Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Sam Harris vs. Bernardo Kastrup

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

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

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

2.  Kastrup’s Confusion

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

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

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

3.  NDEs and Drug-Induced Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Alexander’s “Cortical Inactivity” Claim

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

With respect to (i), Harris writes:

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

Kastrup’s response to this is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.  Failures of Proper Argumentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.  Determining the Time of Alexander’s NDE

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

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

Harris nicely illustrates the point here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Alexander perceived x.

(2) x happened at t.


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

Furthermore, now add:

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

We can then infer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.  Concluding Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth


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

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

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

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

Unmasking Survivalist Presumptions

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

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

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

A Survivalist Presumption

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

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

Near-Death Experiences

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

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

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

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

Keeping Perspective

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

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

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

The Survivalist Polemic Against Physicalism

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

Survival Book Published

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Posts

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

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

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

No Exit for Survivalists (4/27/15)

Survivalists in the Crosshairs (4/25/15)

2014 Posts

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

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

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

Response to Michael Prescott (5/19/14)

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

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

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

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

Interview on Postmortem Survival (1/20/14)

2013 Posts

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

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

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What’s Wrong with Survival Literature?

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

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

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

1. The Generic Explanatory Survival Argument

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

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

1. There is some evidence E.

2. The survival hypothesis S explains E.

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


4. S is the best explanation of E.


5. E is evidence for S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


Works Referenced or Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awakening Survivalists from Dogmatic Slumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Sudduth

Personal Reflections on Life after Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Catalyst and Evolution of My Survival Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Rise of My Agnosticism about Personal Survival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Beyond Agnosticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Carl Jung said:

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

Michael Sudduth

The Naked Journey Into Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divested of expectation, you overflow with gratitude.

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

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

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

The Invitation

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

Chapter 1:  The Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image reproduced by permission of Alysha Houston.

Helen De Cruz Interview at Prosblogion

Helen De Cruz (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam, and former post-doctoral fellow at University of Oxford) has just published an interview with me about my spiritual journey and work as a philosopher at Prosblogion, an academic philosophy of religion blog. Helen has graciously permitted me to post the entire interview here, but I encourage readers to visit Prosblogion and read the other interviews their and comment in the thread at Prosblogion, if you’re so inclined.

A couple of introductory comments.

First, Helen has been interviewing various philosophers on the relationship between their professional work as philosophers and their spiritual journey.  Her interview with me is the ninth in the series.  I’m grateful for the invitation she extended to me to participate in this wonderful interview series.  I recommend her interviews with other philosophers for those interested in the type of exploration Helen has documented.

Second, this is my first extended discussion of my spiritual journey since my rather “infamous” January 2012 “Open Letter” that announced my departure from Christianity and entrance into eastern spirituality. To her credit, Helen was one of the few academically trained philosophers who sensibly weighed in on the backlash against me at the hands of some conservative Christian bloggers.  Helen’s observations at the time were a breath of fresh-air over against the tabloid-like demonstration of sensationalism and libelous personal attacks.

Helen De Cruz Interview at Prosblogion 

This is the ninth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1234567 and 8. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.

This interview is with Michael Sudduth, a full time lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University, where he is also the coordinator of the university-wide religion program. He has been teaching at SFSU since January 2005.

Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?

My upbringing was moderately religious, mainly under the influence of my grandmother rather than my parents. My mother had been a nominal Christian in Iran before she came to the United States in 1964, but my exposure to Christianity came mainly from grandmother who gave me my first Bible when I was about 9 years old.  She was a fairly liberal Protestant Christian.  While she didn’t attend church much, she was always reading the Bible and “spiritual” books.  Although encouraged to explore spirituality, I didn’t really take up the pursuit until my teenage years, during which time I explored occult phenomena and eventually had a conversion experience that eventually led to my embracing one of the most rigid forms of Christianity I could find – Calvinism.  After flirting with the Christian Reformed Church, I ended up settled in the Calvinistic Baptist church for many years.

I gradually disengaged from my strict Calvinism in the course of my formal education, first at Santa Clara University (where I learned that Catholics could be good Christians, much to the horror of my fellow Calvinists). Later, at the University of Oxford, I developed an inclusivism that embraced all types of Christians.  I remained fairly conservative for about ten years (through several teaching positions, first at Calvin College and then Saint Michael’s College in Vermont). By the time I returned to California in 2004, I was pretty much done with Calvinism, and within a few years I was done with Christianity too. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that Christianity altogether ceased to be an influence, only that I ceased to identify myself as a Christian.

After taking up a teaching position at San Francisco State University in 2005, I began teaching World Religions and related philosophy of religion courses each semester.  This led to my deeply engaging the eastern religious and philosophical traditions for the first time in my career.  In early 2011 I officially announced my movement into the Indian Vaishnava bhakti tradition, though my heart and interests had been in this tradition for a few years at this point.  In 2013 I returned to a study of Advaita Vedanta, the Vedic-Hindu tradition of non-duality, which I had taken up on earlier occasions since 2006, both Shankara’s Advaita and more contemporary versions of Advaita.  This quickly led me to Zen Buddhism, which at least from one angle could be described as a particular variant on the non-dual tradition associated with the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta. I began practicing Zen meditation in late 2013, and in June 2014 I moved into a Zen retreat center, where I’m still a resident.

