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Helen De Cruz Interview at Prosblogion

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

A couple of introductory comments.

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

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

Helen De Cruz Interview at Prosblogion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Poems

Friends:

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

 

The Other Side of Midnight

 

In the solitude of the fragile moment

breathless, broken,

shattered into tiny pieces of the night,

my soul singing

her song, which had been a compelling fiction,

fell to silence,

as she dissolved and vanished from my sight.

Selah.

 

If I could speak freely of that hour

when love and loss met face to face,

I would hold my breath long enough

for the deeper anger to be known

and share the bread of this beauty

and drink the cup of bitterness

from which our mutual gratitude was born.

 

Love and loss were her precious gifts to me,

yet the illusion of her relentless hold

could only be dissolved by the ebb and flow 

of holding on and then letting go 

of what was real and what was not.

And then I recalled the forgotten day

when she danced upon the burning sand

and the ocean laughed and named us 

“love longing for life but desiring death.”

This we were, and nothing more,

but of course, nothing less than this,

when we sealed our eternal love

and unconscious yet fated betrayal 

with our first sacred, timeless kiss.

 

A ghost she was from the very beginning,

yet she turned the clouds into living stone,

gave the dark and formless unconscious form 

and then entered me with her chilling breath,

first upon my face, then upon my heart,

yet her words were nails, her love a hammer,

pounding out a reluctant self-redemption.

Form without substance, shape without color,

just a blind, frozen, and fading projection,

the path upon which every lover must walk

to be crucified by his own heart’s desire.

 

How shall I describe the essence of My Love,

the goddess shakti who gave me birth

and by whom I have tasted an eternal death?

Sudden and vast unspeakable brilliance

annihilating me with her blinding light,

quickly, invisibly collapsing on itself,

leaving only ashes of tomorrow’s dream.

the glory of a dying, lifeless sun.

 

Sing me your song, 

my precious springtime lover

Give me the melody 

of your grief-stricken heart,

your consuming fire, 

the deepest truth of all,

sabotaging lie that annihilated me

in the madness of 

your impenetrable night.

 

You were the goddess 

that fell from the sky,

shattered, scattered, 

and dissolved into the earth

and yet never separate 

from this one I call “I” 

the silent sound, 

and the groundless ground,

the path of chaos I have walked.

 

In the solitude of the fragile moment

lovers appear as a kiss upon your lips

but first as the dirt beneath your feet,

butterflies dancing upon an Autumn wind,

swirling through your trembling hands,

a melody melting into the silence of the night,

where everything we are is finally dissolved,

there, on the other side of midnight.

Selah.

 

Our Eternal Night

  

Sinking in the golden sand of an endless shore

slowly fading sun kisses the sky goodnight.

Here against these waves I penetrate

the silence space,

where God is a darkness

Jesus crucified, Vishnu humanized,

the Goddess, visualized

not as one but two,

keeps dancing naked in the night,

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

whose bleeding heart gave me birth.

to whose sacred womb I now return.

 

Waves, like our shattered, scattered love,

tossing us about, tearing us apart,

yet I give myself up and surrender 

to the waves on this silent winter night,

and sacrifice myself with the deepest trust

to the frigid yet loving, moving current,

as it takes me under this last time.

This depth is non-separate from the sky

we cannot fly.

This death non-separate from the life

we cannot live.

This love non-separate from what I am,

which you could not accept.

This time non-separate from the space

in which I would have danced with you,

if only for a moment while the sand 

caressed our bare and blistered feet.

 

You said this was a dream, that it is,

for more than a dream I could not wish,

more than a dream I could never pray,

more than a dream my magic could not make.

And yet, there, in the stillness 

of your frigid eastern night, 

I was, I am, and I will be

I – when you touch yourself in the dark

I – when ecstasy seizes you at dawn

I – when your breath becomes the music

to which you dance and sing, which in time 

will dissolve all your deeper pain.

 

If I could give you one gift, it would be

the seeing of my knowing all your pain,

the pain of wanting, the pain of striving,

the pain of too much tenderness when

the handsome poet stole your eternal love

and left her lying naked in the rain,

the pain when he penetrated you, 

and left you wanting more of the same,

the pain when you shattered his heart,

the pain of remembering, the pain of forgetting,

the pain of living, and the pain of dying,

the pain of knowing, the pain of unknowing,

the pain of clarity, the pain of mystery.

