells the story of the Barrett family, a family in contemporary rural Massachusetts whose fourteen-year-old daughter Marjorie Barrett begins to exhibit increasingly aberrant and disturbing behavior. She has unpredictable mood swings, night terrors, and violent outbursts. She speaks in different voices, engages in self-mutilation and animalistic behavior (e.g. makes animalistic sounds, urinates and defecates in the hallway of the family home).  She plays creepy and threatening pranks on her younger sister Merry (short for Meredith), and tells her sister eerie stories in which their dad murders their family and buries their bodies in the basement.  And of course, there are those voices she hears in her head, the ghosts in her head.

Marjorie’s dad John Barrett, a devoutly religious man, is sure his daughter is possessed. The mother, Sarah Barrett, believes Marjorie is just very sick and needs psychiatric treatment.  Mr. Barrett enlists the assistance of a priest (Father Wanderly) to perform an exorcism on his daughter. Unlike traditional possession narratives, though, Mr. Barrett brings in a TV crew to document the possession phenomena and exorcism. The production airs as a six-episode reality TV show called The Possession. The Possession series ends with considerable ambiguity as to whether Marjorie was really demonically possessed. This ambiguity permeates the events that the TV show documents. The controversial climax of the final episode, which appears to show Marjorie levitating at the staircase in the Barrett home, underscores this ambiguity.

The climax of A Head Full of Ghosts, though, is neither the exorcism nor Marjorie’s apparent levitation. The true climax of the Barrett story actually occurs weeks after the TV show has ended, when a horrific tragedy hits the Barrett family. The tragedy is a powerful twist in the story and forces a re-evaluation of the events surrounding Marjorie’s alleged possession.

A Head Full of Ghosts unfolds from the point of view of Merry Barrett, now an adult, recounting the incidents that took place in her family fifteen years earlier, when she was eight-years-old. The retrospective occurs in series of conversations between Merry and best-selling author Rachel Neville. Neville interviews Merry as part of her research for a book she wishes to write about the Barrett family.  On three occasions, two of which serve as transitions to a new section of the book, the novel breaks away from the sequence of Rachel-Merry interviews. The breakaways focus on Karen Brissette’s recent analysis of The Possession in her blog The Last Final Girl. The blog provides an ostensible outsider’s point of view and critical evaluation of the Barrett story and The Possession reality TV show.

Tremblay has written a quite remarkable novel. It consciously assimilates the possession genre with a unique combination of seriousness, wit, and philosophical clarity. But it does more. It also enlarges the possession genre by telling a possession story that will profoundly disturb and terrify many readers even if they don’t subscribe to a supernatural interpretation of the events. In fact, arguably one of the story’s most important strengths and contributions to the genre is how it enlists ambiguity as a literary device. It thereby dials in a form of terror that doesn’t depend on belief in the existence of God or the devil.

Ambiguity and the Space of Possibilities

As a philosopher, I appreciate how the story articulates and deploys uncertainty and ambiguity about the actual cause(s) of Marjorie’s alterations in personality and behavior. The facts simply underdetermine the nature of her condition.

Is Marjorie really demon possessed? Is she suffering from an early manifestation of schizophrenia (or some other mental disorder)? Is she perhaps perpetuating a fraud? Or is she in some way a victim of a malevolent force purely human in origin? The novel creates enough space for the reader to remain open to each of these possibilities as the characters and situations invoke or suggest them in the course of the story. Never quite knowing the truth amidst the space of possibilities keeps the reader off balance. And fear, of course, feeds on the unknown.

As do other works in the possession genre, the novel contrasts supernatural and natural explanations. The latter, of course, are explanations of observational data that invoke no supernatural entities. Fatherly Wanderly attempts to marshal evidence of demonic possession as the events are unfolding. We get the impression that, like many religious people, he’s looking for evidence to lend support to his antecedent convictions. What’s that point philosopher William James makes? In matters such as these, passion leads and intellect follows.  Karen Brissette retrospectively deconstructs the alleged evidence in her blog. And Merry’s recollection of events provides equally good grounds for skepticism.

But the novel also plays different natural explanations against each other.  For example, take Brissette’s blog analysis.  While skeptical of the demonic possession hypothesis, she’s equally critical of less than impressive skeptical attempts to explain away the evidence suggestive of possession.  Brissette ultimately points us to an important feature of our psychology—the needs and interests that influence our perception of the world. We believe there’s something supernatural happening because we want to believe this. Why? Perhaps because the alternative is more horrifying.  Brissette’s comments about the  The Possession’s controversial “levitation” scene underscore this. She says, “You believe because it’s easier than dealing with the idea that you just willingly watched a sick, troubled teenage girl purposefully choose to jump from a ledge” (p. 253).

Is Marjorie suffering from a mental illness?  The novel explicitly identifies schizophrenia as the suspect, though some of Marjorie’s symptoms suggest the presence of a personality disorder, perhaps even dissociative pathology (specifically, dissociative identity disorder). But mental disorders, whether one or many, don’t exhaust the natural explanations. Marjorie tells Merry on multiple occasions that she’s faking the whole possession. Why? To redeem their family from the financial hardship that’s been eating away at their family. The TV show makes her “possession” lucrative.  Merry is initially skeptical of this explanation, but later begins to believe it. By story’s end Marjorie still maintains that she faked her possession, but she provides a different reason for doing so. She succeeds in manipulating her younger sister into believing the revised explanation. This becomes the catalyst for the final twist and disturbing ending of the novel.

Although one gets the impression that a supernatural explanation is unlikely, Tremblay nicely piles on evidence that moves in different directions. We never really know what the hell (no pun intended) is happening. Below I’ll return to the “horror of ambiguity” as an effective and important literary device.

A Head Full of Ghosts vs. The Exorcist

Knowing that there would be obvious similarities between his novel and the Exorcist, Tremblay meets this unavoidable feature of updating older literary themes head-on. Tremblay intentionally deploys the similarities, and the story itself acknowledges them.  Consequently, the novel has considerable self-consciousness. Karen Brissette’s The Last Final Girl blog demonstrates this with comparisons and contrasts between The Possession and other horror films and novels, including The Exorcist.

But if we step outside The Possession and the Barrett family as components of the narrative, Tremblay’s novel is very different from William Blatty’s Exorcist. Take the points above about opening up the space of possibilities, keeping the reader off balance by way of ambiguity, and raising the specter of uncertainty and doubt. Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts stands is sharp contrast to Blatty’s Exorcist. And the point is worth emphasizing.

Blatty designed his narrative to support faith in God. As Friedkin never tires of telling audiences, The Exorcist is about “the mystery of faith.” Although Friedkin is not a Catholic, Blatty is.  So the devil is a real supernatural agent, and Blatty’s objective is to prove this. Consequently, it’s essential that Blatty rule out natural explanations of Regan MacNeil’s symptoms within the narrative. And so Regan’s symptoms increasingly stupefy members of the medical community. Having had their brains (and balls) twisted, they quickly run out of explanatory road. Stress, drug abuse, lesion in the temporal lobe . . . these idiots are clueless. They have no answers because they’re approaching Regan’s condition from outside the perspective of faith. By contrast, Father Merrin has the answer.  

Blatty’s narrative tolerates uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt about as much as it tolerates the devil. These are real, but they must be overcome. As Blatty himself has said, the Exorcist is really about Father Karras’s crisis of faith. Regan’s possession provides the framework for addressing the young priest’s entanglement in skepticism and clinical psychiatry.  Don’t these go hand in hand? Uncertainty and doubt are precisely the problem. They must be overcome. And it’s the message of the narrative that they are overcome. If the devil is real, then angels are real, and if angels are real, then God must exist—something like that. The Exorcist was an exercise in Catholic theology and apologetics, pure and simple. Luckily for Blatty, the story was compelling, even if his logic was not.

Tremblay has no interest in sending a religious message or reinforcing religious dogmas. Father Wanderly and John Barrett are religiously committed, but there’s no attempt to force the reader to be. It’s not necessary for the reader to believe that Marjorie is demonically possessed. There’s evidence suggestive of possession, but there’s evidence that at least equally suggests a different explanation. Again, it’s about finding one’s fears in the possibilities that define the wide boundaries of our ignorance.

On that note, it’s worth adding that Tremblay’s deployment of uncertainty is not confined to the evaluation of Marjorie’s condition. It extends more broadly to the reliability of Merry’s memory as she retells story. She’s unsure of many things, vacillates on others, and acknowledges that she might be misremembering certain events.  Well, she was only eight at that time.  Nonetheless, she says she’s completely sure of a few things. Her sister was very sick, and possibly her dad too. She’s also sure about her own role in the final tragedy of her family.  Rachel Neville is another voice of uncertainty.  She confesses at the end of the story that she’s not sure what really happened fifteen years earlier.

Can we even be sure about Merry herself? Is she (intentionally or unintentionally) spinning the Barrett story? Might she be mentally ill?  Remember, schizophrenia has a strong genetic component.  But Tremblay has written the story in such a way that I have deep empathy for Merry (and Marjorie). Yet, if Merry’s in bed next to me, I’m sleeping with one eye open three nights a week.  It takes a brilliant piece of writing to have the reader naturally, even enthusiastically, embrace a character, and yet feel that it’s not entirely safe to do so.

Dialing in a Natural Fear

Since Tremblay’s novel has no religious agenda, the story easily accommodates more than one viewpoint, religious and non-religious.  It can deploy ambiguity to help the reader experience the fear that lurks in the open space of possibilities. It freely deploy the limits of perspective in the service of dialing in our more primitive fears.

This is worth exploring further.

Throughout the novel, Merry Barrett experiences the increasingly strange, creepy, and even threatening behavior of her older sister.  In all other respects, though, Merry and Marjorie have a deep connection and familial affection for each other. What’s interesting is how many, if not most, of the more frightening scenes are illustrations of the abnormal, not the supernatural.

1) Early in the novel, Marjorie—who enjoys telling Merry scary stories—tells Merry a scary story about unstoppable “growing things” that consume a town. In the story there are two girls (named Marjorie and Merry) who live in a house that resembles the large cardboard playhouse in the actual Merry’s bedroom. In Marjorie’s story, the father poisons the mother and buries her in the basement. The father then begins to poison Marjorie. She begins to exhibit symptoms of sickness, which not coincidently resemble the actual Marjorie’s sickness. While Merry is in the basement, her mother’s corpse rises impaled on the branches of the growing things as they burst through the basement floor of the house. Merry realizes that Marjorie is correct. Their dad is a monster, and Merry’s his next victim.

This is the story the actual Marjorie tells her younger sister. It terrifies Merry, but Marjorie returns to this story throughout the novel as the gap between fiction and fact closes.

2) Marjorie suggests a looming tragedy in a family dinner scene when Merry asks Marjorie if she can borrow her sister’s hat. Marjorie replies—in a low and growly altered voice— “You can’t wear my hat because you’re going to die someday . . . no one here can wear it because you’re all going to die” (p. 79). Shortly afterwards, Marjorie slithers under the kitchen table.  She then scurries off on all fours into the darkness of an adjacent room, while speaking in different voices.

3) In another scene, Merry wakes up to find that someone has drawn vines and leaves all over her large cardboard playhouse. That’s right. These would be the “growing things” of Marjorie’s horrific family murder story.  Merry finds a note that says, “There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry. Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and piece the world” (p. 54). Merry then notices a “green leaf with a curlicue stem had been carefully etched” on the back of her hand.

4)  Early in the novel Merry says she once woke up and found a note in green crayon left on her chest. It was from Marjorie.

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you’re asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your little mouth and gasped. (p. 30)

5) In one of the more confrontational scenes, Marjorie is angry that Merry has tattled on her, so she threatens to “rip” her sister’s “fucking tongue out.” She provides a detailed description of how she will do this. She then adds:

I’ll keep your tongue and put it on a string, wear it like a necklace, keep it close against my chest, let it taste my skin until it turns black and shrivels up like all dead things do. What an amazing fucking thought that is: your never-ending tongue shrunken and finally stilled. (p. 66)

Marjorie tries to alleviate the fear of her sister by saying she was just kidding.

6) Some other creepy descriptive moments stand out.

I saw Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider . . . Her arms and legs were spread-eagled, with her hands, wrists, and feet, and ankles sunk into the wall as though it were slowly absorbing her. (p. 52)

She [Marjorie] stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate. (p. 78)

Mom wasn’t in the room. Marjorie was. She sat propped up against the headboard with pillows folded and stuffed behind her back. Her breathing was shallow, but rapid, and she grunted, snarled, sighed; a sputtering engine, the dying fan in our bathroom. Her head was thrown back, chin pointed at the ceiling, as sharp as the tip of an umbrella, eyes closed so tight, like she was hiding them deep inside her head. She had on a too-small black T-shirt, tight enough to outline her rib cage. No pants, no underwear. Her hands were between her long, skinny, pale legs. Both hands, and they gyrated up and down, making wet sounds. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there and watched. (p. 85)

Her [Marjorie’s] eyes opened and then rolled into the back of her head, showing off those horrible bright whites with their convoluted red maps . . . Her body shook, and she urinated and defecated right there in the hallway. (p. 86)

Now this shit (no pun intended) is freaky and terrifying just as it stands. But notice that there’s nothing obviously supernatural in anything above. Marjorie clinging to the wall like a spider? Nope. As her mom explains, Marjorie punched holes in the cheap drywall with her fists. So there’s nothing supernatural there. And yet, for many of us, these scenes are no less disturbing and scary.

There’s something unsettling and sometimes downright terrifying about family or friends beginning to act unlike themselves.  We naturally tolerate some degree of this. Even the most stable persons have moments in which they act out of character. But there’s a threshold beyond which the shift in behavior and personality becomes unsettling.  Think of how you feel in the presence of people having an emotional breakdown, who are strongly influenced by drugs or alcohol, or borderline personality types. And beyond unsettling behavioral shifts, there are the more disturbing if not frightening forms of psychological disorder, for example, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.  I think Tremblay dials in this very natural fear.

Stephen King has often said that his greatest fear is of losing his mind. Madness is really the unconstrained universe of all possibilities, and the inability to say which is yours. Much like Marjorie’s behavior, this is terrifying just as it stands. It needs no devils or demons to make it scary. Indeed, devils and demons potentially alleviate fear.  The devil functions much like God—to make the alien familiar, the irrational sensible, and so on. But the gain here is also a loss. We lose the fear that thrives on the unresolved, all those what-ifs, and the menacing realization of just how little we know. To the extent that we lose that fear, we’re not conscious of the human condition or ourselves.  Fear is an essential part of the human story, and good horror let’s us know it.

Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a first-rate contribution to literary horror and the psychological thriller genre. I think we should say of it what Merry Barrett says of her sister’s stories: “It was terrible and would give me nightmares, and yet there was something wonderful in its terribleness.”

Michael Sudduth

Stephen King and the Path of Fiction

I’ve spent most of the past twenty years playing conceptual chess and solving logical puzzles, an essential part of my work as a professional philosopher.  Like finding your way out of a labyrinth, that can be fun, especially if you don’t take it too seriously.  But other modes of discourse, exploration, and expression have also played a prominent role in my life, mainly music, poetry, and story telling.  And in my most challenging hours, I’ve always turned to music and creative writing, not analysis and logic chopping.

During the past decade I have on different occasions happily digressed from scholarly projects to explore fiction writing, something I first broached with the writing of zombie stories in my teenage years. And in the past three years, I’ve regularly supplemented my scholarly writing with contemplative writing and poetry, some of which I’ve published in my blog. In the past eleven months, though, I’ve returned to fiction writing. It’s been a very sustained and concentrated effort, inspired largely by Stephen King. Here I offer some reflections on my movement into fiction, King’s role in it, and what I’ve found beneficial about this new direction in my writing.

My Return to Fiction Writing

Some very unusual experiences while living in an 1817 home in Windsor, Connecticut inspired my first attempt at writing a novel. That was back in 2008. The storyline of the novel emerged from two situations that kept popping up in my head. The first was a very ordinary one: what if a young widow bought an old house and started restoring it, as a way of working through grief after the death of her husband. The second situation was a paranormal one: what if place can absorb and retain the memories and emotions of people who reside there? These two situations gave birth to an interesting story that linked a young woman’s pursuit of psychological healing, a retired philosophy professor’s newfound life as gardener, and the Connecticut witch trials.

I never finished the novel, but the hundred pages I wrote represented my first serious exploration of fiction writing since my teenage years. Back then I wrote zombie stories. That was a great way of throwing some water on the flames of teenage angst. It was also a nice way to exact a little poetic justice on the asshole jocks in junior high and the stuck-up cheerleaders who didn’t give me the time of day.  My friends and I had a good laugh, and—perhaps most importantly—no one got hurt.  

My early exploration of fiction writing was also something of a tribute to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  I must have watched that film with friends over hundred times by the time I graduated from high school. We had the entire script memorized. That movie was simply the shit.

