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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.

Therefore

(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

Postscript

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

Survival Book Published

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 7.50.04 AMAfter what has seemed like a very long wait, A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) was released earlier this month, quickly appearing on the Amazon Best Sellers list in the category of books in analytic philosophy (reaching #3 in the top 100, and #1 new release).  The Contents, Preface, and Chapter 1 are available for viewing at Palgrave, Amazon (Kindle Edition), and on the homepage at michaelsudduth.com. Due to the high volume of purchases (a pleasant surprise), Amazon has the book on back order for the fourth time since its release, with another stock expected this coming week. I’m working with the marketing department at Palgrave to ensure that the book gets to distributors like Amazon in a timely manner. I’ve also created a Facebook page – Philosophy of Postmortem Survival – for the book that provides updates and links to various related resources.

Although the book has been published, I continue with writing projects on the topic of survival, which will no doubt include responses to critics once readers have digested the book and its arguments. I can only hope that the critical engagement with my arguments, which I certainly welcome, will exceed in quality some of the strange emails and incoherent Facebook rants I’ve received from a small number of disgruntled survivalists. By contrast,  while writing my book and subsequent to its completion, I’ve had some promising discussions with other philosophers and some survival researchers who are interested in participating in and collaborating on critical work in this area.

One of the aims of my book was to help build a bridge between survival research and the tradition of analytic philosophy, something analogous to the constructive dialogue that emerged between analytic philosophy and philosophy of religion in the last century.  While theistic philosophers, mainly in the Christian tradition, have made a number of important contributions to the philosophy of postmortem survival over the past thirty years, the specific topic of empirical arguments has been largely sidelined since the death of C.D. Broad and H.H. Price.   The interest expressed by a handful of philosophers of religion (e.g. HD Lewis and John Hick) has been something of an exception.  However, the Immortality Project at UC Riverside (under the direction of philosopher John Martin Fischer) provides some reason for optimism that a broader range of mainstream philosophers will help advance the exploration of the empirical dimensions to the question of life after death.  Perhaps the forthcoming Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, May 2016), co-authored by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, will make an important contribution to this.

In the coming months I’ll continue blogging on topics related to my book. I’ll begin this in my next blog (tentatively scheduled for publication on Thanksgiving this coming week), by discussing neuroscientist Sam Harris’ critique of near-death experiences as evidence for life after death, specifically Harris’ critique of Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012).  Harris blogged on this in October 2012 and November 2012, and incorporated his critical remarks in chapter 5 of his more recent Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (2014).  In a recent but brief exchange with Alexander on Facebook, I told him that I think Harris is essentially correct in his negative evaluation. Alexander begs to differ and appealed to Bernardo Kastrup’s 2012 critique of Harris as something of a definitive refutation of Harris’ arguments.  I’ll comment on Harris’ argument and show why Kastrup’s response falls considerably short of a refutation. Indeed, Kastrup failed even to understand Harris’ critique of Alexander.

In the meantime, and since many people have asked, I provide here an updated list (with links) of my main blogs on postmortem survival since 2013.

2015 Posts

What’s Wrong with Survival Literature (9/29/15)

Awakening Survivalists from Their Dogmatic Slumber (9/28/15)

Personal Reflections on Life After Death (8/7/15)

No Exit for Survivalists (4/27/15)

Survivalists in the Crosshairs (4/25/15)

2014 Posts

NDEs: Evidence for Life After Death? (9/9/14)

Falsification, Simplicity, and Survival (6/4/14)

Response to Prescott’s Minions (5/30/14)

Response to Michael Prescott (5/19/14)

Chris Carter’s Challenge: Survival vs. Superpsi (5/12/14)

Getting Sober about Survival, Part 3 of 3 (2/28/14)

Getting Sober about Survival, Part 2 of 3 (2/11/14)

Getting Sober about Survival, Part 1 of 3 (1/29/14)

Interview on Postmortem Survival (1/20/14)

2013 Posts

Clarifying My Critique of Survival Arguments (2/19/13)

“Wrong Turns” in Arguments for Postmortem Survival (2/9/13)

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What’s Wrong with Survival Literature?

newcoverThere continues to be a plethora of articles and books published on near-death experiences, children who claim to remember past lives, apparitional experiences, and mediums who deliver ostensible messages from the deceased. And here I refer not to the trumped up, obviously exaggerated if not fabricated stories perpetuated through the tabloids and “ghost hunting” television programs, but to phenomena studied in academic settings such as the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, Medical School, and research institutes such as the Windbridge Institute in Tucson, Arizona.   The kinds of ostensibly paranormal phenomena studied by empirical researchers are often adduced as evidence for life after death. Arguments historically purporting to show this I designate “classical empirical arguments” for postmortem survival. While the arguments may differ in various respects, they have a common generic structure: certain data are said to be evidence for survival because the hypothesis of survival allegedly provides the best explanation of the data. The explanatory argument for survival is found in most of the published books and articles favorable to survival as far back as Richard Hodgson’s late nineteenth-century articles on the evidence for survival based on the trance mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper.

For several years now I’ve expressed a general disappointment in how survivalists have developed and presented the empirical case for survival. In my previous blog, I said that the nub of my critique is the inadequacy of survivalist arguments purporting to show that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the relevant data. I argue that this inadequacy is rooted in the widespread failure of survivalists to acknowledge, much less critically engage, the large number of auxiliary assumptions that must be enlisted for the survival hypothesis to do explanatory work. Survivalists are unsuccessful at showing that the survival hypothesis actually explains anything largely because of their suppression of required auxiliary assumptions. Furthermore, this suppression creates the additional illusion that survivalists have successfully “ruled out” rival hypotheses, such as the living-agent psi hypothesis that purports to explain the data in terms of psychic functioning (extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis) in living persons. Since classical empirical arguments for survival depend on the survival hypothesis explaining the data better than various proposed counter-explanations, the suppression of auxiliary assumptions perpetuates the illusion that survivalists have shown that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.

Anticipating a central theme in my forthcoming Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), in this blog I outline a few of the widespread conceptual problems that plague survival literature, and I show how they each converge on the suppression of auxiliary assumptions.

1. The Generic Explanatory Survival Argument

To appreciate the conceptual failures in survival literature, it’s important to have a general idea of what the argument for survival is supposed to look like. The argument survivalists make or (as is more often the case) wish to make is an explanatory argument. The basic idea is that the phenomena of near-death experiences, alleged communications from the deceased through mediums, claims to past-life memories (and correlated phenomena), or some such ostensibly paranormal phenomenon provide data that constitute evidence for survival because survival explains these phenomena. More precisely, the phenomena are evidence for survival because the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.

Where “E” ranges over some (narrow or broad) strand of data from paranormal phenomena, explanatory survival arguments are, structurally or formally speaking, two-tier arguments consisting of an explanatory inference and an evidential inference.

1. There is some evidence E.

2. The survival hypothesis S explains E.

3. No other competing hypothesis C explains E (as well as S explains E).

Therefore:

4. S is the best explanation of E.

Therefore:

5. E is evidence for S.

Let’s call this the “generic explanatory survivalist argument” (hereinafter, GESA). GESA is a two-tier argument: (1) through (4) is a standard form of an inference to the best explanation, and (4) to (5) constitute an evidential inference – explanatory power converts to evidential cash value. This is the kind of argument you’ll find implicitly or explicitly adopted in the literature, for example in Almeder (1992), Braude (2003), Carter (2012), Fontana (2005), Gauld (1982), Griffin (1997), Lund (2009), Paterson (1996), Stevenson (1974), and Tucker (2005, 2013).

As a generic argument, there are two important more specific issues GESA does not address but which are essential to actual empirical survival arguments.

First, nothing is said above about how good E is as evidence for S, that is, the degree of evidential support E offers for S. And here survivalists differ. Some contend that E increases or raises the probability of S. Others take the view that E is evidence favoring S over some the rival hypotheses C, and thus E makes S more probable than C. Both of these views are, of course, compatible with S having a very low net plausibility or probability. Still other survivalists take a stronger position and claim that E renders S very probable, or at least probable to degree N, where N > ½, and so survival is at least more probable than not. This latter view is particularly prominent among survivalists who maintain that the empirical arguments provide enough evidence to rationally justify belief in survival.

