My most recent blog “Survivalists in the Crosshairs” had over 500 hits within the first 24 hours, which surpassed my earlier high volume posts on near-death experiences (September 9, 2014) and the logic of survival arguments (June 4, 2014). Not surprisingly, I’ve received a number of emails and Facebook comments concerning the blog. While I don’t allow comments to be posted in my blog, readers are always welcomed to email comments to me or interact with me on my Facebook where I engage in limited informal discussion. I also try to answer all emails. At times I have incorporated responses to emails in my blog. Here is one such occasion. Facebook friend Aedon Cassiel has given me permission to post his Facebook query here, which is followed by the response I posted on Facebook.
“Michael, I think I follow most of what I’ve heard you say, and I like the overall tone of what I hear. But I have to confess that I can’t, for all that, form any clear picture in my mind of what actually would satisfy you. That’s not a “what’s your problem, what would even make you happy?!” but a request for clarification, if such is possible. For all I can tell you’ve made critiques to some extent of basically any way I can imagine anyone might go about the project.” – Aedon Cassiel
I’m tempted to bite the bullet here and say, “nothing will satisfy me.” So let’s take that approach first, a kind of worst-case scenario. Besides being an interesting bit of psychological autobiography, so what? This fact, if it is one, hardly counts as evidence against the cogency of my arguments. If the project (at least as traditionally conceived) is intrinsically defective, your observation is exactly would we would expect. Self-defeating arguments are notoriously difficult to save. And I guess that would just be too bad for proponents of the classical arguments, at least given the traditional parameters of these arguments.
But this sort of response would be overly simplistic and misleading.
First, I don’t saddle my arguments with the stronger conclusion that any empirical survival argument does not succeed, or even that any empirical survival argument based on paranormal phenomena fails. This simply does not follow from anything I argue, even if neither you nor I can at present positively specify how the classical arguments can succeed. This may simply be our inevitable epistemic situation at present. For example, given the nature of my critique, the success of the classical arguments may depend on future developments in the scientific understanding of consciousness.
Second, as I have repeatedly noted in my blog and also explain in my book, there are many potentially fruitful alternative approaches to the epistemology of belief in postmortem survival. I would be happy to see survivalists take up the following approaches. Here are three.
(1) Explore the prospects for an experiential justification for belief in survival, similar to what many twentieth-century Christian philosophers have argued concerning theistic belief. A few philosophers have offered programmatic suggestions in this direction, but there’s nothing equivalent to Alston’s Perceiving God (Cornell, 1991) or Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000) for belief in survival.
(2) Explore the prospects for constructing the classical arguments within the framework of a religious or spiritual tradition. This may be highly relevant when it comes to the problem of auxiliaries, for the kinds of auxiliaries survivalists routinely assume are embedded in the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.
(3) Explore the prospects for belief in survival being based on multiple grounds (including religious grounds), each of which makes a distinctive contribution to the justification of belief in survival. Following Alston’s suggestions at the conclusion of Perceiving God, I developed this with reference to theistic belief in my 2009 book on natural theology, I would encourage survivalists to pursue this with respect to belief in survival.
The upshot of (1), (2), and (3) is essentially to break the grip that “SPR logic” has had on empirical inquiry into survival. The classical arguments may indeed be irreparably logically “jacked up” given the traditional narrow parameters empirical survivalists have imposed on the inquiry and arguments. So be it. Sometimes you just need to throw away that old vacuum cleaner and buy a new one. The only thing more challenging than the defects of the classical arguments would be the cognitive intransigence of some of their biggest proponents who regularly confuse rigorous argument with what amounts to little more than the not so clever rearrangement of their prejudices.