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