Second, nothing is said in GESA about explanatory criteria. So GESA is silent on what would be required for S (or some other hypothesis C) to explain E or to be the best explanation of E. Typically, explanatory criteria at least include S’s leading us to expect E, or S’s better leading us to expect E than does C (“predictive power” in the broad sense, or “accommodation” to evidence). Some survivalists, however, wish to roll in other qualities such as simplicity and the need for independent support. I’ll comment on these below.

GESA allows a fairly succinct statement of my main criticism of classical empirical survival arguments. As I explained in my previous blog, the survivalist who sports GESA (or some specific version of it) faces something of a dilemma. He can effectively argue in favor of premise (2), but only if he explicitly incorporates a range of auxiliary assumptions about the nature and character of the afterlife. Alternatively, and this is what survivalists typically do, he can effectively argue for premise (3), but only if he shelves the assumptions required to be justified in affirming premise (2). Consequently, what the survivalist cannot (consistently) do is effectively argue for both (2) and (3). In this way, the survivalist loses his reasons (and hence justification) for affirming (4) – the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.

But let’s see how survivalist strategies of argument conveniently mask this dilemma.

2. “Lazy Testing” – Evading the Burden of Explanatory Reasoning

Speaking in the context of arguments that purport to show the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe, philosopher of science Elliott Sober has identified a form of explanatory reasoning that he aptly calls “Lazy Testing”:

The lazy way to test a hypothesis H is to focus on one of its possible competitors H0, claim that the data refute H0, and then declare that H is the only hypothesis left standing.  This is an attractive strategy if you are fond of the hypothesis H but are unable to say what testable predictions H makes. (Sober 2008: 353)

Sober’s “lazy testing” diagnosis is quite appropriate as a way of characterizing a widespread pattern of reasoning within pro-survival literature. Most survivalists allege, often with great emphasis, that the survival hypothesis is a testable hypothesis, and yet in the literature this claim is given short shrift and we’re left wondering quite rightly whether it’s true at all. What we typically find in the relevant literature is an accumulation of data, consisting largely of testimonial claims and descriptions of the methods/conditions of their verification, all recounted with an impressive narrative. Survival is then something of a sotto voce inference – merely asserted to be the best explanation because all other known explanations fail. One can randomly select a work on survival and it’s likely you’ll find this structure of argument (e.g., Almeder 1992, Carter 2012, Fontana 2008, Tucker 2005, 2013). But as Sober has noted, the alleged vices of rival hypotheses do not confer virtue on one’s preferred hypothesis, but this is all that one would have to hang hope on in the absence of one’s preferred hypothesis having any virtue of its own.

Hence, one problem in the literature is that survivalists fail to show the explanatory virtue of the survival hypothesis itself, but this is masked by the nearly exclusive emphasis on how other hypotheses allegedly fail to account for the relevant evidence. The thing to see here is that arguing in support of premise (3) of GESA is entirely legitimate, and so we should expect survivalists to attempt to debunk the alleged explanatory virtues of rival hypotheses. The crux of the issue, though, is whether (i) survivalists present a positive case for the explanatory virtues of the survival hypothesis (hence offer support for premise (2) of GESA), and whether (ii) the justification for affirming premise (2) involves reasons that are compatible with the reasons offered as a justification for affirming premise (3). Otherwise put, we need to evaluate the “ruling out” of rival hypotheses (in premise (3) of GESA) in the light of what has been established with respect to the explanatory virtues of the survival hypothesis itself (premise (2) of GESA).

The survivalist counter-response is easily anticipated. The survivalist will claim that he does support premise (2), for he points to the evidence being what we would expect if survival were true, the simplicity of the survival hypothesis, the survival hypothesis being falsifiable, and the survival hypothesis being independently supported – each alleged explanatory virtues. Yes. There is no doubt that survivalists make such claims, or proffer such considerations, but the claims either lack adequate development or grounding, or they involve a logical sleight of hand that is masked by the emphasis on considerations used to rule out competitors.

So let’s look with greater scrutiny at survivalist dialectical maneuvers with respect to each of the aforementioned presumed explanatory virtues: survival leading us to expect the data, the alleged simplicity of the survival hypothesis, falsifiability, and independent support.

3. “Suppressed Assumptions” – The Perils of Predictive Power

I invite the reader to peruse Richard Hodgson’s famous “Further Record of Observations of Certain Trance Phenomena” (1897-98). Hodgson says repeatedly that the data provided by trance mediumship are exactly what we would expect if the survival hypothesis were true (and not what we would expect given rival hypotheses), a claim that quickly became a staple of survivalist explanatory claims and so may be found in countless pro-survival books and articles. Yet neither Hodgson nor his survivalist descendants have shown that their quasi-predictive claims are true. They merely assume that such claims are true because they make a large number of assumptions about what surviving persons would be like in the afterlife. If they were to try to show that these predictive claims are true, it would be evident, as E.R. Dodds (1934) later argued, that the survival hypothesis is not a single or simple hypothesis, but a “hydra-headed” hypothesis involving various collateral assumptions about, for example, the powers, knowledge, intentions, and character of survivors.

Therefore, the survivalist is justified in affirming premise (2) of GESA only if the survivalist is justified in a large number of additional assumptions about the afterlife, e.g. if persons were to survive death, they would have the requisite powers and intentions to communicate with the living, could efficaciously exercise such powers, and would have sufficient continuity of memory and character as to be identifiable by living persons as some specific formerly living person. And to show that we’re justified in accepting premise (2) would require showing that we’re justified in accepting the assortment of auxiliary assumptions. In other words, the survival hypothesis only leads us to expect the data if it is what I call a robust survival hypothesis, a simple survival hypothesis (affirming the survival of the self or our individual consciousness) supplemented with additional assumptions.

However, the introduction of a robust survival hypothesis raises the difficult question of the epistemic status of the required auxiliary assumptions. Are we justified in accepting such claims? At all events, what’s transparently clear is that survivalists have not shown that we are justified in accepting such claims, nor even that the survivalist is so justified. And to this extent, the survivalist has not shown that anyone is justified in accepting premise (2) of GESA. Otherwise put, survivalists have not shown that the survival hypothesis explains anything because they’ve not acknowledged, much less independently supported, the range of assumptions without which survival explains nothing.

Now a crucial point to note here, though, is that the suppression of auxiliary assumptions also infects showing that we’re justified in accepting premise (3), and in two ways.

First, in order to justifiably maintain premises (2) and (3), the survivalist’s justification for the survival-friendly auxiliaries (required for the survival hypothesis to have predictive power over the relevant data) must exclude our being justified in rival auxiliary assumptions. These rival auxiliaries would include (i) rival auxiliary assumptions about the afterlife such that if they were true, we would not expect the relevant evidence and (ii) rival auxiliaries that when conjoined with rival non-survival hypotheses would lead us to expect the relevant evidence. The second is particularly important because one way in which survivalists have tried to rule out rival hypotheses is by treating those rival hypotheses in their most stripped down form and then (correctly) arguing that they cannot accommodate the evidence. This is a frequent strategy found in survivalist dismissals of appeals to extra-sensory perception among the living to account for the apparently extraordinary knowledge mediums possess or that young children who claim to remember past lives possess. But this is a logical sleight of hands. Neither a stripped down survival hypothesis nor a stripped down appeal to living-agent telepathy or clairvoyance will lead us to expect the relevant data. Each candidate explanation must be taken in a fairly robust form, and in the case of living-agent psi must be combined with various psychological assumptions (e.g. concerning motivations, the range and capacities associated with dissociative phenomena, rare cognitive skills). So the question is whether there is some robust form of the appeal to living-agent psi that will lead us to expect the data at least as well as some robust survival hypothesis.