While you could call me a “Zen practitioner,” I don’t care much for the label “Zen Buddhist” or “Buddhist.”  As I explain on my professional website, my spiritual journey has taken me on many paths, each of which informs my current approach to the Sacred or Transcendent.  I still enjoy good Christian gospel music and on different occasions chant “Hare Krishna,” but I try to make as much room as possible for silence, which for me is the more challenging and lively dance with God.

Could you say a bit more about the reasons that precipitated your taking up these very distinct spiritual paths?

In the first instance, I would emphasize that my movement through these distinct spiritual paths reflects an evolving total life situation over the past 30 years. I think one’s religious orientation is strongly conditioned by personality, experience, and reflection—constituents, we might say, of the total life situation. I think these factors combine to just make one tradition “feel” right. There was a time when Christianity felt right, and there was a time when it no longer felt right. We might say that Christianity ceased to accommodate my total life situation, but Vaishnavism felt right. This was not a sudden shift, but, as I suggested above, a gradual transition over a few years.

Of course, just to be clear, in taking up Vaishnavism, and later Zen, I continue to carry aspects of the earlier traditions with me. All traditions with which I have connected at earlier times inform my present understanding of the Transcendent. This is why I don’t particularly care for the term “conversion,” as I think it ignores the persisting influence of one’s earlier orientation. I see my taking up different paths at different times as more about an evolution and enlargement of spiritual orientation. To be sure, certain beliefs or practices fall away in the transitions, but there’s always been important continuity for me.

Now I’d say that there have been four general kinds of considerations that have precipitated my taking up the traditions I have at particular periods. First, does a tradition illuminate what I already know about my life? Second, how well does a tradition fit with my overall intellectual outlook (be it informed by science, philosophy, psychology, etc.)? Third, how connected do I feel to the “truth” as expressed through the symbols of the traditions? And finally, do the spiritual practices of the tradition facilitate my moral and spiritual development in a way that is important to me at the time?

Let’s take up the first factor. There were very specific events and patterns in my life that gradually seemed better illuminated by eastern spirituality and philosophy than Christianity.  Some of these events and patterns concerned my relationships with other people, my attachments and corresponding experiences of suffering, and so forth. What I found in the exploration of my own experience was confirmed and deepened by the insights of eastern spirituality and philosophy. In my “Open Letter” (2011), in which I announced what at that time I described as my “conversion” to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, I explained the role that the Bhagavad Gita played in illuminating various aspects of my life, and I compared it to how the Gospel according to John had illuminated my life in my late teens and early twenties. In each case, it was not a matter of interpreting my experience in the light of the teachings of the texts, though of course there’s something to be said for that too, but the initial connection was grounded in how the text provided further illumination on matters already known directly from my experience.

As for second factor, after teaching world religions regularly for many years I concluded that the different religious traditions of the world shared a basic vision, worked out in different ways according to one’s individual dispositions. Inclusivism seemed more plausible to me than exclusivism, and this made Vaishnavism and the philosophy of Vedanta intellectually appealing. But there were many other philosophical issues that made the eastern traditions more appealing to me as a religious philosopher, for example, a strongly apophatic approach to the divine, panentheism, monism, and a more empirical and pragmatic epistemology. Around 2010 my interest in psychology also took off in a big way, largely as the result of a deeper engagement with the work of William James. This led me to depth psychology, and specifically Carl Jung, and eventually an exploration of depth-psychological therapeutic modalities and their interface with eastern spirituality. My own emerging psychological views struck me as more at home in the climate of eastern spirituality than Christianity, and this actually played an important role in my adopting a non-dual interpretation of the bhakti traditions and my eventual movement into Zen.

Now I must grant, and several Christians have repeatedly noted, that much of what I have said above would be equally accommodated in the mystical streams of Christianity. To a certain extent, yes. Two points though. First, some of my more recent philosophical and psychological views strike me as more at home in the eastern traditions. For example, I think what I would now characterize as my “pluralistic” approach to religion is more at home in texts such as the Upanishads or Dogen’s Genjo Koan than in the Bible. And this pluralism also fits nicely with my Jungian view of the unconscious. Second, and more importantly, above I noted two other kinds of reasons for taking up these various traditions, and these reasons clearly favor eastern spirituality over Christianity for me.

