Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

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

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