Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Gel – New Book Announcement

IMG_0326I’m pleased to announce the completion of my third book, a psychological horror-thriller novel called Gel.

As explained last year in Stephen King and the Path of Fiction, I’ve devoted considerable time to fiction since fall 2015. One of the reasons I’ve not blogged much in the past year is that I’ve devoted considerable time to reading and writing fiction. The discipline helped me produce Gel and make substantial progress on two other novels.

Gel reflects my long-standing interests in abnormal psychology, horror fiction, and phenomena suggestive of life after death. The narrative presents an apparent case of reincarnation entangled in strands of childhood trauma, psychopathology, and sadomasochistic eroticism. The story unfolds around three main characters—three people with three obsessions, yet one shared secret has haunted each of them for twenty-five years. Now their previously separate lives are converging and unraveling under the power of unresolved guilt and the desire for control and personal justice.

The novel also explores some interesting philosophical questions. Throughout I’ve wrestled with closely allied problems in the interface between personal identity and the reality/appearance distinction. People are often pretenders, or they at least have an aspect of their lives that remains hidden or opaque, perhaps even to themselves. This phenomenon looms large in Gel.  The narrative also expresses my curiosity about the moral and psychological complexities of having empathy for perpetrators of evil.

In my 2016 Review of Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts I discussed the horror of ambiguity. Gel is an example of this approach to dark fiction. Unlike much traditional horror fiction, the narrative of Gel doesn’t assume the actual existence of the supernatural (or the paranormal), though the story is replete with the appearance of it. Neither does the narrative deny the existence of supernatural entities or forces. Gel doesn’t resolve the tension that exists between naturalistic and super-naturalistic interpretations of the phenomena within the story. It intentionally deploys ambiguity as a literary device. The reader is left to grapple with the question and to consider the possibility that the origin of the terror eludes our understanding.

For example, one of the main characters in Gel may be the reincarnation of a seductive high school English teacher who died tragically twenty-five years earlier. But it’s also possible that pathological self-deception and improbable circumstances have coalesced to create the illusion of reincarnation. Then there’s the recurring phenomenon of the gel, also the title of the story. Is the gel merely a natural phenomenon—a coincidence in the bluster of human-made madness—or is it the manifestation of an otherworldly diabolical force,  a force ultimately responsible for the madness and the wider narrative of the story?

These questions remain open-ended from the viewpoint of the narrator of the story. The reader must wrestle with the relative merits of competing explanations. The reader must also consider the possibility that their own interpretive preferences at this juncture are a product of their wider psychology, controlled as it often is by their own interests, needs, and emotional life.

At present I’m editing Gel in preparation for a beta-version of the novel that should be available in late July or early August. At that time I’ll post a synopsis of the book. If you’d like to be considered as a beta-reader, please email me. Include some background on authors you’ve read and your literary interests. If you’re interested in horror fiction or psychological thrillers, the novel may interest you. If you’re uncomfortable  with explicit language and graphic sex, Gel is not for you.

Michael Sudduth

Exclusivist Anti-Exclusivist Apologetics

IMG_0326Farhan Qureshi recently posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he discussed my 2011 movement from Christianity to the Indian bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism. Qureshi discusses my  conversion story because he has a broader interest.  He’s interested in raising awareness about the dangers religious exclusivism and challenging the exclusivist paradigm.

The religious exclusivist takes the view that only the narrative of his own particular religious tradition is true, or that his particular religious tradition provides the only path to salvation. Religious exclusivism is also associated with the missionary goal of converting people to one’s own religion.

Qureshi has several interesting and I think correct things to say about the dangers of religious exclusivism. While I agree with some of his criticisms, I have reservations about his approach.

First, though, a preliminary point about my own spiritual journey. I don’t self-identify with any particular religious or spiritual tradition. Yes, I was a Vaishnav for about three years, but I haven’t considered myself a Vaishnav since late 2013. I spent a year and a half living in a Zen community and engaging in Zen practice (June 2014 to December 2015), but I didn’t consider myself a Buddhist then, nor am I a Buddhist now. In Helen De Cruz’s interview with me (2015), I provide the most recent detailed account of my spiritual journey. It approximates where I stand today.  So the title of Qureshi’s video (“Christian Scholar Converts to Hinduism, Dr. Michael Sudduth”) is somewhat misleading.

The more interesting part of Qureshi’s video is his more general discussion of religious exclusivism. He makes it clear that he aims to challenge the exclusivist paradigm. Writing with reference to Suni Muslims and Evangelical Christians in particular, he says that he aims to make these people realize how “deluded” and “selfish” their beliefs are. He illustrates this from his personal experiences of encounters with exclusivists.  Among other things, he says, “With loving kindness and no animosity in mind I told them your beliefs are evil . . . vile . . . demonic.”