In high school my creative expressions shifted to music.  After starting a heavy metal band in the 1980s, the writing of zombie stories gave way to lyric writing. The zombies were still alive, but they walked in a larger supernatural field with vampires, ghosts, and demons.

In the past year, I’ve returned to fiction writing. I have two novels and a novella underway.  Each story explores dissociative psychology. One is a straight psychological thriller; two involve ostensible paranormal phenomena and explore the ambiguity between such phenomena and abnormal psychology.  I’ve nearly completed one of them—Shadow at the Door. I’ll have more to say about this in a future blog once the novel is complete.

Inspiration from Stephen King

Why have I returned to fiction writing?

Late last year I happened upon Stephen King’s On Writing (2000) while perusing books at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, appropriately the same venue where eight months later I’d participate in a Q&A with King himself. A protracted moment of lucid disgust with academic philosophy led me to wander aimlessly through the store.  I eventually wandered into the fiction section, and there I saw Stephen King’s On Writing. “Oh yeah, King,” I thought. A series of images lit up my mind—Jack Nicholson slashing through a bathroom door with an ax (Here’s Johnny!), Kathy Bates hobbling James Caan’s cockadoodie legs, and Sissy Spacek using psychokinetic powers to seriously fuck up her cruel high school peers.

I picked up the book and began reading it. Within minutes it melted away my disgust with academic philosophy. In fact, it melted away academic philosophy altogether. What a rush!

It only took five pages to persuade me to buy the book, which was so enthralling that I completed reading it in two sittings. On Writing is a brilliant and inspirational memoir-style exploration of fiction writing, though I think there’s something in it for any writer.  And from On Writing I went on to read King stories for the first time—Salem’s Lot, the Shining, Misery, Bag of Bones, A Good Marriage, and a dozen King short stories.

One of the strengths of King’s writing is his ability to reveal that ordinary life is thin and fragile, like the sheet of ice that covers a lake in thawing season. It doesn’t take much for the ice to break and for us to fall through. The abyss is not far away, and our deeper fears are actually very close to the surface of ordinary life. King’s stories allow us to confront these fears but also to develop a certain liberating relationship with them. I think there’s a certain playfulness there that helps us feel more confortable in our skin, darkness and all.

A precondition of this playfulness is an unobstructed transparency about the human condition, and this is a signature of King’s writings.  He holds back nothing, and he represses nothing. This allows light and darkness to each break out. And there’s no apology for letting the dark express itself, even if the darker side of human nature wins on occasion.  “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too,” King has said. “They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

One must already be okay with the darker side to be fully transparent about it. We hide what we cannot tolerate about ourselves, and that tends to be what we condemn in others.  Shame and guilt are the gatekeepers of unsettling truths. Those gatekeepers are rather stingy when it comes to divulging our deeper secrets, even to our selves.

But therein is the magic of King. He busts it all open. He drops you into the abyss, but there’s something redemptive about it. King once said, “Good writing—good stories—are the imagination’s firing pin, and the purpose of the imagination, I believe, is to offer us solace and shelter from situations and life-passages which would otherwise prove unendurable” (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 6).

The point can be expressed in more positive terms. We might say, with a dash or two of metaphor, that writing opens space large enough to allow our laughter and our tears to be and to dance together. In that dance we don’t merely disclose life’s larger movement.  We actually unite with it.  That’s redemptive, but it’s not an escape from the dark.  It’s a reconciliation to it.  It’s Zen on a magic carpet ride.

I’ve always found the dark fascinating and liberating.  So it’s no surprise that I should connect with Stephen King stories.  This also explains my teenage attraction to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the lyrics of heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath. Of course, it also helps to grow up in the dark—Vietnam, Watergate, the proliferation of serial killers, the rise of horror films, and the threat of nuclear holocaust, if the “big one” didn’t shake, rattle, and roll California into the ocean first. And religion comes in here too. To some extent, I found Christianity appealing in my later teens and early twenties because it acknowledged the more potent devils of our nature.

So King ignites something fairly deep in me. And as a catalyst in my movement towards fiction, he’s really guided a return to something that was very alive for me years ago. Things that were once very alive for us sometimes come back, sometimes many times. They’re not done with us yet. They have something more to say, something more to do, and there’s some new transformation or development awaiting us.

Three Benefits of Fiction Writing

Fiction writing can facilitate personal development and transformation in different ways.  Here I’ll just mention three that are particularly significant to me, especially since they stand in sharp contrast to philosophical writing, at least of the sort I’ve practiced for twenty years.

First, fiction writing, like all expressions of creativity, helps loosen the grip of the ego. Fiction invites us to write as unconsciously as possible, just like music invites us to play an instrument or sing as unconsciously as possible. To some degree the process releases the chokehold of the ego, that is, our attachment to a distinct set of interests, expectations, and beliefs—you know, all that thinking that mediates the toxicity of our lives.

By contrast, scholarship and argumentation are very much about a consciously adopted point of view. There I try to make a point, or many if my reader is very unlucky. Even when I’m doing analysis, I’m keeping track of the number and color of the cows behind the fence, how many times they’ve taken a dump, and where the piles of shit are located.  The less conscious I am here about what I’m doing, the worse off I am. No scholar likes to step into a pile of shit after all. 

Fiction writing moves in the other direction. Throwing oneself far enough into any creative process is similar to the Buddhist experience of “no self.” You can’t be too conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it or you’re not going to find any deep satisfaction in it, and you’re also unlikely to do it well.  I still remember the three months I worked as an apprentice for a house painting company. Every time I flubbed something on the job, my boss would say to me, “you’re thinking about it too much!” He was right.  At any rate, I was too much in thought.

When I’ve been most effective in playing guitar or sports, I wasn’t thinking about what the hell I was doing. And whatever thinking might have been going on, was little more than a ballboy on the sidelines. I wasn’t in it.  You have to move from the center, recede into the background so to speak; maybe disappear altogether. That’s the nature of art, whether it’s painting, music, or writing.

The selflessness of the artistic process takes a variety of concrete forms in writing. For example, I have to trust my characters more than myself. I wait for them to say and do things. It’s intuitive writing.  In a certain sense, I’m just watching things play out in my mind and writing down what I see happening. The characters, not my conscious intentions, play the deeper role in shaping the development of the story. And it takes a certain amount of cultivated patience to just go with the flow when the characters have something to say or be at rest (take your fingers off the keyboard) when they’ve fallen silent.

When I tell people I’m writing a novel, they want to know what the plot is. I tell them, I don’t have one. That’s truthful, and of course it’s also a good way to get out of talking about your story. Some fiction writers do plot. I’ve done some of this myself, years ago. It’s just not how I do things now. The writing is now more situation-driven, as King often describes it. And the dynamic is entirely different.

Of course, I understand that some people need a meticulous outline of the details of their story worked out in advance, just like some people need to paint by numbers. What’s your plot? Have you identified the antagonist(s) and protagonist(s)?  Have you planned the story arc in the right way? Have you avoided head-hopping? All those nagging questions, which, for me, just sound like a good way to distract from story writing. I personally prefer just to write the story, let that flow, get in that zone.  There’s plenty of time to address technical questions later and do the needed clean up.

And here’s one of those many points where Stephen King’s observations resonate with me:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe that plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible . . . I want you to understand that my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves. (On Writing, 163)

In the writing of my current novel I’ve seen how a story can make itself or be the direct product of what the characters are doing in a very spontaneous manner, without much or any foresight on my part.   Over and over, I’ve found myself writing scenes or dialogue that I had no idea I’d be writing until the sentences were being typed. And even where I have some bare bones idea of where things may be going, when the characters clothe it with flesh and blood, there’s still considerable surprise.  Nor is the result chaotic or incoherent. What’s amazing is the level of inner coherence that emerges when there’s been no conscious intention to create it. I personally find this more enjoyable than merely filling in the details of an outline.

What is important is that I feel the movement of the story, and that means listening to my characters tell the story. And it’s important not to “push the river.” To the extent that I’m trying to achieve something with the story, I’m not listening to my characters tell the story. And to that extent, I can’t even hear the voice of my characters, much less see them evolve with the story, and that’s all essential to a good a story I think.

Second, there’s a sense in which fiction writing possesses the power to disclose aspects of our inner life, not immediately transparent to us. Someone once asked Albert Camus whether he appears in his own novels as some particular character. He said, no; he’s actually all of them.  Arguably, every character is some part of the author (maybe some are a bigger part of us than others), but the salient point is that those parts come into clarity in the process of writing, even if it’s only at the completion of a work or in subsequent reflection on it. And that means there’s quite a bit of self-knowledge delivered in the writing of a story.

Stephen King has often said that while he was writing the Shining, he wasn’t aware that, in writing about Jack Torrance, he was in fact writing about himself. King was the alcoholic struggling for redemption but slowly losing his mind. That hit him later, no doubt in part because the novel became a mirror that enabled him to see his own face more clearly. Hence, King says, “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you” (On Writing, 191).

This is not to say that our characters bear no resemblance to persons outside us, but if we look close enough at our most meaningful relationships (the one’s most apt to inspire the creation of our fictional characters), they bear a striking resemblance to aspects of ourselves. The woman you fell in love with it, or the asshole boss you want to punch in the face at least once a week. When you fashion characters after these persons, you’re really writing about yourself.

There’s more to what you call you than what you take yourself to be. The writing process is an activity of this wider field of subjectivity.  As such, it’s largely an incursion from the unconscious, not something conscious at all. Fiction opens that door, for writer and reader alike. Whether by sudden fall (through a trap door) or gradual descent (down the basement staircase), fiction takes us to the underworld of our inner life. And a certain change takes place in that journey, for example, the enriching of our perspective and degrees of emotional regulation.  In a sense, fiction writing can be a form of therapy, very effective therapy. And perhaps that’s why so many people read fiction.

Third, fiction thrives on ambiguity and open-endedness, and that’s not something characteristic of scholarly writing, the process of argumentation, and criticism. Of course, there’s a place for precision and rigorous reasoning in life, and—contrary to what some of my former Zen teachers have said—criticism too. It’s by no means a bad or counterproductive thing to believe something, to critique, or to reason. Try living without these. That’s just a complete denial of life and the human experience.  We can’t escape beliefs, reasoning, and critique, but one can do it with less attachment. And I think that’s what fiction helps cultivate—non-attachment. Perhaps because it sensitizes perspective to its own limitations and thereby opens up further possibilities. And isn’t this true to life?  Don’t we live life in the wider space of unknowing, of mystery? We can contently accept our ignorance and learn to play with it, or we can neurotically reject it and live with it dogging us and spinning us out.

This is particularly significant for me since the topics that loom large in my fiction writing are often the same ones I’ve conceptually explored in my philosophical writing. Take the topic of survival of death. I’ve written at length on whether certain paranormal phenomena are evidence for life after death. But if that’s the question I’m asking, I’m working within narrow parameters the question dictates. I’m looking at criteria for evidence, how we assess explanations, and all that. Here I care, for example, whether survival better explains the facts than some rival hypothesis. Was it an actual discarnate spirit or just some psychic imprint left on the environment from some formerly living person? The virtue of an argument might be that it shows one of these explanations is superior, or it might show why it’s difficult to say which, if either, is a better explanation. But this is all about taking up a position of some sort. And it requires being hard nosed and rigorous in reasoning.

By contrast, if I’m writing fiction, I want to leave things as open as possible.  I’m dialing-in that aspect of experience.  The only positions that matter are those the characters authentically own. And hopefully they don’t agree with each other too often.

Imagine a story in which one character believes a girl is demonically possessed, and another character believes she’s suffering from schizophrenia. As the author, I don’t care which character is correct (hell, maybe they’re both incorrect). I could write that way, but I’m not particularly interested in doing so. I don’t care whether the girl’s really demon possessed, a schizophrenic, or under the influence of pissed off extra-terrestrials. I care about what’s true about the characters, what they believe, and their being true to their own beliefs and acting from their beliefs and intentions.

True, the story might present the skeptic as more reasonable/virtuous than the gullible priest who thinks the girl is possessed. The story might also portray the priest as more reasonable/virtuous than the skeptic. But is that it? I mean, is that the point? Isn’t it rather that the characters are true to themselves? That’s the fertile soil of conflict, and often the path out of it—vital elements of story. And it’s what helps us care about the characters and what happens to them in the story. And maybe, just maybe, this leads the reader into some form of self-realization.  After all, the characters of a story are not just a mirror by which the author may see her face more clearly, but it’s also one in which readers may come to see their own face more clearly.

Dreaming with Eyes Wide Open

King has said, “fiction is the truth inside the lie.”  Fiction has truth to reveal, but ultimately it’s the truth about the author and reader. And it’s the individual author and individual reader who are the only ones who can know what that truth is. Likewise, the consolation, healing, enjoyment, or satisfaction that a work of fiction brings to life is one the author and reader is uniquely situated to determine for herself. Otherwise put, stories are really, or at least fundamentally, about persons. The persons appear in the pages of the book, and they appear as the eyes behind the book.

As I said at the outset, I’ve spent most of the past twenty years playing conceptual chess and solving logical puzzles. And I’ll probably always do that sort of thing.  But I’ve learned that it’s also important to spend a significant amount of time dreaming with my eyes wide open.  That’s how King describes the path of fiction, and that seems exactly right. 

Michael Sudduth

REVISED 11/29/16

Empirically Robust Survival Hypotheses

photo copy 20 Oxford philosopher H.H. Price (1899-1984), himself sympathetic to life after death, once noted that survivalists – people who believe in life after death – should spend less time collecting evidence for survival and more time examining and clarifying the very hypothesis of survival itself. On the whole, survivalists interested in empirical evidence for survival (specifically, evidence collected from psychical research or parapsychology) have not heeded Price’s admonition. Consequently, the entire field has produced a body of literature that overwhelms in facts but underwhelms in critical analysis and argumentation.


The logical blunders regularly, if not systematically, encountered in the literature are symptomatic of a failure to understand, much less appreciate, the conceptual complexities involved in connecting conjectures and facts.  Downstream you find all the poor argumentation that’s called out in a standard critical thinking textbook. This same level of intellectual dopiness has vitiated the initial critiques of my book on survival.  These critical reviews have reinforced rather than undercut my pessimistic verdict on the field of survival research. Of course, I’m not alone in this assessment. Philosopher Stephen Braude voiced the same general criticism for years before I began publishing on the topic of survival. And the critique of near-death experiences in the recently published book by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin provides further evidence for this negative assessment within the community of Anglo-American philosophers.


So let’s be clear here. No, I don’t deny that there’s evidence for survival, but please don’t ask me whether I think there is evidence for life after death.  Purple objects are evidence that a being with a purple object fetish created the world.  Roughly stated, whenever the predictive consequences of a hypothesis are borne out by experience, you have evidence that your hypothesis is true.  Hence, for many hypotheses of survival to which you assign some credence value N, there will be observations such that, after the observation, you ought to assign to your survival hypotheses credence value N+.  Yada, yada, yada . . .


Evidence is easy to come by, but this is clearly not what I’m challenging in the survival literature.  I’m challenging the entire framework. It’s not that past-life memories (and the entire range of closely-allied phenomena), the messages delivered by mediums, near-death experiences, or whatever else you wish to include are not evidence for survival.  It’s that survivalists are for the most part clueless as to how to argue that they are, much less show that the facts under consideration are good evidence for survival. At any rate, they’ve not succeeded in doing this in a way that’s not as trivial as arguing that bananas are evidence that the world was created by a gorilla god with a fetish for fruits with a high glycemic index.


Is there evidence for survival? Wrong question. Or, at any rate, it’s a premature question.  That’s what the great H.H. Price understood, but which most survivalists have not understood.


Here’s what you should be asking.  First,  how many ways can we conceive of life after death?  Second, what would we rightly expect as evidence for survival given each of these ways of conceiving of survival?


Now the one thing you should discover in this exercise is that it’s not the mere supposition of survival itself that informs us of what we’d rightly count as evidence that a given survival hypothesis is true. No, it’s the extra-stuff, all the assumptions about survival, assumptions about our memories persisting (or not), our various skills persisting (or not), our personality traits persisting (or not), our being able to interact with the world of the living (or not), and so on. None of these is built into the supposition of survival as such. The most casual rummaging of your imagination, or – the next best thing – the texts of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions, should demonstrate this to everyone’s satisfaction.


There are many ways of conceiving of God, alien civilizations, and invisible gardeners. How I unpack the concept determines what could or would count as evidence for the existence of such entities or corresponding states of affairs. Survival or life after death is no exception to the general rule that determining whether some observational datum O is evidence for some thing X’s existence depends on how X and X’s properties are conceptualized. Only then can we venture with any show of plausibility to say what would be true about X’s (logical and causal) relation to the world.