Second, it’s equally clear that, when survivalists wish to dismiss appeals to living-agent psi on the grounds that the data are contrary to what such a hypothesis would lead us to expect, survivalists are (perhaps unwittingly) working with their own “bulked up” version of the living-agent psi hypothesis. They adopt various assumptions about the scope, potency, and refinement of psi, and how it might interact with dissociative phenomena and the sudden manifestation of unusual skills. Stephen Braude (2003) has addressed in some detail this problematic feature of survivalist attempts to rule out counter-explanations in terms of living-agent psi. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, none of the major pro-survival books since Braude (2003) have as much as addressed Braude’s challenge, and this includes Fontana (2005), Lund (2009), Carter (2012), and Tucker (2005, 2013). What Braude has rightly noted is how suppressed assumptions about psi are operative in survivalist efforts to rule out the appeal to living-agent psi. What’s crucial in the debate, then, is how these assumptions stack up against alternative sets of assumptions that produce a robust living-agent psi hypothesis that does indeed lead us to expect the evidence. Since Braude has himself proposed such a robust living-agent psi hypothesis, it would be incumbent upon survivalists to rule out this robust living-agent psi hypothesis. To date they have failed to do this.

So I’ve been arguing above that survivalists prematurely pop the celebratory cork of having ruled out rival hypotheses by treating those hypotheses in either very simple versions that, like a simple survival hypothesis, radically underdetermine the evidence, or by treating them in a narrow band of robust forms that poorly accommodate the evidence but by virtue of questionable survivalist assumptions. What the literature has failed to produce is a thoroughgoing engagement with robust rival hypotheses that do accommodate the evidence in a way that is comparable to how a robust survival hypothesis may accommodate the evidence. Of course, a precondition of any such evaluation would an acknowledgement of survivalist auxiliary assumptions that permit the survival hypothesis to accommodate the evidence. And so we see that the suppression of auxiliaries is highly salient to both showing that the survival hypothesis explains the data and that it does so in a way superior to competitors.

4. “Suppressed Assumptions” – Simplicity, Falsifiability, and Independent Support

But the suppression of auxiliaries infects survivalist attempts to rule out competitors in another way. Survivalists often support premise (3) in GESA by arguing that the survival hypothesis is simpler than competitors, for example, simpler than an appeal to a living-agent psi hypothesis, which allegedly must be stretched into a “super-psi” hypothesis that requires living persons to accomplish extraordinary psychic feats, e.g. telepathically or clairvoyantly mining and integrating information from multiple sources.

However, when survivalists appeal to the relative simplicity of the survival hypothesis in this context, without exception they are referring to a hypothesis of survival sans auxiliary assumptions, and this simple survival hypothesis is then compared to rival hypotheses in their most robust forms, bulked-up with various auxiliary assumptions. A great example of this is the survivalist discontent with appeals to living-agent psi, which survivalists contend can only explain crucial strands of data by being amped up into a “super-psi” hypothesis, an appeal to living-agent psi supplemented with various auxiliary assumptions that permit psi to have a potency and refinement beyond what has been independently established to exist. That a survival hypothesis (without auxiliaries) is simpler than a robust rival hypothesis is a red herring. What’s at issue is the simplicity of the hypotheses in their mutually robust forms because it’s only in these forms that they would have a claim to predictive power as a central explanatory virtue.

This impacts the interrelated issues of falsifiability and independent support/testability as well. Any hypothesis can be made falsifiable by conjoining it to the right assumptions, so neither the survival hypothesis nor rival hypotheses are prevented from securing this apparent explanatory virtue. My hypothesis of an invisible gardener in my yard is falsifiable given, for example, the added assumption that he attracts blonde women between the ages 21 and 34. What is crucial is that our auxiliary assumptions, without which hypotheses make no predictions, be independently testable. What survivalists must show is that the survival hypothesis is, unlike competitors, genuinely falsifiable since its assumptions are independently testable. They have not done this, but unless one acknowledges the role that auxiliary assumptions play, this requirement is easily bypassed. And it becomes easy to target rival hypotheses as failing to secure a virtue, which not even the survival hypothesis can secure. Consequently, when survivalists claim that the survival hypothesis is falsifiable and independently testable, but appeals to “super-psi” are not, it’s important to see that a simple survival hypothesis is not falsifiable and a robust survival hypothesis requires auxiliary assumptions that are no more independently testable than those employed by rival theories, indeed probably less so.

To the extent, then, that simplicity, falsifiability, and independent testability are considered explanatory virtues, it’s clear that survivalist arguments create an illusion that they successfully rule out rival hypotheses. This is masked by the suppression of auxiliary assumptions, for once these assumptions are introduced the simplicity, independent testability, and falsifiability of rival hypotheses – including robust living-agent psi – are at no more of a disadvantage than the survival hypothesis itself. Or at any rate, until such time as survivalists treat their preferred hypothesis in its appropriate robust form, we have no good reason to accept the survivalist contention that premise (3) of GESA is true. And so we lose our reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.

5. Concluding Thoughts

To sum up: the survivalist suppression of auxiliary assumptions creates the illusion that the survivalist has shown that premises (2) and (3) in GESA are true. More precisely stated, it creates a twofold illusion. First, it creates the illusion that the survival hypothesis explains the data because rival hypotheses apparently don’t explain the data. Second, it creates the illusion that rival hypotheses – such as the living-agent psi hypothesis – don’t explain the data (as well as survival) because they lack some virtue the survival hypothesis is presumed to possess, but which, as I’ve argued, dissolves upon more careful scrutiny,

The survivalist suppression of auxiliary assumptions is a fallacy that infects survivalist literature. It’s widespread in its presence, it’s far reaching in its implications for the assessment of the survival hypothesis. The fallacious nature of the suppression of auxiliary assumptions may be put in more systematic terms as follows:

  • It permits survivalists to create an appearance of explanatory virtue for the survival hypothesis by facilitating an exclusive focus on how poorly alternative hypotheses fare. But this lazy testing simply evades the burden of showing that survival explains anything at all.
  • It creates the illusion that survivalists have ruled out the appeal to living-agent psi as a rival hypothesis with at least equal explanatory power. This is an illusion because:
    1. The process of “bulking up” hypotheses (generating robustness) can easily accommodate evidence, and this principles holds equally for the living-agent psi hypothesis and the survival hypothesis, each of which in their suitably robust forms can equally account for the relevant evidence.
    2. Survivalists have not shown that a robust survival hypothesis is simpler than a robust living-agent psi hypothesis (that accounts for the data), and so they have not shown that the relevant kind of survival hypothesis has any advantage over living-agent psi alternatives at this juncture.
    3. Survivalist auxiliary assumptions are not independently testable, and so if the plausibility of a robust living-agent psi hypothesis (that accounts for the evidence) is reduced for this reason, the same applies mutatis mutandis to a robust survival hypothesis (that accounts for the evidence). Thus, the survival hypothesis has no advantage here.
    4. A robust living-agent psi hypothesis is no less (trivially or non-trivially) falsifiable than a robust survival hypothesis, given the right sort of auxiliary assumptions, so the survival hypothesis has no advantage at this juncture.

Hence, for the above reasons I maintain that survivalist fails to show that anyone is justified in accepting premises (2) and (3) of GESA. It follows that we have a defeater for the conclusion (4). So, we should not accept the survivalist claim, on the basis of (2) and (3), that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data. And this defeat will transfer to other explanatory arguments for survival that are specific instances of GESA, which make use of the explanatory criteria discussed above.

In my forthcoming book, I propose a formalization of the classical arguments that drops the reference to explanatory power and unpacks the arguments purely in terms of (Bayesian and Likelihood) confirmation measures. I argue that these arguments also fail, which suggests that the problems associated with auxiliary assumptions are not limited to explanatory survival arguments but apply more broadly to empirical arguments for survival, at least those based on paranormal phenomena.

 

Works Referenced or Cited

Almeder, R. (1992). Death and Personal Survival. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Braude, S. (2003). Immortal Remains: the Evidence for Life after Death. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carter, C. (2012). Science and the Afterlife Experience: Evidence for the Immortality of Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Dodds, E.R. (1934). “Why I Do Not Believe in Survival.” Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research 42: 147–72.

Fontana, D. (2005). Is There an Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: O Books.

Gauld, A. (1982). Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations. London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Griffin, D.R. (1997). Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lund, D.H. (2009). Persons, Souls, and Death: A Philosophical Investigation of an Afterlife. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Paterson, R. (1995). Philosophy and the Belief in a Life after Death. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.

Sober, E. (2008). Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevenson, I. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, 2nd Ed. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Tucker, J. (2005). Life Before Life: Children’s Memories of Past Lives. New York: Saint Martin’s Griffin.

