Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

May 10 Contemplations

Zendo light grows dim
Buddha smiles on falling tear
compassion is born, compassion let go
impermanence of the world
take the journey in 12 steps
each of which is dependently arisen
pass through Enlightenment’s door
to the space where flowers bloom and quickly die
but all is just as it is
 
I am powerless – the starting point of every spiritual transformation.
You are powerless – the starting point of all forgiveness and compassion.
We are powerless – the starting point of all healing.
 
To repent is to wring out sin from the mind and bleed it out of the heart.
To pray is to confess one’s intrinsic and inescapable limits of power.
To worship is to surrender one’s ego to the perfection of non-ego.
To surrender is to freely acknowledge one’s emptiness.
To love is to treat the present moment as if it were your last.
To meditate is to enter the present without knowing it to be the present.
To study the self is to watch whatever arises in us and to examine with curiosity the suffering intrinsically connected to our sense of being this or that thing.
To reason is to fall into time and forget eternity.
 
I hear a bird chirping while a feeling of horrendous sadness overwhelms me. In this same consciousness arises the pleasant and unpleasant.  This I like; that I don’t like.  Now move to the space where the chirping bird and sadness are each present, but the mind’s story about them is absent. This is clear seeing, seeing life as it is.
 
The Buddha-nature is the substance of all things, even greed, anger, and delusion.  For the ego, greed, anger, and delusion are poisons, for non-ego they are enlightenment.
 
Nirvana is samsara once the ego has dissolved.
 
The transcending of suffering does not result in the dissolution of unpleasant experiences but only the dissolution of our judgments about them, for our natural peace is disturbed not by the world as it is but rather by the mind’s story about it.
 
One person notices the crooked wheel and is troubled.  Another person just keeps riding because, of course, the road is bumpy.
 
Enlightenment is overrated.  Suffering is underrated.
 
Why Zen? A soft mind is necessary.
 
While at Starbucks I noticed the customers carried away in anxious conversations about yesterday and tomorrow. The workers were highly focused on their specific tasks: this one focused on preparing steamed milk,  the other on mixing drinks and yet another on delivering orders to the pick-up counter. They were one with their work. They were present. Time dissolved. I thought “this is Zen.”
 
Zen is being at ease in whatever condition you find yourself.  Falling rain, falling leaves, and falling tears.
 
To freely feel what arises in us is to watch feelings, perceptions, and thoughts without clinging or aversion.
 
The witness and what is witnessed are non-different.
 
When I was inside anger, it engulfed and overwhelmed me.
When I resisted anger, it became a fire that consumed me.
When I was on the outside of anger, it burned but I was neither overwhelmed nor consumed.
When the fire burns, watch it closely.  Know the Dharma.
 
To watch anything is to be on the outside of it.  To watch anything without reaction, with neither clinging nor aversion, is to realize being non-different from it.
 
Drink the poison of anger without death.
 
Every angel has a sinner as a shadow, and every sinner walks in the shadow cast by his own halo.

As It Is . . . Again

As It Is .  .  . Again

 

Sri Krishna speaks –

Radha exits his mouth

takes form and then vanishes

into the dark night of the God’s unconscious.

The goddess descends into unknowing,

rises later in the form of an imperfect man.

Incarnation.

 

Close your eyes and the world disappears.  Open your eyes and the world reappears. Having discovered the Self when the world disappears into the darkness of unknowing, see it also as it manifests as the very form and beauty of the world.  

Right there at the heart of all beauty is the blissful union of the knower and the known, the experience of the Is-ness of the world as non-different from oneself. 

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.

There are three things I love about the ocean. Its ability to make me entirely present, its ability to keep me present, and the feeling of awe and reverence its presence evokes. 

Being born is Zen. Drinking is Zen.  Eating is Zen.  Breathing is Zen.  Loving is Zen.  Dying is Zen.  I am that.

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

I shall not die unfulfilled if I die having failed to solve the riddles of life. I shall die unfulfilled, however, if I die without love in my heart. 

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

One hour in Zazen

the world slows down.

Two hours in Zazen

the world just stops. 

Three hours in Zazen

the world disappears. 

Four hours in Zazen

I disappear. 

All conventional means of addressing suffering fail because they are motivated by the intention to eliminate suffering.  At best they only temporarily alleviate suffering, while subtly perpetuating it, often intensifying it. Suffering is fueled by our determined efforts to extinguish it. It too wishes to live in us.  So lend your attention to its voice and seek only to hear and understand it. You will then want to ask, “Suffering, where have you gone?”

It is possible to analyze oneself out of or into any situation with impeccable logic and still fall into the most profound untruth. 

When the spirit of forgiveness is absent in us, the redemptive acts of others are unseen.

Where is my Muse? Precisely the question a Muse would ask. 

Those who Deify love soon became atheists.

Sitting in silence

all the gods flew out of my head

watching I understood

the passing of my seasons

Autumn turned to Winter

Winter dissolved into Silence

only emptiness remained

and then I saw clearly

emptiness was all there ever was.

 

As It Is

AS IT IS
  
Master Dogen speaks,
a bird escapes the cave,
where thought and non-thought are born.
It lands on Bo tree branch,
where it watches the Buddha
and the Devil become one.
Sitting. Thoughts take birth.
Watching.  Thoughts become no thoughts.
With a song, suffering ends.

What am I drinking? What am I eating? What am I defending?
 
Every relationship teaches us about the origin and tenacity of our suffering, for every conflict is the suffering inherent in a self that has some identity to defend.
 
Am I the ocean or the wave? Does it matter?
 
Knowing truth is easy and comes quickly.  Dissolving the illusion that stands in the way of clear seeing is the hard thing.
 
When the body and mind drop away, there is no belief that what I am is essentially this or that thing.  There is also no belief that I am *not* this or that thing, for this belief is also an expression of the mind seeking to identify with some thing, namely “no one.” “I am no one” becomes another kind of thing in the mind’s story telling. In this way the mind more covertly perpetuates suffering.
 
One of the things I love about Zen meditation is that it introduces the possibility that I might forget about Zen altogether.
 
The bird-experience is present, but there is no bird.  The sadness-experience is present, but there is no sad person.
 
The most difficult part of knowing the truth is dissolving the illusion that prevents us from seeing it.  Since the illusion is the story the mind lives to tell, knowing the truth requires a dissolving of the mind.  Every genuine insight arises because the mind and its story have temporarily dissolved.  And the truth is forgotten once the mind rises and the story telling begins again.
 
He wished to become conscious of what was unconscious so he could know himself, but there comes a time when it is vital to give some of it back to the unconscious. After all, it’s not as if the latter doesn’t know our plans. 
 
A cup of Folgers coffee in the morning. A walk in the woods at sunset. A stranger who smiles at us. The indescribable pain of the absence of someone special. To keep it together, just remember: this is as good as it gets.
 
From the point of view of dualistic thinking, oneness is a merging of two separate beings that gives birth to a third called “We.”  All such merging is inevitably experienced as the sacrifice of “You” and “Me.” To dissolve the dualistic viewpoint introduces the possibility that oneness involves no merging of two into one, but the birth of two from one.  To see things as they truly are is to celebrate the diversity that arises from unity, to softly smile with deep gratitude for the We from which You and Me are born, and to which we shall eventually return.
 
Cashew butter is precious because it tastes damn good, but more importantly because I know that tomorrow it might disappear.
 
I don’t worry about whether I will survive death, just as I didn’t worry about being born.  My worries are rather mundane: Can I pay my rent?  Will I be understood by others? Will my lover return? These are my worries. They are rooted in my experience of having something to defend. Now, *there’s* something really to worry about!
 
If “no self” originates from aversion to self, it’s no different than “self” originating from attachment to being “this” or “that.” In the end, selves and no-selves suffer the same.
 
Gratitude comes quite naturally once we divest ourselves of expectations.
 
He fell in love and forgot himself, yet his love failed because he hadn’t forgotten himself. Actually, he insisted on himself quite loudly.
 
At some level, I feel there’s no difference between God and Bullshit.  Each evokes the most powerful forms of worship.
 
I fell in love the moment I tasted cashew butter. I said I loved it.  I actually experienced depression when it disappeared for several months.  Eventually it returned, but they had raised the price. It didn’t matter though, and that realization “I don’t care what it costs!” exceeded the pleasure of its taste.
 
Radha grasped at his smile,
but then the lover disappeared.
There was fire.
Krishna grasped at her fire,
but his mind could not contain it.
Only in the ocean is this revolved,
for from the ocean all things arise
and to the ocean all things return,
especially love.

The Survival Hypothesis – Now Available

The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship, ed. Adam J. Rock (McFarland Publishers, 2013) is now available from Amazon.  Some of the book content is available at Google Books.

“Contemporary parapsychology tends to be preoccupied with ESP (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition) and psychokinesis. In contrast, this cutting-edge anthology assembles an international team of experts from the fields of psychology, parapsychology, philosophy, anthropology and neuroscience to examine critically what is referred to as the survival hypothesis: the tentative statement or prediction that some aspect of our personhood (e.g., consciousness) persists subsequent to the death of the physical body. The appraisal of the survival hypothesis will be restricted to the phenomenon of mediumship; that is, humans who ostensibly communicate with the deceased. The book has been divided into four main sections: Explanation and Belief; Culture, Psychopathology and Psychotherapy; Empirical Approaches, and The Present and Future. The issue of postmortem survival is supremely relevant to us all because in our consensual space-time reality the human encounter with death is, of course, a certainty.” – Book Description (from Publisher)

This newly published collection of essays on mediumship features my article “Is Postmortem Survival the Best Explanation of the Data of Mediumship?”  It also opens with philosopher Stephen Braude’s essay “The Possibility of Mediumship: Philosophical Considerations.”

Adam Rock put together a good collection of essays. The book provides a well-rounded assessment of the nature of mediumship and its implications for the hypothesis of postmortem survival.

Michael

Getting Sober about Survival (Part 3 of 3)

In my previous blog (2/11/14), I argued that (i) empirical survival arguments depend on the survival hypothesis having predictive consequences and (ii) the survival hypothesis has no predictive consequences unless it’s supplemented with various auxiliary hypotheses.  A substantial part of the discussion was devoted to laying out eight different assumptions required by survival arguments based on the data of mediumship.  If we were to look at survival arguments from cases of the reincarnation type or near-death experiences we would find a similar need to adopt other kinds of auxiliary hypotheses, but the focus on mediumship at least illustrates the auxiliary hypothesis requirement.  This will suffice for the line of argument in the present blog, which is that the auxiliary hypothesis requirement generates a problem for empirical survival arguments. 

The problem of auxiliary hypotheses arises from the fact that the auxiliary statements needed by survival arguments are not independently testable.  If this is correct, then we don’t actually know whether postmortem survival as such would lead us to expect any empirical phenomena, much less what the general or specific observational features of the world should be.  If the justification of the claim that there is empirical evidence favoring the hypothesis of survival depends on the survival hypothesis having predictive consequences (of even a general sort), then empirical survival arguments face a formidable difficulty.  It would appear that we are, at best, at the mercy of conjecture, which of course serves competing hypotheses equally well.

The situation is parallel to arguments from complex adaptation in organisms to an intelligent designer.  In the first blog of the present series, I looked at Elliott Sober’s critique of intelligent design arguments.  On this view, we cannot determine whether postulating an intelligent designer would lead us to expect the salient features of living organisms.   The reason:  we cannot independently test the range of auxiliary hypotheses that would, in conjunction with the hypothesis of an intelligent designer, lead us to expect the observational data.  In particular, we cannot test hypotheses about the designer’s requisite abilities and goals.  How, then, can we justifiably say anything about what the hypothesis of intelligent design as such would lead us to expect? 

In the present blog, I’ll explore the problem of auxiliary hypotheses for survival arguments, again illustrating this with survival arguments based on the data of mediumship.  What I hope to show, at least in a preliminary way, is that there is a genuine and serious problem here that undermines classical empirical arguments for survival, especially where postmortem survival is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.

1.   The Independent Testability of Auxiliary Hypotheses

As explained in the previous blog, single hypotheses rarely have significant predictive consequences. The Duhem-Quine thesis in the philosophy of science highlights the point that predictive consequences depend on content provided by sets of statements taken together.  This is true in both scientific theorizing and in a variety of everyday inferences.  If we treat evidence collected at a bank robbery as evidence that Mr. Phinuit robbed the bank, this depends on establishing a connection between the evidence and Mr. Phinuit being the robber. Auxiliary hypotheses are enlisted to make this connection, e.g., hypotheses about Mr. Phinuit’s physical traits (e.g., fingerprint pattern, height and weight, facial features, speech patterns and accent), the make/model of his vehicle, and his whereabouts at the time of the robbery.

The dependence on auxiliary hypotheses introduces a minor wrinkle in the procedure of hypothesis testing.  In testing some hypothesis by its predictive consequences, we are trying to evaluate or assess the merits of the hypothesis by way of its connection to observational evidence.  If hypothesis H makes the observational evidence O unsurprising (i.e., leads us to expect O), then—to that extent—O evidentially supports H.  If O is not what we would expect, then O counts against H to some extent. If some different hypothesis H* renders O less surprising than H, then O favors H* over H.  These relations capture some widespread intuitions about how evidence supports hypotheses.  However, the role of an auxiliary hypothesis a is such that, in its absence, we can’t really say what H would lead us to expect.  It’s H + a that leads us to expect observational evidence O, not H alone. 

The importance of testing auxiliary hypotheses arises here.  If we had no way to test a, we would not be able genuinely to test H itself by means of predictive consequences.  This is most apparent in cases where the observation we would expect given H + a doesn’t pan out. What do we conclude?  Does the failed prediction count against H, a, or both?  Which statement(s) should carry the burden of epistemic culpability?  Suppose I adopt the hypothesis that Mr. Phinuit, a Frenchman, robbed the Bank of America in New York City.  It would be natural to expect that if the robber spoke during the robbery, witnesses would report that the robber spoke with a French accent.  Suppose, though, that the witnesses all report that the robber spoke with a thick Bronx accent.  Does this count against the hypothesis that Mr. Phinuit robbed the bank?  It’s not clear because our expectation that the robber would speak with a French accent is based not merely on the hypothesis that Mr. Phinuit robbed the bank, but on the additional assumption that, being French, Mr. Phinuit would speak with a distinguishable French accent.  But in this case, the failed prediction (i.e., the robber would speak with a French accent) might indicate that Mr. Phinuit is not the robber or that Mr. Phinuit, though a Frenchman, does not always speak with a French accent.  In other words, the auxiliary hypothesis may be what needs to rejected or modified in some way, not the hypothesis concerning who actually robbed the bank.

If we had no way to test the auxiliary hypothesis about Mr. Phinuit’s accent, it would be difficult to decide what the hypothesis that Mr. Phinuit robbed the bank would lead us to expect with respect to the accent the robber reportedly used.  How do we know whether it’s surprising or not that the robber spoke with a Bronx accent, given the supposition that Mr. Phinuit is the robber?  However, now suppose that we had a way to test the auxiliary hypothesis about Mr. Phinuit’s accent.  Perhaps further investigation turns up evidence that Mr. Phinuit, though he normally speaks with a French accent, has the ability to speak convincingly with a Bronx accent.  Suppose that video documentation is uncovered that shows Mr. Phinuit in an acting gig two years earlier in which he played a New Yorker and displayed an impressive Bronx accent.  Here we acquire evidence that the auxiliary hypothesis is false, or at any rate in need to modification.   Our ability to test the auxiliary hypothesis concerning Mr. Phinuit’s accent enables us to determine that the hypothesis that Mr. Phinuit robbed the bank is at least consistent with evidence that otherwise seems quite surprising.  Furthermore, while we might have simply modified the assumption about Mr. Phinuit’s accent, the ability to do so on the basis of independent evidence helps avoid ad hoc adjustments to a theory to retrofit data that are otherwise not to be expected. 

2. Survivalist Auxiliary Hypotheses

Now let’s return to the survival hypothesis.  

As I argued in the previous blog, a simple hypothesis of survival—positing the postmortem survival of the self or individual consciousness—is not robust enough in content to lead us to expect any of the data associated with mediumship.  We must adopt various assumptions about the knowledge, powers, and intentions or purposes that some persons would have if they were to survive death.  We must also make some minimal assumptions about the process of discarnate communication, for example, assumptions that account for “communicators” providing incorrect information on matters we would otherwise expect them to know. The specific auxiliary hypotheses I sketched were as follows:

[A1] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would be consciousness in a discarnate state, where “discarnate state” refers to a state of existence without a physical body. 

[A2] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would retain many of the detailed and highly specific memories of their ante-mortem existence.

[A3] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess knowledge of events taking place in our world after their death or the states of mind of living persons.

[A4] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess the desire and intention to communicate with the living.

[A5] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess the ability to communicate with the living. 

[A6] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would exhibit efficacious psychic functioning in the form of extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis.

[A7]  There are some living persons P* (where P* is a subset of P) such that, if P* were to survive death, P* would retain some of their significant general and particular skills and personality features. 

[A8]  Either C1, C2, or C3, where

C1: There are some living persons P such that if P were to survive death and communicate with the living at postmortem time t1 . . . tn, P’s cognitive and causal powers would become attenuated during t1 . . . tn.

C2: There are some living persons M such that if M were to receive information from some discarnate person Pi at time t1 . . . tn, the information would be subject to a cognitive process in which filtering and interpretation by the medium’s own mind lowers the accuracy and reliability of the content of the communications.

C3: There are some living persons P such that if P were to survive death and communicate with the living, certain modes of communication would produce more accurate and reliable information than others.

I refer readers to “Getting Sober about Survival II” for a more detailed discussion of these auxiliary hypotheses as requirements for arguments for survival from the data of mediumship.

3.  The Testability of Survivalist Auxiliary Hypotheses 

Some philosophers might wish to argue that we have evidence against some of the above auxiliary hypotheses, even if we don’t have evidence against survival as such.  For example, one might object to [A1] on the grounds that consciousness is dependent on a functioning brain. Or we might suppose that, even if consciousness were to persist after death in a discarnate state, it would be substantially discontinuous with our ante-mortem consciousness.  We might not remember much of our ante-mortem life.  Our purposes might be different.  We might not have any epistemic access to postmortem events taking place on earth, much less causally interact with the world or living persons.  Hence, even if the self were to survive death, it would not be capable of a rich conscious life, at least not in the absence of a body or some appropriate physical substratum.

However, the force of the above objections depends on the assumption that survivors would not have bodies of any sort.  And that’s just not clear.  And if communicators in mediumship are who they say they are, many of the deceased are at least of the opinion (rightly or wrongly) that they have bodies of some sort.  The problem, as I see it, is not that we have evidence that these auxiliary hypotheses are false.  The problem is that we have no way to determine that they are true, that is, no way to justifiably determine this independent of the hypothesis of survival and the data that are being adduced as evidence of survival.  

But let’s look more closely at the problem of the testability of survivalist auxiliary hypotheses.

I stated the auxiliary hypotheses above in the subjunctive mood, as subjunctive conditionals, specifically as conditional statements that state what would happen (or probably happen) if such-and-such were true, where the antecedent is entertained as a hypothetical situation, not a contrary to fact condition (a so-called “counterfactual”). 

To understand the difficulty with the independent testability of the survivalist auxiliary hypotheses, consider first the justification we have for many kinds of similar subjunctive conditionals.  I can say with relative ease what would happen to a glass jar if I dropped it from my second-story window onto a concrete driveway.  After all, there is independent evidence that jars of “this sort” break when impacting surfaces “like this” after being dropped from a distance “like this.”  The hypothetical situation closely resembles others that have actually taken place.  But even in the absence of this, if I understand the properties of the glass jar and the concrete, I can deduce that the jar will shatter on impact against a concrete surface if the glass jar impacts the ground with a certain velocity.  Our justifiably believing what would happen to the jar under the specified conditions is based on background knowledge, including various empirically testable claims about the properties of the objects in question.