Nor will it do simply to gather all the evidence that fits one way of thinking about survival and proclaim victory for that concept of survival.  This is shameless epistemic chauvinism, and it’s a logical sleight of hand, though obviously not one that I’d put past many survival researchers. After all, that’s why they’re mentally atrophied when it comes to producing a single possible fact that would disconfirm survival.  That’s what happens when you merely retrofit facts to your preferred conjecture and engage in poor explanatory reasoning.


When you’re doing that little thought experiment I mentioned above, ask yourself how the world should not look if said notion of survival is true (or not look if survival is true).  If you can’t do that, you don’t know how the world should look if said idea of survival is true. Please don’t speak about evidence for survival unless you’re also willing to acknowledge the same kind of evidence for the existence of gods with a purple object or banana fetish, demons masquerading as deceased loved ones, and invisible gardeners who attract yellow jackets. For any observation, there are an infinite number of hypotheses that would lead us to expect that observation. Ask yourself, what facts would count as evidence against the very hypothesis that so easily “accounts” for your privileged facts.


A couple of years ago I asked reincarnation researcher Jim Tucker what fact, if it should turn up, would disconfirm reincarnation.  He couldn’t tell me. We need look no further for evidence that the present state of reincarnation research hasn’t advanced beyond the conceptual infancy of Ian Stevenson’s brain child.  You can’t tell me how the world should not look if your conjecture is true?  I’d suggest that it’s equally impossible to say what would non-trivially confirm your conjecture. If your conjecture fits anything you could possibly observe, you’ve transcended the empirical world. You’re doing metaphysics, writing fiction, or peddling snake oil.  None of these should be confused with the empirical stance.


The empirical stance is an unavoidable aspect of everyday life. We know what would count as evidence that so-and-so committed a particular crime, that so-and-so survived a plane crash, that so-and-so is having a heart attack (as opposed to suffering from the flu), or that there’s a snake in one’s garden, that Elvis Presley is alive, that Richard Bachman is Stephen King, or that your car has a defective fuel pump.


In each of the above cases we can say the way should look (and not look) if the conjectures are true. In other words, the conjecture in each case is empirically grounded, or empirically testable if you will.  Why?  First, because the conjecture is robust; it’s really a bundle of statements (a core hypothesis and auxiliary assumptions). Second, the statements that constitute the bundle, specifically the auxiliary assumptions, are themselves independently testable.  The hypothesis is empirically robust.


In the case of survival, nothing can plausibly be said to be evidence for survival without survival being a robust hypothesis, but nothing can plausibly be said to be good evidence for survival unless the robustness of the survival hypothesis is empirical robustness.  As I see it, there are many robust survival hypotheses, but I’ve yet to see a single empirically robust one.  At present, the auxiliary assumptions that must be enlisted (to do the requisite explanatory work) are either not independently testable or they’re no more independently testable than the auxiliary assumptions that make alternative explanations as good (or bad) as explanations in terms of survival.


– Michael Sudduth

Unphilosophical Fragments

Since the publication of my book on empirical arguments for life after death in November 2015, I’ve been very busy with a range of personal and professional responsibilities.  But I thought I’d post a brief message12341424_1831752917051164_1600449960497450069_n about recent and upcoming events that may be of interest to subscribers, as well as a change of direction in my writing.

First, on Friday April 8, I will appear on The Q.Psience Project ( at 6:00pm-8:00pm (pacific standard time). Host Jill Hanson and I will discuss my recent book on arguments for life after death, as well as the future of empirical research into the question of survival.  I encourage subscribers to listen in.

Second, I’ve written one paper related to my book that will appear in the Journal of Scientific Exploration this summer, and I’ll be writing responses to some reviewers of my book as we move into the summer. I’ve also committed to writing an entry on “defeaters” for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I suppose will appear near the end of the year.

photo copy 20During spring break in March I gave a talk on near-death experiences at the University of Portland.  Dr. Andrew Eshleman was kind enough to invite me up north to give a talk to his philosophy of religion class, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  This was my first visit to Portland, and also the first time I read Stephen King in a philosophy class.  “Afterlife” (in Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a whimsical and thought-provoking short story on near-death experiences and reincarnation.

Finally, for a number of years I’ve wanted to write more popular books on topics (philosophical, religious, and psychological) that interest me.  That’s something I’ve broached in my blog, which has allowed me to express a broader range of my writing, from more analytical/scholarly pieces to contemplative and poetic works. I still have an interest in writing “scholarly” works (and will do so), but at age 50 it’s time for a change in direction.  So I’m moving into more popular publishing markets.  

For me, writing must be something more than a job to keep one’s job and beef up one’s CV.  In the end, what really matters is whether my writing has honestly expressed life as I’m living it, and whether it’s helped bring other people back to life.

While I’m interested in writing a popular book on survival (in the near future), at present I’m experiencing a revival of my interest in fiction, an interest that goes back to my teenage years. I’m presently writing a novella (now halfway complete) and a novel (I hope to finish this summer).  Both involve journeys to the underworld of the human psyche, and each is inspired by my own confrontation with the darker side of experience, which for me has always been the more profound source of light.

“Good writing, good stories, are the imagination’s firing pin, and the purpose of the imagination I believe is to offer a solace and shelter from situations and life passages which would otherwise prove unendurable.” – Stephen King

Beauty of the World

All the beauty of the world is contained in the grain of sand you hold in your hand and blow into the wind.

All the beauty of the world is contained in the breath that passes through your lips and merges into the wind.

All the beauty of the world is contained in the fragrance of the ocean breeze, into which your longings disappear.

All the beauty of the world is contained in the taste of an almond, which arises for but a moment and dissolves into the inner night from which it was born.

All the beauty of the world is contained in the cracks of your face, carved by your pain and filled with the tears of your regrets.

All the beauty of the world is contained in the sadness you squeeze from your heart and sacrifice to the earth.

Here you are, at ocean’s edge as the sun sets again. You’re still running, yet still waiting. You’re still hoping, yet still doubting. You’re still longing for but have yet to touch the flower of tomorrow. So also the joy you conceived yesterday remains unborn in the shimmering haze of your unending dream.

Watch the cat chasing mice. Observe the mouse chasing after cheese. Watch your desire chasing itself, hands grasping at the wind.

All of the beauty of the world is found now and nowhere else but here. Where else could you be but here and now? What you seek is neither yesterday nor tomorrow, but a path back to now.

Awaken to the intimate space that surrounds you, in which you were born, live, and shall pass away. Breathe and feel its kiss upon your lips. Fall into the tender arms of death, and let the Great Mother, who has conceived you, give you birth again.

Michael Sudduth

50th Blog

Rivas Redux

9781137440938Last month I published a response to Titus Rivas’s review of my recently published book on survival.  Subsequent to my response, Rivas modified and expanded his original review. Actually, he’s published three separate pieces discussing his original review and my response: his Short Review (revised with corrections and a postscript), a response to my response, and a supplemental piece with selected quotations from my book as illustrations of my alleged errors.

While I appreciate that Rivas has acknowledged his misrepresentation of both my religious orientation and earlier book on natural theology, I’m afraid that the more serious issues relevant to the cogency of my book’s main argument have gone unaddressed. Indeed, his subsequent responses actually amplify the problems that vitiate his original review. Most generally stated, these are three. First, Rivas has failed to demonstrate an adequate understanding of my central argument.  Second, he’s failed to show how his various points undermine or otherwise challenge my central argument. Third, despite my providing clearly stated arguments against the three objections presented in his original review, Rivas proclaims dialectical victory without offering a single counter-argument against any of my reasoned criticisms.

Does Rivas understand the main argument of my book? No, and for all the reasons canvassed in my initial response. His insistence that he understands my argument is baffling, especially since (a) he’s provided no evidence in support of this and (b) I’ve provided very clear reasons that demonstrate the contrary.  Of course, there’s a very easy solution here. Rivas can succinctly state my argument and dial in specifically how it’s defective. But Rivas hasn’t done this.  This was a crucial problem in his original review, and it’s exacerbated by his subsequent failure to critically engage any of the reasons I presented for supposing that his understanding of my argument is defective. Instead, he’s opted to generate a very dramatic and emotionally charged defense, constructed almost exclusively out of question begging assertions, protracted ad hominem digressions, and an assortment of red herrings.

Let me provide some illustrations.

In response to the reasons I offered for supposing that Rivas doesn’t understand my argument, he writes, “It seems very difficult for Sudduth to grasp the difference between rejecting his analysis and misunderstanding it, as if anyone who does not agree with him must be dumb, denying death, or indolent, or a combination of these” (“Comments on a Response”).  The distinction between rejecting my analysis and misunderstanding it is actually very easy to grasp, just as easy as asserting without evidence – as Rivas does – that the distinction is difficult for me to grasp.  The problem here is that Rivas is offering a response that assumes that he understands my argument. But that’s precisely what’s in question, and it’s what I’ve argued is false. He’s simply begging the question against my argument. A proper response at this juncture would be to address the reasons I presented that challenge the accuracy of his interpretation of my argument. Rivas hasn’t done this.

As I explained in my original blog response, the failure to state my argument is not without negative consequence for Rivas. It’s counterproductive to his obvious interest in raising relevant objections and defending the integrity of his critical review. However, without doing the proper expository work, he’s unable to show, for example, that my arguments are guilty of taking onboard the implausible assumptions he attributes to them. He’s also unable to show that his specific claims about the ostensible evidence for survival, even if correct, are relevant to my argument, or how exactly his claims are relevant. So Rivas has disabled his own critique.

Another illustration. In his response, Rivas continues to raise the specter of the motivational aspect of certain cases of the reincarnation type and the alleged “implausibility” of the assumptions that must be enlisted by the living-agent psychic functioning hypothesis to accommodate this feature of the cases. In other words, appeals to living-agent psi, if they are to accommodate some crucial strands of data, can only do so at the cost of a significant loss of plausibility. This point is presented as a criticism of my argument. OK. But this criticism needs to be dialed into my argument in some intelligible manner. To do this requires that Rivas show how his point actually impacts my argument. He’s not done this. Needless to say, a precondition of doing so is that Rivas actually state my argument. He’s also not done this.

In the light of the noted deficiencies, let me make my challenge to Rivas very clear. He should state my argument (ideally in standardized form – with the premises and conclusion clearly stated) and then show by way of a clear counter-argument how his point concerning “motivation” refutes my argument. I ask that he be as specific as possible. Does he think his point is evidence against a premise in my argument? If so, which one? He should state it. Or does he think that adding his point to the premises of my argument somehow blocks the inference to my stated conclusion? If so, he should show this. In the absence of a counter-argument of this sort, the contention that he’s refuted my argument has a credence index precariously hovering somewhere near zero.

I’d be interested in seeing Rivas meet this very explicit challenge. It would at least clarify what precisely he finds unacceptable about my argument. As it stands, I have no idea what exactly he rejects. It would also be a wonderful way for Rivas to prove that I don’t understand my own argument, which must surely be the case if Rivas actually understands it. After all, I maintain (and the point was broached in my original response to Rivas) that my argument is consistent with the claim that there are some data the living-agent psi hypothesis doesn’t plausibly accommodate. Presumably Rivas thinks my argument involves a denial of this claim or perhaps that my argument is otherwise weakened or compromised if the claim is true, otherwise his claim wouldn’t be a very sensible basis for objecting to my argument. He should show this. Thus far, he’s not done so.

It’s true, of course, that Rivas makes some claims that are apparently incompatible with some of what I claim in my book. For example, he says: “So if we start, as I do, from a substance dualist ontology, we do not even need to make any new assumption, but we can simply build on something that already follows from substance dualism in general” (1/15/16 postscript to “Short Review”). If Rivas intends to say here that the survival hypothesis can have sufficient explanatory power in the absence of the auxiliary assumptions discussed in chapter nine of my book, then his claim contradicts the conclusion I drew from the auxiliary assumption requirement (applied to explanatory survival arguments). But in that case he must show how substance dualism would lead us to expect the data alleged as evidence for survival. Merely denying one of my claims (be it a premise or conclusion) doesn’t constitute a refutation of my argument, especially when there’s substantial argumentation purporting to provide evidence against what Rivas claims. Rivas’s failure to state my argument has prevented him from dialing in his criticism in a way that’s responsive to what I’ve actually argued.

Contrary to Rivas’s unsupported assertion, substance dualism by itself doesn’t lead us to expect any of the relevant data adduced as evidence for survival. Hence, it’s explanatorily vacuous, unless it’s “bulked up” with auxiliary assumptions. But as I explain in chapter nine of my book, there’s a vast range of assumptions from which to choose. Depending on which ones we select, we get at least a dozen different conceivable models of survival consistent with substance dualism but which would not lead us to expect the data alleged as evidence for survival. Unless we can distribute our credence over these auxiliaries in a way that non-trivially favors one narrow band of auxiliary assumptions over the rest, we simply cannot argue that the data are more to expected given survival than some rival hypothesis. Indeed, we cannot say how the world should look if survival is true. If Rivas thinks otherwise, and wishes to offer something more than an assertion, he should probably respond to the arguments in chapter nine of my book. He must either reject the general auxiliary assumption requirement for explanatory reasoning or reject my particular application of it to explanatory survival arguments. There’s no other option. But again, Rivas hasn’t provided a reasoned account of any of this.

What about those three objections to my book featured in his initial review? I explicitly addressed each one of these objections, which – among other things – involved his attributing claims or assumptions to my argument that I contend are not involved in my argument. I had also noted Rivas’s failure to textually justify these false attributions.  Yet, despite his lengthy follow-up responses, including an entire blog that purports to respond to my response to his initial review, Rivas manages not to address a single one of my counter-arguments to his three objections. He dismisses my counter-arguments, along with the dialectical responsibility of addressing them, by merely asserting that they’re “less relevant” and “amount to empty sophistry.” Now I’m not opposed to ostentatious claims. I make them myself when the occasion merits.  However, I do my best to make sure that they’re little more than a colorful garnish on full plate of argument. It’s unclear why Rivas thinks his own ostentatious claims should go without support, but it certainly provides yet another illustration of his failure to produce an argument when it’s most needed.

And how would a salient argument go at this juncture? If I present reasons for denying Rivas’s claim that my argument relies on a particular assumption, he must show how my argument is saddled with the assumption. (In fact, he should have done this in his original review.) If I correctly note that he’s not provided textual support for views he attributes to me, he should offer that support or explain why it’s not necessary to do so. If I show that he’s unable to properly engage my argument without stating it, he should either state my argument or show why he can properly engage the argument without stating it. What is unproductive, indeed fallacious, is merely to repeat the very points that I’ve argued are false or otherwise ignore reasons offered up for consideration.

Just to clarify, I’m not claiming that Rivas offers no argumentation at all. It’s that he fails to do so when it matters most. And the latter point is important. It would be unreasonable to demand that Rivas provide reasons for every claim he makes, but his commentary is so vitiated by unsupported assertions, on precisely the points for which I’ve provided argument, that neither human fallibility nor global constraints of space and time provide an adequate defense against the charge that Rivas hasn’t met his responsibilities as a critical reviewer, especially as one who purports to be an advocate of civilized and egalitarian debate.  This problem is pervasive in his responses.

Rivas also issues me a challenge. “Perhaps Michael Sudduth will one day have the courtesy and courage to publicly reveal his personal stance on survival (agnosticism, personal survival, personal extinction, or whatever), even if it is still only tentative.” Setting aside the utter irrelevance of this to the cogency of the arguments in my book (which is the central issue), Rivas has once again betrayed his culpable ignorance of matters of fact.  I have repeatedly discussed my “personal stance” on survival.  In fact, I devoted an entire (5,600 word) blog on this topic in August 2015 – Personal Reflections on Life after Death. While I have a large archive of blog entries spanning the past three years, this is one of the several that has been featured on my website for the last eight months. It appears in both the recent blog archive list in the website widget (which is on the right-hand side of every page of my website), and it’s also highlighted in the center of my main page.

Finally, Rivas characterizes my “program” as destructive.

As I said before, I view Sudduth’s program as destructive. This is because he has given his disturbing diagnosis of survival research such an irrefutable formulation that there seems to be no hope the field will ever progress beyond its supposed impasse. Like myself, many readers will want to know how Sudduth could conceptualize his program as anything else than highly negative. What solution does Sudduth plan to offer that would go beyond a draw between (just) LAP and survival (besides LAP)? (“Comments on a Response”)

I’m actually not offering a general “program” of any sort in my book. I’m offering a diagnosis of what’s wrong with classical empirical arguments for survival. I made this clear in my introductory chapter. Nor is my diagnosis, disturbing as it may be, intended as a complete epistemology of belief in survival.  I make this clear in the final four paragraphs of my book, as well as in the introductory chapter.  Nothing I argue entails that there’s “no hope” for progress. To be sure, my limited scope project in the book is negative and deconstructive. This is trivially true since I’m arguing that the classical arguments are unsuccessful. But it’s fallacious to infer from this that there’s some larger program that should be characterized in like manner.  Of course, the cogency of my arguments doesn’t hang on whether the classical arguments can be fixed, successfully reformulated, or whether there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for survivalists. And I’m certainly not obligated to lead survivalists into the light.