Tucker, J. (2013). Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives. New York: St. Martins Press.

Awakening Survivalists from Dogmatic Slumber

newcoverMy Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) will be released in early November (a revised publication date).  As readers of my blog are aware, while I think the classical empirical arguments for life after death engage interesting and arguably provocative paranormal phenomena, I don’t think these arguments succeed in showing that there is good evidence for the persistence of the self or our individual consciousness after death. Most generally stated, this negative verdict is the central claim for which I argue in my book.

Survivalists, of course, have confronted my central claim before among other writers and they’re well acquainted with the array of skeptical objections that have been deployed to dismiss their arguments. The methodology of the empirical research is defective. Paranormal phenomena are bogus. Survival is conceptually incoherent or unintelligible. Survival contradicts what we know about consciousness from cognitive neuroscience, specifically the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain. There are better non-survival explanations of the data. However, let me underscore that I make no such claims, and none of my arguments depend on these well- worn skeptical claims or the arguments that have been offered in support of them. This is because, as I recently explained in “Personal Reflections on Life after Death,” I’m not a typical skeptic. More importantly, my arguments are not the typical skeptical arguments. Thus, survivalists should be prepared to abandon their existing arsenal of counter strategies and pre-rehearsed responses to the common skeptical evaluations of their arguments. They’re going to have to do something they’re not accustomed to doing, at least for the last half century. They’re going to have to come up with a new argument, and – not to add the prospects of insult to injury – do so in a way that is conversant with the conceptual territory of formal epistemology, something they’ve never done. My aim is to substantively and formally recalibrate the empirical survival debate. Psychologically speaking, my aim – if I may conjure the spirit of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant – is to awaken survivalists from their dogmatic slumber.

The nub of my critique concerns the inadequacy of survivalist arguments for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the relevant data, a longstanding and widespread survivalist contention. I argue that the inadequacy of survivalist arguments is rooted in the widespread failure of survivalists to acknowledge, much less critically engage, the large number of auxiliary assumptions that must be enlisted for the survival hypothesis to do explanatory work. Survivalists are unsuccessful at showing that the survival hypothesis actually explains anything largely because of their suppression of required auxiliary assumptions, and furthermore this suppression creates the additional illusion that survivalists have successfully ruled out rival hypotheses. Since classical empirical arguments for survival depend on the survival hypothesis explaining the data better than various proposed counter-explanations, the suppression of auxiliary assumptions perpetuates the illusion that survivalists have shown that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.

It’s important to clarify that I don’t argue that the survival hypothesis is not the best explanation of the data. I’m arguing that survivalists have failed to show that survival is the best explanation of the data. Hence, my critique does not depend on the claim that there is some rival hypothesis that provides an at least equally good explanation. It’s true that I’ve written much about appeals to living-agent psychic functioning (extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis) as the widely acknowledged nearest competitor to the survival hypothesis. Like Stephen Braude, I’ve argued that this explanation is, at least in its more sophisticated forms, a much better explanation of the data than survivalists have been willing to acknowledge. However, I do not claim that it is an equally good explanation of the data. No. My argument is more nuanced. What I claim is that survivalists have not adequately ruled out this counter-explanation. Why? Not because adequately ruling it out requires dissolving the logical or empirical possibility of highly refined and potent psychic powers in human persons (a common survivalist red herring). I claim that survivalist objections to living-agent psi hypotheses apply mutatis mutandis to the survival hypothesis itself; at least this is so once we acknowledge the kinds of auxiliary assumptions required for the latter to have explanatory power.

So, on my view, the survivalist can effectively argue that (i) the survival hypothesis explains the data, or the survivalist can effectively argue that (ii) the living-agent psi hypothesis does not provide an at least equally good explanation of the data. But what the survivalist cannot consistently argue is both (i) and (ii). Thus, the survivalist is unable to show that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data. The only reason why this has not been apparent is that survivalists are either unconscious of the assumptions required for the survival hypothesis to have explanatory merit or they have intentionally concealed these assumptions or been less than forthright about them and how they bear on the survival argument. Hence, it’s the unconscious or conscious suppression of essential auxiliary assumptions that’s the nub of failure in the survival literature.

Given the ubiquitous nature of this logical problem in the pro-survival literature, my book is, in a sense, an indictment against the entire field of “survival research” and the pro-survival literature it has spawned. To be sure, inquiry into alleged empirical evidence for survival has seen some good days, for example, at the hands of thinker such as C.D. Broad, C.J. Ducasse, E.R. Dodds, Gardner Murphy, and H.H. Price. In more recent times, Alan Gauld and Stephen Braude have produced high caliber explorations of the topic, and David Ray Griffin and R.W.K Paterson have each published sympathetic yet informed and fair summaries of the empirical case for survival. But these lights of intellectual engagement are exceptions in a history and field dominated by lesser lights whose treatments of the topic have been sadly constrained by mediocre reasoning and conceptual naiveté. Here I include such widely praised pro-survival works as Robert Almeder’s Death and Personal Survival (1992), David Fontana’s, Is There an Afterlife? (2005), and Chris Carter’s Science and the Afterlife Experience: Evidence for the Immortality of Consciousness. (2012). These works merely reinvent the crooked wheel on which the empirical survival debate has been riding since its inception in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Like so many other survivalists, these survivalists have not only failed to advance the debate, they have perpetuated confusions that obfuscate both the empirical argument for survival and the counter-arguments of skeptics.

Consider but one illustration of the conceptual obfuscation that plagues the literature. Survivalists who appeal to near-death experiences or claims to past-life memories seem to be under the impression that the argument for survival is effectively made merely by piling on data. Like butter on popcorn at the movies, the more the better. In much the same way, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theists built increasingly large compendia of alleged instances of “design” in the natural world, content to let the suggested or sotto voce argument uncritically swing on the rusty bolts and squeaky hinges of assumptions at least as controversial as the conclusion they wished to derive. Survivalists in the last century have adopted a similar strategy, and this strategy has fostered a climate in which the argument for survival disappointingly exhibits a level of logical rigor inversely proportional to the excessive bravado of some of its most vocal claimants. Facts do not an argument make, and the overemphasis on the former by empirical researchers has lulled them into a false sense of security with respect to the latter. For this reason I speak of the collective failure of survival literature, a failure that is fundamentally conceptual in nature, not empirical.

In my next blog (tentatively scheduled for next week), I’ll outline the failure of survival literature with more detail and explain how various widespread defects in the literature converge on the particular fallacy I’ve noted above, the fallacy of suppressed auxiliary assumptions – the central theme of my forthcoming book.

Michael Sudduth

Personal Reflections on Life after Death

newcoverIn a couple of months my book A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan) will be released.   The book provides a philosophical engagement with a topic that has held my interest for much of my life and which has been the focus of my research and critical reflection for the past 11 years. Do we in some way survive the death of our bodies?

Readers hoping to find a direct answer to this question in the argumentation of my book are likely to be disappointed, as I don’t argue for or against survival in the Philosophical Critique. My interest is in critically exploring the cogency or plausibility of a certain strand of argumentation in favor of survival, namely arguments based on the data drawn from out-of-body and near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, and alleged past life memories and correlated behavioral and physical characteristics suggestive of reincarnation. Since these ostensibly paranormal phenomena involve various data of sense experience or facts about the physical world and human experiences, the arguments for survival based on them have traditionally been classified as “empirical” arguments for survival. In the interest of distinguishing between these paranormal-type arguments and other kinds of empirical arguments for survival, I refer to them as “classical” empirical arguments for survival.

The central question I’m addressing in my book is whether these classical arguments succeed in showing that the relevant data from these different phenomena severally or jointly constitute good evidence for the hypothesis of personal survival – the survival of the individual self, consciousness, or person. While there are many salient issues that bear on the question of whether human persons survive death, the cogency (or lack thereof) of arguments that purport to offer an affirmative answer to the central question is surely one of them. So while I don’t argue for or against survival itself, what I envision in the Philosophical Critique is nonetheless an important contribution to the philosophy of postmortem survival, one that I hope will advance the survival debate and facilitate at least a deeper appreciation for the conceptual territory involved in arguments in favor of life after death.

