Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Interview on Postmortem Survival (Part 1) – repost

In January 2013 Jime Sayaka interviewed me on the topic of postmortem survival for his now defunct blog Subversive Thinking.  In what turned out to be a lengthy interview (and preview of arguments in my forthcoming book), I outlined in considerable detail my critique of empirical arguments for survival, as well as explained why common survivalist defenses of these arguments lack cogency.  Below I repost my answers to the first three preliminary questions of the interview. In subsequent blogs I will repost other portions of the interview.  With regard to my book in progress, I’m presently deeply engaged with this project, up against a publisher deadline of end of January 2015.  In early December I intend to  provide an update concerning the book, including details on a possible online symposium to discuss chapter drafts with interested participants.  The description of my book in progress below is an adequate approximation to the project in its current form.  I am also working on plans for a series of roundtable discussions with other philosophers on the topic of the empirical arguments for survival. My aim is to publish these in my blog in the form discussion transcripts.

Jime Sayaka Interview with Michael Sudduth (1/19/14)
1 – Sayaka: “Professor Sudduth, how and why did you get interested in the paranormal and empirical research into the afterlife?”
Sudduth: My interest in the paranormal and postmortem survival originated from a series of paranormal experiences at different times in my life, but the interest has been sustained and shaped in significant ways by my academic interests in philosophy of mind, the nature of the human personality, and western and eastern spirituality.
I’d say that my curiosity in survival-related questions began when I was around eight years old.  After having recurrent apparitional experiences in the house I lived in with my parents at the time, I began wondering whether there were real things that I could not normally see but which became visible under certain conditions.  And seeing as I recognized some of the apparitions as deceased members of my family or friends of the family, the experiences prompted the question, is death really the end of our existence?  I never said anything about these experiences to my parents, but I remember feeling encouraged when a couple of years later my grandmother shared with me an apparitional experience she had of my grandfather shortly after his death.  And I recall, on another occasion, overhearing another family member secretly discussing her apparitional experience of my grandfather.
In my teenage years I had a variety of paranormal experiences over a two-year period.  Given my prior experiences, I decided to document the experiences in a journal I kept at the time.  I was also inspired by the 1972 television series the Sixth Sense to explore these experiences through various readings in parapsychology.  Interestingly enough, during this time my mother reported an apparitional experience of my grandfather a few days before the death of my grandmother.  Although my mother had no knowledge of my grandmother’s experience several years earlier, her description of the apparition was remarkably similar to what my grandmother had described.
After a lengthy hiatus in thinking about these matters during my later teens and 20s, my interest was briefly resurrected when I encountered the writings of H.H. Price while studying philosophy of religion as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.  Price came on my radar through my reading of John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life, a text that had been recommended to me a couple of years earlier by a professor at Santa Clara University, where I did my undergraduate work in philosophy.  Although I was greatly impressed with Price’s reflections on the empirical approach to survival, my conservative Christian views at the time, together with my focus on other topics in graduate school, dissuaded me from a further exploration.
Two later events facilitated my shift towards a sustained engagement with the alleged empirical evidence for postmortem survival.  While a professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, I assigned readings on survival (including articles by H.H. Price) in my philosophy of religion classes. This eventually evolved into a senior seminar I taught on John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life text.  In 2002 I left Saint Michael’s College and moved into a historic home in Windsor, Connecticut. There my ex-wife and I had a large number of paranormal experiences, which I documented in written form.  After moving out of the house in 2004, I conducted some interviews with prior occupants of the home and learned that they had similar experiences.  I became very fascinated with the nature of these shared experiences, seemingly tied to a particular physical location, and their possible implications for postmortem survival.  So I embarked upon a critical exploration of the topical territory that has defined a central part of my academic research and writing to this day.