The symbolic expression of religious truth has been increasingly important to me over the past nine or ten years. As I was exposed to eastern religious symbolism, for example, the murti (images of the divine) and the poetry of the Indian mystics, I just connected with it more than I did with Christian symbolism. Curiously, during the second half of my life as a Christian I had developed an attraction to Christian artwork, something contrary to my original iconoclastic tendencies when I was under the influence of Calvinism. Also, my aesthetic appreciation of nature really kicked in after an automobile accident in March 2011. As a Christian my experiences of nature often triggered experiences of God (typically feelings of awe and reverence), but after my accident God was more directly present in the experiences of nature, and often not as a personal being, and the overall feeling was more intimate than what I had earlier experienced. Eastern religious symbolism captured such experiences of intimacy with the world and God in a way that deeply resonated with me, more so than Christian symbolism.

As a theoretical interjection, I would add that when it comes to our attraction to symbols, I think we’re often not aware of the whole situation, the deeper layers of the attraction. The subjective factor here is deeply rooted in unconscious material. The symbol in my view represents a situation in the unconscious life and facilitates an engagement with it at the level of consciousness. But something is working itself out, and I would say that it is God that is present and moving this process, something James proposed in his Varieties of Religious Experience and Jung later further developed. So I’m quite happy just to let things unfold and be with and learn from whatever is arising. This is part of what it means to dance with God, an important motif in the bhakti traditions of India and, in its own way, in Advaita Vedanta and Zen.

Finally, the effectiveness of eastern spiritual practices was a very significant factor facilitating my embrace of eastern spirituality. For example, the devotional practices associated with Vaishnavism, and subsequently the meditation practices of Advaita and Zen contributed to important progress in my moral and spiritual development. Zazen (Zen meditation) has also interfaced in profound ways with my psychological and psychotherapeutic interests, ranging from my interests in trauma, addiction, and dissociative phenomena to my involvement with (Jungian) analysis and Internal Family Systems therapy.

While I enjoy good intellectual exercises, fundamentally for me it’s about spiritual practices. Do they work for me? Do they give me insight into myself? Are they efficacious for cultivating virtues such as love and compassion? If chanting Hare Krishna is going to make me more mindful of God’s presence in my life and intensify my love for God, I’ll do it. If Zen meditation is going to make me conscious of what I am otherwise unconscious, make me more satisfied with each moment of life, and make me more receptive of people and their needs, I embrace it. As I see it, our individual relationship to God is not something separate from all this. It’s very much the essence of it.

You mention that you’ve engaged in devotional practices associated with Vaishnavism, and now the meditation practices of Advaita and Zen. Could you say a bit more about what these practices comprise (in a way that people unfamiliar with the traditions get a sense of what it’s about and what you do?).

Vaishnavism is a Hindu devotional theistic tradition in which Vishnu or Krishna is worshipped as the Supreme Being. The spiritual practices in Vaishnavism consist of different modes of devotional service (bhakti) designed to cultivate a personal and intimate relationship with God. Bhakti includes mantra meditation (usually with beads), devotional singing, meditating on Krishna (though images or scriptural narratives), and the making of various offerings to Krishna, especially food offerings. Really anything done for Krishna is devotional service to him, but these are some of the regular practices. Although Vaishnavas worship in temples, consistent practice of devotion at home is important, and this includes having an alter with images of Krishna (and often also one’s guru), mantra meditation, and the regular offering of meals to Krishna.

The height of my Vaishnava practice was early 2011 to summer 2013, during which time I also visited Audarya, the Gaudiya Vaishnava ashram in Northern California where Swami Tripurari is the guru. Tripurari was an influence on me for several years, and I spent time at the ashram in 2011 and also in 2014. I was deeply impressed with the kind of devotion I observed, as well as the kindness of the devotees. I have a deep appreciation for my experiences there. I think the ability to practice in a spiritual community is a rare and wonderful opportunity, and it can be deeply transformative. I should add that contrary to what a number of Christian bloggers have incorrectly reported, I was not, nor have I ever been, a member of or otherwise affiliated with ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). There are many strands of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and ISKCON, though significant, is only one among many Gaudiya traditions.

For me, Vaishnavism really inspired a commitment to daily meditation practice, whether practiced at home or outdoors. The practice involved focusing my mind on Krishna as the object of my devotion, regularly though not exclusively as mantra meditation with japa beads, usually doing several rounds of chanting each day. In a sense the term “practice” can be a bit misleading because eventually the activity I’m calling “practice” here just becomes a spontaneous and habitual orientation. Also, for me, the richly aesthetic nature of Vaishnavism (true of bhakti traditions in general) offered something more meaningful to me than the aesthetically sterile Protestant traditions with which I was associated for 20 years.

What I find particularly fascinating is my movement from this form of theistic meditation to forms of non-theistic meditation, which led me to rediscover Advaita Vedanta and eventually to take up Zen practice. Contrary to what one might suppose, this was actually a very natural progression for me.