But let’s take an example that’s a bit closer to home.  Survivalist auxiliary hypotheses involve claims about what human persons would know, desire, intend, and do in some hypothetical situation, namely in a postmortem state.  We’re often justified in believing what living persons would (probably) do under certain “hypothetical” circumstances.  We may believe that if John saw a person drop a $20 bill, then he would (probably) take it, or if Mary visited Oxford during the summer, then she would (probably) tell me about the Bodleian library.  To the extent that statements like these are justified it’s because we already know about the character or behavioral patterns of John and Mary, and we also know enough about the hypothetical situation to relate it in the appropriate way to the character or behavioral patterns of Mary and John. Maybe we have independent evidence that Mary likes libraries and tells friends about the details of her trips. Perhaps I’ve watched John pick up money people drop and pocket it himself.  So we can extrapolate what to expect of them under hypothetical situations, especially if they closely resemble actual, past circumstances.  Otherwise stated, what I independently know (or can test) about Mary and John, and what I independently know (or can test) about features of various hypothetical situations, gives me good independent reason to believe something about what persons would or would not do in a range of hypothetical situations. 

But are we in a similar position with respect to subjunctive conditionals that state what some (indefinite) living persons would remember, know, desire, intend, and efficaciously execute if they were to survive death?  Here it would seem that we don’t have access to the right stock of background information against which our conjectures could be empirically tested.  We know a lot about living persons, and we can extrapolate much about what they would probably know, desire, intend, and be able to efficaciously execute in fairly diverse range of hypothetical situations, but this is because we’re assuming that they are living persons in situations that, while hypothetical, are known to bear enough resemblance to actual life situations for us to have the appropriate background knowledge or procedures for empirical testability.

To see the difficulty here with greater clarity, consider our epistemic situation vis-à-vis an exotic hypothesis designed to explain the mysterious disappearance of massive amounts of sugar from a sugar factory in Santa Rosa, Texas.  We could postulate the covert operation of invisible time travelers from earth’s distant future to explain this datum.  Of course, the datum would be unsurprising given this hypothesis only if we embedded it in a certain story supplied by various auxiliary hypotheses: (i) humans have powerful cravings for sugar, (ii) there is an abundance of sugar in the world today, (iii) sugar will become increasingly scarce in our distant evolutionary future, (iv) environmental conditions in our distant evolutionary future will make the mining of natural resources for fructose impractical, and (v) new advancements in technology will make it possible for future humans to travel to earlier time periods in human history when sugar was produced in abundance and transport limited amounts of sugar back to the future. 

The time traveler theory is implausible in part because some of the auxiliary hypotheses are unwarranted and untestable.  One of these concerns the physical (and some would say “logical”) possibility of time travel. More subtly, though, the time traveler theory makes a crucial unstated assumption, namely that the human species will retain its current degree of craving for sugar into our distant evolutionary future.  However, the kinds of desires and intentions humans form in the distant future will be based on their actual needs and interests at that distant stage in their biological evolution. This is neither observable nor subject to extrapolation from anything we presently observe.  Our biological and psychological needs are shaped, in the long term, by many unpredictable environmental and technological changes. This cannot be predicted with any accuracy over millions of years into the future.  Our evolutionary descendants are just as likely to have developed a powerful aversion to sugar, for example, if it leads to health problems that threaten the survival of the species.

The time traveler theory illustrates how difficult it is to know or justifiably believe what human persons would know, desire, intend, or have the capacity to efficaciously execute in highly exotic hypothetical situations.  The reason for this is that we cannot assume that conventional aspects of ordinary life at present would obtain in these exotic situations.  We not only lack the relevant kinds of background knowledge, but testing procedures elude us.  In a similar way, empirical survival arguments require that we adopt assumptions about what living persons would know, desire, intend, and have the capacity to efficaciously execute in a highly exotic hypothetical situation: the persistence of consciousness after the death of the body.  That this consciousness would be personal, retain much of the knowledge, desires, and intentions that characterized its ante-mortem identity and phase of existence, be endowed with extremely potent powers of psychic functioning for efficaciously communicating with the living, and yet also be incredibly inept at either remembering basic facts concerning its ante-mortem existence or communicating such information to living persons—all of these assumptions are little more than untestable conjectures at this stage. 

4.  C.J. Ducasse’s “Plane-Crash Survivor” Argument

Even the better literature on survival has often been blind to the covert dependence on unsupported and untestable auxiliary hypotheses.  And this has given empirical survival arguments a deceptive appearance of cogency.  I’ll illustrate this with one of my favorite philosophical explorations of empirical survival arguments, C.J. Ducasse’s classic work A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death (1961).  

Unlike many other writers on survival, Ducasse was deeply conscious of and gave attention to the evidential criteria at work in assessments of the data allegedly suggestive of survival.  Hence, Ducasse asked, “What would prove, or make positively probable, that survival is a fact?” (1961: 199). Ducasse attempted to answer this question by exploring evidential criteria we would sensibly use to determine that someone had survived a plane crash.

Let us suppose that a friend of ours, John Doe, was a passenger on the transatlantic plane which some months ago the newspapers reported crashed shortly after leaving Shannon without having radioed that it was in trouble.  Since no survivors were reported to have been found, we would naturally assume that John Doe had died with the rest. (1961: 200) 

Ducasse went on to propose three situations in which we would acquire evidence that would convince us that John Doe had survived the crash. 

(1) We encounter a man on the street we recognize as John, he recognizes us, he has John Doe’s voice and mannerisms, and he is conversant about things that John Doe would have known, including information of a highly personal matter familiar to each of us.  

(2) Instead of physically encountering a man on the streets who resembles John Doe, we receive a phone call from a man who sounds like John Doe, and who freely exhibits the kind of first-personal perspective knowledge that would be characteristic of John Doe including private matters familiar to each of us. 

(3) We receive a phone call from someone who informs us that John Doe survived the crash and he wants us to know about his survival, but for some reason John Doe cannot come to the phone.  We’re told that John Doe is in need of money and wants us to deposit money into his bank account.  To acquire assurance that John Doe is indeed alive, we request through the intermediary, information of a sort freely disclosed in scenarios (1) and (2).  The intermediary provides us with the names of John Doe’s friends, various personal matters with which John Doe would be familiar, and we discern in the intermediary’s responses some of the peculiar features of John Doe’s thoughts and phraseology. 

Ducasse argues that in cases (1) and (2), we would take ourselves to have sufficient evidence to believe that John Doe had survived death.  He further argues that in case (3) we would be convinced of John Doe’s survival if we had robust evidence, that is, if we had no conclusive proof that John Doe had not survived death.  What I’m calling “robust evidence” captures Ducasse’s claim that the evidence would need to be abundant, sufficiently detailed, and of diverse kinds.  Ducasse essentially argues that we can imagine cases like (3) arising where we would be confident on the basis of the evidence that John Doe had survived death. 

Ducasse connects the discussion to survival in this manner.  He contends that the evidence for survival from mediumship duplicates the essential features of the evidence we could have that would convince us that John Doe survived the plane crash. 

Ducasse wrote:

This parallelism between the two situations [mediumship and plane-crash scenario (3)] entails that if reason rather than religious or materialistic faith is to decide, then our answer to the question whether the evidence we have does or does not establish survival (or at least a positive probability of it) must, in the manner of survival of death, be based on the very same considerations as in the matter of survival after a plane crash. That is, our answer will have to be based similarly on the quantity of evidence we get over the mediumistic “telephone;” on the quality of that evidence; and on the diversity of kinds of it we get. (1961: 203)

Ducasse goes on to argue that “the balance of the evidence” favors personal survival, and by this he appears to mean favors survival over various competitors (cf. 1961: 199). 

While Ducasse’s analogy is an interesting one, I think it commits a crucial mistake.  It’s true that in case (3) we would depend on the evidential factors Ducasse cites. However, the evidential force of these factors depends on a fourth factor not acknowledged by Ducasse: dependence on independently testable and/or supported auxiliary hypotheses.  And this is where the evidence for survival from mediumship is significantly different than the evidence we might have for a person having survived a plane crash.

If we return to Ducasse’s scenario (3), it must be acknowledged that we would evaluate the ostensible evidence in the light of various additional but independently plausible assumptions.  The list of specific assumptions would vary depending on various details of the scenario, but here are some illustrations of the kinds of assumptions that would plausibly be operative. 

a.  If a person survives a plane crash, we are positing the survival of their body.  Given that bodies have spatial location, the hypothesis that John Doe survived the plane crash yields the prediction that John Doe is located somewhere on earth.  Hence, we would be justified in supposing that if John Doe survived the plane crash, then his body would be spatially located somewhere on earth.

b. If we receive a phone call from an intermediary originating from Windsor, Connecticut, and the intermediary is allegedly relaying information to us from John who is present, it follows that John Doe is in Windsor, Connecticut.  This is an auxiliary hypothesis that can be independently tested.  Hence, we would be justified in supposing that if John Doe survived the plane crash and the intermediary is telling us the truth, then a physical body of a particular sort (matching the description of Joe Doe’s body, though perhaps missing a limb or two) would be presently located in Windsor, Connecticut.  This can be independently tested.  If John is there, others can in principle observe a body matching his there, etc.

c.  Based on our background knowledge, we already know that some people survive plane crashes, and we also know that the majority of plane-crash survivors have contacted, directly or indirectly, family members or friends, to let them know they are alive. Hence, this background knowledge provides an empirical basis for supposing that if John Doe survived the plane cash, then he would probably seek to communicate this information to family and friends.

d. Depending on the location and specifics of the crash, as well as background knowledge about other plane-crash survivors, we could be justified in supposing that if John Doe survived the plane crash, then we would probably receive communications from him during a relatively specific period of time.

e.  Regarding the communications, we assume a limited and very specific range of media through which John Doe would initiate communication with family or friends: phone, email, letters, or another human person as a messenger.   Hence, we antecedently know that if John Doe survived the plane crash and had the intention and power to communicate his survival to family and friends, then he would do so by means of specified media that fall within very narrow parameters.

f.  We assume that plane crashes are likely to produce varying degrees of trauma in survivors that affect memory and character, so we would expect communications to exhibit varying degrees of inconsistency and incoherence.  If John Doe survived the plane crash and successfully communicated with friends or family, then the content of the communications would be a mixture of detailed accuracy and significant inaccuracy.

Our assessment of the evidence for John Doe’s survival depends on the kinds of auxiliary hypotheses contained in (a) through (f).  These assumptions, though, are empirically testable, and indeed many of them are already independently supported by our background empirical knowledge.  If the auxiliary hypotheses lacked this quality, we could not sensibly take the evidence Ducasse cites as evidence for John Doe’s survival.  It’s only because we have warrant for the relevant auxiliary hypotheses that we can say what kinds of evidence we would expect to find if John Doe survived the plane crash.  Independent of the details of John Doe’s plane crash and the supposition of his survival, we have good reasons to suppose that there are plane-crash survivors, the majority of them have an interest to communicate, many will have the ability to do so, and we can say in advance the kinds of media they would use, etc.

Now when it comes to the hypothesis of postmortem survival, we’re simply not in a sufficiently similar epistemic situation.  That we can have evidence that someone has survived a plane crash depends crucially on what we already know, not just the quality and quantity of information deriving from the plane crash scenario.  We know about plane-crash survivors.  We can formulate predictions here because we have a stock of independently testable assumptions that tell us what we should expect to find in the way of evidence if our hypothesis is true.  None of this obtains in the case of possible postmortem survivors.  So the cogency of Ducasse’s case for postmortem survival from mediumship depends crucially on our ignoring a highly salient difference between plane-crash survivors and postmortem survivors. 

5.  Gertrude Schmeidler’s “Testable” Survival Hypothesis

Interestingly enough, the covert dependence of survival arguments on untestable auxiliary hypotheses is found even in literature that is conscious of the need to develop a survival hypothesis with testable predictions.  In the 1970s, parapsychologist Gertrude Schmeidler emphasized prediction as a crucial aspect of future survival research, and she also proposed a way of formulating a survival hypothesis open to such testability (Schmeilder 1977).  Other parapsychologist such as Bill Roll subsequently appropriated several of Schmeidler’s insights to further develop an allegedly “testable” survival hypothesis.

       Schmeidler wrote:

Suppose we try to test a hypothesis that makes three assumptions: (1) that there is survival of consciousness after bodily death; (2) that there is some continuity of personality, so that soon after death a surviving entity is recognizably similar to what the living person had been; and (3) that communication from the surviving entity is possible through a medium and in other ways. (1977: 5)

Schmeidler thought that we could rely on information collected from persons in their ante-mortem state as a basis for formulating predictions regarding which living persons should be expected to communicate (and which not) in their postmortem state, as well as the conditions under which postmortem communications from such people should be expected (and when not).

First, if prior to death person A has said that he has no intention under any circumstance to communicate with those still living after his death, then this provides the basis for a testable hypothesis: we should not expect any communications from A under any circumstances.  She adds a second point: “This immediately leads to a specific, testable subhypothesis. If mediums attempt to establish communication with the dead, evidence for such communications will be stronger for those who said while alive that they would want to communicate than for those who had said they would not” (1977: 5).  Finally, if prior to death another person B has said that he has an intention to communicate with those still living only under particular conditions, then this leads to another prediction: if person B survives death, then we should expect ostensible communications from B under the specific circumstances and not others.  As Schmeilder says: “The specific prediction would be that attempts to make contact with such persons after their death would shift between success and failure according to whether or not the conditions which had been stated were present” (1977: 5).

Schmeilder’s suggestion is interesting but nonetheless problematic.  One rather clear problem is that Schmeidler’s suggestion conceals rather than subjects to scrutiny highly questionable assumptions on which the efficacy of the suggested testing procedure depends.  Schmeidler’s project can’t get off the ground unless we make some crucial assumptions about what consciousness would be like if it were to survive death.

If person A informs us that he has no intention to communicate with the living under any circumstances after his death, predicting that we should not find communications ostensibly originating from this person depends on a strong assumption of continuity of conscious attitudes after death.   But there’s no reason to suppose this, at least not independent of the cases allegedly suggestive of personal survival.   Why not assume that the majority of survivors, having survived death, would be profoundly affected by their death and therefore differently motivated in their postmortem existence? Perhaps ante-mortem attitudes about what I would do if I survived death are very different than the purposes I would actually have if I did survive death.  After all, people change their purposes after relatively less extreme experiences in the course of their ante-mortem existence, sometimes over the course of a week.  Of course, the point here is not that we have good reason to suppose that any survivor would change his or her purposes concerning communicating with the living, only that we simply don’t know what would be the case with survivors.

The same holds with respect to Schmeidler’s claim that we should find more communications ostensibly originating from persons who expressed this interest while alive.  Again, why is this?  The operative assumption of substantial continuity of purposes and interests is highly questionable. It requires independent support.  The interest I express about communicating with the living after my death is an interest I now express as a person situated in a mundane though perhaps very exciting earthly existence.  This feature of my present psychology, contextualized as it is, may or may not persist if I survive death.  I don’t know, nor does anyone else.  It’s only by a subtle projection of our current psychology into the afterlife that we suppose we can know now what it will be like for us then.  But what is the empirical basis for this?

Carefully exploring Schmeilder’s proposal, then, at best forces the problem of auxiliary hypotheses to the surface.  It does not resolve the problem for the empirical survivalist.

6.  Concluding Remarks 

I have devoted three blogs now to discussing the role and implications of auxiliary hypotheses.  Let me briefly retrace the path.

In “Getting Sober about Survival I,” I outlined one of Elliott Sober’s interesting criticisms of empirical arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer based on features of organisms allegedly indicative of intelligent design.  His criticism focused on the untestable nature of necessary auxiliary hypotheses concerning the abilities and purposes of the postulated designer.  I began here since Sober’s criticism of intelligent design arguments seem particularly applicable to empirical arguments for postmortem survival.  They too depend on untestable auxiliary hypotheses, and this has important consequences for the assessment of the force of empirical data allegedly suggestive of survival. 

In “Getting Sober about Survival II,” I argued that empirical arguments for postmortem survival depend on various auxiliary hypotheses, in the absence of which the hypothesis of survival would have no empirical consequences.  The hypothesis of personal survival of death, like the hypothesis of an intelligent designer, is subject to an auxiliary hypothesis requirement.  I illustrated the point specifically in connection with survival arguments from the data of mediumship.  I sketched eight required auxiliary hypotheses concerning the purposes, powers, and knowledge of postmortem survivors, as well as assumptions concerning the nature of the process of ostensible communications from the deceased.

In the present blog—“Getting Sober about Survival III”—I have argued that, unlike paradigmatic empirical hypotheses, the auxiliary hypotheses involved in survival arguments are not at present independently testable, much less actually supported by our stock of empirical knowledge.  This generates what I’ve called the problem of auxiliary hypotheses.  This is a problem for empirical arguments in favor of the survival hypothesis, for in the absence of independently testable auxiliary hypotheses, we do not know what the hypothesis of survival should lead us to expect with respect to features of the empirical world.  There are, as I argued in the second blog of the present series, lots of different survival scenarios. Most of these scenarios, if true, would not lead us to expect any empirical evidence for survival, much less the data from mediumship and other ostensibly paranormal phenomena.  Only auxiliary hypotheses can produce a survival hypothesis that discriminates between survival scenarios with predictive consequences and those with none, and only a considerably robust version of such a hypothesis could possibly lead us to expect the actual data.  However, only independently testable auxiliary hypotheses can reasonably ground the desired assurance that our theory is a genuinely empirical one, rather than an attempt to accommodate or retrofit the data to our preferred metaphysical theories.

Where does this leave the empirical survivalist?

I’ve noted several times now that survival literature is plagued by what Sober called “lazy testing.”  Here one attempts to support one’s preferred hypothesis simply by showing that explanatory competitors fail.  That empirical survivalists are driven to this tactic is no coincidence.  It’s the strategic corollary of not being able to show the predictive consequences of one’s own theory.  So empirical survivalists routinely reinvent the wheel of misplaced criticisms of proposed non-survival explanations of the relevant data.  For example, some of the data of mediumship are allegedly surprising or improbable given living-agent psychic functioning, unless of course that hypothesis is stretched into a “super-psi” hypothesis for which there is no independent support.  But, of course, however low the probability of the data given some competing non-survival hypothesis, this does not suffice to show that the data are more probable given survival.  And as I’ve noted repeatedly, if empirical survivalists are epistemically entitled to adopt fantastic and far-reaching conjectures to account for the data, non-survivalists are permitted to do the same.  So-called “super-psi” hypotheses only appear incredible to empirical survivalists who remain unconscious about just how “super” their own survival hypothesis is.

My central claim—the probability of the relevant data (allegedly suggestive of survival) is actually inscrutable given the survival hypothesis, unless the survival hypothesis is stretched into a robust survival hypothesis.  However, since there is no independent support (or testability) for the auxiliary hypotheses that constitute a robust survival hypothesis, the probability of the data given survival remains inscrutable.  The alleged improbability of the data given competing hypotheses is a red herring that distracts from the core issue in the empirical survival debate: we do not know what the evidence for survival should look like, or whether there would be any evidence for survival, even if the survival hypothesis were true.

As explained in “Getting Sober about Survival I,” Likelihoodism is an approach to evidence assessment according to which evidence E favors or supports hypothesis H1 over H2 just if Pr(E / H1) > Pr(E / H2).  It’s not necessary that H1 confer a high probability on the evidence, only that the evidence is more probable (or less surprising) given H1 than H2.  In that case, though, if we don’t know what a hypothesis would lead us to expect in relation to evidence, we certainly won’t know whether the evidence is more probable given one hypothesis than another.  It follows, given Likelihoodism, that we won’t know whether the evidence actually favors the one hypothesis over its competitor. 