Since I haven’t stated in any of my previous publications (nor in my forthcoming book) whether I believe in survival or not, I’ve received numerous queries from people about my personal views on the matter. Here I will offer some personal reflections on life after death. More specifically, I discuss the evolution of my personal views on survival, where I stand on the question today, the relationship between my personal views and my critique of the classical arguments, and how I see the future of the survival debate taking shape. In this way I’d like to begin the movement beyond the scope of my book, a direction of inquiry I intend to pursue in subsequent publications.

When I began my systematic research on postmortem survival in 2004 I was convinced of what is commonly called “personal survival,” the persistence after death of “me,” that is, this person, self, or individual consciousness. This notion of personal survival at least entails the postmortem persistence of a particular “psychological profile,” what Cambridge philosopher C.D. Broad called a “personal stream of experience,” including the knowledge, specific memories, beliefs, intentions, desires, and other mental states that are constituents of a first-person perspective. I retained this belief for much of the past 11 years. However, my confidence in personal survival has waned over the past two years. I’m now comfortable in stating that I no longer believe in personal survival. Of course, I also don’t deny personal survival. Hence, it would be fair to characterize my current view as agnostic with respect to personal survival. My interest here is to present an account of the evolution of my agnostic stance and its implications for the broader conceptual landscape related to survival.

1.  My Earlier Views: Christian Eschatology, John Hick, and Parapsychology

When I embarked upon my focused exploration of empirical arguments for survival in 2004, I was a firm believer in personal survival. In fact, I had been a believer in survival at least in a fairly generic sense since my childhood. In adulthood my ideas more concretely reflected the influence of the Protestant Christian tradition to which I belonged. By 2004, though I accepted many of the basic features of traditional Christian eschatology (e.g. final day of judgment, survival as eventual bodily resurrection from the dead), I was quite happy to acknowledge the importance of modifications to the story, modifications of the sort that John Hick suggested in his wonderful book Death and Eternal Life (1976). Hick’s book is worth emphasizing here since it was the gateway to my eventual work on the topic of survival. When I was an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in the early 1990s, one of my religion professors highly recommended Hick’s book, but I didn’t give it a thorough read until I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film the Sixth Sense. The film re-awakened the interest in survival I had as a young boy and teenager. It also inspired my teaching a senior seminar on life after death at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, where I was a professor at the time. I used Hick’s book for the course.

In addition to introducing me to the ideas of Oxford philosopher H.H. Price, one of the interesting features of Hick’s work is the serious attention Hick gave to the data of psychical research (or “parapsychology,” to use the more common American designation). Like other philosophers of his generation who were interested in alleged empirical evidence for survival, Hick focused on the data of mediumship and phenomena seemingly suggestive of reincarnation (e.g. claims to past life memories in young children). The “near-death experience” craze that evolved out of Raymond Moody’s work in the mid 1970s had not yet peaked when Hick wrote Death and Eternal Life, though he acknowledged the relevance of the phenomenon to his discussion in the preface to his 1994 revised edition.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of Hick’s work was his engagement with the data of psychical research. There were at least three reasons for this.

First, I grew up watching the 1972 television series the Sixth Sense (starring Gary Collins as parapsychologist Michael Rhodes) and other 1970s television shows inspired by parapsychological research and its relation to the topic of survival. Consequently, I also had a passing acquaintance with the long-standing debate within parapsychology as to whether phenomena apparently suggestive of survival might be equally explained in terms of psychic functioning in living persons. For example, might the apparently impressive displays of detailed knowledge about the deceased demonstrated by the better mediums be explicable in terms of the medium’s powers of telepathy and clairvoyance? So I naturally connected to this aspect of Hick’s work.

Second, at various points in my life I had experienced ostensibly paranormal phenomena, first as a child and later as a teenager. The exploration of phenomena one has personally experienced is naturally alluring of course, and as a philosopher I wanted to critically explore my own experience. Within a couple of years of reading Hick I would have a third wave of exposure to ostensibly paranormal occurrences after purchasing and moving into a “haunted house” in Windsor, Connecticut. This was actually the catalyst for the research program that led to the writing of my Philosophical Critique. Finally, I would eventually have a prolonged engagement with mediumship during a crucial phase of research for the book (to be discussed further below).

Third, although I was a Christian at the time, I was convinced that Christian theology had on the whole not taken the data of psychical research seriously enough, a point Rev. David Kennedy wonderfully argued in his book A Venture in Immortality (1973). Explaining away paranormal phenomena in terms of demonic activity struck me as more than a tad bit lame, the incrustations of an outdated theology perpetuated by theologians who lacked logical rigor and who had little acquaintance with the relevant empirical research.

I should emphasize that none of my early experiences with the paranormal led me to believe in personal survival. As noted about, I already believed in personal survival, even as young child. I suspect the influence of my grandmother played a role in this. She exposed me to the idea early on and in a way that made it attractive, or at least intriguing. So for me the survival hypothesis was an antecedently credible hypothesis, and not surprisingly it presented itself as a very natural and even tidy explanation of the paranormal phenomena with which I would later have first-hand acquaintance. But of course, the matter is more complex. During my years as a Christian, I viewed paranormal phenomena as plausibly explicable in terms of survival, but there was always the thorny question of how exactly to accommodate the details of the phenomena (as evidence for survival) to the details of my pre-existing Christian eschatology. And here Hick again proved helpful. First, he convinced me of the negotiable nature of several aspects of the traditional Christian eschatological story. Second, he convinced me that “the core” eschatological insights of the Christian tradition underdetermined most of the details relevant to the data of psychical research.

Nonetheless, when I experienced the third wave of paranormal phenomena after moving to Windsor, Connecticut in 2002, I was reluctant to opt for the survival hypothesis as the best explanation of the phenomena. This was not due to potential conflicts with Christian eschatology but because I was aware of what struck me as initially plausible counter-explanations of the phenomena in terms of psychic functioning among living persons. The plausibility of such explanations was only partially appreciated by me at the time. It was based on only a rather superficial knowledge of parapsychology and some first-hand experiences, including telepathy experiments I conducted years earlier with friends.  But this was enough to prevent me from easily defaulting to the survival explanation.

2. The Catalyst and Evolution of My Survival Research

My two years in Windsor, Connecticut deepened my long-standing and recently re-wakened interest in survival. Within a couple of days of moving into the early Federal-style home built by Eliakim Mather Olcott in 1817, my wife and I (and dog) began to experience a combination of prototypical haunting and poltergeist phenomena. Although we critically investigated the various phenomena as they occurred, we were unable to trace the phenomena to natural causes. Given the fairly astonishing nature of some of the phenomena, my curiosity about our experiences peaked and I began research into the history of the home and the experiences of its former residents. This led to what has been a ten-year long investigation, including interviews with former residents, visitors to the home, and acquaintances of residents as far back as the 1930s.   My inquiry turned up testimony from several prior occupants to experiencing phenomena identical, even in detail, to the phenomena my wife and I experienced. What I found equally fascinating, though, was the fact that occupants of the home prior to 1969, including long-term residents, claimed not to have experienced anything unusual. 1969 was the year resident Walter Callahan Sr. committed suicide in the home. In this way, the pattern of experiences surrounding the home fit a more widespread pattern in which ostensibly place-centered paranormal phenomena are associated with a suicide or other tragic event at the location.

The experiences in the home prompted me eventually to return to John Hick’s work on survival, and from there I was led to a deeper study of the work of C.D. Broad and H.H. Price on the topic, two philosophers who would exert significant influence on my reflections on paranormal phenomena and survival. Among other things, they each introduced the intriguing possibility of an explanatory option other than personal survival on the one hand, and living-agent psychic function on the other hand, namely the possibility that what persists after death are aspects of our mental life or consciousness but that fall short of constituting the survival of the self or individual person. Broad unpacked this in terms of a “psychic factor” (the persistence of only the dispositional basis of the individual personality) and Price as “place memories” (the persistence in space and time of mental items – thoughts, feelings, images, etc. – independent of the center self-awareness to which they originally belonged). Broad and Price present us with forms of what we might call attenuated survival. Since the concept of personal survival can be weakened in many different ways, there are many conceivable hypotheses of attenuated survival, including a large range of models of attenuated personal survival (some of which I explore in Chapter 2 of the Philosophical Critique).