According to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, devotion moves in the direction of deeper intimacy between the self and God, and in that intimacy the separateness between the subject and object gets dissolved. Gaudiya and Sufi love poetry each wonderfully represent this in the language of lovers who lose themselves in each other. Devotion begins from the standpoint of the duality intrinsic to the subject-object relation, but this just falls away at some point when bhakti is ripened. The movement that begins with the attraction to the other (as the other) ends in the dissolution of the subject and object. Hence, Rumi said that lovers experience what love requires, namely their own death. We might say that the two become one. Better yet, the two have always been oneness dancing as two. What is true of human lovers is true also in the case of love for God. You cannot experience God in the deepest intimacy until the ego dies and the sense of separateness vanishes.

To be clear, Gaudiya Vaishnavism asserts a persisting duality between the self and God, and this duality is supposed to be essential to devotion. However, for me even this fell away. By this I don’t mean duality is not experienced, just that it’s understood to be a relative or provisional feature of devotional experience. In other words, I came into a non-dual understanding of devotion, a view that certain strands of Vaishnavism and Shaivism (another Hindu devotional tradition) have accommodated.

Here’s how the transition occurred. In 2013 my meditation practices began gradually shifting away from attention to the object (God or Krishna) to the contemplative exploration of the nature of the very consciousness by which Krishna is known and experienced. Who is this one meditating on Krishna? Who is this one loving Krishna? It is I, but who is this I? At first glance, this appears to be a turn from the object “out there” to some subject “in here,” but in a sense it’s the dissolution of the distinction altogether. I experienced what Ramana Maharshi spoke of as going or falling into the heart. If I begin with any I-thought (whatever it happens to be), and I inquire into it, I’m led to its source, an “I” behind the “I,” the I-am-ness from which the belief and subsequent feeling that I amthis or that arises. What’s here in this I-am-ness is simply the abiding presence of awareness. Moreover, when I more deeply explored this awareness through various contemplative and meditative exercises, it became clear to me that this awareness was not something separate from anything that was happening: a bird chirping in the tree, a car racing down the street, a person smiling at me in some café, a Jimi Hendrix song playing on my computer, or Krishna looking at me through the eyes of the murti (divine image). If I lend my attention to what’s appearing in the form of thoughts, feelings, or sensations, I have no direct experience of these apparent objects as separate from the knowing by which they are known.

Importantly, it’s just this sense of non-separateness that is spontaneously present in the natural course of life, in falling in love, in the depth of playing a musical instrument or singing, painting or sculpting, or pulling weeds in one’s garden. From one vantage point, when we’re lending attention to apparent objects, we might speak of the presence of awareness as the witnessing background of all experience. But if we relax attention to objects, this presence of awareness is very much on the face of experience. Like a television or movie screen, we’re always looking at it, but it goes unnoticed because attention is directed to an unfolding narrative.

What I have just described is “Self realization” in the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dual branch of Vedanta, or the no-self teaching of Buddhism. I’ve discussed this and correlated ideas in greater detail in several blog posts over the past year, for example in “The Myth of Enlightenment”  and “Zen Sinking in the Ocean”. Roughly stated, in non-dual traditions, the practice of meditation aims not at attaching one’s mind to a God or anything else through devotional service, but realizing that behind the self, behind this body-mind, there is the Self (Advaita Vedanta) or Big Mind (Zen), which is none other than the awareness that is non-separate from life as it is happening. In a sense, meditation discloses this by disclosing the unity of the knower, knowing, and known. What’s interesting here is that I very naturally found myself on this path of practice from the path of devotion. In this way, the intimacy I initially experienced with Krishna was transformed into the seamless intimacy of all experience. In this intimacy, this I–loving-Krishna is non-separate from the Krishna-loving-me because we are oneness appearing and dancing as two. As Meister Eckhart more beautifully put it: “the eye by which I see God is the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, and one love.”

In my exploration of contemporary Advaita Vedanta (e.g., teachers like Rupert Spira and Adyashanti) I came into contact with Zen. I ended up reading Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Sekkei Harada’s Essence of Zen, and Eihei Dogen’s Genjo Koan. I connected with Zen largely because I realized that I was already very much in the kind of practice-experience described by these authors. I wanted to venture further into it, and it also nicely fit the psychotherapeutic modalities I had been exploring for a couple of years.

So I have characterized myself as a “Zen practitioner,” and this is informative to a certain extent. The heart of Zen is its meditation practice, called zazen. Like all Buddhist meditation, zazen involves looking at what we’re normally looking at but noticing what we typically don’t notice, a kind of clear seeing, as well as mental tranquility. However, zazen is somewhat unique in the way it achieves or exhibits this. It’s not a classical form of meditation. There’s no attempt to alter or otherwise control the mind, for instance, by directing or keeping one’s attention fixed on some particular object, e.g., an image, mantra, thought, or even one’s breath. In this way, zazen differs from other Buddhist meditation practices that involve guided meditation or other techniques for directing the mind in particular way. Zazen is simply letting the mind be and just watching or observing whatever is arising in the way of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but where this seeing takes place non-reactively, without clinging or aversion.