 

They cursed my silence, they cursed my words,

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

Seeing not seen, hearing not heard,

just the watcher of their dreams,

nothing more, aye, nothing less,

for their lips could not kiss the face 

of their own perpetual pain and

embrace the shame that burned

rejected gypsy lovers at the stake.

And so they could not make love to me,

the shadow behind their fears,

the weeper behind their tears,

the god Shiva seized by Shakti

and slain under the power of their 

undying virgin love.

 

Fear not, my unseen lovers,

for I am neither dead nor living

neither prince nor poet

not human enough even to be a pauper,

so I cannot pay for the well-deserved

ridicule and betrayal I have endured 

these many days, these many lives,

but yet I carried the fire of the gods

that utterly destroyed the tenderness 

of the sand upon which we walked

and turned our entire world to stone.

 

Yet I shall come to you again, when 

the winter snow has become spring rain

turning dying brown into living green

and deer drink again from flowing streams.

As raindrops kiss your neck, and

a gentle breeze wraps around your waist,

and butterflies dance with you in the woods,

let it be, love, let yourself go

breathe it all in as far as it can go.

Surrender to the invisible presence,

and feel me enter you for the first time.

 

The Eye of Shiva

 

His eye is the power of my I.

The I behind this I.

The I within this I.

Healing, revealing

the rhythm of my unconsciousness

along the path of silence

 

His eye is the seeing of the truth.

The truth behind this I.

The truth within this I.

Healing, revealing

The rhythm to which lovers dance

Along the path of silence

 

His eye is the feeling of the shadow.

The shadow behind this I.

The shadow within this I.

Healing, revealing

The demons of a shattered mind

Along the path of silence.

 

His eye is the inconceivable infinite depth.

The depth behind this I.

The depth within this I.

Healing, revealing

The blissful and painful thoughts

Along the path of silence.

 

His eye is the purest meditation.

The meditation behind this I.

The meditation within this I.

Healing, revealing

The world of all dualities

Along the path of silence.

 

His eye is the image of the goddess.

The goddess behind this I.

The goddess within this I.

Healing, revealing

The voices of distant lovers

Along the path of silence.

 

His eye is blissful transforming love.

The love behind this I.

The love within this I.

Healing, Revealing

The dissolution of this I

Along the path of silence.

 

Michael Sudduth

Truth is Dancing (New Book Project)

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

 

I would like to announce my new book project, from which the above quote been taken. 

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

This project has been inspired by my thirty-year spiritual journey, especially the very difficult journey of the past year, which began a year ago today with one of the more traumatic events of my life, perhaps the most traumatic I’ve ever experienced.  Very much in the spirit of many of my blogs since last summer, this work will be a poetic and contemplative exploration of love, awakening, and God.

I decided on this project primarily for three reasons. 

First, in the course of the past year I’ve received lots of emails from people who have thanked me for my blogs on eastern spirituality and the philosophy of love.  It seems that these blogs have really helped people in their own journey, and a number of readers have asked me to write a book along these lines.  While there’s much to be said for scholarly writing, my latest project is intended for a general audience, a gift of sorts to all seekers. In this way I wish to acknowledge not only the persons whose lives I’ve touched in some way through my writing but the many people who have touched my life in the past year.

Second, in the past month I’ve been struck with how many friends and acquaintances of mine are, as I did a year ago, undergoing a painful marital divorce, breakups with their partners, or who are otherwise deeply challenged by struggles in their relationships with a significant other.  Right here, in this confusion and pain, there is a profound invitation coming to us, and so an opportunity for consciously owning the transformation that is taking place.  None of what is happening, however painful, is separate from the path we are walking, nor the spiritual aspirations to which we are committed.

Finally, when my fiancée of three years walked out on me never to be heard from again, I knew that I would eventually write about my experiences.  Waiting a year has given me some important clarity but also a deep gratitude for the large residual of mystery that remains.  During this past year, I’ve gone through the whole spectrum of emotions, in their various cycles and epicycles, punctuated at various times with a widening of understanding of myself.  Most importantly, despite the range of emotion and thoughts, there has been to this hour an undeniable and recurring gratitude for everything I was blessed enough to share with Autumn, which really made it the best relationship I ever had. From where I stand now, I offer this work in the spirit of compassion, not only for my ex fiancée, but for everyone who has been compelled to choose, sometimes the unthinkable, because they had to choose from a place of a deep suffering.