Whatever might be said on behalf of these exotic alternatives to personal survival, they at least reveal some of the complexities involved in determining whether there is empirical evidence for survival. First, the survival of some significant aspect of the person might explain the relevant data at least as well as the hypothesis of personal survival. Second, though less noticed, the case for personal survival is challenged by conceivable hypotheses of personal survival that do explain the relevant data. Each of the many different survival hypotheses is capable of generating very different kinds of predictions about the observational data we should expect to find if survival is true. Can we reasonably determine, therefore, whether what we observe in the world is evidence for or against survival? The inquiry conducted by Broad and Price (as well as survivalist C.J. Ducasse) also showed that the empirical survival debate is inseparably connected to fundamental questions about the nature of personhood, mind, and consciousness. These issues would come to play an important role in my evolving critical appraisal of empirical arguments for survival.

However, in my first four years of working on empirical survival arguments, my main interest was in trying to make the arguments work, so I was devoted to “saving” the survival hypothesis, specifically in the context of particular kinds of ostensibly paranormal phenomena. Owing to my personal experiences (and those of family and friends), I was initially interested in apparitional experiences and haunting phenomena. It was during this initial phase of exploration (2004 through 2008) that I developed a friendship with parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach. In addition to participating in some interesting spontaneous-case investigations with Loyd, he introduced me to the work of fellow philosopher Stephen Braude with whom I developed an inspiring friendship. Braude became something of a mentor to me in my critical engagement with the survival debate, and we’ve had ten years of invaluable correspondence on questions in the interface between parapsychology, survival, abnormal and depth psychology, and salient issues in philosophy of mind and epistemology.

By 2009 my specific area of interest had shifted from apparitional experiences to mediumship (and later possession phenomena and cases of the reincarnation type), which struck me as at least psychologically more interesting than apparitional experiences, if not more evidentially salient to the case for survival.   The exploration of mediumship also corresponded to my deepening interest in psychology. So it was something of a boon not only to make the personal acquaintance of a number of mediums whose work I and other researchers observed on different occasions, but I also developed a three-year intimate relationship with a medium whose abilities I regularly and carefully explored and documented in spontaneous and designed sittings between 2011 and 2014. (I plan to eventually publish a paper on the latter, which involved ostensible communications from a number of interesting “discarnate persons.”) My first-hand experience of mediumship helped me understand some of the highly contextual features of mediumship. Moreover, having highly detailed background knowledge (including of the medium) helped me construct experiments that at least served to rule out some of the more commonly appealed to naturalistic explanations of the phenomenon. However, it also reinforced my belief that our theorizing at this juncture should take very seriously the larger psychological landscape of the medium’s mental life.

During the first four years of critical exploration I was mildly optimistic about there being a good empirical argument for personal survival (perhaps of a cumulative case sort) based on the data of psychical research, with the data of mediumship perhaps showing the most promise, but my optimism began to wane in 2009. The main catalyst for my decreasing confidence in the evidential force of the data was the increasing plausibility of explanations of the data in terms of living-agent psychic functioning together with interrelated considerations drawn from abnormal and depth psychology. Stephen Braude’s work at this juncture, which is unrivaled in depth and clarity, strongly influenced my thinking and direction of exploration. Even my three-year work with the impressive medium of intimate acquaintance failed to secure the kind of empirical data that clearly favored the survival hypothesis. Indeed, for reasons space does not permit discussing at present, in certain respects my work with the medium in question conferred more plausibility on explanatory candidates other than personal survival.

My emerging critique of survival arguments was, at least in the first instance, a further development of some of Stephen Braude’s insights.

First, it seemed to me that some of the allegedly devastating objections to appeals to living-agent psi were equally applicable to the survival hypothesis itself, especially since the latter is committed to its own version of “super-psi,” a presumably prodigious and refined kind of psi for which there is supposedly no independent evidence but which would be required if the data are adequately explained by appealing to psychic functioning in living persons. I presented this “parity argument” in considerable detail in my first article on survival, “Super-Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2009).

Second, it struck me that survivalists had overestimated the explanatory force of the survival hypothesis. This was a consequence of a lack of clarity on their part concerning how rival explanations would defeat the purported explanatory superiority of the survival hypothesis. For example, the living-agent psi hypothesis does not need great explanatory power to pose a challenge to survival arguments, especially if survival arguments purport to show that the evidence makes the survival hypothesis very probable or even more probable than not. It would suffice if the living-agent psi hypothesis significantly decreased the prior probability of the evidence, and it’s not required for this that it confer a high probability on the evidence. I took up this line of argument in “Is Survival the Best Explanation of the Data of Mediumship?” (in The Survival Hypothesis, Ed. Adam Rock, McFarland Press, 2013) and “A Critical Response to David Lund’s Argument for Postmortem Survival” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2013).

However, retrospectively, the more important issue I raised in the latter two articles was the role of auxiliary assumptions for the explanatory/predictive power (and hence testability) of the survival hypothesis. This evolved into the central issue in my forthcoming Philosophical Critique – the problem of auxiliary assumptions. Roughly stated, auxiliary assumptions are required in empirical arguments for survival, but this proves self-defeating for these arguments in their classical formulations, and my proposed formalizations of the classical arguments as Likelihood and Bayesian arguments render more perspicuous why the arguments are unsuccessful. Furthermore, the problem of auxiliaries further illuminates the perennial survival vs. living-agent psi debate. Given my central argument, it’s not that the appeal to living-agent psychic functioning (e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance) is a good counter-explanation of empirical data allegedly suggestive of life after death. It’s that the survival hypothesis is an exceedingly poor explanation (and untestable hypothesis), and one of its devastating and self-defeating flaws is that it opens wide the door to various exotic non-survival counter-explanations of the data.  Not only are survivalists unable to adequately rule out such exotic counter-explanations, the internal “logic” of survival arguments implicitly sanctions them.

So by 2012 I had concluded that, best case scenario, a favorable empirical case for survival would depend on accepting a number of assumptions at least as controversial as the hypothesis of personal survival itself. More seriously, though, the logical architecture of the classical arguments was simply self-defeating. It was also equally clear to me that the bulk of the existing body of literature in favor of the classical arguments was not just philosophically superficial but hopelessly flawed. In addition to transparent conceptual naivete, the lack of rigorous argumentation (and the rhetorical trickery by which skeptical arguments are characteristically and impetuously dismissed) struck me as little more than maneuvers intentionally or unintentionally masking the more salient issues.  This was also the conclusion I drew after dialoguing for a couple of years with parapsychologists and survivalists on a private listserv moderated by Charles Tart.

3. The Rise of My Agnosticism about Personal Survival

As I pointed out in several blogs beginning in 2013, and also in Jime Sayaka’s detailed 2014 interview with me, my emerging critique of empirical arguments was not necessarily reason to deny any particular hypothesis of personal survival, much less deny the disjunction of conceivable models of personal survival. I still take this position. The empirical arguments may fail; indeed all arguments for personal survival may fail. It does not follow that this gives us a sufficient reason to believe that survival is false. What does follow is that, if belief in survival is based solely on such arguments, we do have reason, and I think good reason, to doubt the truth of the hypothesis of survival. This is based on the conceptual truth that losing one’s grounds for believing that a proposition is true – and so having grounds for doubting the proposition’s being true – does not entail acquiring reasons for believing that the proposition is false.

Nonetheless, the failure of the empirical arguments for survival has played a partial role in my own emerging agnosticism on the question of personal survival. It’s important to be clear, though, on why this is the case. It’s not merely that I find survival arguments less than compelling, true as this is. It’s why I find them less than compelling. The critical exploration reveals that there is no single hypothesis of personal survival, but many such hypotheses. At present I have no means at my disposal to empirically or otherwise discriminate between them. To be explained below, I do find some survival scenarios more plausible than others, and I would not be greatly surprised to discover that at least one of these is true, but the more plausible hypothesis is not necessarily worthy of acceptance. So what the upshot of the critical inquiry has demonstrated is that I find at present no sufficient basis to accept any of the many hypotheses of personal survival. And it also seems no more plausible to me that one of these hypotheses is true than that some hypothesis of radically attenuated survival is true.