As part of my exploration of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, which grew out of my previous and continuing interest in Jungian analysis, I had already been cultivating mindfulness. The ability to observe sensations, feelings, and thoughts as they arise in particular circumstances, even develop a kind of conversation with them as expressions of “parts” of oneself, plays an important therapeutic role in IFS. Among other things, it allows us to discover and compassionately engage more subtle psychological patterns associated with trauma and suffering, and which play a powerful role in influencing behavior. However, it was clear when I began studying Zen that in my existing mindfulness practice I was running straight into phenomena highly salient to Buddhism: the impermanence of things, including the complex and fluid nature of “the self,” my attachments, and also how suffering or lack of satisfaction was rooted in attachments. Ultimately, I saw that “the self” that I thought was here is a fiction. In fact, there is no “me” at the center of my life; indeed, there is no “me” and there is no “center.” We can use these words of course, but in fact there’s just life happening, and there’s really not even that. I’ve tried to express the experience here and its implications for spiritual practice through aphorisms and various contemplative exercises in the blog posts cited earlier, as well as others such as “Ode to Autumn – the Sweetest Freedom” and The Boundless Ocean of Experience” .

This attraction to meditation, and zazen in particular, arose because it brought together the whole of what I call my experience in a natural and evident manner. I don’t separate psychological wellbeing, understanding, and spiritual attainment. Everything that is happening is part of the path, and so becomes practice, practice illuminating and cultivating practice, which of course from the non-dual Zen perspective is not something separate from the goal. So in the Soto Zen tradition (with which I’m involved), we emphasize shikantaza (just sitting to sit). This is the idea of “goalless practice.” For me, this just means practicing, regardless of what goal or intention the mind may frame for the practice at a given time, and ultimately just not caring so much about whether or not there’s some goal there or what the goal happens to be.

As readers of my blog on my professional site are aware, since May 2014 I’ve been living at Jikoji Zen Center  in the Los Gatos mountains in the California Bay Area. So I’m deeply connected to Zen practice on a daily basis and in the context of a spiritual community (sangha) of fellow practitioners committed to Buddhist precepts and Zen as a way of life. Although as a resident at Jikoji I’m involved in formal Zen training, I think Sekkei Harada has best summarized the way of Zen when he said that Zen is finding great satisfaction in every moment, down to the smallest detail of life. This is just another way of saying that the fullness of life is non-separate from fullness that is what I call “my” life.

All the members of our community (the sangha) have individual practice agreements with the teaching leadership at the center. These agreements are crafted to enable each of us to pursue and cultivate Zen practice given our diverse personal and professional responsibilities. An important part of the individual practice, of course, is our practice as a group. We practice zazen as a group, usually once or twice a day for a period of 30 to 40 minutes per sitting. The first sit is at 6:00am, and the second in the evening, after dinner. Group meditation takes place in building called a Zendo, where we sit on a cushion in silence, room lights dimmed, and our eyes open (though gaze softened) facing the wall a foot or so away from us. Morning sits conclude with a short service that involves chanting (sometimes in Japanese), the offering of incense at a central alter, and prostrations to Buddha, the Dharma (truth), and the Sangha. On Sundays we have two sits in the morning, a dharma talk, and a group lunch. Several times a year we also have intensive meditation periods (between a few days to a week long) called sesshins. During these times we may sit in meditation for up to ten to twelve hours a day, and they also include periods of teaching on Buddhist precepts. Our practice also extends to various tasks we have to maintain the Zen center.

So for my last question, I’d like to ask, how your own spiritual journey has impacted your work as a philosopher?

Most generally stated, I’d say there’s been something of a reciprocal relationship between my spiritual journey and work as a philosopher. On the one hand, my spiritual interests and experiences have guided my philosophical work in some important ways, but my philosophical work has also played a significant role in influencing my religious beliefs.

Let’s go back to my first twelve years in professional philosophy. I was focused on the epistemology of religious belief during this period, and my main project was devoted to synthesizing Reformed epistemology (with its emphasis on the proper basicality of belief in God) and the tradition of natural theology. This project grew out of my earlier interest in apologetics as a young Calvinist in the 1980s. After a four-year flirtation with the presuppositional apologetics of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til, after enrolling at Santa Clara University I began a serious engagement with the broader climate of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion. By the time I reached my senior year as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University, I had started to form some preliminary ideas in religious epistemology concerning evidentialism and properly basic theistic belief. These ideas took off during graduate school at Oxford under the supervision of Richard Swinburne, and they came to culmination after a dozen or so articles with my book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate 2009).

A few things strike me about this first phase of my work as a professional philosopher.