Since I had developed an independent interest in various questions in the philosophy of mind prior to 2004, my exploration of survival nicely dovetailed with my other academic interests, including my specialization in philosophy of religion, where I had given considerable attention to the nature of religious experience and arguments for the existence of God.  In addition to devouring earlier philosophical explorations of the empirical approach to survival (e.g., the works of C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, and C.J. Ducasse), I also acquainted myself with the works of more recent and contemporary philosophers who have taken an interest in the subject matter, e.g., David Ray Griffin, Robert Almeder, and Stephen Braude. I established a friendship with Braude, as well as with parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach.  I’ve had the added benefit of participating in a number of paranormal investigations and developing friendships with various mediums over the past eight years.  So my thinking on this topic has been shaped by a wide-range of first-hand experiences, as well as my research and training as a philosopher.
On my current view, I think there is a legitimate debate about what exactly paranormal phenomena establish about the reality and nature of postmortem survival.  That’s an issue at the center of my present work.  I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness.  I remain skeptical, though, about many of the claims made on behalf of the ostensible empirical evidence for survival.  For me, the most relevant aspect of the inquiry into this topical territory is the role it plays in my own journey of self-exploration.
2 – Sayaka: “You’re working [on] a forthcoming book on survival of consciousness. Can you tell us when it is going to be published, and how it differs from the rest of the survival literature?”
Sudduth: Yes. I’m presently working on a book on survival. It’s a philosophical engagement and critique of the traditional empirical arguments for survival, very much in the tradition of Broad, Ducasse, and Price, and the sort of project that John Hick and H.D. Lewis encouraged philosophers of religion to take up back in the 1970s. I anticipate its completion by fall 2014 [revised: January 2015].  Palgrave Macmillan will be publishing the book in the Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion series.  As you know, I’ve published a number of papers on the topic since 2009, but I’ve actually had the idea of writing a book on survival for sometime now.  It’s been a gradual process of digesting the large body of material in the subject area, deeply processing various aspects of the debate, and letting my own thoughts reach a certain level of maturity.
Quite naturally, the book is motivated by my personal and professional attraction to the topic, but it’s more specifically motivated by my interest in sharpening the empirical survival debate in several ways.  Quite honestly, much of the literature on the topic since the 1960s has been disappointing.  Apart from a small number of publications, the literature has lacked the philosophical sophistication that characterized the works of Broad, Ducasse, and Price.  To be sure, there have been some good works on the topic, for example, Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival, R.W.K. Paterson’s Philosophy and Belief in a Life after Death, David Ray Griffin’s Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, and—most importantly—Stephen Braude’s Immortal Remains.  On the whole, though, since the 1960s, the literature has stagnated. Most of the publications simply overwhelm the reader with information, not conceptually clear and carefully reasoned argument.  Survival is typically asserted as an ostensible conclusion drawn from a mass of empirical data for which there is apparently no better explanation, to which some authors append facile dismissals of materialist philosophies of mind and arguments from the data of cognitive neuroscience purporting to show the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain.
The widespread claim among empirical survivalists—survivalists who endorse empirical evidence for survival—is that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of the data.  But what does it mean for a hypothesis to explain data?  How does a hypothesis explaining data convert the data into evidential cash value? What logical principles are being enlisted to show this and assess the weight of the evidence relative to competing hypotheses? And how do we arrive at judgments concerning the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis?  These are crucial questions for evaluating the empirical case for survival, but you’ll find a deafening silence with respect to these questions in survival literature since the 1960s.  One gets the impression from much of the literature that the survival hypothesis simply wins by explanatory default:  since nothing else explains the data, survival explains the data.
The lack of conceptual clarity and logical rigor in the literature is particularly unfortunate when compared with how, during the past forty years, debates in the Anglo-America philosophy of religion have advanced to increasing levels of sophistication, as illustrated by the application of developments in modal logic, confirmation theory, and general epistemology to traditional arguments for the existence of God. For example, there’s nothing in the survival literature comparable in logical rigor to philosopher Richard Swinburne’s the Existence of God (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2008), in which Swinburne uses Bayesian confirmation theory to argue for the existence of God. Probability in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Jake Chandler and Victoria Harrison (Oxford University Press, 2012), highlights many such developments in Anglo-American philosophy of religion during the past forty years.