Truth is Dancing will include the poetic, contemplative, and photographic expressions of the invitation I’ve received from what I’m calling the “other side of consciousness,” as well as my response to this invitation.  Of course, I can’t say what this other side of consciousness is, for the main objective of the book is to help readers explore their own experience, meet this “other side” for themselves, and discover its invitation to them. 

It’s going to be a bit like Rumi meets Gibran meets Jung meets Oriah Mountain Dreamer meets Zen meets bhakti meets Muse meets Black Sabbath.

My projected completion date is fall 2015.  While I will continue to write scholarly material related to my forthcoming book on postmortem survival, stay tuned for more on the new writing project. 

Michael Sudduth

No Exit for Survivalists?

Friends,

My most recent blog “Survivalists in the Crosshairs” had over 500 hits within the first 24 hours, which surpassed my earlier high volume posts on near-death experiences (September 9, 2014) and the logic of survival arguments (June 4, 2014). Not surprisingly, I’ve received a number of emails and Facebook comments concerning the blog.  While I don’t allow comments to be posted in my blog, readers are always welcomed to email comments to me or interact with me on my Facebook where I engage in limited informal discussion.  I also try to answer all emails. At times I have incorporated responses to emails in my blog.  Here is one such occasion.  Facebook friend Aedon Cassiel has given me permission to post his Facebook query here, which is followed by the response I posted on Facebook.

“Michael, I think I follow most of what I’ve heard you say, and I like the overall tone of what I hear. But I have to confess that I can’t, for all that, form any clear picture in my mind of what actually would satisfy you. That’s not a “what’s your problem, what would even make you happy?!” but a request for clarification, if such is possible. For all I can tell you’ve made critiques to some extent of basically any way I can imagine anyone might go about the project.” – Aedon Cassiel

Aedon:

I’m tempted to bite the bullet here and say, “nothing will satisfy me.” So let’s take that approach first, a kind of worst-case scenario. Besides being an interesting bit of psychological autobiography, so what? This fact, if it is one, hardly counts as evidence against the cogency of my arguments. If the project (at least as traditionally conceived) is intrinsically defective, your observation is exactly would we would expect. Self-defeating arguments are notoriously difficult to save. And I guess that would just be too bad for proponents of the classical arguments, at least given the traditional parameters of these arguments.

But this sort of response would be overly simplistic and misleading.

First, I don’t saddle my arguments with the stronger conclusion that any empirical survival argument does not succeed, or even that any empirical survival argument based on paranormal phenomena fails. This simply does not follow from anything I argue, even if neither you nor I can at present positively specify how the classical arguments can succeed. This may simply be our inevitable epistemic situation at present. For example, given the nature of my critique, the success of the classical arguments may depend on future developments in the scientific understanding of consciousness.

Second, as I have repeatedly noted in my blog and also explain in my book, there are many potentially fruitful alternative approaches to the epistemology of belief in postmortem survival. I would be happy to see survivalists take up the following approaches. Here are three.

(1) Explore the prospects for an experiential justification for belief in survival, similar to what many twentieth-century Christian philosophers have argued concerning theistic belief. A few philosophers have offered programmatic suggestions in this direction, but there’s nothing equivalent to Alston’s Perceiving God (Cornell, 1991) or Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000) for belief in survival.

(2) Explore the prospects for constructing the classical arguments within the framework of a religious or spiritual tradition. This may be highly relevant when it comes to the problem of auxiliaries, for the kinds of auxiliaries survivalists routinely assume are embedded in the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.

(3) Explore the prospects for belief in survival being based on multiple grounds (including religious grounds), each of which makes a distinctive contribution to the justification of belief in survival. Following Alston’s suggestions at the conclusion of Perceiving God, I developed this with reference to theistic belief in my 2009 book on natural theology, I would encourage survivalists to pursue this with respect to belief in survival. 

The upshot of (1), (2), and (3) is essentially to break the grip that “SPR logic” has had on empirical inquiry into survival. The classical arguments may indeed be irreparably logically “jacked up” given the traditional narrow parameters empirical survivalists have imposed on the inquiry and arguments. So be it.  Sometimes you just need to throw away that old vacuum cleaner and buy a new one. The only thing more challenging than the defects of the classical arguments would be the cognitive intransigence of some of their biggest proponents who regularly confuse rigorous argument with what amounts to little more than the not so clever rearrangement of their prejudices.