Having said this, as I made clear in my book, if the empirical survival debate is to advance, it’s important to wheel away the rubbish that has increasingly cluttered the conversation for the past century. Much of this rubbish has amassed in area of evidence assessment and its interface with explanatory criteria, which is partially why I chose to focus on the logic of survival arguments. Methodologically speaking, this is the first step in the direction of any sensible recontextualization of the project (broadly construed). Moreover, I chose to deploy techniques and modes of analysis that have been successfully used to advance discussion in other areas of philosophy. If survivalists are uncomfortable with these techniques and modes of analysis, they should propose their own. And if they can at least sufficiently wrap their minds around what I have argued, and just sit with the disturbing diagnosis for a bit, the road ahead might be viewed with greater clarity.

I’ve indicated in my book and blog the direction in which we might move for a positive reconstruction. There’s much more to be said on this topic, and I’ve been very clear about my intention to do so. But I’m in no hurry, and I’m content just to see where it all goes. I’m presently enjoying conversations with others working on the topic of survival, including some preliminary discussions on a possible collaborative project.  I personally find more satisfaction in the exploration itself than in the results, which must always be limited and tentative in my view. This is why my views on survival have evolved over the last decade. Anyhow, surely survivalists like Rivas who demand a “plan” or “cure” are capable of putting their own hand to the plow. I look forward to seeing what the best of their intellectual acumen and passion produces.

Michael Sudduth

Response to Titus Rivas

newcoverThere are several forthcoming reviews of my recently published book on empirical arguments for life after death. Since one of my aims in writing the book was to facilitate a particular kind of much-needed conversation on the topic, I intend to offer responses to some of the reviews (in my blog and in peer-reviewed journal publications), which is one way of having the discussion.  However, now only a couple of months since the publication of my book, it’s become clear that I’ll need to put some effort into cleaning up the mess created by commentators who haven’t adequately understood the conceptual territory and who consequently misrepresent my arguments in their effort to critique them.  Since we can’t really have the required conversation if the arguments designed for this purpose are not understood, some energy needs to be expended in the direction of conceptual clean up and trash removal.

Speaking of messes and trash removal, enter survival researcher Titus Rivas. His recent review of my book is evidence of just how easily the needed conversation is derailed by low-caliber thinking and shoddy scholarship. Yes, I know: Rivas is a well-known survival researcher. Alas, this is precisely the problem. His review is a striking and disappointing demonstration of the extent to which the field of survival research has fallen into intellectual disrepair. Rivas purports to offer a critical review of my book, yet he fails to state, much less critically engage, my book’s central argument (or even the book’s secondary and tertiary arguments for that matter). Instead, Rivas generates a menacing pile of factual errors, conceptual confusions, and unwarranted psychological conjectures.  His review deserves attention because it’s a good example of how this conversation is not supposed to go. Despite the brevity of his review, which has at least prevented him from multiplying misrepresentations beyond necessity, there’s still quite the mess to clean up here.

Rivas begins his review by making some rather odd and factually false claims about my religious affiliation and prior philosophical work. One only needs a modest degree of cognitive calibration to understand that these issues are irrelevant to the cogency of my book’s arguments, but since Rivas returns to them again at the end of his review in the effort to discredit my work on survival, the errors are worth noting.

Michael Sudduth used to be a Christian philosopher of religion, but he ultimately embraced a form of Hindu (Vedantic) philosophy. He once wrote a treatise against so-called natural religion, an approach to theism, which claims that we can formulate rational arguments for the existence of a creator. In his new book, A philosophical critique of empirical arguments for postmortem survival, Sudduth opposes scholars who claim there is good empirical evidence for personal survival after physical death.

For reasons that will be apparent at the end of his review, Rivas wishes to classify me as a Hindu of some unspecified variety associated with the tradition of Vedanta and committed to the authority of the Vedas. This is false. Rivas also says that I wrote a treatise against natural religion. This is also false. I’ll comment more on these points below. For the moment, just observe the inauspicious start to Rivas’s review. I have no idea why Rivas is so misinformed on these mundane issues, but if easily accessible biographical details of my life and work clearly contradict his opening remarks, I’d say that Rivas should be reviewing his skills as an empirical researcher instead of reviewing my book. Sadly, the inaccuracies with which the review begins set the tone for the rest of his commentary.

Sudduth essentially claims that proponents of the survival hypothesis as an explanation for certain types of empirical evidence are naive and simply have not given alternative explanations enough thought. According to the author, the main alternative hypothesis is the Living Agent Psi-hypothesis (LAP), which states that anything that appears to be indicative of survival is really subconsciously produced by psi (paranormal abilities) of the living. 

Here Rivas is presumably trying to state the bottom line of my critique of survival arguments, but these claims – while true – are not part of my argument.  At best they’re downstream implications of my argument, but they’re peripheral negative evaluations at best.  Of course, like many of the survivalists to which I refer, I do consider a sufficiently “bulked up” LAP hypothesis to be the nearest explanatory competitor to the survival hypothesis, but Rivas doesn’t clearly state what I have to say about this hypothesis, much less its role in my larger argumentation. At all events, Rivas’s entire discussion is vitiated by a serious confusion about what my argument is, despite the fact it’s clearly outlined in §1.4 of my book and summarized in the book’s final chapter.

It might be helpful to have at least one of my actual arguments in view as a useful corrective to what follows in Rivas’s review.  Let’s take my criticism of classical explanatory arguments. This is central to my entire discussion in the second half of the book. Here I target reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data. I don’t argue that this explanatory claim is false. I argue that survivalists have been unsuccessful in showing that the claim is true. Why? Not because I argue that there’s some rival hypothesis that actually provides an equally good explanation of the data, and not because I argue that survivalists cannot rule out the LAP hypothesis (or other explanatory competitors). What I argue is that survivalists aren’t justified in claiming both that the survival hypothesis explains and there is no rival hypothesis that provides an at least equally good explanation. Why do I say this? Because I argue that the reasons invoked by survivalists to rule out explanatory competitors defeat the justification for supposing that the survival hypothesis explains the data.

My argument against the cogency of explanatory survival arguments is prominent in my book. It’s an important implication of the auxiliary assumption requirement at the heart of my critique. It’s the focus of three chapters of discussion of the work of C.D. Broad, E.R. Dodds, and C.J. Ducasse, reinforced by a detailed Bayesian analysis. Yet Rivas fails to state the argument, even in a fairly simple outline form (such as I did above).

Nonetheless, Rivas ventures three criticisms.

First, he [Sudduth] seems to believe that we need one single hypothesis for all the evidence in the field. . . Proponents of the survival hypothesis usually assume that some paranormal phenomena are best explained by Living Agent Psi, whereas other phenomena require a survival hypothesis. Of course, there are a few scholars who sincerely believe that all paranormal phenomena are caused by spirits of the dead, but they are only a relatively small minority within the survival community. Survivalist usually do not claim that all paranormal phenomena within survival research point to survival.

I don’t believe that we need a single hypothesis to explain all the evidence in the field, and such a claim (false as it happens) is nowhere implicated in my argument. Moreover, I haven’t said that survivalists claim that all paranormal phenomena within survival research point to survival. Of course, Rivas neither quotes me nor otherwise explains why or how he came to this strange conclusion. And it’s a particularly surprising misinterpretation given the extensive discussion on evidence in my book, including my specifying the relevant kinds of evidence, distinguishing between narrow and broad descriptions of evidence, explaining how the total evidence requirement (of inductive reasoning) should be qualified, and explicitly acknowledging that some strands of evidence (I discuss) may have equally good or better non-survival explanations without this impugning the survival inference. Rivas cannot plausibly attribute to me a view that I explicitly deny (e.g. §10.2.2, especially no. 17). Fundamentally, my arguments are calibrated to diagnose a problem intrinsic to arguing for survival from any relevant domain of empirical evidence. So Rivas is exhibiting remedial confusion on a dominant theme of my book. Since he’s silent about how he’s tied the knot of his own confusion, there’s precious little I can do here to help untie it.

Secondly, Sudduth gives the impression that his opponents mostly reject LAP because certain paranormal phenomena would simply be too “impressive” to have been caused by the living. Although some scholars do take this position, another type of argumentation is much more important. Namely that the living persons involved in many types of cases most probably cannot have had a motive to subconsciously create the phenomena themselves. . . .By stressing the quantity and complexity of paranormal phenomena rather than this central motivational argument, Sudduth clearly makes a caricature of the argumentation of his opponents.

Where exactly do I state, or even give the impression, that survivalists “mostly” reject the LAP hypothesis because it would require psi too impressive to have been caused by the living?  Indeed, this is actually not the case.  As I carefully explain (with substantial citations from the literature), there are two general survivalist objections to the LAP hypothesis: (i) the LAP hypothesis doesn’t account for the data or (ii) the LAP hypothesis can be “bulked up” to better account for the data but at the cost of proportionally less plausibility (resulting from diminished independent support for the requisite auxiliaries, less fit with background knowledge, or increased complexity).  The LAP hypothesis being too “impressive” is presumably Rivas’s way of referring to at least one of the more specific arguments under objection (ii). Rivas’s specific consideration  is relevant to (i).  If there’s evidence pointing to “no motive,” a hypothesis that posits that there is a motive will have at least prima facie difficulty accommodating the specific pieces of evidence that point in the opposite direction.  Rivas is merely emphasizing one argument for supposing that the LAP hypothesis has a low Likelihood relative to a subset of evidence.  What Rivas has not done is show how this one argument fares any better than the others proposed in the net interest of securing the desired survival inference.  Much less has Rivas addressed my arguments for supposing that this strategy is unsuccessful, even if the LAP hypothesis has, for whatever reason, a low Likelihood.

This being said, it’s worth adding that in his book Immortal Remains (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) Stephen Braude has shown that survivalists have typically had psychologically shallow and philosophically shortsighted reasons for supposing that living persons could not have had (or were unlikely to have had) a motive to unconsciously produce the relevant phenomena. I agree with Braude’s assessment. And again, it’s important to keep the larger picture in mind here. Even if it were true that we had good reason to suppose, for any particular case, that the appropriate motive was not present, this would not guarantee the survivalist’s desired inference to survival as the best explanation of the data. As I explained in detail in my book (though ignored by Rivas), it’s absolutely vital to understand the structural features of the survival argument and the range of ways that this argument can fail.

Thirdly, although Sudduth does mention the survivalist’s motivational argument, he hardly gives it any serious attention. Sudduth seems to believe it is sufficient to stress that the human subconscious mind is so unfathomable that we may assume paranormal phenomena can always be explained by subconscious motives, even if those motives would be very hard to imagine! This appears to release him from his scholarly duty to offer plausible concrete LAP expanations [sic] for all types of evidence. However, if somebody claims there may always be a hidden motive for people to use psi subconsciously to produce pseudo-evidence for survival, the least we may ask from such a person is to show why this would be psychologically plausible. If this does not happen, the person in question cannot even be said to have contributed anything to the serious debate in this field. 

Here Rivas is engaged in more attributions for which he provides no evidence and that are in fact false. I don’t assume that “the human subconscious mind is so unfathomable that we may assume paranormal phenomena can always be explained by subconscious motives,” nor does my argument depend on this assumption. And, as usual, Rivas nowhere shows to the contrary by quoting from my book or providing a textually supported analysis.  As for the impression that I’ve not given the motivational argument any serious attention, this impression is the result of Rivas’s failure to understand the implications of my actual argument (discussed above).

Let’s now take stock of Rivas’s short review.  

  • Rivas has written a review of a book, the central concepts and arguments of which he doesn’t state, let alone analyze.
  • Rivas saddles the author with assumptions he’s nowhere exegetically justified from his reading of the text.
  • Rivas claims certain points have not been accounted for in the book, but he misses how the author’s actual arguments cover the point, and Rivas fails to show how the inclusion of the point would alter the outcome of the author’s argument.

If there was ever an example of how not to write a serious review, even a short one, this is it.  In other contexts, the whole production would score points for comedy, but because it’s intended as serious commentary, the shoddy scholarship is mildly disturbing I must admit.

However, Rivas needed to end his review on a high note and so the capstone of his review is a speculative and quite frankly silly discussion of my motive for writing my book. This is the default tactic when people have throttled their bandwidth for critical thought, which Rivas seems to have done a few sentences into his review.

Rivas writes the following:

What could have been the author’s motive to write a whole book against the survival hypothesis for empirical evidence? The first reason that comes to mind is of course that he simply does not believe in an afterlife. However, this obvious reason does not apply to Sudduth’s case. He is a Vedantic scholar who as such (considering the particular school within Vedanta he adheres to) simply must believe in survival after death. Therefore, I think that what motivated him to write this work is a desire to demonstrate that people need to base their belief in survival on a non-rational, purely religious conviction. This is very similar to what must have motivated him when he wrote his previous book against natural religion and in favour of supernatural revelation.

I’m not going to belabor the point that motive is irrelevant to the cogency of my arguments. Let’s just bracket out the interest in whether my arguments are good ones and just focus on Rivas’s psychological fixation.

Rivas wonders what my motive for writing the book could have possibly been. This is odd because in the Preface, §1.3, and §1.4 of my book I plainly answer this question. Not surprisingly, Rivas fails to state, much less assimilate into his own speculations, what I claim my motive was for writing the book. Perhaps Rivas didn’t read my introductory chapter. Maybe he thinks he understands the content of my mental life better than I do.  Or maybe he has some other reason for choosing to ignore the salience of my clearly stated and long-standing interest in this topic, my stated belief that there are serious deficiencies in the existing literature, my stated disappointment in how survivalists have masked these deficiencies, and my stated intention to advance the debate by diagnosing these deficiencies. It’s unclear why Rivas feels none of my stated reasons for writing book should be taken at face value.  What is clear is that the alternative conjecture Rivas offers up is patently absurd.

1.  I don’t adhere to any school within Vedanta that involves a belief in survival. And I utterly disavow appeals to any sacred text as authoritative. My spiritual practice for the past three years, influenced as it has been by Advaita and Buddhism, is an empirically grounded approach to spirituality, which stands in sharp contrast to adherence to the dogmas and alleged supernatural revelations of faith-based religions. This should be utterly clear to anyone who wishes to discuss my views and has the capacity to use the Google search engine.

2.  Rivas describes my first book as one “against natural religion and in favor of supernatural revelation.” Rivas would be referring to my book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate, 2009), but this book is not a treatise against so-called “natural religion.” Quite the contrary: in this book I defended the project of natural theology (developing rational arguments for the existence and nature of God) against streams of opposition to it within the Protestant theological tradition. And a person doesn’t need to read a single page of the book to know this, as the Amazon synopsis says, “Sudduth argues that none of the main Reformed objections is successful as an objection to the project of natural theology.”

Since a string of false statements only results in larger false statement, Rivas offers a robustly unsound argument as alleged support for his wacky psychological conjecture. Ironically, anyone who so ineptly handles a very simple, ordinary case concerning motive erodes confidence in his ability to reliably discern motives in the more exotic scenarios associated with evidence for life after death.  While I’m tempted to offer my own conjecture about Rivas’s psychology, unlike Rivas I’ll confine my claims to what I’m actually in a position to know.  Like his account of the content of my book, his conjecture is simply false.  I don’t believe that “people need to base their belief in survival on a non-rational, purely religious conviction.” In fact, I deny this claim.  It would be misleading to call Rivas’s conjecture a stupid one; it’s actually an outrageously stupid conjecture.  In Titus Rivas’s world, his reasoning about my motive for writing my book will no doubt appear as cogent to him as does the argument for survival. But in the actual world, the reasoning astonishingly lacks cogency.

As I’ve said repeatedly, there’s a conversation we need to be having on the topic of postmortem survival.  This conversation isn’t advanced by survivalists who bury the discussion in a heap factual inaccuracies and distortions of the criticisms leveled against their arguments. It’s not advanced by a novel form of scholarship in which critical book reviews fail to actually state the arguments developed in the book under critical examination.  And the remedy for these deficiencies is not poorly constructed and psychologically superficial conjectures concerning the motives of one’s critics, which in the final analysis would be irrelevant even if correct.  There’s no substitute for understanding arguments, but there’s sometimes a vital prerequisite – better understanding what you don’t adequately understand in order to see more clearly what you need to know to sensibly critique it.

