Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Response to Bernardo Kastrup

MichaelHardRockIn my previous blog, In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences, I offered a detailed defense of Harris’s critique of Eben Alexander’s near-death experience argument for life after death. The focus of my defense was Bernardo Kastrup’s critical response to Harris’s critique. Well, it took less than a day for Kastrup to issue a response to my blog. Curiously, Kastrup managed to read my 9,000 word critical essay and write a response within approximately seven hours of its publication. While I appreciate the swift attention my blog commanded, Kastrup should have taken a bit more time to better wrap his mind around my arguments. It would have been nice to see a relevant and adequately calibrated response informed by a thoughtful understanding of my arguments. Instead, Kastrup offers little more than a string of wacky ad hominem remarks and red herrings, a strategy that—while psychologically provocative—is nonetheless counterproductive to the kind of discussion that needs to take place on this topic.

To briefly recap my earlier blog, my main contention was that Kastrup misrepresented Sam Harris’s criticisms of Alexander’s transcendent interpretation of his NDE. Kastrup incorrectly stated both the conclusion and premises of Harris’s argument, a distortion that was masked by Kastrup’s selective use of terse quotes from Harris removed from their larger, salient dialectical context. Harris repeatedly says (in both his 2012 blog and 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion) that the problem with Eben Alexander’s argument is that Alexander has not offered compelling evidence for a crucial premise in his argument, namely that Alexander’s NDE took place while his cerebral cortex was inactive. I provided several examples of how Kastrup irresponsibly ignores Harris’s explicit statements about the nature of his disagreement with Alexander. Kastrup attributes claims to Harris that Harris never made, some of which actually contradict what Harris wrote, and consequently he attributes arguments to Harris that Harris never actually made.  There couldn’t be a more potent illustration of the straw man fallacy.

In his blog response, Kastrup fails to offer any serious challenge to my argument that he’s misrepresented Harris.  In fact, there’s very little argument clearly pointed in that direction. His response is largely a selective appropriation of comments from my blog, taken out of context—as he does with Harris—and deployed in such a manner that it’s clear he simply doesn’t understand the arguments Harris and I have presented, nor the range of relevant conceptual distinctions required to clearly and cogently engage them.

Let me provide a few illustrations.

Kastrup complains that I criticized him for not showing that cortical activity during Eben Alexander’s coma was improbable. He writes:

Sudduth writes paragraph after paragraph claiming that I failed to establish that Alexander’s neocortex was incapable to generate his NDE. The only problem is that I never tried to construct an argument to establish that in the first place. After all, I have not seen the hard clinical data and, just like Sudduth, am not qualified to judge it. So who is “profoundly confused” here?

I’m afraid this is a misrepresentation of what I argued.  First, I explicitly acknowledged that Kastrup didn’t intend to show the improbability of cortical activity in Alexander’s case, but I argued that this fact is precisely part of the problem. It highlights Kastrup’s limited grasp of what he needs to argue in the light of Harris’s explicit claims.  Second, the problem, as I carefully explained, is not simply that Kastrup fails to show the improbability of cortical activity in Alexander’s case.  What I argued was that, given what Harris argues, Kastrup must show that Harris was incorrect about the evidential force of the relevant range of data Alexander has at his disposal to support his claim about cortical inactivity. Showing the improbability of cortical activity falls within this logical space. Remember, Harris argued that Alexander didn’t provide good evidence to accept the claim that his cerebral cortex was inactive during his coma. To refute Harris at this juncture requires showing that Harris’s evidential-deficiency claim is false or showing that the reasons Harris offers on behalf of this claim are inadequate. Kastrup does neither. There’s no need to rehearse my arguments, but here’s what I said by way of summary:

To refute Harris, Kastrup would need to show one of two things: either Harris is mistaken about what CT scans and neurological examinations show about cortical activity, or Alexander has other data that make it highly improbable that his cortex was functional at any time during his coma. Kastrup does neither. Instead, he merely plays hide the ball by deploying question-begging language that illicitly shifts the burden of proof. He merely assumes that, given the facts, it’s improbable that Alexander’s cortex could have produced the experiences he reports. An argument needs to be made for this, but none is given.