First, I think it’s pretty clear that the experience of God as a significant feature of my spiritual journey gave rise to and subsequently sustained my long-standing philosophical interest in the epistemology of religious experience, and more specifically the idea of immediate knowledge of God or properly basic theistic belief. My attraction to Christianity in my late teens and early twenties was rooted in personal experiences of God. This impressed upon me early in this journey the deeply intuitive or experiential nature of the grounds for belief in God. And the post-Christian phase of my spiritual journey has confirmed this as well, as I’ve had Vaishnava theistic experiences and also many non-dual or monistic experiences.

Second, as far back as I can recall, I’ve always been prone to a reflective habit of mind, seeking clarification, confirmation, and the elaboration and systematic articulation of what is given more directly in my experience. (In my pre-teens I was a huge Elvis Presley fan. My mind wanted to do something with the aesthetic enjoyment of the music, and so I created the first analytic discography of Elvis Presley music.) I think this explains the specific contours of my interest in religious epistemology, specifically my interest in synthesizing religious experience and reasoning as equally important grounds for our knowledge of God. Fundamentally, I think this has been motivated by my personal interest in synthesizing two aspects of my own experience and personality: intuition and reasoning.  In other words, there’s an important motivation here to understand the unity of two distinct cognitive functions, a subtle mode of self-exploration stimulated by my encounter with the numinous at an early age.

Were it not for my spiritual experiences, I doubt I’d be much interested in the nature and epistemology of religious experience. (Similarly, were it not for my having various ostensibly paranormal experiences, I doubt I’d be very interested in the critical exploration of these phenomena.) In fact, I might not even be a philosopher. It’s not simply that the spiritual journey has placed certain questions on the radar for philosophical exploration. It’s supplied me with experiences that have stimulated the asking of philosophical questions of a far-reaching sort.

Of course, given the importance of religious experiences in my spiritual journey, I’ve relied on philosophy to assist me in reflecting on the nature of these experiences, to critically work out an interpretation of religious experience. This is one reason why I’ve adopted a pluralistic understanding of religion and religious experience. While I’m convinced there is something veridical occurring in these experiences, the critical exploration persuades me to reject a kind of naïve realism about the experiences, whether its Jesus or Krishna one is experiencing. This also nicely fits with the Advaita and Zen understanding of religious experience. So there’s actually an important convergence of my current spiritual practice and my philosophical understanding of religious experience.

From the perspective of my more recent and present eastern spiritual practice, I’d say that I’ve opened up to a more diverse range of modes of philosophical inquiry. I remain very committed to and interested in the rigorous logical and conceptual analysis characteristic of analytic philosophy, but it no longer has a monopoly on my intellectual life and approach to philosophy. I see its limits in a way I didn’t earlier, and I certainly have no interest in utilizing it for the purposes of apologetics, so much an integral part of my use of philosophy in my Christian days. So let me say a few things about this.

When I took up Vaishnava practice, I think a number of Christian bloggers thought I was going to become some sort of apologist for Vaishnavism. I’m quite happy to have disappointed them. I never intended to become an apologist for Vaishnavism, nor do I intend to be one for Advaita or Zen. Indeed, the entire idea just strikes me as misguided and utterly uninteresting. When I moved into eastern spirituality I had already taken an important step in the direction of having no interest in defending my beliefs or trying to convince people to believe what I believe. To be sure, many people have a need for this, and I don’t intend to discourage them from pursuing it. But my experience after nearly two decades of Christian apologetics and philosophical debate gradually fostered a deep skepticism about this sort of activity, something my study of the psychology of belief has also reinforced. I think much philosophical debate, and especially religious apologetics, tends to be less about the issues ostensibly being discussed, much less a search for clarity and truth, and more about the persons themselves, expressions of their need to be right, to be seen or validated, and so forth, which at least for myself was motivated by my own insecurities.

Eastern spirituality brought a significant psychological shift for me. I was simply more interested in cultivating spiritual practice (e.g., meditation), reading the relevant literature, and working on intellectual projects simply because it was enjoyable to do so regardless of where I went with it or whatever anyone else had to say about it. From a psychological perspective, I’d say that the more conscious I became of the psychodynamics behind my engagement with apologetics, the activity became less tempting, but inevitably and naturally the energy behind the activity gets re-channeled. As the apologetic function of philosophy dissolved for me, philosophical inquiry became more about a process of self-exploration, and this was intrinsically satisfying to me. And while conceptual analysis and rigorous argument are still important to how I do philosophy, they don’t have a monopoly on it. Equally important, as a result of my Zen practice, there’s a significant degree of cultivated non-attachment to expectations and outcomes of intellectual activity.