Michael Sudduth

Response to Bernardo Kastrup

MichaelHardRockIn my previous blog, In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences, I offered a detailed defense of Harris’s critique of Eben Alexander’s near-death experience argument for life after death. The focus of my defense was Bernardo Kastrup’s critical response to Harris’s critique. Well, it took less than a day for Kastrup to issue a response to my blog. Curiously, Kastrup managed to read my 9,000 word critical essay and write a response within approximately seven hours of its publication. While I appreciate the swift attention my blog commanded, Kastrup should have taken a bit more time to better wrap his mind around my arguments. It would have been nice to see a relevant and adequately calibrated response informed by a thoughtful understanding of my arguments. Instead, Kastrup offers little more than a string of wacky ad hominem remarks and red herrings, a strategy that—while psychologically provocative—is nonetheless counterproductive to the kind of discussion that needs to take place on this topic.

To briefly recap my earlier blog, my main contention was that Kastrup misrepresented Sam Harris’s criticisms of Alexander’s transcendent interpretation of his NDE. Kastrup incorrectly stated both the conclusion and premises of Harris’s argument, a distortion that was masked by Kastrup’s selective use of terse quotes from Harris removed from their larger, salient dialectical context. Harris repeatedly says (in both his 2012 blog and 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion) that the problem with Eben Alexander’s argument is that Alexander has not offered compelling evidence for a crucial premise in his argument, namely that Alexander’s NDE took place while his cerebral cortex was inactive. I provided several examples of how Kastrup irresponsibly ignores Harris’s explicit statements about the nature of his disagreement with Alexander. Kastrup attributes claims to Harris that Harris never made, some of which actually contradict what Harris wrote, and consequently he attributes arguments to Harris that Harris never actually made.  There couldn’t be a more potent illustration of the straw man fallacy.

In his blog response, Kastrup fails to offer any serious challenge to my argument that he’s misrepresented Harris.  In fact, there’s very little argument clearly pointed in that direction. His response is largely a selective appropriation of comments from my blog, taken out of context—as he does with Harris—and deployed in such a manner that it’s clear he simply doesn’t understand the arguments Harris and I have presented, nor the range of relevant conceptual distinctions required to clearly and cogently engage them.

Let me provide a few illustrations.

Kastrup complains that I criticized him for not showing that cortical activity during Eben Alexander’s coma was improbable. He writes:

Sudduth writes paragraph after paragraph claiming that I failed to establish that Alexander’s neocortex was incapable to generate his NDE. The only problem is that I never tried to construct an argument to establish that in the first place. After all, I have not seen the hard clinical data and, just like Sudduth, am not qualified to judge it. So who is “profoundly confused” here?

I’m afraid this is a misrepresentation of what I argued.  First, I explicitly acknowledged that Kastrup didn’t intend to show the improbability of cortical activity in Alexander’s case, but I argued that this fact is precisely part of the problem. It highlights Kastrup’s limited grasp of what he needs to argue in the light of Harris’s explicit claims.  Second, the problem, as I carefully explained, is not simply that Kastrup fails to show the improbability of cortical activity in Alexander’s case.  What I argued was that, given what Harris argues, Kastrup must show that Harris was incorrect about the evidential force of the relevant range of data Alexander has at his disposal to support his claim about cortical inactivity. Showing the improbability of cortical activity falls within this logical space. Remember, Harris argued that Alexander didn’t provide good evidence to accept the claim that his cerebral cortex was inactive during his coma. To refute Harris at this juncture requires showing that Harris’s evidential-deficiency claim is false or showing that the reasons Harris offers on behalf of this claim are inadequate. Kastrup does neither. There’s no need to rehearse my arguments, but here’s what I said by way of summary:

To refute Harris, Kastrup would need to show one of two things: either Harris is mistaken about what CT scans and neurological examinations show about cortical activity, or Alexander has other data that make it highly improbable that his cortex was functional at any time during his coma. Kastrup does neither. Instead, he merely plays hide the ball by deploying question-begging language that illicitly shifts the burden of proof. He merely assumes that, given the facts, it’s improbable that Alexander’s cortex could have produced the experiences he reports. An argument needs to be made for this, but none is given.

Kastrup appears to think he’s personally not qualified to do the required dialectical job here, which presumably explains why he feels he can merely appeal to Alexander as an authority at this juncture, conveniently ignoring the testimony of many well-qualified neuroscientists and medical doctors (including neurosurgeons) who strongly disagree with Alexander’s evaluation of the data. Fair enough.  Nonetheless, Kastrup should have more assiduously tended to the “paragraph after paragraph,” which he so condescendingly laments, as they provided an extended argument showing (a) why Alexander’s argument depends on a premise asserting the improbability of cortical activity during his coma, (b) why Harris thinks that Alexander’s evidence for this premise is inadequate, and (c) why Kastrup’s critique of Harris is defective since he doesn’t critically engage (b). One doesn’t need to be a neuroscientist or a neurosurgeon, or even a professional philosopher for that matter, to be qualified to make or evaluate the claims under (a), (b) and (c).  One only needs to have a moderately cultivated set of critical thinking skills that allows one to navigate the salient conceptual territory and properly analyze the structural features of arguments and counter-arguments.

Instead of addressing the arguments I presented under (a), (b), and (c), Kastrup merely restates the very claims whose relevancy I have challenged here and then boldly complains that I haven’t refuted his argument for these claims.  But which argument haven’t I refuted? Kastrup presents a number of arguments whose particular conclusions are enlisted for his end-game, that is, to support his main conclusion that Harris’s criticisms of Alexander are defective (if you wish, replace “defective” with any term of negative evaluation).  What I claim to have refuted is Kastrup’s inference to his main conclusion.  I’m not challenging the cogency or soundness of the arguments he’s enlisted for this purpose, which of course may be perfectly good arguments for their respective conclusions. The central issue is whether Kastrup has provided good reasons for supposing that Harris’s arguments are defective. I argued that he’s unsuccessful in this regard.  Since Kastrup has misrepresented Harris’s actual argument, he’s incorrect about the relevance of the conclusions he wishes to enlist as defeaters for Harris’s argument.  And he’s done nothing to show that his cherry-picking of brief snippets from Harris (while ignoring their context) is an adequate substitute for the kind of mature exposition and conceptual analysis that’s required in this conversation.

Another example. Kastrup claims, “Sudduth’s ‘defense’ of Harris, if correct, would render Harris’ arguments ineffective in rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE.” The conditional statement is true, but irrelevant. Yes, given my defense, Harris’s arguments are ineffective at rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE, but my repeated claim was that Harris’s arguments were never intended to rebut the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE, nor is this dialectically required to defeat Alexander’s argument.  Kastrup has either missed one my central points or he’s deliberately  ignoring it. As I demonstrated, and with copious quotations from Harris, Harris argues that Alexander has not provided good reasons to accept the crucial premise on which his entire argument depends. This is why Harris repeatedly says that his criticisms of Alexander concern Alexander’s failure to offer adequate evidence for cortical shutdown and when his NDE occurred. It’s also why Harris says that his issue is with how Alexander reasons to his conclusion, not the conclusion itself (see Waking Up, 177-78, 185). 

Since Kastrup insists on having dealt me a fatal blow here, I suspect I should clarify a rather remedial point concerning argument defeasibility (i.e. the logic that governs how arguments get defeated). Alexander’s transcendent interpretation of his NDE (the extrasomatic/afterlife interpretation) is an inference that relies on the key premise that he had his NDE during a period of cortical inactivity. One way of defeating this argument would be to provide reasons for supposing that the transcendent interpretation is false (rebutting the conclusion of Alexander’s argument).  Another way of defeating the argument would be to provide reasons for supposing that the key premise is false (rebutting the key premise in Alexander’s argument).  A third way of defeating Alexander’s argument would be to show that we don’t have good enough reason to accept the key premise (undercutting the key premise in Alexander’s argument). (For further elaboration on the different modalities of defeat, see §6 of my Defeaters in Epistemology in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

My defense of Harris logically entails that Harris offered an undercutting premise defeater for Alexander’s argument.  If my defense of Harris is correct, it follows that Harris’s arguments effectively defeat Alexander’s argument for the truth of the transcendent interpretation of his experience.  This conclusion is obviously compatible with Alexander’s argument not being defeated for some other reason, such as there being reasons that efficaciously rebut his conclusion, but that’s obviously a red herring if we want to know whether Alexander’s argument is defeated simpliciter.  Kastrup’s attempt at a reductio ad absurdem refutation of my argument is based on an inadequate grasp of the logic of argument defeasibility. If we want to know whether Alexander has presented a good argument in support of the transcendent interpretation of his experience, then the salient issue is whether there is an efficacious defeater of any kind for that argument.  Hence, what’s central in the critical evaluation of Harris’s argument is whether his undercutting premise defeater against Alexander’s argument is  successful or efficacious.  Kastrup has not addressed this issue; indeed, it doesn’t even seem to be on his radar. For this reason alone, his criticisms of Harris must be judged a failure. They’re simply not a response to what Harris actually argued.

Finally, Kastrup wrote:

Well, he [Sudduth] asserts that “Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry,” so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris: “Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension.” Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander’s NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be?

This is yet another example of how Kastrup’s responses are an obfuscating amalgamation of misrepresentation and remedial conceptual confusion.

First, Kastrup quotes me as saying that Harris nowhere claims that Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry. This is not contradicted by Harris acknowledging that some such hypothesis is possibly true or suggesting that it could explain Alexander’s NDE.  Apparently Kastrup thinks a “pure speculation” carries significant epistemic credentials or explanatory virtue.  This is radically implausible, and it’s an obvious misappropriation of what Harris says.  I don’t claim that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, but I do claim that there could be.  Harris suggests that the hypothesis of extrasensory perception might explain certain features of Alexander’s experience. Is he thereby proposing that Alexander’s NDE is so explained?  It’s important to distinguish between affirming some statement that p and making the more modest claim that p is empirically possible.  Similarly, claiming that some hypothesis might explain should be distinguished from claiming that some hypothesis actually explains or explains well.

Nothing I said in my blog implies that, in Harris’s view, Alexander’s NDE could not be explained by some DMT neurotransmitter hypothesis. In fact, Harris mentions a number of empirically possible hypotheses that might explain aspects of Alexander’s experience, including living-agent psychic functioning. But he doesn’t say, much less argue, that any of them actually explains Alexander’s experience. These “possibilities” are introduced because they serve the dialectical purpose of opening the field of potential explanatory candidates, which in turn facilitates critically probing whether Alexander has done a sufficient job at ruling them out. This is entirely consistent with the dialectical strategy of undercutting Alexander’s argument.

Second, and related, I made the above claim about Harris in the specific context of Kastrup’s claim that Harris purports to infer that it’s likely that Alexander’s NDE was not a transcendent experience because Alexander’s NDE resembles DMT experiences.  Kastrup conveniently ignores this point in his blog response, but it’s significant. Acknowledging the empirical possibility of a hypothesis h, or even h’s superior comparative plausibility over some competitor h*, doesn’t give us an argument for supposing that h is likely. Harris makes no such claim. He makes no such argument. Full stop. However, Harris’s contention that the DMT neurotransmitter hypothesis is “pure speculation” is relevant in the following sense: it’s evidence against supposing that Harris thinks this hypothesis is likely.  There’s a world of difference between a hypothesis that’s pure speculation and a hypothesis that’s likely, though given Kastrup’s standards for reasoning, perhaps it’s not a surprise that he would fail to distinguish between them.

Finally, as I showed in my blog, it’s Alexander who relies on denying the resemblance between his experience and DMT trips in his defense of the transcendent nature of his experience. This is a very important contextual point that Kastrup has ignored.  In that context, Harris is rebutting a very specific claim whose salience to the discussion has been determined by how Alexander uses it in his argument.

There’s no need to comment on the rest of what Kastrup dishes up because they’re just further illustrations of various fallacies of relevance, dialectical misdirection, and presentational unprofessionalism.  There’s an important conversation we should be having on this topic.  But this discussion is inhibited when interlocutors enter the discussion and are “tilted” because of the word length of an article, not being tagged in a Facebook post, not knowing who an author is, or being overwhelmed by apparently foreign or novel conceptual demands. Thankfully, the broader community of serious survival researchers, many of whom have been my interlocutors for the past ten years, has a keener sense of how this game needs to be played, more skillfully and while keeping their composure.

Michael Sudduth

In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences

Sam_Harris Near-Death ExperiencesIn his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon and Schuster, 2014), neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris provides some critical comments on near-death experiences (NDEs) as part of his larger exploration of spiritual experiences. Most of his discussion on NDEs involves a critical engagement with neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon and Schuster, 2012). In this New York Times best seller, Alexander provides an account of his own near-death experience that occurred after contracting E. coli bacterial meningitis and falling into a weeklong coma. Alexander claims that during his coma he experienced an NDE that provides “extremely strong evidence” that consciousness is independent of the brain and so will survive physical death. Harris contends that Alexander has not succeeded in showing that his experience provides compelling evidence for these claims.

I’ve elsewhere discussed my reservations about arguments that purport to show that NDEs provide good evidence for life after death. The critical evaluation of NDEs as alleged evidence for life after death occupies an important place in my recently published Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Although my main objections to these arguments are a bit different from Harris’s particular criticisms of Alexander, I’m in agreement with Harris that the conclusions Alexander draws about his experience are simply not good inferences, much less rationally compelling ones.

Harris raises several specific objections to Alexander’s reasoning, but the central objection concerns Alexander’s controversial contention that he had his NDE while his cerebral cortex was completely shutdown and inactive. This is an important premise in Alexander’s argument for supposing that consciousness does not depend on the brain and so can survive death.  Harris argues that Alexander has not provided good, much less compelling, reason to accept it. First, Alexander’s reasons for claiming that his cerebral cortex was inactive are inadequate. Second, even if we grant that Alexander’s cortex was inactive during his coma, Alexander’s reasons for claiming that his NDE occurred during the time of cortical inactivity are inadequate. It’s important to emphasize, and I’ll comment on this further below, that Harris does not argue that Alexander’s controversial claim is false. His central contention is that Alexander has not provided good enough reason to suppose that this premise is true.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that I agree with Harris. Equally unsurprising, Eben Alexander strongly disagrees with Harris and my positive evaluation of Harris’s criticisms. A couple of months ago I voiced my agreement with Harris’s critique of Alexander in a Facebook post, which prompted a response from Alexander (whom I had tagged in the post). Alexander was quite emphatic that Harris “makes no good points at all,” and he cited Bernardo Kastrup as having provided a “reasonable response to his [Harris’s] rantings.” In my correspondence with Alexander over the past two months, he strikes me as a sincere person who had a genuinely transformative experience, and his endgame—awakening people to the spiritual dimension of life—is one Harris and I actually share with Alexander. However, like Harris, I’m skeptical of how spiritual experiences, including NDEs, are used to prop up grandiose metaphysical claims.

In the present blog, I examine Bernardo Kastrup’s criticisms of Harris’s critique of Alexander. Although in a future blog I intend to provide some of my own criticisms of Alexander’s interpretation of his NDE, here I aim only to defend Harris’s critique. It’s astonishingly evident to me that Kastrup’s thinking on this matter is not merely confused; it’s profoundly confused. It’s not just that Kastrup’s punches fail to land. Harris is not even in the ring. Kastrup is engaged in little more than an elaborate exhibition of shadowboxing. Why? Kastrup simply doesn’t understand Harris’s critique. Naturally he falls victim to a whole series of misguided, fallacious counter arguments. It’s actually difficult to assess who has done more damage to Alexander’s NDE argument for an afterlife, Harris or Kastrup.

One disclaimer of sorts: this is a lengthy blog.  However, given the popularity of NDE arguments for life after after death and the bad rap Sam Harris has received on this issue from a wide range of critics (who essentially reproduce the inadequacies of Kastrup’s critique), a detailed and thorough response was warranted. 

1.  Sam Harris vs. Bernardo Kastrup

newsweek-coverHarris originally discussed Eben Alexander’s NDE in his blog “This Must be Heaven” (October 2012), which was a response to the October 8, 2012 Newsweek article on Eben Alexander. Harris followed up with a second blog “Science on the Brink of Death” (November 2012). His discussion in his recent Waking Up is culled from these earlier blogs. I’d say it’s highly inaccurate, actually quite bizarre, to describe either of these discussions as a rant. To be sure, Harris is straightforward, and his criticisms can be hard hitting, but he’s typically fair, despite what emotionally immature religious critics would have us believe. Harris’s position on NDEs in particular is considerably more modest than the impression left by either Alexander or Kastrup. But hard-hitting criticism, even when presented with moderation and fairness, will doubtlessly sound like a rant to those who are deeply attached to extraordinary claims. And when a highly educated neurosurgeon and best-selling author running as a GOP presidential hopeful—I refer to Dr. Ben Carson—can sincerely claim that the theory of evolution originated from Satan, we clearly live in a world in which even educated neurosurgeons are not exempt from propagating extraordinary claims rooted in the fear-based metaphysics of the dark ages. The expectation that such claims should be countered by criticisms wrapped in antiseptic niceties would be unreasonable.