But I said, the alleged failure of the empirical arguments (and something similar must be said for philosophical survival arguments) has a played only a partial role in facilitating my agnosticism about personal survival. An at least equally important factor has been my engagement with eastern spirituality and concepts of self. I have discussed this in some detail in various contemplative explorations in my blog over the past two years, but a few salient points should be noted here.

First, for philosophical and experientially based reasons (and also empirically-informed considerations drawn from psychology), I find there to be less unity to what we are apt to call the (individual) self or person than many are inclined to suppose. My ideas here are partially informed by theorizing about the composite nature of the psyche, to which Ducasse and Broad drew attention in their day, and which today plays an important role in depth psychology and various psychotherapeutic models of the psyche (e.g. “Internal Family Systems” therapy). The plurality of personality or self is, of course, more dramatically represented in extreme cases of dissociative phenomena such as possession and trance, as well as “personality disorders” (such as borderline and dissociative identity conditions), but less dramatic shifts in mood and behavior are commonly encountered in people otherwise characterized by stability of mood and personality.

Broad once humorously pondered which personalities in cases of multiple personality would survive death, that is, if any of the personalities should survive death? This is a genuinely interesting question. Since both borderline and dissociative identity conditions are the result of trauma, there’s some empirical basis for expecting a similar fragmentation of our apparently individual mental life at death. At all events, if death is a trauma, can we sufficiently rule out the possibility that a postmortem consciousness would not become multiple? Broad jokingly raised the question, but in his book Death and Eternal Life, John Hick more sympathetically considered this possibility (in part on the basis of Buddhist and Vedantin concepts of the self), at least for some phase of our postmortem existence. And I was quite amused to discover, and I say this with the wit characteristic of Broad, that in a series of alleged communications with the postmortem “John Hick” via that impressive medium to which I referred above that “John Hick” (or – more properly – one of his closest continuers) seems to have found a verification of the earthly John Hick’s conjecture. As Columbo would say, “no conclusion,” but as Dr. Spock (from Star Trek) would no doubt say, “Fascinating, Captain.”

Second, I don’t find the idea of a substantial, enduring individual self sufficiently convincing anymore. It’s a plausible metaphysical conjecture about my experience of course, including the introspectively accessible unity of consciousness and the use of self-referential terms like “I” and “me,” but there are alternative plausible conjectures to account for these features of our experience. As indicated in my interview with Helen De Cruz earlier this year, my view of “self” falls within the domain of the non-dual traditions of Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism. While my view of self does not rule out personal survival, it does arguably constrain the interpretation of personal survival in certain ways. Most simply stated, on the non-dual view, the body-mind comes into existence at conception or birth and ceases at death, but we are not essentially the body-mind, and therefore we do not share in the limits and destiny of the body-mind. Our essential nature is non-differentiated consciousness or pure awareness, of which the body-mind is a temporary and finite manifestation. On this view, there is an essential “I” (the “big mind” of Zen) that persists through all changes (including death), but technically it does not “survive” death since it was never born in the first place.

Now the prior two points contribute to my agnostic stance in the following ways. The first consideration noted above implies that I don’t know what the personal stream of experience (presently identified with my body-mind) would look like if it should, in part or whole, survive death, including whether the persisting psychological profile would be strongly, weakly, or entirely non-continuous with the prior ante-mortem stream of experience out of which it emerged postmortem. As Broad noted, there might be a postmortem personal stream of experience (which originated from an earlier antemortem personal stream of experience), but it might not constitute numerically the same person as the person who died. While the second point is consistent with there being a postmortem stream of personal experience originating from the present body-mind (one understanding of “rebirth” in the eastern traditions), the second point is also consistent with there being no such pattern. And at all events, if there were a persisting stream of personal experience after death, it would be another temporary and limited manifestation of pure consciousness.

So it should be clear, then, that my agnosticism about personal survival does not entail agnosticism with respect to the continuation of awareness or consciousness as an aspect of our apparent individual experience. I don’t doubt that consciousness will continue after death, but it’s less than clear what this consciousness will be like. What sort of personal consciousness will it be? Will it even be personal? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the possibilities and prospects are at least intriguing and worthy of further exploration.

4.  Beyond Agnosticism

While I’m agnostic about personal survival, I’m prepared to make the following “survival friendly” concessions, some of which are relevant to an empirically informed philosophy of survival that is favorable to survival, and some of which suggest how the classical arguments might be more successful if re-contextualized.

First, I’ve already said that one of the important considerations driving my agnosticism is the plurality of hypotheses of personal survival and the fact, as I see it, that there is no way at present to epistemically discriminate between them, or between them and hypotheses of strongly attenuated survival, at least until we understand more about the nature of consciousness itself. The belief, widely held among empirical survivalists, that empirical arguments for survival play a primary or lead role with respect to the survival question just strikes me as getting matters ass backwards. The classical empirical arguments can’t get off the ground until we have at least a tentative theory of survival informed by a more advanced theory of consciousness, a theory that must be informed in part by future advances in cognitive neuroscience.

Second, while I’m agnostic about what happens to our individual consciousness or personal stream of experience at death, my agnosticism is friendly towards survival in at least the following way. I think some people can be epistemically justified in their belief in personal survival, and so I would agree that there can be justifying grounds for belief in personal survival.

As an illustration of one kind of justifying ground for belief in survival, my position and arguments do not rule out there being an experiential justification for belief in survival. Subjects who have near-death experiences, who have ostensible memories of past lives, or mediums who experience “communicators” in particular ways may very well be in possession of experiential grounds that confer justification on their belief in survival. Unlike the experiential justification of belief in God, which has been a central theme in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion, empirical survivalists have paid little or no attention to the prospects for an experiential justification of belief in survival. But this is essential to a more complete epistemology of belief in survival.

I also acknowledge that there may be good empirical arguments for survival. More precisely stated, I see no reason why there can’t be arguments, empirical and otherwise, that make a significant contribution to the epistemic justification of belief in personal survival. I don’t rule this out. I’ve been very careful in my publications to qualify the nature of my critique of the classical arguments, for instance by challenging the claim that the arguments are sufficient to render the survival hypothesis highly probable or even more probable than not. However, similar to what I argued on behalf of theistic arguments in my Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate 2009), it’s plausible that different grounds (e.g., experience and argument) may make their own modest contribution to the justification of belief in survival, but a robust or strong justification might require multiple grounds.

Third, while I don’t presently find a pragmatic justification for (myself) accepting any particular hypothesis of personal survival, I think greater attention should be paid to the utility of survival beliefs, especially in connection with our psychological development and the broader landscape of religion and spirituality, which has historically been the conceptual and value framework for survival beliefs, that is, before psychical research and parapsychology tried to extract survival from this framework, as many theists have done with reference to belief in God.

Fourth and finally, although I’m agnostic about personal survival, if I had to place a bet concerning the survival of individual consciousness (or some feature of our individual psychological profile), given what we know at present about altered states of consciousness and dissociative phenomena, I’d put my money down on some sort of highly attenuated form of survival.  It might be better to call it “persistence” (as Broad did) rather than survival, but what persists in this scenario might not be personal, or it might be a person just not one identical with this individual person I presently call “me.” Perhaps Broad’s humorous consideration of which “alters” (of multiple-personality/dissociative-identity types) might survive death is more than a concession to our ignorance. Perhaps a future theory of consciousness will lead us to expect the dissociation of consciousness in the afterlife. At present, all I can say is that for all I know this individual “I” may not emerge as intact or unified as it is now. It may be fragmented or dissociated at death, a consequence of its initial cognitive fragility and the trauma of death. For all I know, my postmortem consciousness may be to my antemortem consciousness what my dream consciousness is to my waking-state consciousness, in which case what survives may retain more or less of the memories that characterized the antemortem stream of consciousness. Perhaps our antemortem religious beliefs find their fulfillment or manifestation in the form of image-worlds constructed from our antemortem memories and desires, a conceivable afterlife H.H. Price once proposed.

There are many conceivable survival scenarios.   Our future inquiry may or may not shed further light on the next world, or whether there is any such world, but the persistence of the inquiry reveals that in a significant psychological sense the dead are living, living in us, and they are the guardians of an inner life we cannot help but consciously or unconsciously explore.