Michael Sudduth

Survivalists in the Crosshairs

Friends,

Palgrave Macmillan has scheduled a tentative publication date for October this year for my Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Post-mortem Survival.  Although the book is now in the production phase, I plan on writing further on the topic. I’d like to elaborate more on aspects of the arguments in my book, as well as cover material and issues that, due to constraints of space and time, I was not able to include in my book.

One of the things I’d like to do is provide further commentary on some recent writers on survival. 

As some of you know, I discussed David Lund’s work in one of my 2013 publications in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. I might revisit my earlier critique of Lund in the light of my subsequent and more refined reflections, as well as some detailed correspondence I’ve had with David over the past two years.  One particularly interesting part of the personal correspondence has been David’s response to my challenge to show how he arrives at a judgment of favorable posterior probability for the survival hypothesis, namely that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not given all the relevant evidence and background knowledge.  Unlike his book Persons, Souls, and Death, Lund did try to show this using probability theory. Naturally, I don’t think he succeeded, in part because his argument is, like the arguments in his book, blind to the problem of auxiliaries. But I thought his response was interesting nonetheless.  It would be nice to get Lund to do a round table with me on this, which would be published on my website. We’ll see.

Robert Almeder is another philosopher whose work on survival I’d also like to single out for critical scrutiny, though I do provide critical comments on his arguments in several places in my book.  While Lund at least exhibits an appreciation of the complexity of the survival debate, I don’t think Almeder does. This is what strikes me about his dialectical maneuvers in debate with both Steven Hales (unfavorable to survival) and Stephen Braude (favorable to survival), and it is transparently obvious when anyone claims, as Almeder has for years, that the evidence for survival is so compelling that we would be irrational to reject the survival hypothesis.

Almeder’s argument for survival fails for very much the same general reason that all the classical arguments fail.  His argument is blind to the problem of auxiliaries.  This is particularly acute in his critique of appeals to living-agent psychic function as a rival explanation of the data.  As Almeder argues, this counter-explanation cannot account for the data unless it’s amplified into a “super-psi” hypothesis, which posits a degree/kind of psychic functioning for which we have no independent evidence.  The lack of independent support allegedly rules out “the super-psi” hypothesis as a legitimate explanatory competitor.  But the objection applies mutatis mutandis to the survival hypothesis since it cannot account for the data unless it’s amplified into a “super-survival” hypothesis (or what I more neutrally call a “robust” survival hypothesis) for which there is no independent support.  

Almeder’s objection to the so-called super-psi hypothesis is, more carefully and neutrally stated, an objection to a reliance on a hypothesis whose explanatory power depends on the hypothesis being amplified by auxiliary assumptions for which there is no independent support.  Almeder is correct in principle, but what he fails to see is that this objection defeats the argument for survival since there is no independent support for the kind of auxiliary assumptions required for the survival hypothesis to have explanatory efficacy.  The only reason why this would not be utterly apparent is if one were utterly unaware of the extent to which the simple supposition of personal survival carries no predictive consequences unless amplified by further assumptions which do not satisfy the very epistemic requirements survivalists impose on rival hypotheses.  I plan to focus on Almeder in connection with this issue in my next blog.

And then there’s Chris Carter.  I’ve commented on Carter’s pro-survival arguments in a 2011 review, my January 2014 interview with Jime Sayaka, and in my May 14, 2014 blog.  I have more to say about Carter, not because I think his arguments are particularly good but because so many parapsychologists and survivalists seem to think otherwise.  In fact, Michael Prescott has said of Carter’s most recent book Science and the Afterlife Experience that it is “perhaps the best book I’ve read on evidence for life after death, and I’ve read quite a few. I recommend it highly.”  Now blurbs can be misleading, but I think, knowing Prescott as I do, that his comment was intended as genuine praise of Carter, rather than an indirect statement about how utterly crappy the rest of literary field is on the topic. (Being the best of a poor lot is a fairly underwhelming achievement.)  While I hold Michael Prescott in high regard, and he has been a wonderful interlocutor, I could not more strongly disagree with his assessment of Carter’s work.  No, Carter’s work is not even “perhaps” one of the best; it’s quite probably one of the worst. And yes, this means that I also disagree with the “distinguished” contingent of researchers who have praised Carter’s work in their review blurbs (including Pim van Lommel, Charles Tart, Guy Lyon Playfair, Larry Dossey, and Neal Grossman). I gladly part company with these gentlemen.  They are simply incorrect.

To be quite frank, I have no interest in saving parapsychologists and survival researchers from the deplorable reputation they have on the whole rightly merited, for example because they continue to endorse shoddy scholarship and perpetuate philosophically unsophisticated treatments of psi and survival. However, since I have devoted part of my project to wheeling away the rubbish that has buried empirical inquiry into survival, expect some further commentary on Carter.

Let me repeat a point I’ve made in this blog, and which I also make in my book.  We need to return to the kind of empirical inquiry into the survival question that C.D. Broad, C.J. Ducasse, and H.H. Price had in view and modeled for us.  Apart from the empirically-informed and conceptually-elevated critical discussions by writers like Alan Gauld, Stephen Braude, and David Ray Griffin, the current debate is simply the most recent in a series of bad sequels to what was once an intriguing and promising plot.

Michael Sudduth

Website Announcements

Friends,

I wanted to announce some general news and my plans for my website for 2015.

(1) Although my forthcoming book on survival is due out in the fall, and I will continue to write on the topic, I intend to announce my next book project on May 2.

(2) This coming summer I plan on finally developing a section of my website I had designed for resources on postmortem survival. There will be several subpages with articles, books, and videos on different aspects of the philosophy of postmortem survival.

(3) I would like also to make available to the general public a version of one of the classes I teach, either Philosophy of Religion or the Nature of Religious Experience. I may do a Podcast in connection with this.

(4) I’m in the process of putting all my previous paper publications online, going back to my earlier work in religious epistemology and Christian philosophy.  These are located under “Articles” under “Writing” in the main menu, I list the new additions below (from most recent to oldest) with links for your convenience.  Some of these were previously available in the form of paper drafts, so in some cases files have been updated to reflect the actual published version of the paper.

MS

Concise Overview of Survival Book

9781137440938A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival

Michael Sudduth

In A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) Michael Sudduth provides a critical exploration of classical empirical arguments for postmortem survival—arguments that purport to show that data collected from ostensibly paranormal phenomena constitute good evidence for the survival of the self or individual consciousness after death.  Focusing specifically on arguments based on the data of out-of-body/near-death experiences, mediumship, and cases of the reincarnation type, he aims to revive the tradition of empirical inquiry into life after death associated with philosophers William James, C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, and C.J. Ducasse. Sudduth proposes to advance the debate with a novel approach.  For the first time, the traditional arguments are formalized using the tools of formal epistemology.  Sudduth shows that this procedure exposes the Achilles Heel of the classical arguments, a self-defeating dependence on auxiliary assumptions. He further argues that when reformulated in the light of the “problem of auxiliaries,” long-standing skeptical objections to survival arguments are immune to traditional survivalist counter-arguments.

CONTENTS and SAMPLE CHAPTER (PDF)

CHAPTER 1:  Introduction: The Classical Empirical Survival Debate

In this introductory chapter Sudduth provides an overview of the empirical debate concerning life after death, a debate focused on whether there are observational data that constitute (good) evidence for life after death.  The salient data are drawn from three kinds of unusual or ostensibly paranormal phenomena: out-of-body/near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Sudduth outlines the relevant data, as well as the views of prominent researchers and philosophers regarding the interpretation of these data.  The classical arguments for survival based on these data are sketched and traditional objections noted.  After identifying some of the deficiencies in the current literature, Sudduth outlines his own approach and argument for supposing that the classical arguments fail to show that the salient data are good evidence for personal survival. 

CHAPTER 2:  Exploring the Hypothesis of Personal Survival 

As a conceptual preliminary to the subsequent discussion, in this chapter Sudduth explores conceivable models of survival that might inform the content of the survival hypothesis and thereby bear on what sort of observational data would confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis.  Since the empirical debate has traditionally focused on the prospects for personal survival, Sudduth limits his attention to this widespread view of survival.  In the tradition of C.D. Broad and C.J. Ducasse, Sudduth outlines various models of personal survival, with particular emphasis on the thesis of psychological survival, the postmortem persistence of some significant aspect of our present psychology, usually an important feature of hypotheses of personal survival and especially important to survival arguments.  Sudduth distinguishes between stronger and weaker conceptions of psychological survival based on how strongly our postmortem psychological make-up resembles our antemortem psychology. 