Applying this to the survival hypothesis, where S = the survival hypothesis, ψ = the hypothesis of living-agent psychic functioning, and DM = the data from mediumship, my contention is that we don’t know whether

Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / ψ) 

More generally, where C = any nearby competing non-survival hypothesis, we don’t know whether

Pr(DM / S ) > Pr (DM / C) 

It may appear that the situation changes once we add survivalist auxiliary hypotheses.  Where SR = a simple survival hypothesis amplified or augmented by the kinds of assumptions outlined above and discussed in the prior blog, we might suppose that there is at least justification for supposing that:

Pr(DM / SR ) > Pr (DM / C) 

Perhaps so, but until the problem of auxiliary hypotheses is addressed, the natural and plausible skeptical rejoinder is that:

Pr(DM / SR ) = Pr(DM / CR), where CR = the nearest competing hypothesis amplified or augmented with its own range of auxiliary hypotheses.   

If empirical survivalists wish to show that the evidence favors survival, they must adopt a robust survival hypothesis and compare it to a robust competitor.  Doing so, of course, only highlights the point that the resultant comparative Likelihoods, to the extent that they can be determined at all, float on an unstable ocean of conflicting conjectures.

Empirical survivalists have largely ignored rather than squarely faced the pivot of their whole project:  what changes, if any, are likely to happen to consciousness if it should survive death?  The inability to locate an empirically grounded answer to this question, for a single person or an indefinite number of them, floats on a larger sea of ignorance—our ignorance about the nature of consciousness itself.  The real question here is not whether we will survive death, but “what is the nature of consciousness itself?”  When the latter question has been answered, the question concerning postmortem survival will probably no longer be asked.

Michael Sudduth

 

REFERENCES

Ducasse, Curt J. 1961. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Schmeidler, Gertrude. 1977. “Looking Ahead:  A Method for Research on Survival.”  Theta 5: 2–6.

Getting Sober about Survival (Part 2 of 3)

In my prior blog (1/28/14), I surveyed one of Elliott Sober’s objections to organismic design arguments—arguments that purport to show that physical features of organisms, features like complex adaptation, provide evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer.  Sober argues that the hypothesis of intelligent design is an untestable hypothesis because it depends on untestable auxiliary hypotheses, that is, assumptions in addition to the hypothesis of an intelligent designer.  Without these additional hypotheses the hypothesis of intelligent design would make no actual predictions. Sober contends that this prevents us from justifiably believing the comparative likelihood claim: 

Pr(Observational evidence / Intelligent design ) > Pr(Observational evidence / Darwinian evolution),

that is, the probability of the relevant observational evidence given intelligent design is greater than the probability the same evidence given Darwinian evolution.

The range of possible auxiliary hypotheses that bear on the likelihood expressed on the left side of “>” produce varying results, from unity to zero.  If we can’t independently test the auxiliary hypotheses, then we’re pretty much in the dark about what the likelihood of the design hypothesis is in relation to any competitor, including Darwinian evolution.  According to a Likelihoodist account of the evidential favoring relation, evidence e favors hypothesis h1 over h2 just if Pr(e / h1) > Pr(e / h2).  Hence, it follows from Sober’s analysis that we’re not justified in believing that the relevant evidence favors intelligent design over Darwinian evolution.

From Sober to Survival

My interest in Sober’s critique is its implications for assessing empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research, for example, data drawn from the phenomenon of near-death experiences, living persons (mediums) who claim to receive and convey communications from the dead, and living persons who claim to remember past lives.  During the past two years, I’ve drawn attention to how traditional empirical arguments for survival from such phenomena depend on various auxiliary hypotheses, for in the absence of such assumptions the survival hypothesis has no explanatory power. While empirical survivalists begrudgingly acknowledge their dependence on auxiliary hypotheses, at least if pressed on the point, the implications of this for the critical assessment of the empirical survival arguments has been ignored and therefore unexplored.  On my view, satisfying the auxiliary hypothesis requirement generates various problems for empirical arguments for survival—what I’m designating “the problem of auxiliary hypotheses” (hereafter, PAH).  In fact, I think PAH generates the most formidable challenge to empirical arguments for personal survival.

Succinctly stated, my view is that the survival hypothesis makes no significant predictions unless it’s supplemented with various auxiliary hypotheses, including a range of statements about what consciousness would be like if persons should survive death.   This is problematic because most, if not all, of the required assumptions are not independently testable.  More broadly speaking, they don’t carry the appropriate kind of “epistemic credentials,” especially if survival is supposed to be a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. As Sober argued with reference to the intelligent design argument, I argue with reference to empirical arguments for survival:  we’re actually not in a position to assess whether the survival hypothesis has a higher likelihood than rival hypotheses vis-à-vis the body of relevant data.  This in turn undercuts the modest claim that the evidence favors the survival hypothesis over the competitors. 

In the present blog I’m going to sketch the first phase of this argument, which involves showing that empirical arguments for survival depend on a range of auxiliary hypotheses. E.R. Dodds drew attention to this import fact in his 1934 article “Why I Do Not Believe in Survival.”  As Dodds said, “the spiritualist [i.e., survival] hypothesis is hydraheaded. It is in fact not one hypothesis at all, but a series of hypotheses” (Dodds 1934: 170). Unfortunately, most of the survival literature since Dodds’s time has systematically suppressed this fact, together with its significant implications for the assessment of the empirical case for survival.  Although I’m going to look specifically at survival arguments from the data of mediumship, my main argument can easily be extended to empirical arguments for survival from other kinds of ostensibly paranormal phenomena. In the next installment in the series, I’ll show how this dependence creates significant problems for empirical arguments for survival.

1.  Why Likelihoods Matter

Sober’s critique of design arguments construes such arguments as Likelihood arguments.  I suspect some empirical survivalists will question whether this is the optimal framework in which to formulate the empirical case for survival.  So let me explain why likelihoods are essential to empirical arguments for survival.

First, as explained in my prior blog, “likelihoods” or the “likelihood of a hypothesis” refers to the probability the hypothesis, h, confers on observational evidence e, or the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis, formally represented as Pr(e / h).  This is not the same as the probability of the hypothesis given the evidence (and background knowledge), formally represented as Pr(h / e & k).  The former concerns how probable the hypothesis makes the evidence; the latter concerns how probable the evidence (together with background knowledge) makes the hypothesis.  These probabilities may vary considerably.

So why should an empirical survivalist be concerned with the likelihood of the survival hypothesis?

First, the most common form of the empirical argument for survival depends on likelihoods.  The argument is usually stated as a basic inference to best explanation.  The central claim of such arguments is the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of some relevant range of data, where the data are drawn from phenomena such as near-death experiences, alleged past life memories and other features suggestive of reincarnation, and mediumistic communications.  Why is the survival hypothesis the best explanation of the data collected from these phenomena? The reason is that it fits with or accounts for the data in a way superior to various competing hypotheses.  However, upon examination these kinds of claims ultimately concern how well the survival hypothesis leads us to expect the relevant data.  Otherwise stated, the survival hypothesis has predictive power.  The data are supposed to be what we would expect if survival were true, and less so, perhaps considerably, given competing hypotheses. Some authors make it clear that the predictive power of the survival hypothesis is essential to its “testability.”  (See Almeder 1996a, 1996b: 532–533; Becker 1993: 33; Berger 1987: 203; Gauld 1983: 73–75, 77 110; Hyslop 1919: 51, 330; Roll 2006: 167–170; Schmeidler 1977.)

Embedded in the basic explanatory survival argument, then, is a “likelihood” claim: the probability of the relevant data (D) is greater, perhaps much greater, given the survival hypothesis (S) than given the nearest competing hypothesis (C).  More precisely, the arguments are concerned with the comparative likelihood of the survival hypothesis and its competitors.  Formally stated:  Pr(D / S) > Pr(D / C), or—more strongly—Pr(D / S) >> Pr(D / C).  This also shows us that the basic explanatory argument can be restated without using the language of “explanation,” “explanatory power,” “explanatory virtue,” and so forth.  The basic explanatory argument can simply be stated as a Likelihood argument. While this would not be sufficient to show that the evidence is strong enough to warrant rational acceptance of the survival hypothesis, it at least allows the survivalist to make the more modest claim that the relevant data evidentially favor or support the survival hypothesis over the nearest competitor(s).

Now there’s a strengthened form of the basic explanatory argument, favored by several philosophers, that adds considerations of prior probability to the inference to survival, largely because they aim for a verdict about the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis. In my recent interview with Jime Sayaka I discussed this Bayesian-style argument.  It’s worth noting that likelihoods would still be important here because on the Bayesian view the posterior probability of a hypothesis depends in part on values assigned to likelihoods.  However, in what follows I intend to focus only on a Likelihood version of the empirical argument for survival.  One of the advantages of doing so is that we can bypass the thorny problem of prior probabilities so frequently introduced to defeat survival arguments.  I’ll take up the implications of my argument for Bayesian-style survival arguments in the next blog.

So there’s considerable precedent for seeing likelihoods as essential features of evidence assessment in traditional empirical arguments for survival.  This is not to say that empirical survivalists can’t propose new rules of evidence assessment.  If they wish to propose criteria of evidence assessment that exclude likelihoods, they should do so.  For the moment, though, I’m content to consider the implications of arguments that have actually been proposed. 

Now likelihoods link a hypothesis to observational evidence by way of expressing the latter as predictive consequences of the former.  It should be clear here that by “predictive power” I mean only the modest claim that a hypothesis leads us to expect the relevant data.  The data need not be novel, nor need the data be logically entailed by the hypothesis.  Moreover, it’s not essential to the argument about to unfold that the survival hypothesis has great predictive power.  The focus is the more modest Likelihood claim that Pr(D / S) > Pr(D / C), or—more strongly—Pr(D / S) >> Pr(D / C).  My question is not whether this is true.  My interest is in exploring the logical and epistemic requirements for showing that it’s true.  Are we adequately situated to reach a verdict here?

In the light of the discussion from the final section of my previous blog, it should be clear that to support the claim that Pr(D / S) > Pr(D / C) it will not do to argue that the likelihood on the right side is very low.  If a five-year old boy suddenly exhibits remarkable talent as a percussionist, begins speaking with a British accent (though he was born in Memphis), expresses a desire for drinking large amounts of Jack Daniel’s, provides detailed information about the personal life of John Bonham (the drummer of the classic rock band Led Zeppelin), and claims to remember being John Bonham, this certainly seems very surprising given the hypothesis of living-agent psi.  However, this fact does not establish that Pr(D / S) > Pr(D / C).  The survival literature is replete with what Sober has aptly called “lazy testing”:  declare one’s preferred hypothesis the winner by simply refuting competitors. What this “beat down” tactic does is merely evade the burden shared by the survivalist to show that the probability of the data is greater given the survival hypothesis than the competitor.  What the survivalist needs to do is justify the likelihood claim by showing that the survival hypothesis would lead us to expect the data and would do so in a way superior to the competitor(s). 

2.  The Data of Mediumship as Evidence for Survival

Once we attempt to show that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect the data, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect absolutely nothing, unless it’s supplemented with various auxiliary hypotheses.  To develop this in a way that’s as concrete as possible, let’s focus on some crucial kinds of data drawn from the phenomena of mental and trance mediumship, where deceased persons appear to communicate through living persons.

(m1)  Some living person exhibits robust knowledge of facts concerning the public and private ante-mortem life of some particular and identifiable deceased person, where “robust knowledge” = knowledge that is specific in nature and ranges over many different facts about the ante-mortem life of the deceased.

This datum-type captures an essential feature of the data collected from the better cases of mediumship.  The data from mediumship is prima facie suggestive of survival because the medium’s knowledge of the deceased is the sort of knowledge that the deceased would be in a privileged position to have. It must therefore consist of more than very general facts about the deceased, isolated and random bits of information, or information that is publicly accessible.  It should be qualitatively strong by being as specific as possible and ranging over both the private and public life of the deceased.  It should also be quantitatively strong by consisting of as much information as possible.

(m2) Multiple living persons independently exhibit knowledge of facts concerning the public and private life of some particular and identifiable deceased person, where the information from one source corroborates the information from another source, and the information collectively considered is robust and/or exhibits various structural coherence relations.

There are also cases in which no single medium exhibits robust knowledge of the deceased, but the information provided by multiple mediums is robust when collectively considered.  There might be various points of corroboration between independent sources, and the body of information collectively considered may exhibit various kinds of coherence relations, e.g., by different strands of information being connected by inferential or explanatory relations.

(m3) Some living person exhibits knowledge of events or facts related to the private life of friends or family members of some particular and identifiable deceased person, where the events took place or facts obtained after the death of the deceased.

Ostensible “communicators” often provide information about the present goings on in the lives of family members and friends.  This datum-type suggests, under a survival interpretation, the ongoing presence and involvement of the deceased in the lives of loved ones.  This was a prominent feature in the mediumship of Mrs. Warren Elliott.

(m4) Some living person exhibits behavior, skills, or personality features similar or identical to those exhibited by some particular and identifiable deceased person during their ante-mortem life.

Trance mediumship is often regarded as impressive, not merely because of the accurate information conveyed by the medium, but also by the manner in which the information is conveyed, through convincing personations of the deceased.  The medium employs mannerisms and turns of speech characteristic of the deceased, exhibits personality traits of the deceased, and various cognitive and linguistic skills, including the skill of identifying “by name” family or friends of the deceased who are present at a sitting, where these were characteristic of the deceased.

For ease of expression, I’ll use DM for the conjunction of m1, m2, m3, and m4.  In accordance with Likelihoodism, we’re interested in comparative likelihoods, so we’re interested in the claim that Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / C), where C = some competing hypothesis.  It won’t ultimately matter for the kind of criticism I’m going to make, but let’s just assume for the purposes of discussion and in the interest of concreteness that the competing hypothesis is the widely discussed appeal to psychic functioning (extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis) in living-persons, which I’ll appropriately designate ψ.  Empirical arguments for survival will then be construed to make the modest claim that the evidence favors the survival hypothesis over the living-agent psi hypothesis.  So from a Likelihoodist perspective, these arguments are committed to the claim that Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / ψ).

Now the standard survivalist argument in favor of this favorable likelihood goes roughly like this.  If persons survive death, then DM isn’t all that surprising, but given ψ it is, for even if ψ should lead us to expect that living persons would possess some knowledge about the private and public life of deceased persons, say by telepathically mining this information from living friends and family members, ψ would not lead us to expect robust knowledge of the lives deceased persons.  ψ might also lead us to expect that a medium might have knowledge about events taking place in the lives of friends and family of the deceased, but the joint occurrence of m1 and m3 seems very surprising given ψ.  The ψ hypothesis would also leave unified streams of data from separate mediums very surprising.  What we know about ψ doesn’t really lead us to expect this.  And finally, while ψ may account for living persons knowing things about other people in non-conventional ways, ψ would not lead us to expect the personation data found in the better cases of mediumship. So, at the very least, S renders DM considerably less surprising than does ψ.  So DM favors S over ψ. 

While survivalists usually support the favorable likelihood by arguing how improbable DM is given ψ, I want to explore the assertion (rarely supported with argument) that the survival hypothesis would lead us to expect DM.  It may seen intuitively obvious to many that this is so, but upon careful reflection this intuitive obviousness rests on the implicit acceptance of various assumptions beyond the simple idea of individual consciousness surviving death.

3.  A Simple Survival Hypothesis has No Predictive Consequences

What kinds of considerations are needed to determine whether or not Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / ψ)?  As already noted, not simply adducing reasons for supposing that Pr(DM / ψ) is low.  We need reasons for supposing that, whatever the approximate value assigned to Pr(DM / ψ), the value assigned to Pr(DM / S) is greater.  In other words, we need reasons for supposing that DM is more to be expected (less surprising) given S than given ψ.  But in that case S must lead us to expect DM.  Does it?  This is going to depend on the content of S.

On the whole, I don’t find Antony Flew’s criticisms of empirical survival arguments all that compelling, or even interesting, but he was surely correct on this observation. 

. . .until the concept “spirit” is made a great deal more specific than it is at present, the spirit account cannot serve as a scientific hypothesis. To use it as such we should have to be able to deduce from it definite and testable consequences. We should need to say that, if it were correct, such and such tests would yield such and such results. We cannot, because with spirits anything goes; nothing is definitely predictable. Or, to put it less misleadingly, the concept of spirit is hopelessly indeterminate. (Flew 1953/1973: 126)

Flew’s point would apply equally to alternative versions of the survival hypothesis that replace “spirit” with “a personal stream of consciousness with its memories of past earthly life” (Hyslop 1919: 53), “the continuation of conscious life” (Ducasse 1961: 11), or the postmortem persistence of a “non-physical subject of conscious states” (Lund 2009: 62, 83).  A simple survival hypothesis—which posits the postmortem persistence of the self, the soul, the person, or even one’s individual consciousness—does not lead us to expect DM. 

The point can be easily demonstrated.  A priori there are various possible “survival scenarios,” each logically consistent with the simple supposition of survival as illustrated above.  Here are five such possible scenarios.

S1: Some persons survive death (as discarnate souls), but in the absence of a functioning brain they do not exhibit any mental states or exert causal influence on our world. 

S2: Some persons survive death as conscious beings, but have minimal memorial or character continuity with their ante-mortem existence.

S3: Some persons survive death as conscious beings, desire and intend to communicate, but they lack the ability to communicate.

S4: Some persons survive death as conscious beings, possess the ability to communicate, but they lack the desire and/or intention to communicate.

S5: Some persons survive death as conscious beings, but they lack the ability, desire, and intention to communicate.

In each of these survival scenarios, only some persons are postulated to survive death.  Naturally, there are variations on these scenarios in which (a) everyone survives death and (b) S1 through S5 are scenarios indexed to different individual survivors so that there would be a distribution of varying powers, desires, intentions, degrees of knowledge and memory, etc. over the range of various survivors.  Perhaps one person’s survival scenario is S2, and another person’s survival scenario is S4.  There are also many possible survival scenarios that can be constructed from the above five, for example by conjoining S2 and S3 or S2 and S4, but there’s no need to explore these possibilities to appreciate the central point here.  The above scenarios are unfavorable to likelihoods for the survival hypothesis, for though they are compatible with the simple survival hypothesis, they deflate the likelihood of the survival hypothesis.  If we accept any of these five survival scenarios, the data are not what we would expect.  In fact, on some scenarios, the likelihood of the survival hypothesis would be zero; for example, if survivors did not have the ability to communicate with the living, the probability of DM would be zero.  If we assumed S2, then the probability of m1 or m2 would be zero (or close to zero) because we wouldn’t expect deceased persons to communicate robust knowledge of their lives if they don’t actually retain such knowledge in the afterlife.

To illustrate further, it’s not difficult to construct alternative hypotheses with higher likelihoods than any of the above survival hypotheses.  Consider the following alternative hypothesis:

(DH) There is some demonic entity, with significant power and detailed knowledge of the lives of formerly living persons, and who wishes to masquerade as deceased persons for the purpose of engaging in deception. 

Survivalists are likely to jeer at (DH), though Evangelical Christians find it perfectly sensible.  In both cases, prior probabilities are influencing judgments.  But we’re not interested in prior probabilities, only likelihoods.  And it’s quite evident that the probability of DM is considerably greater given (DH) than given any of the survival hypotheses above.  The same conclusion follows if the competitor is the living-agent psi hypothesis (ψ).  Perhaps Pr(DM / ψ) is not very high, but it’s not plausible to suppose that Pr(DM / S2) > Pr(DM / ψ), and so forth.  This is also consistent with the prior probability of the ψ hypothesis being very low.  The point is that the likelihood of ψ is not lower than the likelihood of the survival hypothesis, if the latter is understood in any of the five ways above.

The problem here can be simply stated:  a simple survival hypothesis does not discriminate between survival scenarios that would lead us to expect the data and those that don’t, or more radically that confer a probability of zero on the data.  There simply are no predictive consequences for a survival hypothesis that might fall into the logical space of any of the scenarios above.  Merely postulating “survival of the self” or “survival of consciousness” just doesn’t tell us enough.