As Carl Jung said:

A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss. For the question that is posed to him is the age-old heritage of humanity: an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole.

Michael Sudduth

The Naked Journey Into Now

Truth is a dancer, spinning you around, tossing you aside,  taking all your breath. And at long last, when you think you’re about to die, you fall blissfully into her tender arms. Truth is a lover.  Truth is a dancer.

Sometimes truth appears as Krishna, sometimes as Jesus, sometimes as the Buddha, sometimes as Allah, but if you’re really lucky you’ll see it as the dog laying in the shade, the teardrop rolling down your face, and the ground upon which you walk.

The greatest challenge in the search for enlightenment is finding the path that leads to it, and the greatest challenge in the search for the path to enlightenment is realizing where you are at present.  The path you’re seeking is actually where you are in your present condition, and the light you hope to find at the journey’s end is already your present reality.  It’s shining as the I behind your I. 

Everything you are in this very moment – your love, your hate, your joy, your sadness, your health, your addiction – it’s all an expression of the Absolute.

Being born is Zen. Drinking is Zen.  Eating is Zen.  Breathing is Zen.  Loving is Zen.  Dying is Zen.  You are this.  You’ve always been this. You’ll never be more than this.  There is nothing more than this. What then are you seeking?  Birth is now. Death is now. Breath is now. 

What’s in a breath? A child playing in the sand. A young woman singing to her cat.  The philosopher deconstructing arguments.  The gardener planting flowers. The lover laughing.  Cook cooking. Actor acting.  Dancer dancing.  Poet writing. Tear drop falling.  Lover leaving.  Gods dying. Devils being born.  What’s in a breath? Your redemption. Your Self – the sweetest freedom.

To see the flower without judgment is all that is meant by Nirvana. So let this be your practice: stroll through gardens and pick flowers for the wreath that will celebrate the day of your death. 

One who contemplates the ocean in silence and one who plays in it with laughter are non-different, for resistance is found in neither one and consequently peace is found in both.

Seek as one who wishes to find nothing. Practice as one who wishes to achieve nothing. And most fundamentally, love as one who wishes to receive nothing. 

What is it to love, to truly love? It’s to embrace the deepest mystery and risk the greatest folly. It’s to bear your unbearable absence and find you inescapably present, recurring apparition of my nostalgic night.  It’s to watch for you at ocean’s edge and see you dancing as the waves. It’s to watch for you at sunset and see you as the light that is gradually transformed into night. What is love, you ask?  It’s to stand in the center of the fire with you and watch our world be burned, and then to be buried beneath the ashes of passion’s tortured expectations.

If you wish to open your heart wide to love, open your heart wide to pain, for he who suffers little loves even less.  Therefore kiss with tender lips the center of your sorrow and make love to your relentless pain. Then you shall dance with desire and stand in the center of the fire. 

If you can bear your sadness long enough, you will see that it is not your sadness you carry, but the sadness of the world.

The substance of everything unpleasant in life is the very bliss we wish we had instead.  

Today is the first day of Autumn, just when I thought she was in the past. But Autumn always returns, and I’m learning to embrace her presence afresh each time with an open acceptance, whether accompanied by joy or sorrow.  She’s just a season, though Keats perhaps thought she was a goddess. Like the waves upon the sea, the breath upon my lips, the rising of a craving, the blooming of a flower, the passion of a lover, Autumn comes and goes. Impermanence. That’s the basic truth. That’s the deal. And yet she remains my beautiful teacher, and my love for her abides.  She nails this painful truth into my heart. I let her cut me and bleed me into gratitude and peace, and then I am free – the sweetest freedom.

True freedom lies in the ability to say “yes” to whatever places you on the fine line between utter destruction and complete fulfillment. Anything short of this is a life half lived, and any such life is hardly lived at all.  

Divested of expectation, you overflow with gratitude.

Only one thing prevents us from experiencing God . . . the failure to realize what we love most in life. 

If I knew that this would be our last night together, I would give you just one thing, my silence, for this love of mine is not something that can be spoken, nor even understood, not even by the gods.

People don’t fear death as much as they fear silence. In fact, they fear death only because it’s the great inescapable and eternal silence.  If you would then conquer the fear of death, regularly enter silence.  And in the silence, experience freedom as the other side of nothingness, the complete negation of yourself.

The Invitation

The following is an excerpt from my new book in progress Truth is Dancing: An Invitation from the Other Side of Consciousness.

Chapter 1:  The Invitation

Beloved, for many days, indeed many years, I have often returned to you, reached out my hand to you, and called out to you, whether in the noonday hour or the silence of the night.  I have tried to capture your attention so that I could capture your heart, for if you could feel my breath for a moment, however brief, you would fall into my arms forever.  Long have I hoped that you would look into my eyes and dare me to dance with you, first upon the fallow land, then upon the burning stone, and finally upon the ocean waves.

Moved by compassion, I came to you as the wind. I touched your skin and caressed your hair, and yet I was unseen.  I came to you as the sun, thawing out your frozen hopes and melting your deepest expectations until they dried up in my light.  These, your most sacred possessions, I absorbed, and they fell from my eyes as the early morning rain in spring, tiny drops of water, by which I kissed your weary face.  But I was unseen.

I yearned to dance with you, my love, and in my restless longing you stood, dry and parched, thirsting for the depth that I am.  So I came to you as the ocean. You entered me and I enveloped you.  I was wet and my wetness entered you. You were satisfied for a time, but I remained unseen.  So I came to you as your breath. You took me in and let me out, but you did now know me.  Yet from this intimacy, I was born as the lover who came to you.  You kissed me, but your lips touched only the nakedness of your dreams.  And in those dreams, I was the tiger that hunted you as prey, even the devil desiring your soul.  But my face you could not see because you stood only in the shadow of your fears.

None of this drew out your surrender, and so I came to you as God.  You then surrendered and worshipped the Majestic, the Mysterious, and the Eternal.  You were filled with awe and reverence for the Name, but I remained nothing more than a ghost upon the wind.

All this was but a bid for you to dance with me, my love. But I remained a stranger to your vision, the unknown dancer on the other side of consciousness. Yet I never gave up on you, my beloved. I could not abandon you to the motherless night, which nurtures only the illusion of life and death. No. I was, I am, and I shall always be the eternal lover whose desire for you bleeds the river that takes you to the boundless ocean.

And where or when did you come closest to seeing me, to feeling my kiss upon your trembling lips?  Where? When? Only when at long last I appeared to you as emptiness, your emptiness, and you felt yourself falling into my arms and caught a glimpse of these eyes that have looked upon you with a burning and relentless passion.

Here I am, my love.  And here you are, even now, in my loving arms.  Look deeply into my eyes.  I know, love, you are drowning, but breathing the air from which your world was born. You are dying, but more alive than ever.  You are burning, and your world is on fire, but your ignorance is melting away.  You are lost, but exactly where you should be.  You are dissolving and yet more solid than ever.  Yet you cannot name the ground on which you stand, unseen as it is, nor name the space through which you move, unfelt as it is.  You cannot embrace the nakedness in which you were born, much less the formless night in which you are being called to surrender to this unsettling silence, a silence in which your greater pain and greater Self are together realized.

Listen to me, now, as I whisper in your ear. Feel my breath fall gently upon your skin as I speak. Relax, for my words are neither a broker nor a burden of truth. I can only reveal what you have always known.  I can only illuminate the earth on which you walk, the sky beneath which you bow in the hope that love will enter you, and the hour in which you are finally dissolved.

I want only one thing from you in this moment of terrifying vulnerability.  I want you to sit with your deepest pain, your most inescapable suffering. Call it forth even now.  What has broken you? What has robbed you of your faith? Who has captured your breath in a bottle and cast it out to sea?  Be with this pain for a few moments if you can.  I want you to see it, to see it clearly.  I want you to become friends with it.  No, I wish for something greater. I want you to see that this one you have called your “enemy” is and has always been your friend and your deepest confidant.  And when you meet Pain along life’s path, I want you to call Pain “love waiting to be revealed.” I want you to dance with her, and then tell me of her kiss, which awakened you from the dream you called your life.

from Michael Sudduth, Truth is Dancing: An Invitation from the Other Side of Consciousness

Image reproduced by permission of Alysha Houston.