While I’m sympathetic to Qureshi’s concern about the dangers of religious exclusivism, I find his goal problematic.  I also think his methodology is going to be psychologically ineffective and potentially self-defeating.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, it’s notoriously difficult to reason people out of their deeply held convictions. Religious exclusivists tend to hold their convictions with considerable tenacity.  So the goal of trying to reason exclusivists out of their beliefs is problematic on general psychological grounds. Moreover, we only compound the general difficulty here if we tell people that their deeply held convictions are demonic, vile, and delusional.  It’s hard to see how such an approach is going to be effective in helping people realize anything. In fact, it’s more likely to entrench them further in their convictions. Labeling people’s beliefs with morally demeaning terminology is bound to validate the fears and suspicions exclusivist beliefs are designed to alleviate in the first place. We basically validate exclusivism by a frontal assault.

Second, I have to wonder whether the passion behind Qureshi’s anti-exclusivist apologetic isn’t itself a species of the same thing he’s opposing. Worse yet, it potentially masks this fact.

Qureshi points out that tribalism drives exclusivism. Indeed, but of course that’s because tribalism is intrinsic to human nature and has been essential to our evolution as a species. It is primitive, yes; but much that is in us is and will remain primitive.  This is not confined to religious exclusivism. Tribalism is bound up in our general psychology, specifically our aversion to fear and insecurity. Attachment to an identity offers a kind of insulator or buffer against perceived threats.  It’s a kind of security blanket in which we wrap ourselves.  The communal expression of this is a social identity. There’s safety in numbers, in being a member of an in-group.  The demonizing of the beliefs and practices outside our group is symptomatic of the power of fear and insecurity.

So I have to ask what is motivating the use of morally demeaning language like “vile” and “demonic” to characterize religious exclusivists. What is motivating this pathos to snuff out the enemy, to rid the world of these delusional beliefs? It’s one thing to characterize people’s beliefs as false, implausible, or unwarranted (and in a clinical sense, we can speak of delusional beliefs), but it’s quite another matter to use terms like “vile” and “demonic.” These are highly evocative, emotionally charged terms. And they are precisely the same terms religious exclusivists use to denigrate the beliefs of non-exclusivists. From a purely psychological point of view, it’s difficult not to see Qureshi as more like his ostensible enemies than he makes himself out to be.

There’s a reason why the mystical traditions have not cared to engage in some large-scale attack on religious exclusivism, a fact that Qureshi appears to lament. It’s because practitioners in those traditions don’t perceive the existence of people with different beliefs than their own as a threat.  This is because they have softened their narcissistic tendencies and cultivated the grace of empathy. They’ve learned to let the exclusivist’s mockeries and criticisms pass through them.

Personally, I have no interest in refuting or otherwise challenging religious exclusivists. Yes, we can play the game of logical chess and sharpen our intellect by wielding our philosophical acumen to beat down our opponent’s “vile” and “deluded” beliefs. But do we really accomplish anything here other than temporarily quieting our own insecurities?

Having been an exclusivist, I understand the appeal it can have. I also understand the futility of trying to force people (intellectually or otherwise) out of their deeply held convictions. And I realize that like all other humans I have my own exclusivist tendencies. To the extent that I’m consumed with assaulting religious exclusivists I may be masking my exclusivist tendencies, tendencies that would plausibly motivate my own attack on exclusivism. This is why I’ve declined to say much about these issues since 2012.

That being said, I do understand Qureshi’s need to assault religious exclusivists.  But I think apologists against religious exclusivism might benefit by asking, “what is my ultimate intention here?” Even the protest against exclusivism can be primitive in origin. Fear can drive exclusivist apologetics, and it can also drive the more virulent opposition to it. Most importantly, it can short-circuit the one thing that’s needed. What’s needed is conversation, not assault. We need to cultivate the art of dialogue not counter-terrorist military-style tactics.

How do we have this conversation?

One precondition would be our becoming more conscious of our own tribalism and the psychology that drives it. What we despise most in the exclusivist may be what we’ve been unable to see and accept in ourselves. If we can tap into our own personal exclusivism, we might have more effective conversation with those who are exclusivist in their own way. Empathy, not argument, is a balm on fear.  In the end, this can help filter and regulate the more deleterious effects tribalism has, whilst avoiding the implausible and self-defeating goal of trying to eradicate it.

The invitation to conversation with exclusivists is at the end of the day an invitation to have a discussion with people who are very much like us in their basic psychology. No one of us is above the fallen angels of our nature. This is the central insight of the mystical traditions Qureshi otherwise lauds.

Michael Sudduth

A Head Full of Ghosts: A Review

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

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

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

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

The Story: A Synopsis Without (Major) Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguity and the Space of Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Head Full of Ghosts vs. The Exorcist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialing in a Natural Fear

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

This is worth exploring further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Some other creepy descriptive moments stand out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

Stephen King and the Path of Fiction

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

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

My Return to Fiction Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration from Stephen King

Why have I returned to fiction writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Benefits of Fiction Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming with Eyes Wide Open

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

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

Michael Sudduth

REVISED 11/29/16

Empirically Robust Survival Hypotheses

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

– Michael Sudduth

Unphilosophical Fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

50th Blog

Rivas Redux

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

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

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

Let me provide some illustrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Rivas characterizes my “program” as destructive.

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

Response to Titus Rivas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Rivas ventures three criticisms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivas writes the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

Response to Bernardo Kastrup

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

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

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

Let me provide a few illustrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Kastrup wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth