Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Empirically Robust Survival Hypotheses

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


– Michael Sudduth

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