Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Clarifying My Critique of Survival Arguments

In my previous blog (“’Wrong Turns’ in Arguments for Postmortem Survival”) I discussed in a general way my skepticism regarding arguments for postmortem survival construed as inferences to best explanation (IBE).  The initial wave of skepticism concerns problems that infect IBE arguments in general.  The second wave of skepticism concerns a number of problems that infect survival arguments in particular when they are modeled on IBE.  My previous blog primarily discussed the first wave of skepticism, of which I’ll have more to say at a later time.  In the next week or so, though, my blog will begin exploring the second wave  of skepticism, which has been the focus of a number of my papers.  Even if we can get clear of the first wave of skeptical concerns associated with IBE arguments in general, the attempt to fit survival into the IBE template as an ostensible “scientific hypothesis” is subject to substantial and I think fatal objections. 

For the moment, though, I’d like to offer a brief clarification about my position on survival and how my critique of IBE survival arguments is part of a larger program in the epistemology of belief in survival. This is prompted by some interesting emails from subscribers who have asked, for example, whether I think there are any good arguments for survival.  Although in my previous blog I indicated that my critique of IBE survival arguments doesn’t rule out there being good arguments for survival, some subscribers wanted more details about my viewpoint.  This is forthcoming, but for now I’ll offer some clarifications and sketch the parameters of the larger project in which my critique of IBE survival arguments is embedded.

First, to reiterate an important point in my previous blog, I’m not skeptical about postmortem survival. I personally believe in survival.  I think this makes some survivalists uncomfortable because their arguments have been dialectically framed as a response to physicalist objections to survival raised by individuals who are anti-survivalists.  I’m not in this camp, and my critique of IBE survival arguments isn’t committed to the truth of physicalism. Later in the present blog series I’ll discuss the nature and grounds of my personal belief in survival, as well as how these grounds interact with data drawn from research in the areas of near-death experiences, mediumship, apparitional experiences, and cases of the reincarnation type.  But it’s important to remember that I’m not out to debunk belief in survival.

Second, although I’m skeptical about IBE survival arguments, this skepticism does not extend to all forms of argument for survival.  There are different ways of arguing for survival, and different ways of answering objections to this belief by anti-survivalists.  Some approaches are not vulnerable to the kinds of objections I’m raising to IBE survival arguments.  I’d even say that, on my view, explanatory considerations and other inductive criteria (broadly construed) are both relevant and useful; but, with a few important exceptions, survivalists have not exercised caution or care in how they’ve handled their business here.

Third, when it comes to exploring the “goodness” of survival arguments, we should carefully consider the different functions of arguments for survival.  What are we trying to do with these arguments?  And this is particularly important as we explore the empirical arguments constructed from survival research and the data of parapsychology.  Are these arguments supposed to make belief in survival rationally compelling? Or are they supposed to add to the warrant of belief in survival, where other considerations also contribute to the warrant of belief in survival.  Are these arguments supposed to justify the belief that we survive death? Or are they supposed to justify beliefs about what the afterlife is like, given that belief in survival sufficiently warranted on other grounds?  Without exploring the meta-level question, it’s hard to know what it means to say “this is/is not a good argument for survival,” for the “goodness” of arguments is relative to their purported function, that is, what the arguments are trying to do.  “Good” for what exactly?

Fourth, and related to the prior point, it will be important to explore the relationship between inference/argument and other grounds for belief in survival. For example, near-death experiences open up the prospects for an experiential justification for belief in survival for individuals who have such experiences, in much the same way, so I’d argue, that religious experience opens up the prospects for experiential justification of theistic beliefs.  So how might experiential and inferential grounds for belief in survival interface? I explored this with reference to belief in God in my book on arguments for God’s existence.  I aim to do something similar with respect to belief in survival.

So, having said this, it should now be clear that my criticisms of IBE survival arguments are only the initial steps towards a more ultimate goal, which is to articulate an epistemology of belief in survival according to which we may precisely see the sorts of conditions under which belief in survival is epistemically justified or warranted, as well as how its positive epistemic status is related to discursive processes of reasoning and argument.  But to see this in clear relief requires first seeing why and how existing approaches and strategies are unsuccessful.

And so we can now finally return to my critical evaluation of IBE survival arguments.  In the first instance, I’m targeting actual IBE survival arguments that prominent survivalists have presented.  I don’t think these particular arguments accomplish what many survivalists claim they do.  Secondly, when I explore the reasons why these paradigmatic IBE arguments fail, it becomes clear to me that there’s a more general skepticism lurking in my critique. I’m skeptical about survival as an ostensible “scientific hypothesis” for which a justification is sought by trying to make belief in survival successfully conform to explanatory standards and inferential practices employed in the sciences.

I’ll devote my next blog to a critical engagement of the rather common claim among survivalists wielding IBE survival arguments that survival, like other scientific hypotheses, makes predictions.  Since the survival hypothesis allegedly has empirical consequences, it’s supposed to be a testable hypothesis, open to confirmation and falsification.  And of course since the predictive consequences of the survival hypothesis allegedly fit the data, it has great predictive power, and at precisely the points where other hypotheses do not fit the data.  Its predictive power is therefore an explanatory virtue that offers significant support for the claim that survival is the best explanation of the data.  In a week or so I’ll show why this line of argument is one of those “wrong turns” I think survivalists need to avoid.

Michael Sudduth 2/18/13

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