To illustrate, I just finished writing a book (forthcoming in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series) in which I apply confirmation theory to the tradition of empirical arguments for life after death. The topic has interested me for many years, in a sense all my life, and on multiple levels. But my attitude towards the book and its argumentation is very different from the attitude with which I approached my first book. While I’ve taken care to write a scholarly work, and I think I’m basically correct in my critique, I’m not too concerned about whether I’m correct. I’ve written it with what I take to be a warranted confidence but also with a deep sense that the project is something of an adventure, something exploratory, and the analytical approach I take captures only one aspect of a many-sided debate. As for the analytical rigor, I find it an enjoyable exercise, quite independent of where it all goes (or does not go). Moreover, it allows me to meet, in a conscious and fairly playful manner, an important assortment of psychological needs. In a way, the whole thing becomes therapeutic, even a kind of meditation, and consequently can facilitate deep self-revelation. I’ve explored this in depth in my blog post “Confessions of a Bullshit Philosopher”. And this is an important way in which Zen has impacted my work as a philosopher. The whole force of Zen practice is to observe what is happening in this moment. It’s not about stopping or controlling what the mind is doing but taking a “backwards step” from what the mind is doing, observing it, maybe chuckling a bit at it, letting it pass through you, and just moving on. In other words, enjoy philosophy, but just don’t take it too seriously.

Equally important, though, I acknowledge that analysis and logical rigor constitute only one kind of philosophical inquiry. In contrast to my forthcoming book on empirical arguments for post-mortem survival, I’m currently writing a book that explores love, awakening, and God, but I’m using a contemplative and poetic approach.  This is an approach I’ve used in many of my blog posts on my professional website during the past year. This is very much in the spirit of Advaita and Zen, aimed at facilitating a certain kind of engagement with the unconscious, enlargement of our experience, and transformation of our orientation towards the world. I agree with Jung that “we should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect,” for at best the intellect reaches and coveys only a very limited domain of truth. Other modes of inquiry, exploration, and expression are equally important: meditation, poetry, fiction, music, and various psychotherapeutic modalities. I wouldn’t say that these approaches are intrinsically any less philosophical than the methodology of analytic philosophy. In fact, I’d say that when a philosopher owns anything in the deepest way, it becomes philosophy.

And, for me, the connection with spirituality is transparent. I’d say that we encounter God in a very broad continuum of human experiences and expressions of human nature. Indeed, there is nothing that can fail to mediate the Sacred. So what I pursue as a philosopher is, if I may use the language of William James, from the “remoter side” of consciousness, very much God pursuing me. Consequently, the right path is simply wherever I am. There are, of course, from the mystical or pluralistic viewpoint, many such paths leading us to God, apparently even for me over the course of this experience I call “my life.” Yes, I have chosen analysis and critical reflection, but I have equally chosen what Rumi aptly called “the path of song and dance.”

Three Poems


As most of you know, in addition to posting scholarly material in my blog, I also post poetry and contemplative explorations. In the past year I’ve published One Love, Presence, and The Deepest Silence.  I realize that not all subscribers are interested in these more artistic pieces, but I’d like my blog to exhibit the full-range of my work as an author.  So I have decided to post here three other poems.  The first, “The Other Side of Midnight,” was composed May 9, 2015, and the other two, “Our Eternal Night” and “The Eye of Shiva,” earlier this year. These poems, like my other ones, are about love, the self, and the Divine.  Among the themes I dance with here are love as the death of the self, the pain of rejection and losing someone we deeply love, and how God is present and experienced in the bliss and pain of love. Since I regard my poetry as a manifestation of unconscious material, it’s an important means of exploring the self and understanding my total life situation. However, there is also an important archetypal dimension to the poetry. Were it not for the archetypal images that arise in these poems, they would only be artistic autobiography.  So I offer them in the interest of our mutual journey into and engagement with the underworld of the unconscious. 


The Other Side of Midnight


In the solitude of the fragile moment

breathless, broken,

shattered into tiny pieces of the night,

my soul singing

her song, which had been a compelling fiction,

fell to silence,

as she dissolved and vanished from my sight.



If I could speak freely of that hour

when love and loss met face to face,

I would hold my breath long enough

for the deeper anger to be known

and share the bread of this beauty

and drink the cup of bitterness

from which our mutual gratitude was born.


Love and loss were her precious gifts to me,

yet the illusion of her relentless hold

could only be dissolved by the ebb and flow 

of holding on and then letting go 

of what was real and what was not.

And then I recalled the forgotten day

when she danced upon the burning sand

and the ocean laughed and named us 

“love longing for life but desiring death.”

This we were, and nothing more,

but of course, nothing less than this,

when we sealed our eternal love

and unconscious yet fated betrayal 

with our first sacred, timeless kiss.


A ghost she was from the very beginning,

yet she turned the clouds into living stone,

gave the dark and formless unconscious form 

and then entered me with her chilling breath,

first upon my face, then upon my heart,

yet her words were nails, her love a hammer,

pounding out a reluctant self-redemption.

Form without substance, shape without color,

just a blind, frozen, and fading projection,

the path upon which every lover must walk

to be crucified by his own heart’s desire.


How shall I describe the essence of My Love,

the goddess shakti who gave me birth

and by whom I have tasted an eternal death?

Sudden and vast unspeakable brilliance

annihilating me with her blinding light,

quickly, invisibly collapsing on itself,

leaving only ashes of tomorrow’s dream.

the glory of a dying, lifeless sun.