CHAPTER 3:  Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences 

This chapter begins with a general description of the empirical approach to survival, which is contrasted with religious and philosophical approaches to survival.  Sudduth goes on to review widely discussed out-of-body and near-death experiences as providing one kind of ostensible empirical evidence for survival. Drawing on data from spontaneous and experimental cases, the chapter includes discussion of the phenomenology of such experiences (i.e., their subjective characteristics) and their apparent veridical features (i.e., their involving apparent accurate perceptions of the world), despite subjects being sensorily isolated from the happenings they describe. Sudduth considers how such experiences might provide indirect evidence for survival under an extrasomatic interpretation, that is, postulating the separation or independence of consciousness from the body.  The chapter concludes with a summary description of six key points of evidence. 

CHAPTER 4:  Mediumistic Communications

Chapter 4 provides an overview of the evidentially salient data from mental and trance mediumship, with emphasis on cases investigated by researchers associated with the British and American societies of psychical research.  Cases include the mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper and Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard.  Sudduth illustrates and outlines important features of proxy sittings, drop-in communicators, and cross correspondences as distinct kinds of mediumistic phenomena that allegedly provide the best evidence for survival.  In the final section he provides a summary description of the most relevant kinds of evidence.  These include the qualitative and quantitative aspects of accurate information the medium conveys about the deceased, the independent verification of mediumistic claims, and the manner in which the medium conveys the information in trance mediumship, namely by way of convincing personations of the deceased. 

CHAPTER 5:  Cases of the Reincarnation Type

This chapter provides an overview of data collected from cases in which human persons, especially children, claim to have past life memories and exhibit other behavioral and physical features characteristic of some identifiable formerly living person.  Over against a hypothetical ideal case, Sudduth provides an account of six actual cases of these “cases of the reincarnation type” (so named by researcher Ian Stevenson), and also compares and contrasts them with cases of ostensible possession. In the final section he provides a summary description of the most relevant kinds of evidence, including the qualitative and quantitative aspects of accurate information subjects convey about an identifiable deceased person, the independent verification of the subject’s claims, and the subjects exhibiting other personality/behavioral and physical characteristics of the identifiable deceased person. 

CHAPTER 6:  Classical Explanatory Arguments for Survival

Sudduth examines two paradigmatic forms of survival argument construed as explanatory arguments, specifically as inferences to best explanation. Based on an examination of the work of several prominent empirical survivalists, Sudduth distinguishes between “modest” and “strengthened” explanatory arguments. According to the former, explanatory salience is parsed solely in terms of the extent to which a hypothesis leads us to expect the relevant data (so-called predictive power).  According to the latter, the survival inference is mediated by predictive power together with additional plausibility factors interpreted as explanatory virtues. The chapter concludes with an initial attempt to bring confirmation theory to bear on survival arguments. Sudduth proposes the formalization of explanatory survival arguments as Likelihood arguments. He concludes, though, that Likelihoodism does not adequately handle the strong form of explanatory argument. 

CHAPTER 7:  Bayesian Explanatory Arguments

In this chapter Sudduth focuses on important Bayesian analyses of the empirical arguments by philosopher C.D. Broad and classical scholar E.R. Dodds.  Their arguments highlight important features of Bayesian confirmation theory, specifically how likelihoods and prior probabilities jointly determine the net plausibility of a hypothesis. Sudduth explores this by formalizing each of their analyses in the language of Bayesian confirmation theory.  The analysis highlights two points of significant vulnerability for survival arguments: the survival hypothesis’s initial degree of initial plausibility (which might be low) and its explanatory power (which might be low because of effective counter-explanations of the data), each of which influences judgments of net plausibility.  Sudduth shows how Broad and Dodds each interpreted these salient issues and concluded that the case for survival fails to show that relevant evidence, largely from mediumship, renders the survival hypothesis more probable than not. 