Kastrup’s critique of Harris appears in chapter 6 of his book Brief Peeks Beyond: Critical Essays on Metaphysics, Neuroscience, Free Will, Skepticism, and Culture (Iff Books, 2015), but the material on Harris originally appeared in Kastrup’s blog in fall 2012, first as “Sam Harris’ Critique of Eben Alexander” (October 13, 2012), and subsequently in the emotionally charged “Sam Harris Proud and Prejudiced” (November 13, 2012). These were Kastrup’s responses to Harris’s blog from the same months. Since books with forwards by Deepak Chopra land somewhere near the bottom of my reading list, it’s doubtful that Kastrup would have come on my radar had Alexander not referenced him. Alas, after reading Kastrup, books with forwards by Deepak Chopra will henceforth land at the bottom of my reading list. Kastrup’s reasoning in both his blog and book is an astonishing display of misrepresentation and philosophical obfuscation.

In the interest of accessibility for readers, in what follows I’ll primarily quote from the blog versions of the respective material, with occasional references to book material. Neither Harris nor Kastrup altered the substance of their arguments in their subsequent book publications.  Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Harris’s “This Must be Heaven” and Kastrup’s “Sam Harris’ Critique of Eben Alexander.”

2.  Kastrup’s Confusion

In his blog “Sam Harris’ Critique of Eben Alexander,” Bernardo Kastrup begins by stating his intuition that Alexander’s NDE story is “authentic.” As the immediate context and subsequent discussion make clear, Kastrup means to say that he’s inclined to accept Alexander’s claim that his consciousness really left his body or that it is/was otherwise independent of Alexander’s brain. As Alexander himself said, “I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness completely free of the limitations of my physical brain” (Proof of Heaven, 9). Since this view is typically designated the “extrasomatic” interpretation of NDEs, I’ll henceforth refer to it as such. Like others, Alexander infers from the extrasomatic interpretation of his NDE that “the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave” (Proof of Heaven, 9). Kastrup says that Alexander’s account fits his own model of what will happen to consciousness after the cessation of brain activity. Kastrup then introduces Sam Harris as a well-known “atheist activist” who “seems to disagree.”

It’s somewhat baffling that, in an article devoted to the project of dismantling the atheist activist’s critique of Alexander, no effort is made to actually state Harris’s argument, either at the outset or at any subsequent point. But the knot of confusion has already been tightly tied because Harris is described as seeming to disagree, not with how Alexander reaches his conclusions—the extrasomatic interpretation of his NDE and the related afterlife claim—but with these conclusions themselves.  It’s thereby at least insinuated that Harris denies the authenticity of Alexander’s NDE. This profound interpretive error vitiates Kastrup’s entire critique in both articles (and in his book), and it sadly inspires Kastrup’s creation of less than imaginative arguments that he incorrectly attributes to Harris.

Without a clue as to what Harris argues, Kastrup immediately launches his critique of Harris. The critique revolves around the accusation of unjustified assumptions on Harris’s part. “I believe,” says Kastrup, “there to be a couple of faulty assumptions and unfair, implicit suggestions in Harris’ critique.” Now arguments are indeed vulnerable to defeat if they make unjustified assumptions, so the general strategy is sound, but Kastrup’s execution is utterly unsound. To know whether Harris actually makes the assumptions Kastrup is about to attribute to him, we would need to know what Harris actually argued, and Kastrup would then need to show why Harris’s argument requires these assumptions. Kastrup hasn’t provided this important information. This is either an unscholarly goof or a deliberate attempt to misguide the reader. And it’s all down hill from here.

3.  NDEs and Drug-Induced Experiences

The first of Harris’s alleged assumptions is extrapolated from a Harris quote (lifted from Harris’s “This Must be Heaven” blog), in which Harris provides evidence for there being significant similarities between Alexander’s NDE and experiences induced by anesthetics such as ketamine or, more significantly, psychedelics such as N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (commonly referred to as DMT). Harris had said that Alexander’s “experience sounds so much like a DMT trip that we are not only in the right ballpark, we are talking about the stitching on the same ball” (cf. Waking Up, 180). From this brief single quote, for which no context is given, Kastrup extrapolates the following:

Here the implicit suggestion is that, because of similarities between a psychedelic experience (DMT is an endogenous psychedelic) and Alexander’s NDE, the latter was likely generated by brain chemistry and, therefore, had no reality to it. Underlying this suggestion is the completely unsubstantiated notion, or assumption, that no valid transcendent experience can be initiated by physical means like alterations of brain chemistry.

Harris is here explicitly depicted as appealing to the similarity between DMT experiences and Alexander’s NDE in order to show that it’s likely that Alexander’s experience was not real. Let’s unpack this a bit. The chain of reasoning attributed to Harris runs like this: (1) Alexander’s NDE is sufficiently similar to experiences that are produced by brain chemistry, so it’s likely that (2) Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry. Since (3) no valid transcendent experience can be initiated by physical brain-based processes, it’s therefore likely that (4) Alexander’s NDE was not a valid transcendent experience, where (4) entails the denial of the extrasomatic interpretation of Alexander’s NDE.

Among these four claims attributed to Harris, only (1) can plausibly be attributed to him. Harris nowhere claims (2), much less on the basis of (1). Furthermore, note that Kastrup re-describes Alexander’s NDE as a “valid transcendent experience,” but this is as question begging as it is misleading. As many Advaitin Vedantins and Buddhists would inform Kastrup, “valid transcendent experience” need not entail that consciousness, especially individual consciousness, can exist independent of the body. Why must a valid transcendental experience require that we deny that the brain produces particular mental states or that states of consciousness are otherwise dependent on a functioning brain? But even if we adopt the question begging re-description of Alexander’s experience, Harris nowhere claims (3) or (4), much less (4) on the basis of (3). Harris nowhere denies the extrasomatic interpretation of Alexander’s experience. Kastrup has created, for the purposes of a clearly premeditated refutation, an entire argument that Harris never actually presented.

If we pay any attention to what Harris actually argued in his blog (and later in Waking Up), at no point did he claim that Alexander’s NDE was not authentic. Harris didn’t argue that it’s likely that Alexander’s experience was a delusion or hallucination, nor does he claim that it didn’t involve the separation of Alexander’s consciousness from his body. As Harris makes clear, though there are good reasons to suppose that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, he remains agnostic about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. Therefore, he is in principle open to the kind of interpretation Alexander gives to his experience (cf. Waking Up, 175-6, End of Faith, 208). What Harris argues is that Alexander has not provided compelling evidence to suppose that his experience was authentic.

But Alexander’s account is so bad—his reasoning so lazy and tendentious—that it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine. . . .Again, there is nothing to be said against Alexander’s experience. It sounds perfectly sublime. And such ecstasies do tell us something about how good a human mind can feel. The problem is that the conclusions Alexander has drawn from his experience—he continually reminds us, as a scientist — are based on some very obvious errors in reasoning and gaps in his understanding. (“This Must be Heaven,” cf. Waking Up: 185)

It’s one thing to argue, as some do, that we have compelling evidence that Alexander’s experience could not be genuine, for instance because there are considerations from the philosophy of mind or cognitive neuroscience that allegedly provide overriding evidence that consciousness is reducible to or causally dependent on brain functioning. It’s quite another to argue — as Harris does — that Alexander has not provided compelling evidence to suppose that his experience was authentic. This is no minor philosophical quibble. In the first instance, we have the burden of showing that the conclusion of an argument is false. In the second instance, we only have the burden of showing that a purported argument in support of a conclusion fails to provide good reason to accept the conclusion.  Having a good reason to believe that a claim is false is not the same as lacking a good reason to believe that a claim is true.  While one might have other grounds for accepting the conclusion in the latter case, Harris’s position, as he makes clear, is the moderate position of the agnostic who is open to a possibility that Alexander has simply failed to show to be true.

With this in mind, we can perhaps appreciate, as Kastrup does not, why Harris has introduced the alleged resemblance between Alexander’s NDE and drug-based experiences, especially DMT experiences. To see this and how Kastrup misses it, consider first how Kastrup spins it:

So Harris’ assumption that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE seems to completely miss the point in contention. After all, most NDEs are initiated by physical events anyway. Yes, Alexander’s NDE bears similarities with psychedelic trances, at least as far as descriptions go. But psychedelic experiences can, and probably are, entirely valid transcendent experiences not generated by the brain, as the latest research suggests. The comparison does not at all defeat the validity of Alexander’s NDE.

Kastrup is here again creating an argument and attributing it to Harris, but Harris never made the argument. Apart from the resemblance thesis, Harris never made the claims attributed to him here. He does not assume, for instance, that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE. Kastrup is correct, of course, that in at least one sense the similarity between Alexander’s NDE and DMT experiences doesn’t defeat the authenticity of the former as a valid transcendent experience, even under the extrasomatic interpretation of the latter. The two claims are logically compatible, so one is not evidence against the latter.

However, Kastrup’s reasoning is a red herring, stemming from his misconstruing the dialectical structure of Harris’s critique. Kastrup thereby misses how the resemblance thesis does defeat Alexander’s argument. As Harris shows, Alexander claims — in defense of the validity of his NDE — that his experience was not like drug-induced experiences, “not even in the right ballpark” to use Alexander’s phrase. As Harris explains, “Alexander believes that his E. coli-addled brain could not have produced his visions because they were too ‘intense,’ too ‘hyper-real,’ too ‘beautiful,’ too ‘interactive,’ and too drenched in significance for even a healthy brain to conjure.” Harris draws on Terence McKenna’s account of DMT trips to show how the qualities Alexander attributes to his experience are prominent features of DMT trips.

To anticipate a likely response at this point, yes — having read Proof of Heaven — I’m aware that Alexander acknowledges that he’s had experiences on LSD and mescaline, and that he’s observed patients on DMT (Proof of Heaven, 186). But there’s nothing Alexander says about these experiences that contradicts what Harris says about the resemblance between Alexander’s description of his NDE and how others have described their experiences on DMT. Harris’s claim is compatible with Alexander knowing, on the basis of his own LSD trips, that his NDE was nothing like his experiences on LSD. And there’s nothing that Alexander could have observed in the behavior of patients on DMT that contradicts the general phenomenology of such experiences.

The central point: it’s not that Harris is inferring the improbability of the authenticity of Alexander’s experience from its resemblance to drug-induced experiences. It’s that Alexander’s argument in defense of the authenticity of his experience relies on denying this resemblance. Harris is simply rebutting this denial. It’s Alexander who has made the dialectically unwise maneuver of making his own argument depend on a premise whose falsehood even Kastrup is willing to acknowledge.

4.  Alexander’s “Cortical Inactivity” Claim

As Harris repeated in “Science on the Brink of Death,” the central weakness in Alexander’s argument is that “there is absolutely no reason to believe that his cerebral cortex was inactive at the time he had his experience of the afterlife” (cf. Waking Up, 178). Let’s be as clear as possible. The conclusion Alexander wishes to reach about the extrasomatic nature of his experience rests on his being justified in two claims: (i) there was a period of time during which Alexander’s cerebral cortex was completely inactive and (ii) Alexander had his NDE during this time. Harris does not argue that either (i) or (ii) is false. He argues that Alexander has not provided good or compelling evidence that both are true. Kastrup has simply not understood the structure of Harris’s argument, in part because he’s apparently not understood what Alexander must argue for his own conclusion.

With respect to (i), Harris writes:

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science . . . . The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. . . .Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. (cf. Waking Up, 177-8)

Kastrup’s response to this is as follows:

Much of Harris criticism rests on an old materialist argument against NDEs: It cannot be shown that all of Alexander’s brain functions were off, so it is conceivable that there was enough brain function left to confabulate an unfathomable dream. This is as promissory as it is unfalsifiable, for there might indeed always be a neuron firing somewhere. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is whether the kind of brain function that ordinarily always correlates to the experience of complex dreams can be realistically expected to have been present in Alexander’s case. If chaotic, impaired, residual cortical function could explain the confabulation of a complex and coherent trip to “heaven,” then such residual cortical function would probably suffice ordinarily too, wouldn’t it?

And to claim that a bacteria-infested neocortex, at the level verified in Alexander’s case, retains enough coherent function to do this seems to stretch credulity under the materialist notion that experience is coherent brain activity. To dismiss Alexander’s experience on the basis of warped speculation about residual neocortical function amounts to dismissing extremely interesting, anomalous data. Something extraordinary has happened, and true skeptics should take a critical look at it while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism towards the standard explanations too; that’s how science historically has moved forward.

Once again, Kastrup has misrepresented the structure of Harris’s argument. Harris is not dismissing Alexander’s experience because Harris thinks Alexander had or could have had sufficient cortical activity (or sufficient activity elsewhere in his brain) to underwrite the experience. Harris is not proposing any alternative materialistic explanation of Alexander’s experience. As should be apparent from the quoted material above, Harris is simply questioning whether Alexander has provided sufficient evidence for the claims Alexander makes about the functionality of his cortex at the time of his experience. And contrary to what Kastrup says, Harris does not claim that Alexander cannot show that his brain was offline. Harris implies just the very opposite. Alexander could indeed show this, by providing data on the functionality of his brain during the time period in question.

As explicitly stated in the above quotes, Harris is quite specific as to why Alexander’s evidence for cessation of cortical activity is weak and thus far from carrying the degree of warrant that would be required to draw the conclusion that his experience provides “extremely strong evidence” for consciousness being independent of the brain or “proof” of an afterlife. Since the point here is central, here’s how Harris summed it up in Waking Up.

Unfortunately, the evidence that Alexander offers—in the [Newsweek] article, in a subsequent response to my public criticism of it, in his book, and in multiple interviews—suggests that he doesn’t understand what would constitute compelling evidence for his central claim of cortical inactivity. The proof he offers is either fallacious (CT scans do not measure brain activity) or irrelevant (it does not matter, even slightly, that his form of meningitis was “astronomically rare”)—and no combination of fallacy and irrelevancy adds up to sound science. Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that this is the sort of evidence necessary to support his case. (Waking Up, 177-8)

The reasoning here is as straightforward as it gets. If CT scans and neurological examinations don’t provide the right kind of information to make reliable determinations about neuronal inactivity, it’s insufficient for Alexander to rely on such exams to draw conclusions about cortical activity. If functional exams provide the required information and Alexander doesn’t have this information, then his contention that his cortex was offline is at best a fairly weak conjecture about his experience. Full stop. And observe that Harris isn’t making a novel argument here. It’s echoed by a choir of other commentators (who are either neuroscientists or neurologists), including Oliver Sacks, Steven Novella, Ernst Rodin, Stanley Goldin, and even Harris’s former Ph.D advisor at UCLA, Dr. Mark Cohen, a specialist in neuroimaging.

Alexander has repeatedly refused to respond to the kind of challenge Harris presents. For example, in the debate Death is not Final (featuring Alexander and Raymond Moody up against Steven Novella and Sean Carroll), Novella raised this direct challenge to Alexander.

When you were at your worst, there wasn’t the kind of functional monitoring that we would have needed to know that your brain was not functioning at all. We don’t know that. We saw anatomically we had edema and swelling, and that certainly would have kept you unconscious, but you weren’t getting an fMRI, PET scan, or any EEG as far as I can see, in anything you’ve written or said about it, that would have documented zero brain activity. You can’t say that. Nobody can say that.  (@52:00, Death is not Final).

Alexander was able to evade answering Novella’s challenge in this debate because the moderator quickly changed the topic—deus ex machina. Kastrup evades the challenge with no similar moment of dialectical redemption. To refute Harris, Kastrup would need to show one of two things: either Harris is mistaken about what CT scans and neurological examinations show about cortical activity, or Alexander has other data that make it highly improbable that his cortex was functional at any time during his coma. Kastrup does neither. Instead, he merely plays hide the ball by deploying question-begging language that illicitly shifts the burden of proof. He merely assumes that, given the facts, it’s improbable that Alexander’s cortex could have produced the experiences he reports. An argument needs to be made for this, but none is given.

So I think we can concede that Kastrup is at least correct to say that whether there could have been residual brain activity misses the point. Yes, this does miss the point. But the point is not, as Kastrup supposes, that skeptics lack compelling evidence to suppose that Alexander’s cortex was capable of producing the experience. The point is that Kastrup has not shown that the known facts make it probable that Alexander’s cortex was incapable of producing the experience.

5.  Failures of Proper Argumentation

Here it’s worth emphasizing that Alexander’s original account in Proof of Heaven does no better at establishing his cortical inactivity than Kastrup does in defending this claim against Harris’s criticisms. Alexander claims that his cortex was non-functional or inactive, but his evidence for this is utterly inadequate. As Harris argued, merely citing data from CT brain scans and neurological exams, which indicate the severity of his meningitis and associated symptoms (including damage to his cortex), does not give us the kind of data that would be required for strongly supported conclusions about the extent of cortical activity over the weeklong period of Alexander’s coma.