Sing me your song, 

my precious springtime lover

Give me the melody 

of your grief-stricken heart,

your consuming fire, 

the deepest truth of all,

sabotaging lie that annihilated me

in the madness of 

your impenetrable night.


You were the goddess 

that fell from the sky,

shattered, scattered, 

and dissolved into the earth

and yet never separate 

from this one I call “I” 

the silent sound, 

and the groundless ground,

the path of chaos I have walked.


In the solitude of the fragile moment

lovers appear as a kiss upon your lips

but first as the dirt beneath your feet,

butterflies dancing upon an Autumn wind,

swirling through your trembling hands,

a melody melting into the silence of the night,

where everything we are is finally dissolved,

there, on the other side of midnight.



Our Eternal Night


Sinking in the golden sand of an endless shore

slowly fading sun kisses the sky goodnight.

Here against these waves I penetrate

the silence space,

where God is a darkness

Jesus crucified, Vishnu humanized,

the Goddess, visualized

not as one but two,

keeps dancing naked in the night,

but it’s the ocean that was my Great Mother,

whose bleeding heart gave me birth.

to whose sacred womb I now return.


Waves, like our shattered, scattered love,

tossing us about, tearing us apart,

yet I give myself up and surrender 

to the waves on this silent winter night,

and sacrifice myself with the deepest trust

to the frigid yet loving, moving current,

as it takes me under this last time.

This depth is non-separate from the sky

we cannot fly.

This death non-separate from the life

we cannot live.

This love non-separate from what I am,

which you could not accept.

This time non-separate from the space

in which I would have danced with you,

if only for a moment while the sand 

caressed our bare and blistered feet.


You said this was a dream, that it is,

for more than a dream I could not wish,

more than a dream I could never pray,

more than a dream my magic could not make.

And yet, there, in the stillness 

of your frigid eastern night, 

I was, I am, and I will be

I – when you touch yourself in the dark

I – when ecstasy seizes you at dawn

I – when your breath becomes the music

to which you dance and sing, which in time 

will dissolve all your deeper pain.


If I could give you one gift, it would be

the seeing of my knowing all your pain,

the pain of wanting, the pain of striving,

the pain of too much tenderness when

the handsome poet stole your eternal love

and left her lying naked in the rain,

the pain when he penetrated you, 

and left you wanting more of the same,

the pain when you shattered his heart,

the pain of remembering, the pain of forgetting,

the pain of living, and the pain of dying,

the pain of knowing, the pain of unknowing,

the pain of clarity, the pain of mystery.


They cursed my silence, they cursed my words,

but I was only a ghost for love’s eternal longing.

Seeing not seen, hearing not heard,

just the watcher of their dreams,

nothing more, aye, nothing less,

for their lips could not kiss the face 

of their own perpetual pain and

embrace the shame that burned

rejected gypsy lovers at the stake.

And so they could not make love to me,

the shadow behind their fears,

the weeper behind their tears,

the god Shiva seized by Shakti

and slain under the power of their 

undying virgin love.


Fear not, my unseen lovers,

for I am neither dead nor living

neither prince nor poet

not human enough even to be a pauper,

so I cannot pay for the well-deserved

ridicule and betrayal I have endured 

these many days, these many lives,

but yet I carried the fire of the gods

that utterly destroyed the tenderness 

of the sand upon which we walked

and turned our entire world to stone.


Yet I shall come to you again, when 

the winter snow has become spring rain

turning dying brown into living green

and deer drink again from flowing streams.

As raindrops kiss your neck, and

a gentle breeze wraps around your waist,

and butterflies dance with you in the woods,

let it be, love, let yourself go

breathe it all in as far as it can go.

Surrender to the invisible presence,

and feel me enter you for the first time.


The Eye of Shiva


His eye is the power of my I.

The I behind this I.

The I within this I.

Healing, revealing

the rhythm of my unconsciousness

along the path of silence


His eye is the seeing of the truth.

The truth behind this I.

The truth within this I.

Healing, revealing

The rhythm to which lovers dance

Along the path of silence


His eye is the feeling of the shadow.

The shadow behind this I.

The shadow within this I.

Healing, revealing

The demons of a shattered mind

Along the path of silence.


His eye is the inconceivable infinite depth.

The depth behind this I.

The depth within this I.

Healing, revealing

The blissful and painful thoughts

Along the path of silence.


His eye is the purest meditation.

The meditation behind this I.

The meditation within this I.

Healing, revealing

The world of all dualities

Along the path of silence.


His eye is the image of the goddess.

The goddess behind this I.

The goddess within this I.

Healing, revealing

The voices of distant lovers

Along the path of silence.


His eye is blissful transforming love.

The love behind this I.

The love within this I.

Healing, Revealing

The dissolution of this I

Along the path of silence.


Michael Sudduth