4. Minimally Required Auxiliary Hypotheses

The survival hypotheses sketched above confer low or zero probabilities on the data because they are more robust than the simple supposition of survival.  This is crucial.  Recall that in connection with his critique of design arguments Sober noted the Duhem-Quine thesis that single hypotheses rarely have (deductive or probabilistic) predictive consequences, unless auxiliary statements are introduced.  Hence, we can only test hypotheses (against their predictive consequences) by embedding them in sets of statements that jointly have predictive consequences.  Hence, predictive derivations depend on incorporating auxiliary hypotheses.  The five survival scenarios above incorporate auxiliary hypotheses that result in predictive consequences that do not fit the actual data.  But herein we find the recipe for the survivalist who wishes to argue that the survival hypothesis has predictive consequences that fit the data.  He needs a robust survival hypothesis with favorable as opposed to unfavorable predictive consequences. 

Given the observations in the prior section above, a robust survival hypothesis with favorable predictive consequences must minimally discriminate between survival scenarios that lead us to expect the data and those that do not.  This implies that a robust survival hypothesis with favorable predictive consequences vis-à-vis DM must be incompatible with the survival scenarios above.  This can provide a starting point for exploring just what an empirical survivalist must assume for the survival hypothesis to lead us to expect the data.  With respect to the data of mediumship sketched above, the assumptions are as follows.

[A1] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would be consciousness in a discarnate state, where “discarnate state” refers to a state of existence without a physical body. 

[A2] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would retain many of the detailed and highly specific memories of their ante-mortem existence.

[A3] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess knowledge of events taking place in our world after their death or the states of mind of living persons. 

[A4] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess the desire and intention to communicate with the living.

[A5] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would possess the ability to communicate with the living. 

[A1] affirms that some survivors would be conscious in the absence of a physical body, thereby ruling out survival scenario S1 above.  The next two assumptions concern what consciousness would be like for at least some deceased persons.  [A2] concerns the degree of self-knowledge the deceased would have, thereby ruling out survival scenario S2.  [A3] concerns survivors having persisting, though perhaps intermittent, knowledge of states of affair in the world of living persons, thereby ruling out survival scenario S3, inasmuch as the ability to communicate depends on survivors knowing what is happening in the world of the subjects with whom they communicate.  Just as [A1] is not entailed by positing surviving persons or selves, neither [A2] nor [A3] is entailed by positing the persistence of consciousness in a discarnate state.  These are independent conditions.  Furthermore, [A4] tells us what some deceased persons would want to do, and [A5] tells us that they would be able to efficaciously bring about their purposes.  [A4] rules out survival scenario S4, and [A5] rules out survival scenario S3.  [A4] and [A5] jointly rule out survival scenario S5. 

[A1]–[A5] are auxiliary hypotheses that rule out survival scenarios that prevent a favorable likelihood for the survival hypothesis, and they lead us to expect that there should be evidence of postmortem communications with content suggestive of the identity of the communicator.  So these are minimally necessary. 

5.  Additional Auxiliary Hypotheses

However, further assumptions are plausibly required.  For example, philosophers and parapsychologists have generally acknowledged that, inasmuch as survivors are discarnate persons, a survivor’s epistemic access to the world would need to be a potent form of extra-sensory perception (e.g., telepathy, clairvoyance) and a survivor’s causal influence over the world would need to be a potent form of psychokinesis.  Since discarnate persons are ex hypothesi without physical bodies, their modes of knowing and causal interaction would have to be direct or wholly unmediated by a body or cognitive system associated with a body.  So for any discarnate survivor [A3] and [A5] will logically entail a more specific assumption about the cognitive and causal powers of the deceased, namely

[A6] There are some living persons P such that, if P were to survive death, P would exhibit efficacious psychic functioning in the form of extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis. 

But further assumptions are needed. (m4) refers to those strands of data from some instances of trance mediumship in which “communicators” (via a medium) exhibit behavior, personality traits, or skills characteristic of the deceased.  For example, the medium might speak with a particular tone, accent, use particular words or phrases, or physical gestures, where these were characteristic of the deceased.  The medium might even speak with words or phrases in a language foreign to the medium but native to the deceased.   Communicators also are able not only to provide the names of family and friends but are able to pick them out from among sitters.  This implies not merely knowledge that people are present at the sitting (acquired through telepathy or clairvoyance), but arguably the skill of identifying persons present “by name” as former family members and friends.

[A7]  There are some living persons P* (where P* is a subset of P) such that, if P* were to survive death, P* would retain some of their significant general and particular skills and personality features. 

I regard survivors in [A7] as a subset of the larger group of communicating survivors because if the data of mediumship extends to non-trance mental mediumship, the data might not include indications that the communicator is continuous with his ante-mortem life in the manner specified in [A7]. 

But there’s more to consider here. As Hornell Hart explained in his classic Enigma of Survival (1959), when we explore the wider context in which strands of data such as (m1) and (m2) are embedded, we find that there are relevant data of a different sort.  For example: 

(m5) In “trance mediumship” communicators are often unable to provide basic information about their lives requested by sitters, or give inconsistent and incorrect information about their own lives, or they are otherwise mistaken about matters we would expect them to know (at least given A2 or A3).

(m6) Ostensible “communicators” in trance mediumship often lack various cognitive, linguistic, and other skills that characterized the formerly living person they claim to be.

The total evidence requirement for inductive reasoning implies that we must include all relevant evidence, and so data captured by (m5) and (m6) must be included within the total evidence set.  The problem should be apparent.  While [A2] leads us to expect postmortem communications to exhibit the kind of knowledge we would use to identify persons in our present experience, (m5) tell us not to expect a consistent display of such knowledge.  So some further assumption are needed to bring the survival hypothesis into an optimal fit with the total relevant evidence.  

Survivalists have proposed a few different hypotheses at this juncture.  Drayton Thomas said that the locus of the problem was in the communicator who, during communication with living persons, experiences diminished causal power and a temporary weakening of cognition, including memory (Hart 1959: 87-88, 106; cf. Braude 2003: 66). 

C1: There are some living persons P such that if P were to survive death and communicate with the living at postmortem time t1 . . . tn, P’s cognitive and causal powers would become attenuated during t1 . . . tn.

Alternatively, we might suppose that the locus of the problem is not in the communicator but in the medium (Braude 2003: 54-55, 66-67).  In mental mediumship we might suppose that information originating from the deceased has been filtered, interpreted, or otherwise altered by the medium’s own mind by the time it teaches her consciousness, especially if the information passes through or is influenced by medium’s unconscious mind.  In trance mediumship, the communicators may be “virtual survivors,” a joint product of the medium’s own unconscious construction with information originating from the actual deceased person. 

C2: There are some living persons M such that if M were to receive information from some discarnate person Pi at time t1 . . . tn, the information would be subject to a cognitive process in which filtering and interpretation by the medium’s own mind lowers the accuracy and reliability of the content of the communications.

A third possibility concerns the method of communication.  Perhaps direct control of the medium’s body is a more reliable method of communication than telepathic interaction, or vice-versa. 

C3: There are some living persons P such that if P were to survive death and communicate with the living, certain modes of communication would produce more accurate and reliable information than others.

So it looks like the survival hypothesis would need to assume at least the disjunction of each of these possibilities, that is, the case for survival would need to assume:

[A8]  Either C1, C2, or C3.

I’ll refer to the conjunction of [A1]-[A8] as A*.  The conjunction of A* and the simple hypothesis of survival S is a robust survival hypothesis, but—unlike S1, S2, etc—it’s a robust survival hypothesis that is favorable to the likelihood of survival.  We can now say that the simple survival hypothesis S + A* prevents the survival hypothesis from having a likelihood of zero vis-à-vis the relevant data.  We can also say that this robust survival hypothesis leads us to expect at least the following five very general data:

(i) There will be features of the empirical world suggestive of post-mortem communications originating from some formerly living persons.

(ii) The content of the communications will include specific and detailed information about the ante-mortem life of some particular deceased person.

(iii) The content of the communications will include information about postmortem happenings in the life of friends and family members of the deceased.

(iv) The content of the communications will have indications of the beliefs, purposes, and personality traits of the deceased.

(v)  The content of the communications will not be fully accurate or consistent.

It’s worth noting, though I’ll not develop the significance of it here, that S + A* does not lead us to expect anything regarding other features of the data, for example, the mode or manner of communications, when or where communications will take place, or which deceased persons will communicate.  S + A* does not lead us to expect any general patterns with respect to these features of the relevant data, nor any specific datum within the domain of relevant data.  It only leads us to expect some of the general features entailed by the specific data adduced as evidence for survival. 

6.  Second Phase of Argument: A Preview

In his 1934 paper “Why I Don’t Believe in Survival,” E.R. Dodds noted a number of the assumptions I’ve drawn attention to above.  Dodds argued that on account of such auxiliary assumptions the survival hypothesis is a more complex hypothesis than survivalists acknowledge.  That’s no doubt true. And it’s especially relevant since many survivalists argue that the survival hypothesis is simpler than appeals to living-agent psi.  The shortcoming of all such arguments is that they consider the survival hypothesis in its simple form, and compare it to robust versions of competitors (like the appeal to living-agent psi).  More generally stated, the auxiliary hypotheses (required for the survival hypothesis to have minimal predictive power) lower the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  To the extent that prior probability counts in evidence assessment, this will be significant.  

However, I’ve been looking at survival likelihoods, and likelihoods are blind to prior probabilities.  So I wish to make a different kind of criticism.  My criticism is that since we can’t independently test the auxiliary hypotheses required by the survival hypothesis (to yield favorable likelihoods), we’re not in a position to say whether or not Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / C) and hence whether Pr(DM / S) > Pr(DM / ψ).  After all, if we have no reason independent of S, C, or DM to accept the auxiliary hypotheses, we have no independent reason to prefer them to any number of other auxiliary hypotheses that result in survival likelihoods of zero.  Hence, the predictive consequences of survival are inscrutable and so we can’t say that DM is evidence that favors the survival hypothesis over various competitors.  I’ll sketch this second phase of the argument in my next blog.

Michael Sudduth

REFERENCES 

Almeder, Robert. 1996a. “Recent Responses to Survival Research.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 10: 495–517.

Almeder, Robert. 1996b. “Almeder’s Reply to Wheatley and Braude.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 10: 529–533.

Becker, Carl. 1993. Paranormal Experience and Survival of Death. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Berger, Arthur S. 1987. “A Critical Outline of the Prima Facie Evidence for Survival.” In Death and Immortality in the Religions of the World, ed. Badham, Paul, and Badham, Linda.  New York: Paragon House, 188–213.

Braude, Stephen. 2003. Immortal Remains. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Dodds, Eric R. 1934. “Why I Do Not Believe in Survival.” Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research, XLII, part 133, 147–172.

Ducasse, Curt J. 1961. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Flew, Antony. 1953/1973. “The Question of Survival.” In Immortality, ed. Terence Penelhum.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gauld, Alan. 1983. Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations. London: Paladin Books.

Hart, Hornell. 1959. The Enigma of Survival. London: Rider and Co.

Hylsop, James. 1919. Contact with the Other World: the Latest Evidence as to Communication with the Dead. New York: the Century Co.

Lund, David. 2009. Persons, Souls and Death:  A Philosophical Investigation of an Afterlife.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 

Roll, William. 2006. “On Apparitions and Mediumship:  An Examination of the Evidence that Personal Consciousness Persists after Death.” In The Survival of Human Consciousness: Essays on the Possibility of Life after Death, ed. Lance Storm and Michael Thalbourne. Jefferson, NC:  McFarland, 142–173.

Schmeidler, Gertrude. 1977. “Looking Ahead:  A Method for Research on Survival.”  Theta 5: 2–6.

Getting Sober about Survival (Part 1 of 3)

Philosopher Elliott Sober is well known for his trenchant critique of design arguments, that is, arguments that aim to infer the existence of God or, more modestly, an intelligent designer from features of the universe allegedly indicative of design.  Sober has focused specifically on organismic versions of the design argument, which postulate an intelligent designer to explain physical features of organisms such as complex adaptation.  Sober’s main objection to such arguments, whether in their classical or contemporary forms, is that the design hypothesis is untestable.  Understood more precisely, his argument is that the testability of a hypothesis depends on the testability of the auxiliary statements on which the predictive consequences of the hypothesis depend, the auxiliary hypotheses required for the design hypothesis to have predictive consequences are not testable, and therefore, the design hypothesis is not a testable hypothesis. 

I don’t want to discuss whether Sober is correct in his criticism of design arguments. What interests me is the similarity between Sober’s criticism of design arguments and one of my criticisms of empirical arguments for life after death from the data of psychical research e.g., arguments for survival from alleged communications with the dead (associated with mediumship and apparitions of the dead), cases of the reincarnation type, and near-death experiences.  In my more recent publications, I’ve drawn attention to what I call the problem of auxiliary hypotheses (hereafter, PAH).

PAH may be concisely stated as follows. 

(1) The evidential force of the relevant data (drawn from psychical research) depends on the survival hypothesis having predictive power.

(2) The survival hypothesis has no predictive power unless it’s supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses.

(1) and (2) jointly entail what I call an auxiliary hypothesis requirement:  empirical arguments for survival are necessarily dependent on various auxiliary statements or assumptions.  This in turn results in a problem for empirical survival arguments because on my view: 

(3) The auxiliary hypotheses required for the survival hypothesis to have predictive power are not independently testable.

It may not be immediately obvious why (3) is a problem, but I think it’s a serious problem for empirical arguments for survival.  In fact, I consider it the nub of the problem for empirical survival arguments.  I think it’s far more serious than the traditional objections from the alleged low antecedent or prior probability of survival and the appeal to various alternative non-survival explanations of the data. 

I’ve decided to devote three blogs to this topic, which will also allow me to sketch arguments that will be more thoroughly developed in my book in progress.

  • The first installment (below) looks at Elliott Sober’s critique of design arguments and provides some preliminary observations on its implications for the empirical survival debate. Sober’s critique of design arguments supplies us with both a general conceptual background and a relevant analogue to the survival hypothesis and empirical arguments for survival.
  • In the second installment, to be published next month, I’ll look more carefully at empirical arguments for survival in the light of Sober’s critique.  I’ll provide an account of the kinds of auxiliary hypotheses that must be, and typically are at least implicitly, relied upon in classical empirical arguments for survival. I’ll also explain why most, if not all, of them are not independently testable, as well as why this is a problem for empirical arguments for survival.
  • In the final installment I’ll consider some possible survivalist responses to PAH, but I’ll argue that these maneuvers are ultimately unsuccessful.  Possible means of circumventing PAH saddle empirical arguments for survival with epistemically toxic residue in the form of strengthened antecedent probability and alternative explanation objections that are immune to traditional survivalist criticisms of these objections.  Hence PAH places empirical survivalists on the horns of a significant dilemma.

1.  Sober’s Critique: What’s Not Wrong with Design Arguments 

In Evidence and Evolution (Cambridge, 2008) Sober considers the force of the hypothesis of intelligent design as an ostensible explanation of the complex adaptive features of organisms. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, most biologists have explained such features by appealing to Darwinian evolution, but the intelligent design hypothesis postulates the agency of an intelligent being as the explanation of complex physical adaptations.  Sober argues that classical and contemporary versions of the design argument fail, but not for the reasons normally encountered among critics of such arguments.

First, Sober does not argue that the design argument is defeated on the grounds that the intelligent design hypothesis has a low prior probability (E&E, p. 121).  (“Prior probability” here refers to a hypothesis’s probability independent of, or prior to, considerations drawn from present data adduced in support of the hypothesis.)  Sober is actually explicit that the evaluation of the intelligent design hypothesis, as well as the rival Darwinian evolution hypothesis, must do without considerations of prior probability. Why? Simply this: there’s no objective way to assign prior probabilities to these kinds of hypotheses.  If we assign prior probabilities, it would amount to little more than an expression of our personal or subjective belief predilections.  Science has more rigorous aims.  Since prior probabilities play a role in judgments about the net plausibility or overall probability of a hypothesis, Sober does not propose to render a verdict on this with respect to either intelligent design or Darwinian evolution. His aim is modest.  Assess whether the relevant evidence favors the design hypothesis over its main rival, Darwinian evolution. 

Sober carries out this assessment on the basis of a Likelihoodist approach to confirmation theory (E&E, pp. 121-122). According to a widely discussed formulation of the Law of Likelihood (LL): evidence e favors some hypothesis h1 over hypothesis h2 if and only if the probability of e given h1 is greater than the probability of e given h2.  Likelihoodism, then, ignores the prior probability of hypotheses, as well as the correlated attempt to justify claims about the probability or net plausibility of a hypothesis.  It’s only interested in determining whether evidence favors, supports, or confirms a hypothesis, and this by virtue of assessing whether a hypothesis better leads us to expect the relevant data/evidence/observation than does some specific rival hypothesis.  More technically stated, Likelihoodism focuses on the likelihood of a hypothesis, which is a technical way of referring to the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis.  This probability, Pr(e/h), should be distinguished from the probability of the hypothesis given the evidence, Pr(h/e).  The first might be high but the latter low.  The hypothesis that there are gremlins bowling in my attic has a high likelihood because it renders the sounds I hear in my attic very probable, easily more probable than many different competing hypotheses, but the gremlin hypothesis has a low probability because it has a low prior probability.

Furthermore, notice that Likelihoodism is a contrastive approach to evidential support.  It explicates the favoring or supports relation by comparing the likelihoods of hypotheses with each other.  While Bayesian approaches to confirmation theory involve contrasting a hypothesis h1 with its negation ~h1, Likelihoodism contrasts a particular hypothesis h1 with some other hypothesis h2.  For any two hypotheses, h1 and h2, and observational evidence e, it aims to assess whether the probability of e is greater given h1 than it is given h2, that is, formally whether Pr (e/h1) > Pr(e/h2).  Note that if Pr (e/h1) > Pr(e/h2) this does not require that Pr(e/h2) be low or that Pr(e/h1) be high, only that Pr(e/h1) is greater than Pr(e/h2), though of course it might be “much greater.” 

Sober takes the view that design arguments are best formulated as Likelihood arguments that compare the likelihood of the design hypothesis with that of a rival hypothesis.  In this way, their aim is modest, the thorny problem of assessing prior probabilities is avoided, and the arguments circumvent some of the traditional skeptical criticisms, for instance some of David Hume’s criticisms in the eighteenth century that assume the argument is an argument from analogy that depends on a high degree of overall resemblance between organisms and human artifacts like watches. 

So, for example, William Paley’s famous organismic design argument, which focuses on complex adaptive features of organisms (O), should be formulated as:

(1) Observation O favors the intelligent design hypothesis over the chance hypothesis if and only if Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) > Pr(Observations / Chance)

(2) Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) > Pr(Observations / Chance)

Therefore:

(3) Observation O favors the intelligent design hypothesis over Chance 

However, an apparent weakness of Paley’s argument, and by implication all organismic design arguments, is that, even if Paley was correct that such evidence favors intelligent design over purely random natural processes, it may nonetheless still be the case that:

Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution) > Pr(Observations / Intelligent design), 

or even that

Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution) >> Pr(Observations / Intelligent design). 

Hence, if we contrast intelligent design with a hypothesis other than chance, which in the case of Darwinian evolution Paley himself could not have anticipated, we get a different result.  And in fact, one of the responses to Paley-style design arguments is that Darwinian evolution has the upper hand since the relevant data are more probable, perhaps much more probable, given Darwinian evolution than intelligent design.  Sober notes, for example, that Stephen J. Gould takes this approach (E&E, pp. 127-128).  Gould has argued that imperfect adaptations in nature are very surprising if organisms have been designed by an intelligent being, but wholly expected if Darwinian evolution tells the correct story.  For example, Gould argues that the panda’s “thumb” (that is, the spur bone extending from the panda’s wrist), which together with the panda’s paw is used to strip bamboo stalks for eating, is highly inefficient.  While such inefficiencies are to be expected on the hypothesis of Darwinian evolution, they are not to be expected given the hypothesis of intelligent design.  Therefore, the observation like the panda’s “thumb” (and many others could be provided) favors Darwinian evolution over the intelligent design hypothesis.

Sober, though, has a very different kind of criticism, and here’s where Sober’s approach gets interesting. 