Kastrup appears to think he’s personally not qualified to do the required dialectical job here, which presumably explains why he feels he can merely appeal to Alexander as an authority at this juncture, conveniently ignoring the testimony of many well-qualified neuroscientists and medical doctors (including neurosurgeons) who strongly disagree with Alexander’s evaluation of the data. Fair enough.  Nonetheless, Kastrup should have more assiduously tended to the “paragraph after paragraph,” which he so condescendingly laments, as they provided an extended argument showing (a) why Alexander’s argument depends on a premise asserting the improbability of cortical activity during his coma, (b) why Harris thinks that Alexander’s evidence for this premise is inadequate, and (c) why Kastrup’s critique of Harris is defective since he doesn’t critically engage (b). One doesn’t need to be a neuroscientist or a neurosurgeon, or even a professional philosopher for that matter, to be qualified to make or evaluate the claims under (a), (b) and (c).  One only needs to have a moderately cultivated set of critical thinking skills that allows one to navigate the salient conceptual territory and properly analyze the structural features of arguments and counter-arguments.

Instead of addressing the arguments I presented under (a), (b), and (c), Kastrup merely restates the very claims whose relevancy I have challenged here and then boldly complains that I haven’t refuted his argument for these claims.  But which argument haven’t I refuted? Kastrup presents a number of arguments whose particular conclusions are enlisted for his end-game, that is, to support his main conclusion that Harris’s criticisms of Alexander are defective (if you wish, replace “defective” with any term of negative evaluation).  What I claim to have refuted is Kastrup’s inference to his main conclusion.  I’m not challenging the cogency or soundness of the arguments he’s enlisted for this purpose, which of course may be perfectly good arguments for their respective conclusions. The central issue is whether Kastrup has provided good reasons for supposing that Harris’s arguments are defective. I argued that he’s unsuccessful in this regard.  Since Kastrup has misrepresented Harris’s actual argument, he’s incorrect about the relevance of the conclusions he wishes to enlist as defeaters for Harris’s argument.  And he’s done nothing to show that his cherry-picking of brief snippets from Harris (while ignoring their context) is an adequate substitute for the kind of mature exposition and conceptual analysis that’s required in this conversation.

Another example. Kastrup claims, “Sudduth’s ‘defense’ of Harris, if correct, would render Harris’ arguments ineffective in rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE.” The conditional statement is true, but irrelevant. Yes, given my defense, Harris’s arguments are ineffective at rebutting the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE, but my repeated claim was that Harris’s arguments were never intended to rebut the transcendent nature of Alexander’s NDE, nor is this dialectically required to defeat Alexander’s argument.  Kastrup has either missed one my central points or he’s deliberately  ignoring it. As I demonstrated, and with copious quotations from Harris, Harris argues that Alexander has not provided good reasons to accept the crucial premise on which his entire argument depends. This is why Harris repeatedly says that his criticisms of Alexander concern Alexander’s failure to offer adequate evidence for cortical shutdown and when his NDE occurred. It’s also why Harris says that his issue is with how Alexander reasons to his conclusion, not the conclusion itself (see Waking Up, 177-78, 185). 

Since Kastrup insists on having dealt me a fatal blow here, I suspect I should clarify a rather remedial point concerning argument defeasibility (i.e. the logic that governs how arguments get defeated). Alexander’s transcendent interpretation of his NDE (the extrasomatic/afterlife interpretation) is an inference that relies on the key premise that he had his NDE during a period of cortical inactivity. One way of defeating this argument would be to provide reasons for supposing that the transcendent interpretation is false (rebutting the conclusion of Alexander’s argument).  Another way of defeating the argument would be to provide reasons for supposing that the key premise is false (rebutting the key premise in Alexander’s argument).  A third way of defeating Alexander’s argument would be to show that we don’t have good enough reason to accept the key premise (undercutting the key premise in Alexander’s argument). (For further elaboration on the different modalities of defeat, see §6 of my Defeaters in Epistemology in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

My defense of Harris logically entails that Harris offered an undercutting premise defeater for Alexander’s argument.  If my defense of Harris is correct, it follows that Harris’s arguments effectively defeat Alexander’s argument for the truth of the transcendent interpretation of his experience.  This conclusion is obviously compatible with Alexander’s argument not being defeated for some other reason, such as there being reasons that efficaciously rebut his conclusion, but that’s obviously a red herring if we want to know whether Alexander’s argument is defeated simpliciter.  Kastrup’s attempt at a reductio ad absurdem refutation of my argument is based on an inadequate grasp of the logic of argument defeasibility. If we want to know whether Alexander has presented a good argument in support of the transcendent interpretation of his experience, then the salient issue is whether there is an efficacious defeater of any kind for that argument.  Hence, what’s central in the critical evaluation of Harris’s argument is whether his undercutting premise defeater against Alexander’s argument is  successful or efficacious.  Kastrup has not addressed this issue; indeed, it doesn’t even seem to be on his radar. For this reason alone, his criticisms of Harris must be judged a failure. They’re simply not a response to what Harris actually argued.