CHAPTER 8:  Bayesian Defenses of the Survival Hypothesis

Sudduth considers two Bayesian survivalist defenses of the empirical case for survival, each of which is designed as a response to the Broadian-Doddsian critique.  He first critically explores philosopher Curt Ducasse’s defense of the survival hypothesis, followed by a critical analysis of contemporary philosopher R.W.K. Paterson’s cumulative case argument for survival.  Inasmuch as Ducasse and Paterson each develop their case for survival on the basis of the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis together with judgments about its prior probability, their arguments are Bayesian in structure.  Sudduth formalizes the arguments of Ducasse and Paterson and shows why they fail to show that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not. Sudduth draws particular attention to how an inadequately acknowledged dependence on auxiliary assumptions undercuts their arguments by affecting both judgments of explanatory power and prior probability. 

CHAPTER 9:  The Problem of Auxiliary Assumptions 

In Chapter 9 Sudduth examines how survival arguments are dependent on a range of auxiliary assumptions, without which the survival hypothesis would not lead us to expect the relevant evidence.  Sudduth shows how this “auxiliary assumption requirement,” introduced in Chapter 8, generates the “problem of auxiliaries.” He argues that the auxiliary assumptions needed for the classical arguments are claims that lack independent support. Sudduth shows how this generates an initial problem for survival arguments since it prevents the survival hypothesis from being an empirically testable hypothesis.  Among the wide range of survival-friendly auxiliaries only a small subset would lead us to expect the relevant evidence. The inability to determine which set of auxiliaries is the correct one entails that we really do not know how the world should look if survival is true. This undermines the empirical survivalist contention that survival is an empirically testable hypothesis. 

CHAPTER 10:  Exotic Counter-Explanations 

Chapter 10 explores the nearest explanatory competitor to survival—the appeal to living-agent psychic functioning (psi) in the form of extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis.  Sudduth shows how this living-agent psi hypothesis poses a challenge to the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis, even if it is itself not a particularly good explanation of the data. After considering traditional survivalist criticisms of simple appeals to living-agent psi, Sudduth explores a more robust version of this hypothesis based on Stephen Braude’s motivated psi model.  On this model, psi is construed as guided by the interests or needs of persons, and is linked to important features of abnormal psychology, e.g. dissociative phenomena and the sudden manifestation of latent skills.  Sudduth shows how such a counter-explanation substantially weakens Likelihood and Bayesian survival arguments. 

CHAPTER 11:  Conclusion: The Classical Arguments Defeated

In this chapter Sudduth begins by providing a defense of robust living-agent psi hypothesis of Chapter 10 against a widespread survivalist objection, namely that it involves an unwarranted extension of psychic abilities in the form of “super-psi.” Drawing on the arguments of chapters 8 through 10, Sudduth argues that this objection is implausible and self-defeating. The second half of the chapter is devoted to a summary of Sudduth’s complete argument against Bayesian, Likelihood, and explanatory arguments for survival.  He highlights the way in which the defeating considerations for the first two kinds of arguments become defeaters for all classical explanatory arguments.  In this way, he concludes that the classical empirical arguments for survival, in their explanatory and confirmation-style forms, fail to show that there is good evidence for personal survival.

The Deepest Silence

Lady lover

you closed your eyes

and entered the starless night

in this infinite space we call “here”

where moonlight falls on tranquil streams

and a poet’s voice dissolves the tear

that fell from your half-naked eyes

in which darkness played and danced

like ink against a night sky

 

If I could speak to you of the darkness in this hour,

I would let my love be the silence upon the wind.

 

Lady wonder,

we give our child

yet unborn to the blowing wind 

that carries it over the sea and land

in the valleys, on mountain tops 

where it falls in the lover’s hand

that gently brushed against your face

where beauty danced with God

like birds against the sky.

 

If with a kiss I could wake you from your sacred sleep,

My tears would become words flowing from your trembling lips.

 

Dancing deva,

come dance with me,

on the beach of tomorrow’s dream

covered in tiny grains of you and me

scattered memories of your life

are now sacrificed to the sea

that forcefully pulled you under

where we became the one

like breath against a kiss.

 

If I could come to you now as a flickering flame

my light would awaken you from your deepest sleep.

 

Awaken, lady dreamer,

open those transparent eyes

breathe in again your soul

which we have carried in our hearts

while you have conversed with silence

 

The silence of our birth

The silence of our death

The silence of our now

The silence of our love

M.S.