2. Sober’s Critique: What’s Wrong with Design Arguments 

Just as Sober doesn’t think that the Achilles Heel of the design argument rests in the low prior probability of the intelligent design hypothesis, he also doesn’t think that the nub of the problem within a Likelihood framework is that Darwinian evolution has a higher likelihood than intelligent design.  The problem is that we simply are not in position to as much as assess whether 

Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) > Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution), 

much less whether

Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) >> Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution), 

These (weaker and stronger) intelligent design hypotheses have inscrutable likelihoods because we can’t really say what the empirical world should look like if the design hypothesis is true.  While we can make claims about the likelihoods found on the right hand of the equation above, we cannot do so for the likelihood on the left side (E&E, pp. 141-147, 189). 

It’s important to more clearly state and explore the nature of the problem here.

First, the problem is not that the hypothesis of intelligent design by itself has no predictive consequences. Sober emphasizes the Duhem-Quine thesis that predictive consequences emerge only when we consider sets of statements, a hypothesis + auxiliary statements (E&E, pp.144-145).  So it’s not a problem that the supposition of an intelligent designer by itself has no predictive consequences.  The same would be true for rival hypotheses. After all, natural selection only makes predictions if it’s supplemented with its own set of auxiliary hypotheses, e.g., about the “targets” of selection and “constraints” on selection processes. 

Second the problem isn’t that we can’t find any statement that, once conjoined to intelligent design, has predictive consequences. As Sober further notes (E&E, p. 129-131), it’s monumentally easy to find auxiliary statements that will assist the intelligent design hypothesis in generating testable predictions.  For example, postulate an intelligent designer, but further postulate that the designer would have wanted everything in the world to be purple.  This generates, by deductive entailment, the prediction that every object in the world should be purple.  Clearly this prediction is false.  Therefore, the design hypothesis is falsified.  We could also suppose that the intelligent designer gave vertebrates their eyes, which of course entails that vertebrates have eyes.  This also results in a specific kind of prediction, so intelligent design turns out to be a falsifiable (though not falsified) hypothesis.

Notice that Gould does something similar to show that Darwinian evolution has a higher likelihood than intelligent design.  He supposes, not that the designer would have wanted the world to consist of only purple objects, but rather that he would have wanted the panda’s “thumb” to be more efficiently constructed.  Therefore, the panda’s “thumb” is very surprising given the design hypothesis.  However, we could just as easily have picked an auxiliary hypothesis that would be favorable to intelligent design, like an intelligent designer who would have wanted humans to have eyes with the features our eyes actually have and pandas to have a spur bone extending from their wrists.  So we can easily pick auxiliaries that result in the observational evidence having a probability of unity, zero, or anywhere in between, given the hypothesis of an intelligent designer and the chosen auxiliaries (E&E, pp. 142-144). 

The problem should now be apparent.  The predictive consequences in each of the above instances are derived from the hypothesis of intelligent design supplemented with an auxiliary assumption that attributes to the designer, if such a being should exist, abilities and desires/goals of a particular sort.  But Gould is no more entitled to make an assumption unfavorable to the design hypothesis here than Paley and company are entitled to make assumptions favorable to the design hypothesis.  Neither adopts an assumption that can be independently tested.  Neither is justified in believing what the abilities and goals of an intelligent designer would be.  (And Sober thinks that same conclusion follows if the intelligent designer is more robustly described as “God,” that is, an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good being). What is relevant for the testability of a hypothesis is that we derive predictions with assistance from independently testable auxiliary hypotheses. And this requires that our justification for believing auxiliary statements does not depend on our believing that either H1 or H2 (the hypotheses whose likelihoods are under consideration) is true, or even that the observational datum is true. (E&E, p. 152).

So, on Sober’s view, the problem with the design hypothesis is that it cannot be tested because we don’t know or have justified beliefs about what auxiliary hypotheses are true. We neither know nor justifiably believe (independent of the hypothesis of intelligent design) what the goals and abilities of the designer would be should such a being exist.   As Sober says, “The problem with the hypothesis of intelligent design is not that it makes inaccurate predictions but that it doesn’t predict much of anything at all” (E&E, p. 154). Hence, we’re not in a position to justifiably claim that 

Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) > Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution),

much less that 

Pr(Observations / Intelligent design) >> Pr(Observations / Darwinian evolution).

Therefore, we’re not in a position to say that the relevant evidence favors intelligent design over Darwinian evolution. 

3. Sober’s Critique and Empirical Survival Arguments: Preliminary Considerations

Although I’m a philosopher of religion with a long-standing interest in arguments for the existence of God, at present Sober’s central criticism of intelligent design arguments interest me because of its implications for another species of empirical argument at the center of my current work, arguments for postmortem survival or life after death from the data of psychical research. The data here would be data collected from paranormal phenomena such as of out-of-body and near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, cases of the reincarnation type, and apparitions of the dead.  I’ve argued in a few places that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect such data only if we adopt a significant number of auxiliary hypotheses whose epistemic credentials are at best questionable.  Otherwise stated, the predictive power of the survival hypothesis depends on auxiliary hypotheses that lack the appropriate epistemic credentials. This I maintain constitutes a defeater for empirical arguments for survival. 

In the next two blogs I’ll develop this argument.  Here I’ll offer some preliminary remarks. 

As I see it, far too many empirical survivalists are either unconscious of the extent to which their arguments depend on auxiliary assumptions, or they are unconscious of the implications this has for the assessment of the evidential force of the relevant data.  One contributing factor here is the refusal of empirical survivalists to rigorously develop the empirical argument for survival, for instance, by addressing some very basic issues in confirmation theory, or otherwise putting their principles of inductive inference on the table and clearly applying them to the survival hypothesis.  The tendency is to pile up data, in much the same way that many eighteenth and nineteenth century theologians thought they could prove the existence of God by simply piling up alleged examples of design in the world.  But a mass of data does not an argument make. 

However, another reason for this degree of unconsciousness about the relevance of auxiliary assumptions is rooted in a particular strategy of argument adopted by a large number of empirical survivalists.  It’s what Sober 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 the 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.” (E&E, p. 353)

This sums up one of the central strategies of argument found in the bulk of survival literature.  Empirical survivalists routinely think the survival hypothesis has acquired some sort of positive epistemic credential because they identify some particular datum that is allegedly improbable given an alternative non-survival hypothesis. For example, empirical survivalists think they’ve refuted appeals to psychic functioning among living persons by pointing to behavioral patterns or skills exhibited by trance mediums or young children, where the behavior or skills are characteristic of some deceased person.  This sort of phenomenon is allegedly improbable or not to be expected if we adopt a living-agent psi hypothesis.  Well, in the light of Sober’s critique of design arguments, it’s clear that such a tactic only facilitates distraction from the central issues, namely the extent to which the survival hypothesis renders the data probable, and what must be assumed about survival to determine this. 

Notice also that when critics of survival arguments argue that more robust versions of the living-agent psi hypothesis (e.g., Stephen Braude’s motivated living-agent psi hypothesis) challenge the survival hypothesis, survivalists shift to a different debunking strategy.  They try to rack up considerations that lower the prior probability of the counter-explanation.  For example, living-agent psi explanations of the data are often said to be overly complex, or they fail to fit with our alleged background knowledge since they postulate psi of a potency, magnitude, or level of refinement for which there is no independent evidence, or they depend on psychodynamic hypotheses that stand in need of independent support.  Again, the focus is on how competitors fail, not on how the survival hypothesis succeeds. 

As I’ve argued, counter-explanations may indeed have a very low prior probability, but if the empirical argument for survival is construed as a likelihood argument, then it’s irrelevant that the prior probability of motivated living-agent psi, dandy psi, superman-psi, God-potent psi, or whatever, is low.  As Sober emphasizes, Likelihood arguments don’t bring prior probabilities to bear on evidence assessment.  Moreover, as far as prior probability assessments go, the relevant comparison must be between robust versions of all the explanatory candidates, including the survival hypothesis.  So if we are die-hard Bayesians, and we wish to legitimately introduce considerations of prior probability, we can’t sensibly compare a simple survival hypothesis with a robust counter-explanation.  We must compare the prior probability of robust versions of the competitors with robust versions of the survival hypothesis, because it’s only robust versions of the explanatory candidates that have any predictive consequences.

Sober’s observation, derived from Richard Royall, is instructive at this juncture.  There are two kinds of questions that need to be distinguished.  We can pose the question, “What does the present evidence say?”  We can also pose the question “What should you believe?”  The Likelihood approach addresses the first; the Bayesian approach the second.  It’s best that survivalists more clearly distinguish these questions in relation to their assessments of the alleged evidence for survival.  Accordingly, they need more clearly to distinguish between whether they want to defend modest likelihood claims or stronger claims about the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis, based on the joint consideration of likelihoods and priors.

That being said Sober’s critique illuminates what I consider the nub of the problem facing empirical arguments for survival, whether they are formulated along Likelihood or Bayesian lines.  Empirical survivalists need to state the kinds of auxiliary assumptions that are required for the survival hypothesis to establish a genuine connection with the empirical world, specifically the range of data adduced in support of the survival hypothesis.  And they need to show that the survival hypothesis does a better job vis-à-vis its predictive consequences than do the competitors.  In my next blog, I’ll sketch some of the auxiliary assumptions needed for classical empirical arguments for survival, and I’ll also begin exploring why this is a problem.  By the third installment, I hope it’s clear why I think PAH—the problem of auxiliary assumptions—poses the most fundamental kind of challenge to empirical arguments for survival.

Interview on Postmortem Survival


Greetings Friends:

Jime Sayaka recently interviewed me on the topic of postmortem survival for his blog Subversive Thinking. During the past few years, Sayaka has interviewed a number of authors and researchers on the alleged empirical evidence for life after death.  After corresponding with Sayaka during the past year, I agreed to answer a number of questions concerning the data of psychical research as alleged support for the hypothesis of personal survival of death.  Sayaka has granted me permission to post the interview in full on my blog, though of course I encourage my subscribers to visit his blog as well.

In the interview (reproduced in full below) I outline a number of the arguments that I’ll be developing in detail in my book in progress. I also critically examine some common but unpersuasive strategies survivalists have used to defend classical empirical arguments for survival, especially against proposed counter-explanations of the data in terms of living-agent psychic functioning.  The interview is lengthy, but I wanted to provide some well-developed answers on core issues in the empirical debate on survival.  This should give an informative though at points technical preview of forthcoming material.  Among the issues I emphasize are the importance of the predictive power of the survival hypothesis, why the survival hypothesis has no predictive power unless it’s supplemented with various auxiliary assumptions, and how the first two points generate serious problems for empirical arguments for survival.

 

Jime Sayaka Interview with Michael Sudduth (1/19/14)
  
1-Professor Sudduth, how and why did you get interested in the paranormal and empirical research into the afterlife?
 
My interest in the paranormal and postmortem survival originated from a series of paranormal experiences at different times in my life, but the interest has been sustained and shaped in significant ways by my academic interests in philosophy of mind, the nature of the human personality, and western and eastern spirituality.
 
I’d say that my curiosity in survival-related questions began when I was around eight years old.  After having recurrent apparitional experiences in the house I lived in with my parents at the time, I began wondering whether there were real things that I could not normally see but which became visible under certain conditions.  And seeing as I recognized some of the apparitions as deceased members of my family or friends of the family, the experiences prompted the question, is death really the end of our existence?  I never said anything about these experiences to my parents, but I remember feeling encouraged when a couple of years later my grandmother shared with me an apparitional experience she had of my grandfather shortly after his death.  And I recall, on another occasion, overhearing another family member secretly discussing her apparitional experience of my grandfather.
 
In my teenage years I had a variety of paranormal experiences over a two-year period.  Given my prior experiences, I decided to document the experiences in a journal I kept at the time.  I was also inspired by the 1972 television series the Sixth Sense to explore these experiences through various readings in parapsychology.  Interestingly enough, during this time my mother reported an apparitional experience of my grandfather a few days before the death of my grandmother.  Although my mother had no knowledge of my grandmother’s experience several years earlier, her description of the apparition was remarkably similar to what my grandmother had described.
 
After a lengthy hiatus in thinking about these matters during my later teens and 20s, my interest was briefly resurrected when I encountered the writings of H.H. Price while studying philosophy of religion as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.  Price came on my radar through my reading of John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life, a text that had been recommended to me a couple of years earlier by a professor at Santa Clara University, where I did my undergraduate work in philosophy.  Although I was greatly impressed with Price’s reflections on the empirical approach to survival, my conservative Christian views at the time, together with my focus on other topics in graduate school, dissuaded me from a further exploration.
 
Two later events facilitated my shift towards a sustained engagement with the alleged empirical evidence for postmortem survival.  While a professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, I assigned readings on survival (including articles by H.H. Price) in my philosophy of religion classes. This eventually evolved into a senior seminar I taught on John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life text.  In 2002 I left Saint Michael’s College and moved into a historic home in Windsor, Connecticut. There my ex-wife and I had a large number of paranormal experiences, which I documented in written form.  After moving out of the house in 2004, I conducted some interviews with prior occupants of the home and learned that they had similar experiences.  I became very fascinated with the nature of these shared experiences, seemingly tied to a particular physical location, and their possible implications for postmortem survival.  So I embarked upon a critical exploration of the topical territory that has defined a central part of my academic research and writing to this day.
 
Since I had developed an independent interest in various questions in the philosophy of mind prior to 2004, my exploration of survival nicely dovetailed with my other academic interests, including my specialization in philosophy of religion, where I had given considerable attention to the nature of religious experience and arguments for the existence of God.  In addition to devouring earlier philosophical explorations of the empirical approach to survival (e.g., the works of C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, and C.J. Ducasse), I also acquainted myself with the works of more recent and contemporary philosophers who have taken an interest in the subject matter, e.g., David Ray Griffin, Robert Almeder, and Stephen Braude. I established a friendship with Braude, as well as with parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach.  I’ve had the added benefit of participating in a number of paranormal investigations and developing friendships with various mediums over the past eight years.  So my thinking on this topic has been shaped by a wide-range of first-hand experiences, as well as my research and training as a philosopher.
 
On my current view, I think there is a legitimate debate about what exactly paranormal phenomena establish about the reality and nature of postmortem survival.  That’s an issue at the center of my present work.  I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness.  I remain skeptical, though, about many of the claims made on behalf of the ostensible empirical evidence for survival.  For me, the most relevant aspect of the inquiry into this topical territory is the role it plays in my own journey of self-exploration.
 
2-You’re working [on] a forthcoming book on survival of consciousness. Can you tell us when it is going to be published, and how it differs from the rest of the survival literature?
 
Yes. I’m presently working on a book on survival. It’s a philosophical engagement and critique of the traditional empirical arguments for survival, very much in the tradition of Broad, Ducasse, and Price, and the sort of project that John Hick and H.D. Lewis encouraged philosophers of religion to take up back in the 1970s. I anticipate its completion by fall 2014.  Palgrave Macmillan will be publishing the book in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series.  As you know, I’ve published a number of papers on the topic since 2009, but I’ve actually had the idea of writing a book on survival for sometime now.  It’s been a gradual process of digesting the large body of material in the subject area, deeply processing various aspects of the debate, and letting my own thoughts reach a certain level of maturity.
 
Quite naturally, the book is motivated by my personal and professional attraction to the topic, but it’s more specifically motivated by my interest in sharpening the empirical survival debate in several ways.  Quite honestly, much of the literature on the topic since the 1960s has been disappointing.  Apart from a small number of publications, the literature has lacked the philosophical sophistication that characterized the works of Broad, Ducasse, and Price.  To be sure, there have been some good works on the topic, for example, Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival, R.W.K. Paterson’s Philosophy and Belief in a Life after Death, David Ray Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, and—most importantly—Stephen Braude’s Immortal Remains.  On the whole, though, since the 1960s, the literature has stagnated. Most of the publications simply overwhelm the reader with information, not conceptually clear and carefully reasoned argument.  Survival is typically asserted as an ostensible conclusion drawn from a mass of empirical data for which there is apparently no better explanation, to which some authors append facile dismissals of materialist philosophies of mind and arguments from the data of cognitive neuroscience purporting to show the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain.
 
The widespread claim among empirical survivalists—survivalists who endorse empirical evidence for survival—is that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of the data.  But what does it mean for a hypothesis to explain data?  How does a hypothesis explaining data convert the data into evidential cash value? What logical principles are being enlisted to show this and assess the weight of the evidence relative to competing hypotheses? And how do we arrive at judgments concerning the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis?  These are crucial questions for evaluating the empirical case for survival, but you’ll find a deafening silence with respect to these questions in survival literature since the 1960s.  One gets the impression from much of the literature that the survival hypothesis simply wins by explanatory default:  since nothing else explains the data, survival explains the data.
 
The lack of conceptual clarity and logical rigor in the literature is particularly unfortunate when compared with how, during the past forty years, debates in the Anglo-America philosophy of religion have advanced to increasing levels of sophistication, as illustrated by the application of developments in modal logic, confirmation theory, and general epistemology to traditional arguments for the existence of God. For example, there’s nothing in the survival literature comparable in logical rigor to philosopher Richard Swinburne’s the Existence of God (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2008), in which Swinburne uses Bayesian confirmation theory to argue for the existence of God. Probability in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Jake Chandler and Victoria Harrison (Oxford University Press, 2012), highlights many such developments in Anglo-American philosophy of religion during the past forty years.
 
So my book is largely a conceptual exploration of the survival hypothesis itself and a critical examination of the logic of empirical arguments for survival.  It’s an exploration in the philosophy of postmortem survival focused on the prospects for a logically rigorous and successful empirical argument for survival.  Naturally, I draw on my training as an analytic philosopher well acquainted with the conceptual territory of Anglo-American metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science.
 
3-Could you outline the central argument of your book?
 
Certainly.
 
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.  So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge.  Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival.  That’s my thesis.
 
Why do I take this position?  Traditionally, the empirical case for survival has been based at least in part on the ostensible explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. From this viewpoint, the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis will be favorable only if the hypothesis has great explanatory power.  In more conceptually sophisticated accounts, survival is inferred from its explanatory power assisted by a favorable judgment concerning its antecedent or prior probability (i.e., roughly, how likely the survival hypothesis is independent of the empirical data it is adduced to explain).  My view, simply stated, is that proponents of the classical arguments make one or more of three mistakes.  They significantly overestimate (i) the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis, (ii) its prior probability, and/or (iii) the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis given the (approximate) values they assign to (i) or (ii), or both.
 
To fill out my critical evaluation a bit more, consider the following formulation of a widespread version of the empirical argument for survival:
 
(1) There is some data set D.
(2) The survival hypothesis, S, is the best explanation of D.
(3) S has a prior probability that is either not too low or greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s).
Therefore, it is at least more probable than not that:
(4) The survival hypothesis is true.
 
The argument is an inference to best explanation supplemented by a favorable judgment concerning the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I call this the “strengthened explanatory argument” for survival (hereafter, SEA) to distinguish it from a similar explanatory argument that depends solely on explanatory considerations, with no consideration of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I don’t think the basic explanatory argument can show that survival is more probable than not, so SEA is the most appropriate generic version of the empirical argument for survival when it comes to the stronger claims made on behalf of the evidence.  So SEA considered here explicitly takes it that the survival hypothesis has a favorable posterior probability, specifically a probability greater than ½.
 
Following the tendency of recent parapsychologists and philosophers, I formulate the empirical case for survival as a cumulative case argument.  So D = the relevant set of data drawn from five kinds of paranormal phenomena:  near-death and out-of-body experiences, apparitional experiences, mediumistic communications, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Furthermore, with respect to premise (2), I take the “explanatory power” of the survival hypothesis to be a function of the extent to which it leads us to expect the relevant data, as well as the extent to which the data are otherwise surprising or improbable.  As for premise (3), I understand the prior probability of a hypothesis h, where h is being proposed to explain observational evidence e, to be the probability of h independent of e, as determined by criteria such as h’s simplicity and h’s fit with background knowledge.  According to premise (3), the survival hypothesis has a prior probability that is not very low or at least greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s), where the nearest competitor is a non-survival hypothesis that purports to lead us to expect much if not all of the relevant data.
 