But let me reinforce Harris’s points with further detail. Consider two specific examples of why Alexander’s reasoning is as defective as Harris claims.

(i) Alexander cites various facts that allegedly show “severe alterations in cortical function and dysfunction of extraocular motility, indicative of brainstem damage” (Proof of Heaven, 187). Even if we grant the implicit evidential claim here (note that he does not argue in support of it), it hardly follows that his cortex was completely inactive, or even so impaired that it was incapable of producing the experience in question. While terms like “damage” (which Alexander frequently uses) are imprecise, as anyone who has owned a car, stereo system, or bodily appendage understands, what is damaged is not necessarily non-functional or inactive.

(ii) Alexander repeatedly claims that the facts make it improbable or unlikely that his cortex was functioning, but no argument is given to back up this contentious claim. For example, “Given the prolonged course of my poor neurological function (seven days) and the severity of my infection, it is unlikely that even deeper layers of the cortex were still functioning” (Proof of Heaven, 187-8). Apart from the use of imprecise terms like “poor” (neurological function) and “severity” (of his infection), where is the empirical support for the probability claim here? Does Alexander have statistical information or other data from neuroscience to support this claim?

The point that needs to be underscored here is the utter lack of proper argumentation. Yes, Alexander cites a string of medical facts (of a general nature and concerning his own case), but a set of facts does not a conclusion make. Yes, Alexander states a conclusion, but tacking on a conclusion to a set of facts does not an argument make. If his conclusion is warranted, Alexander should be able to show this by a clear inductive argument. For example, he could develop an argument using statistical data (based on other documented cases) that at least establishes a positive correlation between the medical facts of his case and results from functional exams (in other cases), or he could make an appeal to data drawn from experimental research in neuroscience. Neither Alexander nor Kastrup gives us what the doctor ordered. We’re left with a conjecture the actual probability of which is at best inscrutable.

One clear obstacle to Alexander making the required kind of argument is the uniqueness of his case—repeatedly affirmed by Alexander (Proof of Heaven, 20, 25, 89, 149, 183). This would make it difficult even to construct a good analogical argument, in which he reasoned from known cases of coma-inducing meningitis with available EEG data, where the data indicate precisely what Alexander wishes to say about cortical inactivity in his own case. He presents no such data, and I doubt the data are forthcoming anytime soon. After all, Alexander admits there are very few people who have been in his condition and lived to tell about it, either because they remained in a vegetative state or simply died (Proof of Heaven, 21). Moreover, Alexander can’t sensibly reason to his brain lacking cortical activity from the mere fact that he was in a coma, for as Harris points out “neuroimaging studies show that comatose patients (like patients under general anesthesia) have 50 to 70 percent of the normal level of cortical activity” (Waking Up, 178). So perhaps we should conclude that Alexander fails to make the kind of argument he needs to make because the shallow reserve of empirical facts at his disposal just precludes doing so. But then the appropriate response should be agnosticism.

Let me return to a passage from Kastrup, as it underscores how the lack of proper argumentation vitiates Kastrup’s critique of Harris on the matter of cortical activity.

Studies on the neuronal correlates of consciousness . . . have shown that neocortical activity correlates with the kind of experiences described by Alexander. Thus, to claim rather speculatively that such experiences could happen with a highly malfunctioning neocortex seems to entail a rather biased and contradictory interpretation of the evidence and to raise a deeper question: If Alexander could confabulate that kind of sharp, coherent, complex, ultra-realistic dream with a severely debilitated neocortex, what the heck do we need a healthy neocortex for? Even when we dream of something as trivial as the clenching of a hand, we see clear correlations with neocortical activity; so how come we can supposedly confabulate entire alternative realities, rich in landscapes, entities, and significance, with a highly impaired neocortex? Materialism cannot have it both ways, . . . either you need the brain or you don’t.

First, there’s more begging of the question. Kastrup describes the condition of Alexander’s cortex as “highly debilitated” and “highly impaired.” If these general descriptions are to do the requisite logical work, they must entail or make probable the more specific claim that Alexander’s cerebral cortex was not capable of causally contributing to the kind of experience he reported. This returns us to the point noted above, the insufficiency of Alexander’s account to permit a sufficient or even adequate determination of the level of impairment of his cortex, except by way of an extraordinary leap in logic.

Second, Kastrup’s reasoning is confused for another reason. If neuronal correlates of consciousness have shown that neocortical activity correlates with the kind of experience described by Alexander, we have at least prima facie evidence Alexander had his experience at a time when his neocortex was sufficiently active. (By parity of reasoning, if there’s a positive correlation between being a southerner and liking country music, then Jack’s living in Kentucky is prima facie evidence for supposing that he likes country music.) Functional data showing otherwise might defeat this evidence for cortical activity, which is another reason why the absence of such evidence in Alexander’s case undermines the kind of argument he tries to make. So it’s not just that Alexander’s evidence fails to make it probable that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the duration of his coma. One could reasonably argue that his data do not defeat the prima facie evidence for cortical activity provided by our background knowledge that his kind of experience correlates with cortical activity.

Finally, even if Alexander had the required functional data, and it provided evidence for cortical shutdown, all that would follow is that the working model for how his brain produces experiences of the sort he reported needs to be revised, but – and this is crucial – this does not require denying that the brain produces consciousness, especially since there’s no fully developed and established view about how the brain produces consciousness in the first place. Or, to put the matter more modestly, if functional data showed cortical shutdown, we would be left with a choice between (a) revising a working though tentative neuroscientific model of how certain parts of the brain produce certain kinds of experience and (b) rejecting the dependency of mental states on brain functioning. Alexander has not provided any reasons to prefer (b) over (a). For there to be good evidence for the extrasomatic interpretation of Alexander’s NDE, we would need more than good evidence for supposing that alternative naturalistic explanations of his experience fail. In other words, we would need the kind of argument that no empirical survivalist has produced to date. In the light of this vast lacuna in explanatory reasoning on the part of survivalists, Harris’s agnosticism is entirely reasonable.

6.  Determining the Time of Alexander’s NDE

As indicated above, Alexander’s extrasomatic interpretation of his NDE depends on both the contention that his cerebral cortex was shutdown during his coma and that he had his NDE at some point during the period of cortical inactivity. So Harris correctly argues that even if Alexander could provide good reasons to believe that his cortex completely shut down during his coma, he would also need to provide good reasons for supposing that he had his NDE at that time. Harris denies that Alexander has provided such evidence. Again, as with his earlier claim, Harris doesn’t deny that Alexander’s NDE occurred while his cortex was offline. Harris argues that Alexander was not/is not in the epistemic situation to accurately access when his experience took place: “Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim),” Harris asks, “how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?” (cf. Waking Up, 179). This is an important point, and I agree with Harris, and for essentially the same reasons that Harris adduces.

First, there’s no non-problematic inference from the purely subjective features of an experience, especially under exotic conditions, to a conclusion about the temporal metric of the event (that is, the duration of the event as measured by some clock).

Harris nicely illustrates the point here.

[Alexander] also appears to think that despite their timeless quality, his visions could not have arisen in the minutes or hours during which his cortex (which surely never went off) switched back on. He clearly knows nothing about what people with working brains experience under the influence of psychedelics. Nor does he know that visions of the sort that McKenna describes, although they may seem to last for ages, require only a brief span of biological time. Unlike LSD and other long-acting psychedelics, DMT alters consciousness for merely a few minutes. Alexander would have had more than enough time to experience a visionary ecstasy as he was coming out of his coma (whether his cortex was rebooting or not). (“This Must be Heaven,” cf. Waking Up, 182) 

Harris raises this point only because Alexander had in early interviews insisted upon the subjective features of the experience as evidence for its duration and the implausibility of the experience taking place when his cerebral cortex was presumably coming back online, just before waking from his coma. (For example, see Alexander’s appearance on the radio program Here and Now, Nov. 27, 2012.)

But even Alexander must reject this line of reasoning, for he’s acknowledged, for his own reasons, that there’s little correspondence between his experience of time in the NDE and the actual metric of earthly time (Proof of Heaven, 143). As he stated in his Talk to the Theosophical Society in America, “Time flow in that Gateway realm is very different from time flow here. . . and the amazing thing is it doesn’t take anything of earth time. It could happen in a second or it could take a century to unfold. It doesn’t matter because time flow and causality in that realm is a much higher order than in this realm.” So Alexander himself accepts a premise that undermines any inference from the purely subjective features of his experience to conclusions about its temporal metric.

In Proof of Heaven, and in subsequent interviews and talks, Alexander draws attention to a second approach to fixing the time of his NDE. He argues, howbeit in a reserved manner, that his alleged veridical perceptions during his NDE provide evidence that his NDE occurred during his coma.

My most this-worldly anchors in my experience, temporally speaking, were my interactions with Susan Reintjes when she contacted me on my fourth and fifth nights, and the appearance, toward the end of my journey, of those six faces. Any other appearance of temporal simultaneity between events on earth and my journey beyond it are, you might say, purely conjectural! (Proof of Heaven, 143)

This is the so-called “time anchor” argument widely discussed in NDE literature and proposed to establish the time of an NDE. Roughly stated, the NDEr reports perceiving events taking place in the world during the NDE. If the earthly events are known to have taken place at a certain time, then presumably this is evidence for when the NDE took place. The operative assumption here is: if some person S perceives x and x occurred at time t, then S’s perception of x occurred at time t. So, in Alexander’s case, he allegedly experienced communications from a person who tried, on particular occasions, psychically contacting him while he was in his coma, and he also saw faces that corresponded to actual people, five of whom were present at Alexander’s bedside shortly before he came out of his coma (Proof of Heaven, 108-10). If we regard these features of his experience as veridical perceptions, then, given the assumption of the time-anchor argument, it would seem that he had these perceptual experiences at specific points during his coma.

One fairly obvious response to the time-anchor argument would be to concede that Alexander had the veridical perceptual experiences (in his NDE) during his coma. This wouldn’t be extraordinary, and it certainly wouldn’t support the extrasomatic interpretation of his experience, unless there was good evidence that his cortex was shutdown at the time of the perceptions. As Harris noted, a significant number of coma patients have awareness during coma. Perhaps more significantly, there’s data that shows that even coma patients in a vegetative state can gradually transition into a state of minimal awareness, and then lapse back into a vegetative state (see Schnakers, Giacino, and Laureys). In the absence of functional data tracking patterns of brain activity, it’s difficult to see how Alexander can properly rule this out.  Moreover, Alexander’s description of the human faces bubbling up out of a dark muck, and whose voices were unintelligible, wouldn’t be surprising as subjective features of a change in cortical activity shortly before regaining consciousness.  While this would not explain the alleged communications with Susan Reintjes who was not physically present, if there’s any evidence for telepathic interactions between people, it’s draw from persons whose cerebral cortex is actually functional.

Now let’s be clear here. I’m not suggesting that residual and changing cortical activity, generating moments of minimal awareness, actually explains the apparently veridical features of Alexander’s experience. I’m rather pointing out a consequence of Alexander’s lack of functional data: if he doesn’t have adequate evidence that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the entire duration of his coma, establishing on the basis of time-anchors that he must have had the experiences during his coma doesn’t do much for the conclusion he wishes to establish.

7.  Living-Agent Psi and the Time-Anchor Argument

As Harris argued, though, even if Alexander provided good evidence that his cerebral cortex was shutdown for the entire weeklong coma, Alexander can’t know that he had his NDE during his coma. As suggested above, the time-anchor argument is widely invoked to refute this sort of counter-argument. But ultimately it’s unsuccessful at doing this, and largely on the basis of a claim that Alexander himself insists upon and that’s essential to his NDE account, the claim that living persons exhibit psychic functioning (psi) in the form of telepathy and clairvoyance.

More generally speaking, the only reason for accepting the extrasomatic interpretation of NDEs would be veridical perceptions within the NDE of events in this world. Veridical perceptions, if they’re not fortuitous, imply that we can’t adequately explain all NDEs as hallucinations, delusions, or purely fictional confabulations of a dying brain (or some other non-reality oriented cognitive process). And not all veridical perceptions during an NDE need to be time-anchors.  So, for example, one apparently veridical feature of Alexander’s NDE was his encountering a beautiful young woman he later realized looked like a deceased sister he never knew he had, until this was discovered after his recovery. But, as we’ve seen, veridical perceptions can also importantly serve as time-anchors, helping fix the time of an NDE, ideally as taking place when the known degree of cognitive impairment of the NDEr would prevent a naturalistic explanation of the experience.

However, living-agent psi poses problems for the extrasomatic interpretation of NDEs. The most widely-advertized problem is that it offers an alternative explanation of the veridical perceptual experiences during some NDEs. More precisely stated, the living-agent psi hypothesis appeals to psychic functioning to explain how NDErs have unusual knowledge, but it’s an explanation entirely compatible with denying the extrasomatic interpretation of the NDE. And here’s the most salient point vis-à-vis Harris’s critique of Alexander—Harris himself acknowledges this alternative explanation.

In “Science on the Brink of Death,” Harris said:

Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed. (cf. Waking Up, 173)

What’s particularly salient here is that even the extrasomatic interpretation of NDEs requires clairvoyance and/or telepathy to account for the veridical features of NDEs, for these exotic modes of cognition would be required to explain how an allegedly disembodied person knows about events taking place on earth. Harris doesn’t note this particular point, but it’s a necessary corollary of the extrasomatic interpretation. More importantly, although Harris states that telepathy or clairvoyance could in principle explain veridical features of NDEs, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to realize how living-agent psi undermines Alexander’s reasons for supposing that his NDE took place during his coma. Living-agent psi would include not only telepathy and clairvoyance but also precognitive experiences (a non-inferential or direct knowing of the future) and retrocognitive experiences (a non-sensory and non-inferential knowing of the past).  From the viewpoint of parapsychology, which Alexander actually accepts, there are at least four possible hypotheses consistent with cortical shutdown:

(h1) Alexander’s NDE was a clairvoyantly and telepathically determined experience taking place during cortical shutdown.

(h2) Alexander’s NDE was a precognitively determined experience that took place before cortical shutdown.

(h3) Alexander’s NDE was a retrocognitively determined experience that took place after cortical shutdown.

(h4) Alexander’s NDE was a two-phased, phenomenologically fused psychic experience, part of which was precognitively determined (before cortical shutdown) and part of which was retrocognitively determined (after cortical shutdown).

If Alexander wishes to claim (h1), then he should be able at least to provide some evidence that favors (h1) over (h2), (h3), and (h4). But to date Alexander has not adduced a single fact that does this. And Kastrup, who also believes in psychic functioning, also fails to do this, despite the fact that Harris broaches the relevance of psi for the extrasomatic interpretation of NDEs. To this extent, Kastrup doesn’t address the wider range of implications of Harris’s critique.. And neither Alexander nor Kastrup has really penetrated the heart of the debate concerning the extrasomatic interpretation of NDEs, which is a debate within parapsychology and independent of materialist assumptions.

But there’s a more devastating issue here once we accept the empirical possibility of exotic modes of cognition such as extrasensory perception. As explained above, the only plausible basis for forming justified beliefs about when an NDE occurs would be the NDEr having perceptual knowledge of terrestrial events during an NDE, where the events in question have a known temporal index (i.e., as happening at some specific time or within some specifiable period of time), and the temporal index of the terrestrial event at least closely approximates the temporal index of the NDEr’s physical condition or brain state(s).  In principle this would permit the desired inference:

(1) Alexander perceived x.

(2) x happened at t.


(3) At time t, Alexander had a perceptual experience of x.

Furthermore, now add:

(4) Alexander’s cerebral cortex was inactive at time t.

We can then infer:

(5) Alexander’s perception of x took place while his cerebral cortex was inactive.

This would essentially establish the extrasomatic interpretation of Alexander’s NDE.

I’ve already explained why Harris is correct about the lack of good evidence for (4), but consider here the time-anchor portion of the larger argument, namely (1) through (3).  This would be fine to establish when Alexander had his NDE, unless we introduce non-conventional modes of cognition. A crucial assumption in the time-anchor inference is that it’s empirically impossible for a person to perceive an event x that occurs at time t at any time other than t. But if that’s true, precognition and retrocognition would be empirically impossible.  Indeed, telepathy would also be impossible, for telepathy allows the possibility that one person could acquire knowledge (perhaps even perceptual knowledge) of a past event at some later time by way of causal interaction with the mind of some other person who had the (perceptual) knowledge. So there’s no way to consistently accept psi and rely on the time-anchor argument to justify beliefs about when an NDE occurred. In fact, since there’s no reason to accept the time-anchor argument unless you already accepted psi, for psi is required to explain how disembodied consciousness could have empirical knowledge of terrestrial events, the time-anchor argument is actually self-defeating. And the matter is worse in Alexander’s argument since one of the substitutes for x is an attempted communication between a psychic and Alexander, a communication that could be efficacious only if there was genuine telepathic interaction.