Finally, Kastrup wrote:

Well, he [Sudduth] asserts that “Harris nowhere claims [that] Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry,” so my point is a straw-man. What? With a blush of embarrassment, I leave it to you to judge it after you consider the following passage by Harris: “Does Alexander know that DMT already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension.” Can someone explain to me how is it that Harris is not suggesting here that DMT could explain Alexander’s NDE on a purely chemical basis? I mean, how much clearer could this possibly be?

This is yet another example of how Kastrup’s responses are an obfuscating amalgamation of misrepresentation and remedial conceptual confusion.

First, Kastrup quotes me as saying that Harris nowhere claims that Alexander’s NDE was produced by brain chemistry. This is not contradicted by Harris acknowledging that some such hypothesis is possibly true or suggesting that it could explain Alexander’s NDE.  Apparently Kastrup thinks a “pure speculation” carries significant epistemic credentials or explanatory virtue.  This is radically implausible, and it’s an obvious misappropriation of what Harris says.  I don’t claim that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, but I do claim that there could be.  Harris suggests that the hypothesis of extrasensory perception might explain certain features of Alexander’s experience. Is he thereby proposing that Alexander’s NDE is so explained?  It’s important to distinguish between affirming some statement that p and making the more modest claim that p is empirically possible.  Similarly, claiming that some hypothesis might explain should be distinguished from claiming that some hypothesis actually explains or explains well.

Nothing I said in my blog implies that, in Harris’s view, Alexander’s NDE could not be explained by some DMT neurotransmitter hypothesis. In fact, Harris mentions a number of empirically possible hypotheses that might explain aspects of Alexander’s experience, including living-agent psychic functioning. But he doesn’t say, much less argue, that any of them actually explains Alexander’s experience. These “possibilities” are introduced because they serve the dialectical purpose of opening the field of potential explanatory candidates, which in turn facilitates critically probing whether Alexander has done a sufficient job at ruling them out. This is entirely consistent with the dialectical strategy of undercutting Alexander’s argument.

Second, and related, I made the above claim about Harris in the specific context of Kastrup’s claim that Harris purports to infer that it’s likely that Alexander’s NDE was not a transcendent experience because Alexander’s NDE resembles DMT experiences.  Kastrup conveniently ignores this point in his blog response, but it’s significant. Acknowledging the empirical possibility of a hypothesis h, or even h’s superior comparative plausibility over some competitor h*, doesn’t give us an argument for supposing that h is likely. Harris makes no such claim. He makes no such argument. Full stop. However, Harris’s contention that the DMT neurotransmitter hypothesis is “pure speculation” is relevant in the following sense: it’s evidence against supposing that Harris thinks this hypothesis is likely.  There’s a world of difference between a hypothesis that’s pure speculation and a hypothesis that’s likely, though given Kastrup’s standards for reasoning, perhaps it’s not a surprise that he would fail to distinguish between them.

Finally, as I showed in my blog, it’s Alexander who relies on denying the resemblance between his experience and DMT trips in his defense of the transcendent nature of his experience. This is a very important contextual point that Kastrup has ignored.  In that context, Harris is rebutting a very specific claim whose salience to the discussion has been determined by how Alexander uses it in his argument.

There’s no need to comment on the rest of what Kastrup dishes up because they’re just further illustrations of various fallacies of relevance, dialectical misdirection, and presentational unprofessionalism.  There’s an important conversation we should be having on this topic.  But this discussion is inhibited when interlocutors enter the discussion and are “tilted” because of the word length of an article, not being tagged in a Facebook post, not knowing who an author is, or being overwhelmed by apparently foreign or novel conceptual demands. Thankfully, the broader community of serious survival researchers, many of whom have been my interlocutors for the past ten years, has a keener sense of how this game needs to be played, more skillfully and while keeping their composure.

Michael Sudduth