If we formulate the empirical argument for survival as SEA, then my criticisms can be more precisely stated.  I argue that there are overriding reasons for supposing that we are not justified to believe (2) and (3) or, even if we accept premises (2) and (3), (4) is not more probable than not given these premises.  In either case, it follows that we are not justified to believe the conclusion (4) on the basis of (2) and (3), where (4) is assigned the value greater than ½.  Hence SEA does not succeed in showing that survival is more probable than its negation.
 
SEA, of course, needs careful unpacking and analysis.  There’s much that needs to be said about how empirical survivalists have tried to support the premises of the argument.  In my book I employ a Bayesian approach to confirmation theory to provide a more precise articulation of SEA, as well as to illuminate why the argument fails. I also consider the implications of alternative approaches to evidence assessment for the prospects of a good empirical argument for survival. As we continue the interview, I’ll fill out some of these details.
 
4-Professor Sudduth, you have been a philosophical critic of the survivalist hypothesis to explain the empirical data from mediumship and other putative evidence for survival of consciousness. What are your objections for the survival hypothesis?
 
Well, let me begin with some important caveats and clarifications. Unlike many other philosophers, I don’t object to the survival hypothesis itself, nor do I deny that people can be epistemically justified in believing in survival.  I’ve already stated that I subscribe to the eastern philosophical and spiritual tradition of Vedanta.  So I don’t believe that what I essentially am shares in the limits or destiny of my body or individual mind.  I am a survivalist.  I also don’t deny that empirical evidence can add to the justification of belief in survival, for instance, by adding to the evidential probability of the survival hypothesis.  And I think there’s much to be said for how the survival hypothesis may draw support from multiple grounds, for example, empirical, philosophical, and religious or spiritual.  But this requires a very different approach than has been traditionally taken by the majority of empirical survivalists.  My present project is, therefore, concerned with the critique and dismantling of the existing and deeply entrenched tradition of classical empirical arguments for survival. Hopefully it paves the way for new and fruitful approaches to empirical arguments for survival.
 
So let’s unpack some of the details of my argument.
 
As I see it, there’s really no way to make an empirical case for survival unless we can show that the features of the world marked out by the relevant data are what we would expect if the survival hypothesis is true, and furthermore that these features are more to be expected if survival is true than if survival is false (or, more modestly, if some alternative non-survival hypothesis is true).  So what is often called predictive power, at least understood in a broad sense, is essential to an empirical case for survival.  As it happens, most survivalists have either claimed or assumed the same, usually in connection with how the “explanatory power” of the survival hypothesis is parsed.  But it’s more generally relevant because predictive power, or the probability of the evidence given a hypothesis, plays an important role in the two dominant approaches to evidence assessment in confirmation theory, Bayesian and Likelihoodist approaches, both of which I will subsequently discuss.
 
However, predictive salience subjects the survival hypothesis to anauxiliary hypothesis requirement.  Theoretically, this arises from the general Duhem-Quine thesis in philosophy of science that single statements rarely have predictive consequences, unless they’re supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses.  So hypotheses can only be tested via their predictive consequences in bundles or sets.  This is repeatedly demonstrated in the history of science, but I remember first seeing it dramatically illustrated in the old television series Columbo. When detective Columbo tests his hypothesis that Dr. Brimmer murdered Mrs. Kennicut, he relies on a number of additional assumptions, many of which are statements about Dr. Brimmer (e.g., having a particular connection to the victim, being left handed, having a temper, wearing a diamond ring with a unique shape). These auxiliary assumptions, together with the hypothesis that Dr. Brimmer committed the crime, leads Columbo to expect to find the crucial pieces of evidence, which only function as “clues” because they are linked to the murderer by way of a particular set of added assumptions.
 
It’s a central part of my argument that this is true with respect to the survival hypothesis.  The data collected from mediumship or cases of the reincarnation type only serve as evidence for personal survival once various auxiliary hypotheses are introduced to facilitate the link between the data and the continued existence of the deceased person. This is often glossed over, or simply not acknowledged at all, because empirical survivalists routinely treat the survival hypothesis as a generic survival hypothesis, for example, the survival of individual consciousness, the mind, or the self.  But this kind of simple survival hypothesis does not lead us to expect the relevant data, unless it is supplemented with a wide range of auxiliary statements about the knowledge, intentions, and causal powers of postmortem persons, as well as the mechanism or process of postmortem communication (in the case of mediumship) and rebirth (in reincarnation cases).
 
The necessary reliance on auxiliary hypotheses is clear if we carefully read classic works on the empirical arguments for survival such as E.R. Dodds’s “Why I Do Not Believe in Survival” (1934), Hornell Hart’s Engima of Survival (1959) and Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival (1982).  Hence, inasmuch as the empirical case for survival depends on predictive derivations that logically link the survival hypothesis to specific features of the empirical world (captured by the relevant data), the empirical case for survival requires what I call a robust survival hypothesis.   While empirical survivalists usually assume some robust version of the survival hypothesis, they rarely acknowledge this with adequate transparency; much less do they critically explore it.  Consequently, they fail to consider its significance to the overall case for survival.  And this is a crucial issue as I see it because the satisfaction of the auxiliary hypothesis requirement has significant consequences for assessments of both the prior probability of the survival hypothesis and its explanatory power, the two determinants of the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.
 
Here I make two points.
 
First, I argue that the survival hypothesis can only adequately satisfy the auxiliary hypothesis requirement at the cost of a significant reduction of prior probability.  The predictive power of the survival hypothesis (i.e., its ability to lead us to expect the relevant data) is inversely proportional to its prior probability:  as the predictive power of the survival hypothesis is increased, its prior probability is decreased, specifically as a result of increased complexity and less fit with background knowledge.  So a survival hypothesis with great explanatory power will I’m afraid not have very high prior probability, and certainly not greater prior probability than the nearest competitors.  Within a Bayesian framework, this will significantly lower the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.
 
Second, the survival hypothesis can only adequately satisfy the auxiliary hypothesis by adopting assumptions that lack independent support and testability.  In this way, they are quite different from Columbo’s auxiliary hypotheses, or the kinds of auxiliary statements employed by scientists.  For example, there is no independent evidence for supposing that persons, should any of them survive death, will have the intention and requisite powers to communicate with living persons, much less in ways that as much as approximate the modality of mediumship or apparitions. We also have no independent reason to suppose that discarnate persons will have awareness of events taking place in our world or the mental lives of living persons, which is required if mediumistic communications genuinely originate from discarnate persons.  Furthermore, we have no good independent reason to suppose that some or all living persons would reincarnate on earth, much less as humans or with past life memories, congenital birth marks corresponding to the manner of their death in a former life, etc.  In short, we don’t know what would happen to consciousness if it should survive death, nor do we know anything about the causal laws to which postmortem existence and agency would be subject.  And, at present at any rate, there is no way to independently test hypotheses at this juncture.  In fact, if the afterlife is anything like dream experiences or some other similar altered states of consciousness—the closest conjectured analogues of the afterlife—I would say the relevant data are actually not what we would expect.
 
Now the lack of independent testability has important implications for the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis.  Since the epistemic credentials of the auxiliary hypotheses are quite weak, they can only be methodologically sanctioned by a very permissive principle governing the inclusion of auxiliary hypotheses to test the survival hypothesis.  The problem here is that it is prima facie implausible to suppose that any such liberal principle will simultaneously entitle empirical survivalists to their stock of auxiliary hypotheses and not entitle others from including whatever auxiliary hypotheses are needed to generate predictive consequences for proposed alternative non-survival explanations.  In other words, the empirical survivalist faces the problem of purchasing predictive power for the survival hypothesis at the cost of indirectly purchasing it for alternative hypotheses as well.  So it won’t be the case that a robust survival hypothesis will lead us to expect data that are otherwise improbable, nor even that the data would be more likely given a robust survival hypothesis than robust alternative hypotheses.
 
Now consider the bearing of these points on run-of-the-mill defenses of empirical arguments for survival.
 
First, consider defenses of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  When empirical survivalists defend the prior probability of the survival hypothesis, they consider the hypothesis only in its simple form, for example, the mere supposition of one’s individual consciousness persisting after death.  There’s a lot of expended effort to defend substance dualism, critique materialist philosophies of mind, or dismantle arguments from cognitive neuroscience that purport to show the dependence of consciousness on neural substrates and hence a functioning brain.  Important as these moves are, their success is limited.  While they may remove prominent reasons for supposing that the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is low, they do not show that its prior probability is high.  More importantly, they do not defeat arguments that purport to show that the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is low, not because of the supposition of survival itself, but because of the nature and consequences of the auxiliary hypotheses that are needed to generate predictive power for the survival hypothesis.
 
Next, consider critiques of the nearest explanatory competitors. There’s a pretty widespread consensus in the survival literature that the nearest explanatory competitor, which ostensibly accounts for the relevant data, is the appeal to living-agent psi in the form of extra sensory perception and/or psychokinesis among living agents.  Now among empirical survivalists it’s virtual orthodoxy that this counter-explanation fails, for at least two reasons:  
 
1.  Appeals to living agent psi are rejected since they are allegedly inferior in explanatory power.  For example, living-agent psi does not lead us to expect living persons exhibiting personality traits and skills characteristic of the deceased, as if the case in the better cases of the reincarnation type and trance mediumship.  Also, living-agent psi would allegedly not lead us to expect the complex sets of veridical information found in these cases.  This would require that the data be psychically derived from multiple sources, but outside survival-type cases there’s no evidence that living-agent psi has this kind of efficacy. 
 
2.  The second line of attack is to concede a possible version of the living-agent psi hypothesis that might explain these data.  If living-agent psi were stretched into a “super-psi” hypothesis—positing living-agent psi functioning of a quite extraordinary degree or kind—and further supplemented with various supplemental assumptions about how human abilities and (conscious and unconscious) motivations are likely to play a role in accounting for the data.   But empirical survivalists typically reject this strengthened living-agent psi hypothesis because it’s highly complex and lacks independent support. In Bayesian terms, this explanatory competitor can only purchase predictive success at the cost of significantly lowered prior probability.
 
In the light of my earlier observations, it should be clear why these objections fail.  The strategy suggested by the above objections is essentially to argue that a robust survival hypothesis has greater explanatory power than simple explanatory competitors (e.g., a vanilla living-agent psi hypothesis), and a simple survival hypothesis has greater prior probability than the nearest robust competitor (living-agent psi + auxiliaries).  This may be true, but it’s ultimately irrelevant.  We must compare the values assigned to explanatory power and prior probability of robust versions of each of the candidate explanations.  When we try to do this, I argue that (a) the prior probability of the robust survival hypothesis is either equal to or less than the prior probability of the nearest robust explanatory competitor(s) and (b) the predictive power of the robust survival hypothesis is equal to or less than the predictive power of the nearest robust competitor(s).  From a Bayesian approach to calculating posterior probabilities, I think (a) and (b) significantly deflate the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.  Consequently, the survival arguments fail to show that the posterior probability of the robust survival hypothesis, given the evidence and usual assignments to background knowledge, exceeds ½.
 
It is, of course, crucial to this argument that the content of the background knowledge and scope of the evidence be carefully spelled out, and I do so in my book. And there’s a thorny problem here concerning just where to draw the parameters that isolate the total available and relevant evidence.  The problem also appears with respect to identifying the parameters of background knowledge.  What we include as evidence and background knowledge has consequences for judgments of the posterior probability of h because it affects the values assigned with respect to prior probabilities (of h and e) and the posterior probability of e given h (i.e., predictive power).
 
For example, I would say that the robust survival hypothesis has greater explanatory power than the robust living-agent psi hypotheses when the parameters of the evidence are more narrowly drawn, e.g., vis-à-vis mediumship—excluding evidence that that communicators provide inconsistent and unreliable information and that mediumistic controls are sometimes fictitious and yet convey accurate information. In fact, evidence within narrow parameters frees the survival hypothesis from the need to adopt a number of auxiliary assumptions, and thereby circumvents conditions that would further lower the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  So if we pick and choose the evidence, constrain its parameters in particular ways, the case for survival actually looks pretty good.  I suspect this is why some empirical survivalists think that the evidence for survival is good.  In much the same way, it looks like we have a good case for supposing that conditions are optimal for swimming at the beach given that the weather is warm, the ocean water isn’t turbulent, and there are only a modest number of people at the beach.  However, all this changes once we add that several sharks have been spotted in the waters earlier in the morning.  It’s a canon of inductive logic that you consider the total evidence available in assessing the net plausibility of a hypothesis.  I think this is yet another point where survival arguments are vulnerable because they typically operate with implausibly narrow parameters on the relevant evidence.  So one of my interests is to identify and carefully describe the total available evidence, as well as consider the implications of different parameters for background knowledge.
 
5-Survivalists like Chris Carter and others suggest that survival of consciousness is the most natural, obvious and straightforward inference from the empirical data from mediumship, near-death experiences and reincarnation type cases. What do you think of this argument?
 
I’m not inclined to dispute the claim.  I think the claim is entirely compatible with my central thesis and the premises of my central argument.  Many theists say that the existence of God is the most natural, obvious, and straightforward inference from the fine-tuning of the universe.  And it is . . . to them.  I’m quite sure that for Carter and many other survivalists the survival inference is natural, obvious, and straightforward. However, as in the case of proposed theistic explanations of the existence and regularities of the universe, the obviousness of the inference lies in the (often unspoken and unconscious) adoption of a whole array of background assumptions. As a philosopher, I’m interested in identifying these assumptions and assessing their role in the inference to survival, and this is in the interest of ultimately evaluating the cogency and strength of survival arguments.  That the survival inference is natural, obvious, and straightforward to lots of people is a psychological truth that really isn’t relevant to the kind of question that is central in the empirical survival debate.
 
6-You have argued that the super-PSI explanation of the data is adequate, if not most adequate, than the survival hypothesis. Can you explain briefly the super-PSI hypothesis and why is it so good as an alternative explanation for the data?
 
I don’t believe I’ve argued that the super-psi explanation is adequate, much less most adequate or good.  In fact, I’ve explicitly stated in a few publications now that we should dispense with talk of “super-psi” altogether and simply utilize the language of “living-agent psi,” with the further caveat that such a hypothesis may appear in more or less robust forms depending on the range of auxiliary hypotheses added to it.  My view is that appeals to robust living-agent psi hypotheses are no less adequate or no less plausible than the survival hypothesis, at least when these hypotheses are compared in their robust forms and we’re considering a maximal data set, not just narrow strands of data.  It’s quite another matter to say that either explanation is adequate, much less good.
 
I suppose I should say something here about strategies for critiquing arguments, as there seems to be confusion in some of the literature as to what it takes to defeat survival arguments.  If the argument for survival depends on the premise that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data, to defeat the argument I only need to show that the survivalist is not justified in asserting the premise. One way to accomplish this is to show that the premise is false, to show that survival is not the best explanation of the data.  Of course, to do this it’s not necessary to show that there is some rival hypothesis thatbetter explains the data.  It would suffice to show that there is some rival hypothesis that is at least as good as the survival hypothesis in leading us to expect the data.  However, another way to show that the survivalist is not justified in claiming superior explanatory power on behalf of the survival hypothesis is simply to show that the survivalist is not justified in supposing that this premise is true, which is different from showing that the premise is false.  There are defeaters that constitute overriding reasons for supposing that a statement is false (rebutting defeaters) and there are defeaters that remove or otherwise neutralize reasons for supposing that a statement is true (undercutting defeaters).  This distinction is frequently lost sight of in the debate.
 
I maintain that empirical survivalists are not justified in claiming that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data.  More precisely stated, I maintain that empirical survivalists are not justified in claiming that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect data that are otherwise unlikely, or even less likely given the nearest robust competitors.  Now I do believe that there are reasons for supposing that there are nearby explanatory competitors that are at least as adequate at survival, or no less adequate if you will.  My position involves a parity thesis, and the argument is a parity argument. And this is one way to show that the survival hypothesis is not the best explanation of the data.  However, I also maintain, more modestly, that survivalists have not presented good enough reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the superior explanation of the data.  If we’re comparing robust versions of the survival hypothesis and living-agent psi hypothesis, then I don’t think survivalists have effectively argued that the data are more to be expected given robust survival than given the nearest robust competitors, for example something like Stephen Braude’s motivated living-agent psi hypothesis.
 
But let me give a more technical elaboration here. Let C = the nearest robust competitor, S = robust survival hypothesis, and DMAX = a maximal data set.  In that case, I argue:
 
(1)    Survivalists have not presented good enough reasons to believe that Pr(DMAX/S) > Pr(DMAX/C), much less that Pr(DMAX/S) >> Pr(DMAX/C).
 
(2)    There are overriding reasons for supposing that Pr(DMAX/S) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C).
 
To be clear, we are here concerned with a comparative probability of the data given each of the competing hypotheses.  This is the posterior probability of the evidence [Pr(e/h)], not to be confused with the posterior probability of the hypothesis [Pr(h/e)].  Following the common practice in confirmation theory I’ll refer to such posterior probabilities as “likelihoods,” and by extension the “likelihood of a hypothesis” will refer to the extent to which a hypothesis renders the evidence or data probable.  (The likelihood of a hypothesis is distinct from the probability of a hypothesis, as the latter refers to the extent to which the evidence renders the hypothesis probable).  So my view with respect to the living-agent psi hypothesis is that I don’t think survivalists have really shown that the survival hypothesis has a likelihood superior to a sufficiently robust living-agent psi hypothesis, at least not if the data set has sufficiently broad parameters.  More strongly stated, my view is that the likelihood of the survival hypothesis is less than or equal to the likelihood of the nearest robust competitor.
 
It’s important to underscore here that the argument for supposing that Pr(DMAX/S) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C) does not require the stronger claim that Pr(DMAX/C) > Pr(DMAX/S).  My position is also compatible with the following survivalist claim: Pr(DMIN/S) > Pr(DMIN/C), where DMIN = a more restricted data set.  So I work out my position in a way that is actually sensitive to the evidence-parameters problem.  Nonetheless, as I see it, (1) and (2) severally suffice to defeat the empirical argument for survival, at least to the extent to which the empirical argument depends on attributing to the survival hypothesis a superior likelihood over competitors.  So this will apply to Bayesian survival arguments that make use of likelihoods for the purposes of showing that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not.  It will also apply to Likelihoodist versions of the empirical argument for survival that are more modest in their pretensions, aiming only to show that the evidence (strongly) favors the survival hypothesis over the competitors solely on the grounds that the survival hypothesis has a superior likelihood.
 
It should be clear that the kind of comparative “adequacy” I’ve been focusing on here concerns “likelihoods” but of course many survivalists regard counter-explanations, such as the robust versions of the living-agent psi hypothesis, as (comparatively) inadequate for reasons other than those that bear on likelihoods.  For instance, many survivalists reject robust versions of the living-agent psi hypothesis because of its lack of independent testability and increased complexity. Since I regard these issues as determinants of prior probability (rather than explanatory power), I would parse the frequently encountered survivalist objection as maintaining that robust living-agent psi hypotheses have a lower prior probability than the survival hypothesis.  So the survivalist would presumably be claiming that Pr(S/K) > Pr(C/K) because C is more complex than S, fits less well with background knowledge, and we have no independent evidence for C (or some auxiliary contained in C).  Of course, on my analysis of priors, I think that Pr(S/K) ≤ Pr(C/K), at least if S and C refer to robust versions of survival and the nearest competitor and the background knowledge is what interlocutors in the debate typically include, e.g., scientific knowledge.
 
7-Chris Carter has argued forcefully against the super-PSI hypothesis (or super-ESP, as some calls it). For example, he says “Evidence for the existence of ESP of the required power and range is practically nonexistent. Defenders of the super-ESP hypothesis are hard-pressed to find any such examples – outside of cases of apparent communication from the deceased.” According to Carter, no defender of super-PSI has ever been able to challenge this objection. What do you think of this objection?
 