Harris doesn’t make the above argument, but it nonetheless confirms one of Harris’s main claims, namely that Alexander doesn’t have good evidence for determining when his NDE occurred. And I think it further shows why Kastrup is ill-equipped to offer Alexander much of a sensible defense on this crucial point.

In follow-up responses to his initial blog on Harris, Kastrup wrote:

I find it a stretch to imagine that a just-recovering brain, which has just begun to emerge from extensive damage, can confabulate not only such a highly complex, coherent, crisp, and ultra-real hallucination, but do so in the space of a few minutes or hours.

Again we see Kastrup retreating to the shelter of presumption and impressionistic judgments, when actual evidence is required. Moreover, to speak of a “just-recovering brain” and “extensive damage” is too vague to justify the kind of claim that needs to be made on behalf of Alexander’s experience. And Kastrup’s response is just as question begging as his reasoning we examined earlier.  Since the extent of Alexander’s neuronal activity during his coma lacks adequate resolution, we’re really not in a position to rule out the empirical possibility that his cortex produced the experience upon being turned on again. Indeed, it’s hard to see how this is even improbable. Neither Kastrup nor Alexander has made that argument. Moreover, the skeptical doubt doesn’t require that Alexander’s NDE occurred immediately after the cortex was brought online. The point is rather that Alexander cannot sufficiently rule out the empirical possibility that his experience occurred at some time(s) when his brain was capable of producing complex phenomenology. After all, those first moments would be subjectively indistinguishable from the experience happening at any earlier point. And this point is reinforced, not diminished, by acknowledging exotic modes of cognition.

In the light of the above, when Kastrup says, “Alexander is in the best position to judge when he thinks it happened,” he ignores the points Harris has raised, as well as how the acceptance of psi undermines the claim to know when Alexander’s NDE occurred, even for Alexander himself. The bottom line is that we don’t know enough about the patterns of neuronal activity during or after Alexander’s coma (because we lack functional data), so we’re not in a position to justifiably say whether there were spikes of higher cortical activity and then a fall back into lower cortical activity or no activity at all, but we do know that this scenario has been demonstrated in other coma patients. So we can’t really adequately rule out Alexander’s NDE happening during phases of sufficient cortical activity during his coma.  And, if we accepted Alexander’s claim of cortical inactivity during his coma, we equally can’t rule out his experience occurring before and/or after his coma. Admitting that human persons may acquire knowledge through telepathy or clairvoyance only weakens Alexander’s contention that he must have had his experience during a presumed phase of cortical inactivity.

8.  Concluding Remarks

Kastrup raises a number of other objections to Harris, especially in “Sam Harris Proud and Prejudiced.” These are largely expressions of his antipathy towards Harris’s attitude and alleged condescension towards Alexander. For example, Harris points out that Alexander’s status as a neurosurgeon doesn’t make him an expert on matters that fall within the domain of neuroscience. (This distinction between a neuroscientist and a neurosurgeon, like the distinction between psychologist and psychotherapist, tends to go unnoticed by non-specialists.) Based on Alexander’s factual and conceptual errors, Harris also expresses doubts about Alexander’s scientific knowledge.

I don’t see that Kastrup actually refutes any of these points, which I’d say are reasonable observations but, as it happens,  rather tangential to Harris’s main argument.  This is why I’ve opted to ignore these issues in the interest of a deeper engagement with Harris’s main argument. Moreover, Kastrup fails to note a point that Harris himself insists upon in the article to which Kastrup is responding:

If Alexander were drawing reasonable scientific conclusions from his experience, he wouldn’t need to be a neuroscientist to be taken seriously; he could be a philosopher—or a coal miner. But he simply isn’t thinking like a scientist—and so not even a string of Nobel prizes would shield him from criticism. (cf. Waking Up, 186)

At the end of the day, scientists, philosophers, neurosurgeons, and yes, even someone with a Ph.D in computer engineering, will only be as a credible on a particular topic as the clarity and cogency of their reasoning on the topic. Alexander and Kastrup fail at this juncture. 

To recapitulate: Cutting away the more peripheral aspects of his presentation, Harris argues that Alexander has not provided adequate evidence for accepting the extrasomatic interpretation of his experience because he has not offered adequate evidence for two crucial premises on which his conclusion, by his own admission, depends. Moreover, Harris shows why Alexander’s evidence is inadequate and what would be required for better and good evidence at these crucial points of his argument. Kastrup fails to offer a remotely plausible challenge to Harris on these crucial points, which I charitably propose is a consequence of Kastrup simply not understanding the dialectical structure of Harris’s argument.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Harris himself—contrary to what Kastrup suggests—has left the door open for consciousness persisting after death precisely because Harris’s skepticism and epistemic caution run in both directions.

The truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death. While there is much to be said against the naive conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it. (End of Faith, 208)

Since Kastrup doesn’t understand what Harris argues in the articles that he’s addressing, it’s not surprising, though no less egregious on that account, that he doesn’t understand Harris’s broader position on postmortem survival and philosophy of mind. True, nothing Harris says in his remarks in the End of Faith lends credibility to the conception of the afterlife that Alexander would like us to accept.  Harris isn’t endorsing the plausibility of an afterlife in which we fly, with beautiful women, on the wings of large butterflies, as desirable of a future as this may be.  Of course, his comments also don’t rule it out. Thus, when Harris says, in response to Alexander, that he’s “open” to the sort of claims Alexander makes, he’s exhibiting an attitude and stating a viewpoint he’s expressed in print since the publication of the End of Faith in 2004, four years before Alexander even had his NDE.

Bernardo Kastrup’s critique is perhaps well-intentioned, but it’s an abject failure in point of logic. It serves as a painful reminder of just how ill-equipped defenders of NDEs as evidence for survival are at navigating the unavoidable territory of conceptual analysis, evidence evaluation, and the making of cogent arguments. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the kind of critical analysis that Kastrup attempts to offer is that, by systematically misrepresenting Harris’s actual criticisms, the road forward in the NDE debate is shrouded in further obscurity when greater lucidity is desperately needed.

Michael Sudduth


Bernardo Kastrup’s response to this blog (12/22/15)

My response to Kastrup’s response (12/25/15)

Michael Prescott’s response to this blog (1/4/16)

My response to Michael Prescott’s response (1/5/16) (published in Prescott’s blog)

Unmasking Survivalist Presumptions

mask copyFor several years now I’ve expressed my deep disenchantment with how survivalists argue for life after death on the basis of data collected from various ostensibly paranormal phenomena, e.g. near-death experiences, claims to past life memories, and claims of mediums to be in communication with deceased persons. While the situation struck me as quite bleak when I began my research over a decade ago, my pessimism has grown over the years as I’ve digested a more comprehensive body of the relevant literature and had conversations with a large number of empirical survivalists, survival researchers, and parapsychologists.

For readers tuning into this conversation at halftime, let me offer a succinct explanatory clarification. The empirical survival debate concerns the extent to which there is empirical evidence for or against the hypothesis of survival – the hypothesis that the person, self, or some significant part of our psychological life can survive the death of the brain and body. Empirical evidence involves observational data drawn from publicly observable features of the world. The empirical approach to survival treats survival as a hypothesis that, like all broadly scientific hypotheses, may be tested against the facts of experience, which can in principle confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis. An empirical survivalist is someone who believes in survival and also thinks there’s empirical evidence for survival. What I’ve designated “classical” empirical arguments are arguments designed to show this, and in many cases designed to show that the evidence for survival is very strong evidence.

My central as well as more peripheral criticisms of the classical arguments are the focus of my recently published Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). It’s still very much my hope that the book will facilitate a necessary shift in the general dialogue about the data that empirical survivalists claim provides (good) evidence for life after death, but some recent conversations with near-death experience enthusiasts have reminded me of the formidable nature of the obstacles to advancing the empirical survival debate. I want to comment on this here, specifically on how a particular presumption on the part of survivalists continues to silence a much-needed conversation about empirical survival arguments.

A Survivalist Presumption

Since the publication of my book I continue to encounter a curious pattern of presumption among empirical survivalists. They routinely presume that I deny the reality of consciousness as something distinct from physical phenomena, believe that humans are wholly material beings, or at least that I think that consciousness is completely dependent on brain functioning. In other cases, it’s presumed that my criticisms of survival arguments must nonetheless in some way depend on a philosophy of mind that lands somewhere in “physicalist” territory. For many survivalists, this territory includes not only the idea that human persons are completely material beings but also the view that mental states, even if they are distinct from physical states, are nonetheless dependent on a functioning brain.

This is perplexing, very perplexing. One needn’t read too far into what I’ve had to say about this topic in the past several years before clearly seeing that my criticisms of the classical survival arguments actually have nothing to do with any particular view of how consciousness is related to the physical world, a matter on which I remain essentially agnostic. And it’s not as if I’ve left the matter (no pun intended) to inference. I’ve explicitly stated that my arguments don’t depend on a physicalist conception of the human person, nor do they depend on the idea that consciousness is dependent of any physical state. Survivalists just seemed primed for this knee-jerk response to any kind of criticism of their arguments in favor of survival. They’re looking to exercise the physicalist demon whenever he can be found, and even where he can’t be found.

Near-Death Experiences

Over the past several weeks this issue has arisen in a series of still ongoing exchanges I’ve had with neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, well known for his Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012). In this New York Times best seller Alexander provides an account of his own near-death experience, which he claims is proof of an afterlife. I believe neuroscientist Sam Harris (among others) has shown why Alexander’s reasoning about his experience is defective. As I’ll emphasize in a forthcoming blog devoted to a defense of Harris, Harris’s critique of Alexander doesn’t presuppose physicalism, about which Harris has his own skeptical assessment. Harris doesn’t argue that Alexander’s experience wasn’t or couldn’t be what he claims it was, only that, for half a dozen reasons, Alexander hasn’t provided compelling evidence to suppose that his experience was what he claims it to be. For example, as Harris argues, Alexander hasn’t provided compelling evidence that his cerebral cortex was completely inactive at any point of a weeklong coma (in part because he lacks the relevant functional data such as EEG data) or that he had his NDE when his cortex was shutdown (because he hasn’t adequately ruled out other possibilities consistent with the features of his experience), and yet both claims are essential to Alexander’s argument.

Alexander’s response to these criticisms? The repeated appeal to vociferous critiques of physicalism in defense of his interpretation of his experience. He’s appealed to Bernardo Kastrup’s response to Harris. Kastrup launched a two-month long blog critique of Harris in fall 2012, but Kastrup’s entire critique of Harris incorrectly assumes that Harris is trying to provide reasons for supposing that Alexander’s other worldly interpretation of his experience is false. Alexander has also appealed to Irreducible Mind (2006) and Beyond Physicalism (2015) the latest collaborative efforts of parapsychologists, including Ed Kelly and Adam Crabtree, to show that mainstream science is wrong about consciousness.

What do we see here? The entire strategy of debunking skeptical objections constellates around a basic assumption, namely that Harris objects to Alexander’s reasoning because Harris claims (or assumes) that consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain, and consequently that it’s just antecedently and highly implausible to suppose that consciousness could survive the death of the body. Of course, Harris rejects both of these claims, and he says so in both Waking Up (2014) and his earlier End of Faith (2005). But the more relevant point is that Harris’ objections don’t depend on supposing otherwise. NDErs who insist that their exotic experience has facilitated the realization of the vastness of consciousness apparently have no space for the relatively simple “thought” that there might be criticisms of the survivalist interpretation of their experiences that aren’t based on the dogmatic assumption that such a possibility must be utterly rejected at the outset.

But it doesn’t seem to matter how often or clearly I broach this subject, issue the denial, and clarify the nature of my criticisms, survivalists are hell-bent (or perhaps I should say, heaven-bent) on attributing to me views I simply don’t hold and that utterly miss the point of the arguments I’ve presented. The worst offenders tend to be near-death experience enthusiasts like Eben Alexander, who wish to wrap their ideas into the larger project of “consciousness research,” often deploying the language of quantum physics, though sadly in a way that resists interpretation by the people who should be the most conversant with the language, actual physicists. Like the apocalyptic visionaries of faith-based religions, the survival researchers herald the end of “materialism” with a conviction that rivals Christian proclamations of the end of the world. But the facts are as they are: Jesus hasn’t returned and we’re still here, and so are mainstream physicists and neuroscientists. Surely it’s more than a bit premature to pop the celebratory cork.

Keeping Perspective

I suppose comments like the above contribute to rousing survivalist suspicions. Fair enough. But the conversation we need to have should be fueled by discriminative judgment, not paranoid impressions or knee-jerk intellectual spasms. I say, “the rebels don’t have a good challenge,” not “I know the mainstream guys have it all figured out.” The difference is transparent, at least to me. But more to the point: after a decade of looking at the classical arguments and the data on which they’re based, I think the classical arguments are otherwise more fundamentally challenged. And that’s what I’ve argued in my recent book, and for this reason I’m not impressed with the shelter survivalists wish to take in a model of consciousness that, even if it were true, wouldn’t suffice to transform their arguments into cogent pieces of reasoning.

Just to be clear. I’m not claiming, nor implying, that the mind-body issue is not highly relevant to empirical arguments for survival. Nor am I denying that the mind-body issue is relevant in particular ways given my criticisms. I acknowledge this, and I explain it within the argumentation of my book, but the relevance of the mind-body issue is downstream of the problems that are central in my critique. And in this way my critique differs from some of the more prominent traditional skeptical objections.

Let me also add here that I acknowledge, and actually have a deep interest in, the transformative nature of experiences like near-death experiences for those who have them. Yes, these are transcendent experiences, and like other transcendent experiences (e.g. in meditation, while looking at the starry night sky, or after ingesting ecstasy or DMT), do tell us something about consciousness that is highly salient to how we may experience the sacredness of life, even in its more mundane moments. And as someone who has had many spiritual experiences in the course of his life, I experientially understand the kinds of experiences on the table here. But it’s important to distinguish questions about the phenomenology and transformative effects of these kinds of experiences from the question concerning whether they provide good reasons for accepting a story, often times a very detailed one, about what will happen to consciousness after death?”

The Survivalist Polemic Against Physicalism

But why do survivalists carry this presumption? Why do so many survivalists have this particular interpretive grid of criticisms of their arguments as the default?

It’s tempting to suppose that it just stems from another widespread survivalist confusion, namely supposing that those who contend that survival arguments are defective are arguing that the survival hypothesis is false. While this is a conflation that any undergraduate philosophy major should be able detect, perhaps survivalists are seduced into this mistake by additional factors. It’s plausible to suppose that survivalists are just so used to the physicalist foot kicking them in the empirical balls that their hyper vigilance over the family jewels has resulted in a kind of default defensive posturing that distorts the criticisms directed at them. They’ve been habituated to the thought that all skeptical kicks directed at the survivalist’s cognitive nuts are of the physicalist variety. Consequently, when skeptics like Sam Harris challenge the claim that near-death experiences provide compelling evidence for survival, it’s just assumed that they’re arguing that the survival argument fails because they claim to know that humans are wholly physical beings or that consciousness depends on a functioning brain. And this is precisely the deeply entrenched prejudice than I encounter time and time again, even though my actual arguments depend on no such assumptions.

Now it’s obviously a sensible strategy for survivalists to address objections to their arguments that might arise from the facts of cognitive neuroscience or the conceptual territory of philosophy of mind. If there are reasons here that count against the persistence of consciousness after death, then certainly survivalists should address these considerations. Moreover, to the extent that physicalism gives life to non-survival counter-explanations of the relevant data, knocking out physicalism can contribute to “ruling out” alternative explanations, an important premise in the traditional explanatory arguments for survival. So survivalists do have good reason to critically respond to arguments for physicalism.

The problem is that survivalists are in the grip of a counter-productive polemic against physicalism. This survivalist assault tactic neutralizes the advantages that might otherwise be had by a balanced and sensible critical response to physicalist arguments. What’s the difference here? A “polemic” is an attack, often focused and sustained, which tends to generate the conceptual equivalent of the optic blind spot in the larger dialectical field. Consequently, one issue (however relevant it may be) overshadows other salient issues that equally, if not more importantly, bear on the cogency of arguments. The other issues simply don’t register on the cognitive radar and thus are not even addressed. The survivalist polemic against physicalism is an aggressive attack on conceptions of consciousness and/or its relation to the physical world that appear to threaten to the plausibility of the survival hypothesis. Sadly it undermines the kind of conversation we should be having about empirical arguments for survival. And we can see here at least one way it preempts the required dialogue: it generates misinterpretations of criticisms that might advance the discussion because the criticisms arise from questions that can facilitate an important step forwards in the debate.

In my next blog, I’ll more deeply explore how the survivalist polemic against physicalism silences the much-needed conversation.

Michael Sudduth