Book Completion

Dear Friends,

I’m happy to announce that I have now completed my book on empirical arguments for postmortem survival. I submitted the manuscript to my editor at Palgrave Macmillan last night.  We should move along very quickly at this stage towards publication this year. Currently there is a link to the Contents on my Work in Progress page.  I hope in the coming weeks to post a sample chapter or chapter abstracts, pending permission from the publisher.  The book’s official title is A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival.

The book moved in some unanticipated but welcomed directions, especially since January of this year.  One of these was a far more extensive discussion of Bayesian survival arguments, including very detailed critical analyses of the arguments of C.D. Broad, E.R. Dodds, C.D. Ducasse, and R.W.K. Paterson. It would be fair to say that half of the book is concerned with Bayesian-style arguments.  In early 2014 I had promised that I would utilize confirmation theory to formalize the classical explanatory arguments, something that had not previously been done.  One of my long-standing criticisms of the existing literature is that on the whole it lacks logical rigor. In this respect it’s about five or six decades behind the quality of arguments we find in Anglo-American philosophy of religion. Well, I have made good on this promise. Not only do I offer my own Bayesian arguments, I formalize the Bayesian approach taken by Broad, Dodds, Ducasse, and Paterson.  
 
Another feature that developed last fall was a more extensive treatment of the evidence (from near-death experiences, mediumship, and cases of the reincarnation type), in which the data from various prominent case investigations were discussed in detail.  There is a chapter devoted to each of these, with a summary of the salient strands of evidence at the end of each of these chapters. Although these chapters mainly focus on getting clear about the relevant data, I offer some critical remarks about how survivalists have sometimes mishandled the statement of the evidence. As a result of the more elaborate discussion of the evidence, the the book ended up being longer than anticipated, eleven chapters instead of nine, and also took me longer to complete than anticipated.  
 
Due to the work on the book, which included 90 hours in the past week, it’s been awhile since I last blogged. I’m hoping to return now to regular blogging on various topics, including  Zen, chocolate, heavy metal music, relationships, and postmortem survival. I also have plans to blog on some unexpected and fascinating experiences I had in Windsor, Connecticut last January, some of which are related at least indirectly to the topic of my book and which have provided further inspiration for the novel I started writing several years ago.  Stay tuned.
 
Peace,
Michael

If

If you can stand with me in the fire, everything we take ourselves to be will melt away and be dissolved into the light of the sun.

If everything we take ourselves to be should melt away, only one thing can possibly remain and be revealed, everything we are but could not believe ourselves to be.

If you can stop your mind for a brief moment, your will see yourself for the first time.

If you can watch a cat for three hours, you will be a Zen master.

If you can open yourself to the fear of rejection, you will have embraced the part of you that longs to be held by that greater darkness in the silence of your lonely nights.

If you can sit with the painful feelings that arise in you, your most faithful partner will meet you along your path.

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

If you can run away from beauty, you will find it chasing after you.

If you can drop the burden of proving yourself, you will have finally found yourself.

If you can resist the temptation of giving another peace, you will realize that you were seeking to give yourself what is already your most precious possession.

If you can see your lover like tomorrow’s sunrise, you will fall into the moon.

If you can take the backwards step, you will see that there is more present in “your” experience that you.

If you can fall into the space between two thoughts, you will have experienced the origin of the Universe, which in Zen is called nothingness.

If you can dissolve the I, only the I remains.

If you seek to dissolve your suffering, you will only perpetuate it.

If you can truly observe your suffering, it will be seen that it has already accepted it by the I at the root of your individual experience.

If you can walk with your suffering, it will wither under the influence of your love.

If you can treat the present moment as your meditation, you will realize that the peace you are seeking is already your present reality.

If you can eat a jar of cashew butter without attachment, you will understand nirvana.

If you can watch a bird flying and forget that you are watching it, you will have experienced no-self.

If you can let go of your practice, you will know that its goal has eternally been realized.

If you could thank the other for the thorns, your suffering would free all souls trapped in hell.

If you can be in silence when your mind wishes to speak, your deeper fears and pain will be revealed to you, perhaps for the very first time.

If you can kiss the sleeping beauty, she will awaken what remains half asleep within you.

If you can kiss the lips of your beloved, knowing nothing in that moment but her touch, you will understand that her love has neither beginning nor end.

M.S.