It’s the stock in trade of empirical survivalists to reject appeals to super-psi on the grounds that this hypothesis lacks “independent support.”  Stephen Braude has challenged this objection for a number of years, and I present an argument against it in a forthcoming paper in The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship, ed. Adam Rock (McFarland, 2014).  An earlier draft of the paper in question, “Is Survival the Best Explanation of Mediumship?”, is available on my professional website michaelsudduth.com.  Let me outline some of the salient points that I think significantly weaken the force of this objection.
 
First, from a Likelihoodist approach to confirmation theory, whether evidence favors hypothesis h1 over h2 depends solely on whether e is more to be expected given h1 than given h2, technically stated, whether Pr(e/h1) > Pr(e/h2).  A student walking down the hall from the Philosophy Department with three philosophy books in his hand favors the hypothesis that the student is a philosophy major over the hypothesis that the student is a biology major because the observational evidence is more likely given the former hypothesis than given the latter hypothesis.  Whether there is independent support for either hypothesis is not relevant to deciding which hypothesis the evidence favors, confirms, or supports.  Now of course, the Likelihoodist approach doesn’t tell us which hypothesis is likely to be true, and therefore it doesn’t tell us which hypothesis to accept or believe.  It only tells us which of two or more hypotheses a body of evidence favors or supports.  But the point here is that if I’m a Likelihoodist, I can make sense of the relevant data favoring the super-psi hypothesis over the survival hypothesis, even if super-psi lacks independent support.
 
Now the apparent shortcoming of my proposed Likelihoodist defense of the super-psi hypothesis is that lack of independent support may nonetheless be salient to our overall assessment of a hypothesis, and if we want to compare the survival hypothesis and its competitors, we might want to inquire about more than their comparative likelihoods. For example, the hypothesis that a very powerful demon intended me to pick the ace of spades has a higher likelihood than the hypothesis that my selection of the card was random, for the former hypothesis makes the selection of the card very probable and the latter makes it very improbable.  But the fact that the evidence favors the demon hypothesis here does not make the hypothesis very probable all things considered, and the crucial issue here, if we don’t have good evidence against the existence of such an entity, is quite plausibly that the demon hypothesis lacks independent support.  More generally stated, the demon hypothesis has a very low prior probability, and this is due in large part to the fact that it lacks independent support.
 
Now this point is significant from the vantage point of a possible defense of the empirical argument for survival.  Let’s suppose that Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K).  That is, the predictive power or likelihoods of S and C are equivalent. The survival hypothesis might still have a greater posterior probability than C (maybe even be more probable than not) if its prior probability is greater, especially if the prior probability is much greater.  From a Bayesian viewpoint, if Pr(e/h1&k) = Pr(e/h2&k), then Pr(h1/e&k) > Pr(h2/e&k) just if Pr(h1/k) > Pr(h2/k).  That is to say, if two hypotheses have equal predictive power (or likelihoods), then the evidence and background knowledge confers a greater probability on h1 than h2 just if h1’s prior probability is greater than h2’s prior probability.  So a survivalist might simply argue that, worst case scenario, Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K), but since Pr(S/K) >> Pr(C/K), the survival hypothesis has a greater posterior probability, maybe it’s still more probable than not.  To put this otherwise, a survivalist might argue that the net effect of deflating the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis on the grounds of co-equal likelihoods is negligible since the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is much greater.
 
I think this counter-argument would work if we were comparing the priors of “C” and a simple survival hypothesis, but as I’ve already argued, the explanatory candidates must be compared in their robust forms because simple survival has no explanatory power.  If the survivalist tries to shift to a simple survival hypothesis to inflate the prior probability of the survival hypothesis, this will deflate the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. It will follow that Pr(DMAX/C&K) >> Pr(DMAX/S&K).  But, unfortunately for the survivalist, if “lack of independent support” drives down the prior probability of the appeal to so-called super-psi, it will also drive down the prior probability of the robust survival hypothesis since it also depends on a broad range of auxiliary hypotheses for which there is no independent support.  More generally, if “lack of independent support” is a defect of robust living-agent psi hypotheses, it will also be a defect of the robust living agent psi hypothesis.  So there’s no advantage to be had here for the survival hypothesis.  As I noted above, on my analysis, Pr(S/K) ≤ Pr(C/K), if “S” refers to a robust survival hypothesis.
 
Finally, the problem for the survivalist is exacerbated since the auxiliary assumptions required by the survival hypothesis (to have predictive power) includes an auxiliary hypothesis that attributes super-psi to discarnate persons (and possibly also living agents).  As Gauld, Braude, Emily Williams Kelly, and I have each argued, the survival hypothesis itself is committed to the existence of ESP of a required power and range examples of which survivalists would be hard pressed to find outside cases of apparent communications from the deceased.  As I argued my 2009 paper “Super-Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship,” if the communications attributed to the deceased in paradigmatic cases of mediumship are really from the deceased, they too have extraordinary powers of knowledge acquisition, often requiring that they telepathically or clairvoyantly mine information from multiple sources.  It’s only the unwarranted assumption that death increases the potency of psi, or some such other speculative assumption, that allows survivalists to think that they are immune from this objection to super-psi.  But of course, they’re merely taking refuge in a further assumption for which there is no independent evidence.
 
But there’s another part of Carter’s objection of which I’m suspicious, namely the demand to produce examples of ESP of the “required” power and range outside cases of survival.
 
First, why is there a requirement that psi be super-psi in order to deflate the explanatory superiority of the survival hypothesis? Empirical survivalists routinely assert this, but Braude has shown that the assertion rests on various implausible assumptions.  Moreover, I’ve discussed in detail why appeals to living-agent psi challenge the survival hypothesis without requiring an appeal to super-psi.  See my the previously mentioned forthcoming “Is Survival the Best Explanation of Mediumship?” and my “A Critical Response to David Lund’s Argument for Postmortem Survival” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2013, 27: 277-316).
 
Second, I don’t know what kind of evidence would count as clear evidence for super-psi but not be capable of being construed as evidence for survival by empirical survivalists.  You may recall that back in the 1970s the Philip Group produced ostensible living-agent psychokinetic effects that resembled the phenomena of physical mediumship, complete with messages from a “deceased personality” named Philip.  Philip was a fictional person created by the group of experimenters, and his ostensible communications through raps and knocks corresponded to the details of the fictional biography created by members of the group. Yet David Fontana gave the Philip Group phenomena a survivalist interpretation by positing an earthbound spirit intent on fooling the group by masquerading as their fictional character Philip. (See Fontana, Is There An Afterlife? 2005, p. 112).  Well, of course.  If there were some earthbound spirit with such an intention and the power to carry out his deception, we would expect to find the evidence associated with the Philip Group experiments. By parity of reasoning, the hypothesis that a malicious and powerful demon wanted me to select the ace of spades I drew from the deck of cards renders my draw quite probable, certainly more probable than the alternative hypothesis that my draw was completely random.  You see, you can select any datum and adopt a hypothesis that renders the datum very probable or more probable than it would be given competing hypotheses.  The difficulty in meeting the survivalist challenge to produce evidence for super-psi outside cases of survival may not be the absence of such evidence, but the survivalist proclivity to see such evidence where it arises as evidence for survival.  Since what counts as a case of survival is precisely what’s in dispute by the parties in the debate, the challenge begs the question.
 
And of course the previous point highlights the final problem with Carter’s objection. Although it’s not clear what would count as unambiguous evidence for living-agent super-psi (vs. survival), what is clear is that no empirical survivalist has met the challenge to provide independent support for the dozen or so required auxiliary hypotheses required for survival to have predictive efficacy.  And this request does not beg the question.  It’s simply another instance of the general requirement imposed by Carter himself with respect to the super-psi hypothesis.  What Carter and other survivalists who take his position need to do is (i) explicitly acknowledge the content or range of the assumptions required for survival to yield likelihoods (of the evidence) that exceed the likelihoods (of the evidence) given rival hypotheses and (ii) provide independent support for as many of these auxiliary hypotheses as they can.  Until this can be done, the empirical case for survival has not been worked out with adequate logical rigor, and it certainly does not deserve to be considered a genuine scientific or even quasi-scientific hypothesis.
 
8-In connection with the above objection, survivalists suggest that the super-PSI hypothesis is ad hoc, because of the lack of any independent evidence for super-PSI, besides the putative cases of survival. (It’s like arguing that the reincarnation type cases are best explained by extraterrestials implanting false memories, without having any independent evidence for the existence of aliens, a point pressed by philosopher Robert Almeder in his response to atheist philosopher Steven Hales). Some survivalist consider this to be the most crushing objection against super-PSI. What’s your reply?
 
Given what I have argued above, if this objection is a crushing objection against the super-psi hypothesis, it’s also a crushing objection to the survival hypothesis, in which case the survivalist is hoisted by his own petard.  As I’ve already noted, the simple supposition of survival makes no specific predictions, much less does it predict any of the fine-grained features of the actual data, unless it’s supplemented by auxiliary assumptions of a wide-ranging sort. Hence, the lack of independent support objection is just as applicable to the robust survival hypothesis as it is to the super-psi hypothesis. Even if we assume that there is independent evidence for survival, there would also have to be independent evidence for the range of auxiliary assumptions needed for the survival hypothesis to have predictive power. Almeder has not provided this independent support, nor have other survivalists.
 
So why aren’t the auxiliary hypotheses employed by the survivalist ad hoc in nature?  I noted above that among such auxiliary hypotheses would be the attribution of super-psi to discarnate persons.  Well, then, if the super-psi hypothesis is ad hoc, so also is the survival hypothesis since it must rely on super-psi assumptions, or further assumptions whose only purpose for being invoked is that they would lead us to expect discarnate persons to have greatly enhanced cognitive and causal powers.  But take another example, this time from Almeder. He argues that if reincarnation is true, then we would expect to find people with past life memories, which Almeder says is confirmed by the fact that people claim to have past life memories.  Setting aside that this is not a specific prediction, Almeder makes it clear that what sanctions the prediction here is the psychological criterion of personal identity.  So here’s an admission of an auxiliary hypothesis, but clearly more needs to be assumed because we would have to account for a potentially disconfirming datum, to wit, many people appear to have no past life memories.
 
There are, of course, many auxiliary hypotheses we could introduce here so that the reincarnation hypothesis was consistent with the facts:  people remember past lives but claim they don’t, people don’t recall their past lives because they possess them in the form of repressed memories, their last reincarnation was as a non-human and their memories were erased (perhaps memories only pass from human to human incarnations), they will eventually recall their past life at some point in their present life, or people with no past life memories are living their first life.  It doesn’t matter which of these we select, or none. The point here is that a reincarnation hypothesis requires that we build into it assumptions that are no less ad hoc than the ones needed by an extra-terrestrial hypothesis.  And here it seems to me that living-agent psi hypotheses have a plausible advantage.  As Braude has shown, whatever we might say about so-called super-psi, to the extent that survivalists take seriously the evidence for living-agent psi, there is at least independent evidence for “dandy psi,” as exemplified, for example, in the more impressive remote viewing experiments in the Stargate Project.  In my paper critiquing David Lund’s argument for survival (referenced above), I argued that ordinary psi, which includes “dandy psi,” is sufficient to pose an explanatory challenge to the survival hypothesis.  I’d say this advantage would extend to their comparative prior probabilities, at least to the extent to which independent support is being invoked as a determinant of prior probability.
 
I think it’s plausible to construct a robust living-agent psi hypothesis with reference to dandy psi.
 
9-Survivalists also argue that the super-PSI hypothesis violates Ockham’s razor (the principle of simplicity), because it is simpler to postulate survival of consciousness than to postulate unlimited, unknown and extraordinary (and empirically unsupported) powers to PSI among living beings. What’s your reply?
 
I don’t think this is a very good objection.  Indeed, it’s rarely a very well thought out or carefully articulated objection.  A few things are worth noting here.
 
First, there are many different accounts of simplicity, so I think survivalists who raise this objection should specify precisely what they mean when they claim that the survival hypothesis is a simpler hypothesis than unlimited, unknown, or extraordinary psi.  I mean, after all, the survival hypothesis surely increases our ontological inventory in a number of ways by positing discarnate persons who acquire knowledge and exert causal influence on the world in a way that goes considerably beyond our background knowledge.
 
Second, it’s not clear how precisely we should gauge the epistemic blowback if indeed the super-psi hypothesis is a less simple hypothesis than survival.  It’s one thing to show that the hypothesis is less simple, but it’s quite another to carefully note the net consequence of this from the viewpoint of evaluating the case for survival.  For example, simplicity is usually regarded as a criterion of theory choice between competing theories when the theories have equal predictive power.  So the fact that hypothesis h1 is simpler than hypothesis h2 may not bear on the overall acceptability of h2 if h1 has less predictive power.  Indeed, the overall acceptability or net plausibility of a hypothesis involves more than predictive power and simplicity anyhow.  So what we should say is that, ceteris paribus (i.e., all other things being equal), simpler theories are preferable, but there’s a lot that falls under and potentially contravenes the ceteris paribus clause in the case of comparing the survival hypothesis and the so-called super-psi hypothesis.
 
However, the more important problem with the objection is that it makes the wrong kind of comparison.  The so-called super-psi hypothesis is, in my terminology, a version of a robust living-agent psi hypothesis.  As a purported explanation of the relevant data, I’ve already conceded that it may be less simple than the “survival of consciousness.” However, since “survival of consciousness” (a simple survival hypothesis) carries no particular predictive consequences for observational features of the world, much less the data it is adduced to explain, what we need to ask is whether a robust survival hypothesis is simpler than robust living-agent hypotheses.  I can think of many reasons to suppose that the answer is no, and I’ve yet to read a survivalist who has shown to the contrary.
 
Furthermore, it’s worth adding here that the complexity of a robust survival hypothesis arises not only from the need to adopt various auxiliary hypotheses to account for the basic data set that is prima faciesuggestive of survival, but also from the need to tweak the survival hypothesis to harmonize the survival hypothesis with other data that constitute prima facie evidence against the survival hypothesis.  For example, why do we not consider significant inconsistencies in streams of information mediumistic communicators provide as evidence that disconfirms the survival hypothesis?  Or why isn’t the survival hypothesis disconfirmed by data that shows that communicators are mistaken about facts we would expect them to accurately recall?  As Hornell Hart nicely noted in his Enigma of Survival (1959), the reason why these apparent features of the data do not disconfirm the survival hypothesis is that survivalists have proposed explanations that make these observations less surprising. For example, to explain anomalies in mediumistic communications, Drayton Thomas proposed fluctuations in mediumistic psychic power and communicators themselves having limited access to their own memories during periods of communication.  So you see, a simple survival hypothesis may be simple indeed, but simply explain nothing.  To get great explanatory power for the diverse range of data, we need a robust survival hypothesis, and a robust survival hypothesis is far from being a simpler alternative to the super-psi hypothesis.
 
10-Contemporary philosophers distinguish between two kinds of knowledge, the so-called “propositional” and the so-called “non-propositional” knowledge respectively. Propositional knowledge is factual knowledge or knowledge about facts; it is knowledge that something or other is the case. Non-propositional knowledge involves skills and abilities  (physical, mental, cognitive, etc.), for example, the ability to speak a language, play a musical instrument, or dramatically impersonate another person. Survivalists argue that one of the best objections against the super-PSI hypothesis is that it only accounts for propositional knowledge, but it utterly fails to explain non-propositional knowledge as seen in some mediumship cases, in which the mediums manifest a given, specific skill of the decease (e.g. playing a musical instrument), or in some reincarnation cases in which a child X will not only remember accurate details of his past life Y, but will have skills and abilities appropriate to Y. How do you address this objection?
 
Well, yes, this is one of the more interesting kinds of objections to the living-agent psi hypothesis, and, according to some, even the super-psi version of it.  In the language of confirmation theory, the objection amounts to the contention that the robust living-agent psi hypothesis has a low, or comparatively lower, likelihood vis-à-vis a particular subset of the relevant data.  Remember here that h’s having a low “likelihood” (as opposed to “probability”) means that the posterior probability of the evidence e is low given h.   Earlier I said that if Pr(DMAX/S&K) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C&K), then this would deflate the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis.  Now the objection here amounts to the claim that Pr(DSA/S&K) > Pr(DSA/C&K) or Pr(DSA/S&K) >> Pr(DSA/C&K), where DSA is a subset of DMAX covering the skills and abilities of the sort you’ve mentioned, and which play a crucial role in the better cases of trance mediumship and many ostensible cases of reincarnation.  Now I’m not convinced that Pr(DSA/S&K) > Pr(DSA/C&K), much less that Pr(DSA/S&K) >> Pr(DSA/C&K).  However, even if it were, it would be logically consistent with my contention that Pr(DMAX/S&K) ≤ Pr(DMAX/C&K). I’ve already conceded that when the evidence and background knowledge parameters are restricted in various ways, the result will be favorable to a robust survival hypothesis.  But let’s explore this further.
 
Let me begin with a mundane example.  Suppose that Jack is found dead on the evening of May 13.  He was stabbed to death with a chef’s knife.  Jack’s neighbor Bonny is a suspect, as is Jack’s girlfriend Mary. Neither has an alibi.  The murder weapon matches the culinary set belonging to Bonny, who is a chef, and the murder weapon has her fingerprints on it.  Jack’s journal discloses a turbulent affair with Bonny, but also, from his last entry on May 12, that he decided to abruptly break off his relationship with her.  The evidence E clearly favors the hypothesis that (B) Bonny murdered Jack over the hypothesis that (M) Mary murdered Jack.  And the Likelihoodist principle appears to justify this way of evaluating the evidence since Pr(E/B) > Pr(E/M).  Indeed, we might suppose that M has a very low likelihood since E, or at least that part of E concerned with the murder weapon, seems quite improbable given M but very probable given B. But suppose we now expand E to include the following: there is a distinct scent of Ghost Mist at the scene of the crime, the perfume Mary regularly wears. Jack’s neighbor Mark reported seeing Mary’s Lexus speeding away from Jack’s residence around the time of his murder, and another neighbor testifies to witnessing an intense altercation between Mary and Jack the previous day.  Call this expanded set of evidence E*.  I think we should say here that while E favors B over M, E* actually favors M over B since Pr(E*/M) > Pr(E*/B), even though a subset of E* by itself favors E.
 
The example illustrates a point that I think is relevant when considering the objection to the super-psi hypothesis you’ve introduced.  We have fascinating data that describe the skills and abilities exhibited by certain trance mediums and young children who claim to have past live memories, where the abilities and skills were characteristic of the deceased person who is ostensibly communicating through the medium or who is the person whose past life a young child claims to recall as his own life.  I’m inclined to agree that this particular type of datum is more probable given the survival hypothesis than it is given the living-agent psi hypothesis, perhaps even when we’re considering a robust version of the living-agent psi hypothesis.  I certainly don’t deny that we can select pieces of evidence and the case for survival looks very good.  But as illustrated in the case of Jack’s murder, if you can expand the data set, non-survival hypotheses may confer a greater probability on the new evidence set than does the survival hypothesis, even if the non-survival hypotheses don’t confer a higher probability on a subset of the evidence, a subset that is very probable given the survival hypothesis.
 
That being said, I’m actually skeptical about whether Pr(DSA/S&K) > Pr(DSA/C&K), much less that Pr(DSA/S&K) >> Pr(DSA/C&K).  You refer to the “super-psi hypothesis,” but I don’t think the super-psi hypothesis you have in view is sufficiently robust to qualify as the nearest explanatory competitor.  For example, it appears not to include any content concerning the general psychology in which psychic functioning is embedded.  As Braude has noted for several years now, the most refractory counter-explanation of the relevant data, including the data identified in your question, is a living-agent psi hypothesis formed with content drawn from normal and abnormal psychology. By this I mean an understanding of psychodynamic processes that illuminate an agent’s basic interests, needs, and motivations (many of which are unconscious), the relation between these and psi functioning, the nature and range of dissociative phenomena, and the whole range of rare cognitive gifts and expressions of creativity.  It’s this kind of robust living-agent psi hypothesis that needs to be considered, not the bald appeal to super-psi.  And I think Braude has shown that the data in question are not all that surprising given such an expanded living-agent psi hypothesis.  So this is why I’m skeptical of the claim that the (robust) survival hypothesis yields a higher likelihood of this kind of evidence than the nearest robust competitor(s).
 