So my book is largely a conceptual exploration of the survival hypothesis itself and a critical examination of the logic of empirical arguments for survival.  It’s an exploration in the philosophy of postmortem survival focused on the prospects for a logically rigorous and successful empirical argument for survival.  Naturally, I draw on my training as an analytic philosopher well acquainted with the conceptual territory of Anglo-American metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science.
3 – Sayaka: “Could you outline the central argument of your book?”
Sudduth: Certainly.
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.  So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge.  Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival.  That’s my thesis.
Why do I take this position?  Traditionally, the empirical case for survival has been based at least in part on the ostensible explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. From this viewpoint, the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis will be favorable only if the hypothesis has great explanatory power.  In more conceptually sophisticated accounts, survival is inferred from its explanatory power assisted by a favorable judgment concerning its antecedent or prior probability (i.e., roughly, how likely the survival hypothesis is independent of the empirical data it is adduced to explain).  My view, simply stated, is that proponents of the classical arguments make one or more of three mistakes.  They significantly overestimate (i) the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis, (ii) its prior probability, and/or (iii) the posterior probability of the survival hypothesis given the (approximate) values they assign to (i) or (ii), or both.
To fill out my critical evaluation a bit more, consider the following formulation of a widespread version of the empirical argument for survival:
(1) There is some data set D.
(2) The survival hypothesis, S, is the best explanation of D.
(3) S has a prior probability that is either not too low or greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s).
Therefore, it is at least more probable than not that:
(4) The survival hypothesis is true.
The argument is an inference to best explanation supplemented by a favorable judgment concerning the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I call this the “strengthened explanatory argument” for survival (hereafter, SEA) to distinguish it from a similar explanatory argument that depends solely on explanatory considerations, with no consideration of the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  I don’t think the basic explanatory argument can show that survival is more probable than not, so SEA is the most appropriate generic version of the empirical argument for survival when it comes to the stronger claims made on behalf of the evidence.  So SEA considered here explicitly takes it that the survival hypothesis has a favorable posterior probability, specifically a probability greater than ½.
Following the tendency of recent parapsychologists and philosophers, I formulate the empirical case for survival as a cumulative case argument.  So D = the relevant set of data drawn from five kinds of paranormal phenomena:  near-death and out-of-body experiences, apparitional experiences, mediumistic communications, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Furthermore, with respect to premise (2), I take the “explanatory power” of the survival hypothesis to be a function of the extent to which it leads us to expect the relevant data, as well as the extent to which the data are otherwise surprising or improbable.  As for premise (3), I understand the prior probability of a hypothesis h, where h is being proposed to explain observational evidence e, to be the probability of h independent of e, as determined by criteria such as h’s simplicity and h’s fit with background knowledge.  According to premise (3), the survival hypothesis has a prior probability that is not very low or at least greater than the nearest explanatory competitor(s), where the nearest competitor is a non-survival hypothesis that purports to lead us to expect much if not all of the relevant data.
If we formulate the empirical argument for survival as SEA, then my criticisms can be more precisely stated.  I argue that there are overriding reasons for supposing that we are not justified to believe (2) and (3) or, even if we accept premises (2) and (3), (4) is not more probable than not given these premises.  In either case, it follows that we are not justified to believe the conclusion (4) on the basis of (2) and (3), where (4) is assigned the value greater than ½.  Hence SEA does not succeed in showing that survival is more probable than its negation.
SEA, of course, needs careful unpacking and analysis.  There’s much that needs to be said about how empirical survivalists have tried to support the premises of the argument.  In my book I employ a Bayesian approach to confirmation theory to provide a more precise articulation of SEA, as well as to illuminate why the argument fails. I also consider the implications of alternative approaches to evidence assessment for the prospects of a good empirical argument for survival. As we continue the interview, I’ll fill out some of these details.


The next repost installment of this interview will appear next week. – M.S.

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