One of the areas I’ll be discussing in my book is how relevant background knowledge from abnormal psychology confers a high prior probability on certain features of the data you’ve noted.  For example, outside paradigmatic cases of survival, there are many examples of the sudden manifestation of (artistic, mathematical, linguistic, etc.) skills, which normally take years to develop through practice.  Braude has discussed this at length in his Immortal Remains. Moreover, as Braude has also argued, even features of the data that are apparently unique to paradigmatic survival cases are open to explanation in terms of psychodynamic processes that would lead us to expect their appearance in the form of prima facie evidence of survival.  This is another reason why the demand to find examples of fine-grained phenomena outside paradigmatic cases of survival is mistaken.  Many phenomena related to human abilities and skills manifest in only very narrow domains.  But again, Braude has addressed this in some detail.  I think survivalists need to consider the appeal to living-agent psi in its strongest forms.
 
That being said, there are two other points I’d like to add here.
 
First, the survivalist objection to the super-psi hypothesis you’ve mentioned is actually just a special case of a more general problem that also infects the survival hypothesis.  It’s simply the problem of recalcitrant evidence, that is, evidence that constitutes something of an anomaly given a particular hypothesis or theory, either because the hypothesis does not lead us to expect the evidence or leads us to expect something incompatible with the evidence.  But as already noted above, this is equally a problem for the survivalist, which the survivalist attempts to mitigate by appealing to or implicitly relying on various auxiliary hypotheses.  As I see it, though, there’s no reason to suppose that the data you’ve identified is any more privileged than other data surrounding mediumship and reincarnation type cases that require tweaking auxiliary hypotheses to allow the survival hypothesis to fit the data, e.g., the clearly fictitious nature of many controls of the great mediums, inconsistencies in the information provided by communicators, the apparent absence of past life memories in most people.  In all these cases, the survivalist tweaks auxiliaries to fix the problem.  Proposed non-survival counter-explanations can do precisely the same thing.  So again, the survival hypothesis is vulnerable to a parity argument that undercuts its ability to show any evidentially relevant advantage.
 
Second, let’s suppose that there is some unresolved recalcitrant evidence given non-survival alternative explanations, perhaps related to the data you’ve identified in your question.  What follows from this with respect to the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis? That’s the elephant in the room.  The fact that h1 confers a higher probability on evidence e than does h2 does not by itself show that h1 has a higher posterior probability than h2.  It also doesn’t show that h2 is improbable.
 
To return to an earlier example, the hypothesis that (M) a malicious and powerful demon wanted me to (A) select the ace of spades I drew from the deck of cards confers a high probability on my draw, certainly a greater probability than the alternative hypothesis that (R) my draw was completely random.  No doubt Pr(A/M) >> Pr(A/R), but there are two things we can’t sensibly conclude here.  We can’t conclude that R is improbable, and we can’t conclude that the posterior probability of M is very high.  In fact, the posterior probability of M is very low, despite the evidence favoring M over R, and this is because M has a very low prior probability.  Plenty of examples like this can be provided.  And what this tells us in the present context is that even if the idiosyncratic skills of deceased persons manifest in trance mediums and children (or adults) who claim to remember past lives are highly probable given survival and highly improbable given non-survival hypotheses, this fact will be consistent with the alternative non-survival hypotheses having the same or greater posterior probability as the survival hypothesis, in which case the survival hypothesis is not more probable than not.  Indeed, as the malicious demon hypothesis above illustrates, the high probability of the skill-set data given the survival hypothesis is compatible with the survival hypothesis having a very low posterior probability.
 
So we come again to a point I’ve repeated throughout:  the survival hypothesis creates its own greatest challenge, quite independent of what other hypotheses can or cannot explain.  Given that (i) the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is essential to its posterior probability and (ii) the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis is inversely proportional to its prior probability, there’s not going to be much if any net evidential value in the survival hypothesis providing a better explanation of the skill-set data in paradigmatic survival cases.  Otherwise stated, while the super-psi hypothesis may not explain the possession of the exhibition of skills corresponding to skills of the deceased, this fact does not translate into much of an evidential credit for the survival hypothesis, even if the survival hypothesis explains these interesting facts.  There’s simply much more that the survivalist needs to accomplish for a good argument for survival.
 
11-Survivalists have suggested that the proxy sittings cases – sittings with mediums in which the sitter did not know anything about the deceased except their name – were every bit as successful as ordinary sittings falsifies the super-PSI theory, since the current scientific evidence for psi shows that psi operates in a much stronger manner between people who are linked in some way. Therefore, if super-PSI were operative, we would expect to find a very strong connection between the persons involved, which is not the case in the proxy sittings examples. How do you reply to this objection?
 
Whether the super-psi hypothesis has this predictive consequence depends on building into it auxiliary assumptions of a particular sort. Here we must suppose a particular way of cashing out the idea of salient “linkage,” but I don’t know any way of doing this that would render what’s being suggested here plausible.  But even if grant the idea here, why not take it that the failed prediction falsifies, not the super-psi hypothesis, but one or more of the required auxiliary assumptions?
 
At the beginning of the 19th century the Newtonian gravitational theory in conjunction with the then current model of the solar system entailed a particular orbital pattern for Uranus, but observed perturbations in the orbit of the planet Uranus were inconsistent with this.  Astronomers didn’t reject Newtonian gravitational theory, but modified the model of the solar system by postulating another planet beyond Uranus, namely Neptune.  The point follows from the Duhem-Quine thesis to which I referred earlier.  Predictive consequences typically follow from sets of statements, not single statements.  But this has an important consequence for what we should conclude from failed predictions.  Suppose that hypothesis H and auxiliary A conjointly entail that there should not be a particular observation O, but then we observe O.  What should we conclude?  Logically, we can only conclude that it cannot be the case that both H and A are true. But this doesn’t tell us whether the hypothesis or its auxiliary is false. Both could be false, H might be true and A false, or A true and H false.
 
Now I’ve been assuming that the predictive derivation is a logical entailment, but in your example the super-psi hypothesis and the relevant auxiliary assumption(s) jointly render a particular observational datum probable, namely that mediumship will exhibit a greater hit-rate in non-proxy sittings than in proxy sittings.  But the evidence tells us that this is not the case. Otherwise stated, the observational datum (of equal success in proxy and non-proxy sittings) is most improbable given the super-psi hypothesis and relevant auxiliary.  OK, but what follows?  Certainly not the super-psi hypothesis is improbable, nor that the auxiliary is improbable, nor even that their conjunction is improbable.  The fact that Laura won the state lottery is highly improbable given that she bought 1 of the 345,674 tickets sold in a fair lottery.  Laura’s winning the lottery is not what we would expect; just like “equal hit-rates” in proxy and non-proxy sittings is not what we would expect in the mediumship case given the super-psi hypothesis and the auxiliary assumption(s).  But the fact that Laura won surely doesn’t raise doubt about whether she bought a single ticket, that there were 345,674 purchased in the state, or that the lottery was fair, or even the conjunction of all three statements.  Likewise, the improbability of “equal hit-rates” in proxy and non-proxy sittings does not render the super-psi hypothesis, the corresponding auxiliary assumption(s), or their conjunction improbable.
 
So my response to the objection is that it fails to falsify the super-psi hypothesis (or any other robust living-agent psi hypothesis), and it certainly does not provide a boost in the credibility of the survival hypothesis.  Every aspect of the objection is compatible with the survival hypothesis having a low posterior probability, and having a low posterior probability for precisely the reasons I’ve laid out in my answers above.
 
12-Survivalists also argue that the super-PSI hypothesis is arbitrary and unfalsifiable, and therefore pseudoscientific, because no possible empirical evidence could ever in principle to refute it. In your opinion, does [there] exist some logically possible empirical evidence that could refute the super-PSI hypothesis in favor of the survivalist one? What would take for a proponent of super-PSI like you to abandon that hypothesis and accept the survival hypothesis on empirical grounds?
 
Your line of questioning here assumes that I am a proponent of the super-psi hypothesis.  If by this you mean to attribute to me belief in super-psi, I am not a proponent of the super-psi hypothesis.  I also don’t hold the view that super-psi is a better explanation of the data.  It should be apparent by now that my critique of empirical arguments for survival does not depend on accepting super-psi, granting it a high prior probability, or maintaining that it is a superior explanation of the data.  So I’m not a proponent of the super-psi hypothesis.  As I’ve already suggested, I think the survival hypothesis (in its various forms) receives differing degrees of support from multiple sources, some of which are empirical.  I just don’t think the empirical evidence does what a large number of empirical survivalists think it does.
 
As for this “falsification” business, it would seem that, as a group, survivalists have a hard time deciding whether the super-psi hypothesis has been falsified (as per question #11) or is unfalsifiable (as per question #12).   It can’t be both, but this kind of ambivalence is simply another symptom of the lack of clear thinking that pervades the literature.  I agree with Braude that the super-psi hypothesis, at least as typically construed, is not falsifiable in the strict Popperian sense: it is logically compatible with any observational evidence.  This doesn’t render it arbitrary though, as our reasons for adopting hypotheses are not exhausted by strictly empirical considerations.  Braude has sufficiently addressed this remedial point, so there’s no need to explore it further.  As for the objection that super-psi is pseudo-scientific, this is simply a category mistake.  The super-psi hypothesis is no more a scientific hypothesis than deontologism in ethics, metaphysical idealism, or classical theism.  None of these is pseudo-science since they are not packaged as ostensible scientific hypotheses.  Nor is the survival hypothesis scientific, at least not if this requires falsification.  The reason is that while it is possible to derive predictive consequences from a robust survival hypothesis, if we don’t have independent evidence for the auxiliary hypotheses, we don’t know what is being falsified when the set of statements conjointly leads us to expect on observation incompatible with what we actually observe.
 
I should explain here that I strongly disagree with Robert Almeder who claims some sort of victory for the survival hypothesis (over against living-agent psi counter-explanations) on the grounds that the survivalist can easily state what would constitute evidence falsifying the survivalist hypothesis, whereas the living-agent psi advocate cannot.
 
In his Death and Personal Survival (1992: 228; cf. 93–94), Almeder states the following as alleged conditions that would (and in one instancemight) falsify the survival hypothesis: (i) Mrs. Piper had an intimate relationship with George Pellew, (ii) discovering that someone could successfully impersonate someone they had never seen or heard, and (iii) determining that all of George Pellew’s friends had a strong desire or need to believe that they were communicating with him.  Well, I think it’s safe to say that Popper would reject each of these ostensible claims to falsification, since none of conditions involves a strict observational datum. They are each interpretive or theoretical claims. Moreover, none of these conditions falsifies the survival hypothesis for the additional reason that the survival hypothesis does not entail their negations.  Hence, (i), (ii), and (iii) are each logically compatible with the survival hypothesis.  Indeed, this is also the case if we limit the scope of the survival hypothesis to the survival of George Pellew.  It should be transparent that Pellew’s survival does not entail that he did not have an intimate relationship with Mrs. Piper, nor that there are no people who can successfully impersonate people they haven’t see, nor that Pellew’s friends would have no desire or need to believe that they were communicating with him.  Nor would (i), (ii), or (iii) falsify the specific hypothesis that Mrs. Piper is a genuine medium, for her actually communicating with the deceased, including the deceased George Pellew, is logically compatible with each of the obtaining of each of the conditions.
 
What (i), (ii) and (iii) would plausibly do is remove our reasons for supposing that the survival of George Pellew is the best explanation of the George Pellew data produced through Mrs. Piper’s mediumship. But this undercutting role of (i), (ii), and (iii) is precisely the role played by various explanatory considerations introduced by Almeder against that the super-psi hypothesis.  So Almeder’s argument here is not a good argument for supposing that the survival hypothesis is falsifiable (and the super-psi hypothesis is not falsifiable), and equally not a good argument for supposing that the survival hypothesis enjoys some sort of advantage at this juncture.
 
13-Some philosophers of parapsychology like Stephen Braude have alerted about a certain level of philosophical ignorance, superficiality and naivité among many parapsychologists. They take for granted a lot of assumptions which under philosophical examination are exposed to be false, misleading or at best rationally unjustifiable. You have suggested that the advances done in analytic philosophy in the few past decades, specially in epistemology and philosophy of religion, are wholly ignored by many parapsychologists and survivalists. Can you expand on this point?.
 
I whole-heartedly agree with Braude’s pessimistic assessment of the state of the survival debate and the weaknesses in the parapsychological literature on the subject matter, and Braude and I have discussed this for a number of years.  Now in addition to the wonderful points Braude has made at this juncture, I’ve emphasized the following: (i) the empirical case for survival depends on predictive salience, (ii) the predictive power of the survival hypothesis depends on the adoption of a wide range of auxiliary hypotheses, (iii) (i) and (ii) have significant implications for the assessment of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis (and its explanatory competitors) and the critical evaluation of proposed alterative explanations of the data, (iv) the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis depends on (iii), and (v) implementing approaches in confirmation theory and general epistemology to carry out (i) through (iv) is essential to developing a good argument for survival.  As I see it, most of these issues have been systematically ignored in the bulk of the literature.  I think it’s time to change this if we wish to advance the empirical survival debate.
 
14-What books on philosophy, parapsychology or the afterlife would you like to recommend?
 
Since C.D. Broad’s Lectures on Psychical Research and C.J. Ducasse’sCritical Examination in the 1960s, I’d say the best four works on survival are Stephen Braude’s Immortal Remains (2003), Alan Gauld’sMediumship and Survival (1982), R.W.K. Paterson’s Philosophy and Belief in a Life after Death (1996), David Ray Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (1997). To this I would add Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation(1974), Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, ed. Edward Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso and Bruce Greyson (2007), and Science, the Self, and Survival after Death: Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson, ed. Emily Williams Kelly (2013).
 
15-Something else to end this interview?
 
Well, Jime, thanks for interviewing me.  I appreciate your sustained efforts to interview authors and researchers who share in an interest in the topic of postmortem survival, even though we approach these issues from very different perspectives at times.  You’ve raised some important questions here.  Hopefully my responses will give something of a glimpse into the path along which I think future dialogue must journey.
 
Individuals interested in my work in progress on survival may subscribe to my blog at michaelsudduth.com, where I’m currently posting on material related to survival.

Projects and Blog Update

Hello Friends:

I haven’t posted a blog since last spring.  Some of you may have forgotten that you were actually subscribed.  It’s been a very busy past six months, personally and professionally, but I‘m hoping to begin regular blogging as we approach the New Year.

At this time, I have a few announcements and a preview of a forthcoming blog.

First, I’m happy to announce that my book on empirical arguments for survival (in progress) is now under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, and the book is scheduled for completion and submission in November 2014.  The book will be published in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series.  A recently revised Book Prospectus is currently available.

Second, I have two forthcoming articles.  (1) My recently completed article on empirical survival arguments for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy will likely be published in January 2014.  (2) In March 2014, my article on mediumship and survival will appear in Adam Rock’s edited collection The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship (McFarland, 2014), which will also feature an article from fellow philosopher Stephen Braude.

Finally, in the next few weeks I’ll be posting a preview of a new article I’m writing entitled “Recalibrating the Empirical Survival Debate: the Role and Relevance of Predictive Power.”  In this article I explore the implications of predictive power for two prominent challenges to traditional empirical arguments for survival: the alternative explanation challenge (which tries to deflate the case for survival by appealing to alternative non-survival explanations of the data) and the antecedent probability challenge (which tries to deflate the case for survival by arguing that the survival hypothesis has a low antecedent probability).  I argue that standard survivalist responses to these long-standing challenges are inadequate when the challenges are reformulated in the light of salient issues surrounding the predictive power of the survival hypothesis.  In this way, I hope to bring greater clarity to some of the fundamental problems that infect traditional empirical arguments for survival.

Michael Sudduth

Update: Survival and the Empirical World

Greetings Friends:

I have been busy working on my book Survival and the Empirical World.  As indicated in my prior blog, I had to cut back on my planned blogging on the topic of my book in order to prepare a full project proposal which an interested publisher requested.  Between work on the proposal (which includes chapter drafts and a working bibliography) and my teaching load, there has been precious little time to devote to regular blogging on the topic as I had planned.  This of course will likely change once the semester ends.  I plan to use my blog to provide more regular updates on my book and share excerpts of book material as the manuscript takes shape.  In fall 2013 I may also set up a private online discussion group where chapter drafts will be available and we can have regular discussion of the book, including some live stream seminar-style sessions.

Also, at the end of May or beginning of June I will have completed my entry on empirical arguments for survival for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which—pending permission from the editor—I will make available on my website.  I will post a notice in my blog.

For now I have included the revised book abstract below, which includes a link to the current book prospectus. If you compare the current and earlier outlines of book chapters you will notice that I’ve narrowed the scope of what I’m covering in the book.  The main adjustment here has been the elimination of the final chapter in which I had planned to discuss some positive grounds for affirming the rationality of belief in survival.  For various reasons I have decided to only sketch some suggestions in this direction in the conclusion to the book rather than provide a more developed chapter-length argument.  The topic really deserves a book-length treatment, so I’m going to save a more developed argument in support of the rationality of belief in survival for a possible subsequent book, which will cover the larger territory of the epistemology of belief in survival.

Finally, a word of thanks to those of you who have emailed me about my book and your interest in the topic of postmortem survival.  While the comments section for my blog is currently closed, I do welcome emails from readers and try to answer all of them as time permits.

Michael Sudduth

Survival and the Empirical World (Book Abstract, 5/1/13)

Most broadly stated, Survival and the Empirical World is a philosophical exploration of the empirical approach to postmortem survival—the survival of consciousness or the self beyond physical death.  More specifically, in this book I critically evaluate the contention among many who believe in survival that there is empirical evidence that justifies belief in survival. I argue that the classical empirical arguments for survival as developed by prominent philosophers and survival researchers during the past century are unsuccessful.

My exploration of the classical empirical arguments for survival focuses on the “explanatory axis” of such arguments, specifically the contention that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of a wide range of empirical data drawn from the phenomena of mediumship, cases of the reincarnation type, apparitional experiences, and out-of-body experiences.  Although the empirical approach to survival has considerable merit and there is intriguing empirical evidence that is at least suggestive of survival, I raise significant doubt about the force of the classical arguments, especially where these arguments maintain that the survival hypothesis has the kind of explanatory success characteristic of scientific hypotheses. 

The weaknesses of the empirical arguments for survival have largely been masked by the way in which the debate concerning these arguments has been framed, for example, with an emphasis on how certain strands of data are quite improbable but for some hypothesis of survival.  I argue that the central issues of debate concerning the inference to survival from the relevant data must be approached with a particular recalibration of the explanatory axis of such arguments.  Such a recalibration will constellate the central issues of the debate around the predictive power of the survival hypothesis, rather than the alleged failures of alternative explanations of the data and hence the alleged surprising nature of the data but for survival.  This maneuver exposes a range of largely unacknowledged or unexplored auxiliary assumptions on which the explanatory inference to survival crucially depends.  I contend that once these assumptions are isolated and their implications traced out, it will be necessary to substantially rethink the three areas of traditional debate concerning empirical arguments for survival: (i) the content of the survival hypothesis, (ii) the assessment of the antecedent probability of the survival hypothesis, and (iii) how alternative explanations challenge the survival hypothesis.

In the light of the recalibration of the explanatory axis of empirical arguments for survival, I argue my central thesis:  we are not warranted in concluding that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data traditionally adduced as empirical evidence for survival.  To the extent that the inference to survival depends on survival being the best explanation of these data or otherwise embodying a range of ostensible explanatory virtues (in a way superior to various competing hypotheses), the inference to survival suffers from debilitating defects.  I conclude with a call for survivalists partial to empirical arguments for survival to rethink the epistemological presuppositions of the tradition of “scientific” inquiry into postmortem survival.