Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Response to Titus Rivas

newcoverThere are several forthcoming reviews of my recently published book on empirical arguments for life after death. Since one of my aims in writing the book was to facilitate a particular kind of much-needed conversation on the topic, I intend to offer responses to some of the reviews (in my blog and in peer-reviewed journal publications), which is one way of having the discussion.  However, now only a couple of months since the publication of my book, it’s become clear that I’ll need to put some effort into cleaning up the mess created by commentators who haven’t adequately understood the conceptual territory and who consequently misrepresent my arguments in their effort to critique them.  Since we can’t really have the required conversation if the arguments designed for this purpose are not understood, some energy needs to be expended in the direction of conceptual clean up and trash removal.

Speaking of messes and trash removal, enter survival researcher Titus Rivas. His recent review of my book is evidence of just how easily the needed conversation is derailed by low-caliber thinking and shoddy scholarship. Yes, I know: Rivas is a well-known survival researcher. Alas, this is precisely the problem. His review is a striking and disappointing demonstration of the extent to which the field of survival research has fallen into intellectual disrepair. Rivas purports to offer a critical review of my book, yet he fails to state, much less critically engage, my book’s central argument (or even the book’s secondary and tertiary arguments for that matter). Instead, Rivas generates a menacing pile of factual errors, conceptual confusions, and unwarranted psychological conjectures.  His review deserves attention because it’s a good example of how this conversation is not supposed to go. Despite the brevity of his review, which has at least prevented him from multiplying misrepresentations beyond necessity, there’s still quite the mess to clean up here.

Rivas begins his review by making some rather odd and factually false claims about my religious affiliation and prior philosophical work. One only needs a modest degree of cognitive calibration to understand that these issues are irrelevant to the cogency of my book’s arguments, but since Rivas returns to them again at the end of his review in the effort to discredit my work on survival, the errors are worth noting.

Michael Sudduth used to be a Christian philosopher of religion, but he ultimately embraced a form of Hindu (Vedantic) philosophy. He once wrote a treatise against so-called natural religion, an approach to theism, which claims that we can formulate rational arguments for the existence of a creator. In his new book, A philosophical critique of empirical arguments for postmortem survival, Sudduth opposes scholars who claim there is good empirical evidence for personal survival after physical death.

For reasons that will be apparent at the end of his review, Rivas wishes to classify me as a Hindu of some unspecified variety associated with the tradition of Vedanta and committed to the authority of the Vedas. This is false. Rivas also says that I wrote a treatise against natural religion. This is also false. I’ll comment more on these points below. For the moment, just observe the inauspicious start to Rivas’s review. I have no idea why Rivas is so misinformed on these mundane issues, but if easily accessible biographical details of my life and work clearly contradict his opening remarks, I’d say that Rivas should be reviewing his skills as an empirical researcher instead of reviewing my book. Sadly, the inaccuracies with which the review begins set the tone for the rest of his commentary.

Sudduth essentially claims that proponents of the survival hypothesis as an explanation for certain types of empirical evidence are naive and simply have not given alternative explanations enough thought. According to the author, the main alternative hypothesis is the Living Agent Psi-hypothesis (LAP), which states that anything that appears to be indicative of survival is really subconsciously produced by psi (paranormal abilities) of the living. 

Here Rivas is presumably trying to state the bottom line of my critique of survival arguments, but these claims – while true – are not part of my argument.  At best they’re downstream implications of my argument, but they’re peripheral negative evaluations at best.  Of course, like many of the survivalists to which I refer, I do consider a sufficiently “bulked up” LAP hypothesis to be the nearest explanatory competitor to the survival hypothesis, but Rivas doesn’t clearly state what I have to say about this hypothesis, much less its role in my larger argumentation. At all events, Rivas’s entire discussion is vitiated by a serious confusion about what my argument is, despite the fact it’s clearly outlined in §1.4 of my book and summarized in the book’s final chapter.

It might be helpful to have at least one of my actual arguments in view as a useful corrective to what follows in Rivas’s review.  Let’s take my criticism of classical explanatory arguments. This is central to my entire discussion in the second half of the book. Here I target reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is the best explanation of the data. I don’t argue that this explanatory claim is false. I argue that survivalists have been unsuccessful in showing that the claim is true. Why? Not because I argue that there’s some rival hypothesis that actually provides an equally good explanation of the data, and not because I argue that survivalists cannot rule out the LAP hypothesis (or other explanatory competitors). What I argue is that survivalists aren’t justified in claiming both that the survival hypothesis explains and there is no rival hypothesis that provides an at least equally good explanation. Why do I say this? Because I argue that the reasons invoked by survivalists to rule out explanatory competitors defeat the justification for supposing that the survival hypothesis explains the data.

My argument against the cogency of explanatory survival arguments is prominent in my book. It’s an important implication of the auxiliary assumption requirement at the heart of my critique. It’s the focus of three chapters of discussion of the work of C.D. Broad, E.R. Dodds, and C.J. Ducasse, reinforced by a detailed Bayesian analysis. Yet Rivas fails to state the argument, even in a fairly simple outline form (such as I did above).

Nonetheless, Rivas ventures three criticisms.

First, he [Sudduth] seems to believe that we need one single hypothesis for all the evidence in the field. . . Proponents of the survival hypothesis usually assume that some paranormal phenomena are best explained by Living Agent Psi, whereas other phenomena require a survival hypothesis. Of course, there are a few scholars who sincerely believe that all paranormal phenomena are caused by spirits of the dead, but they are only a relatively small minority within the survival community. Survivalist usually do not claim that all paranormal phenomena within survival research point to survival.

I don’t believe that we need a single hypothesis to explain all the evidence in the field, and such a claim (false as it happens) is nowhere implicated in my argument. Moreover, I haven’t said that survivalists claim that all paranormal phenomena within survival research point to survival. Of course, Rivas neither quotes me nor otherwise explains why or how he came to this strange conclusion. And it’s a particularly surprising misinterpretation given the extensive discussion on evidence in my book, including my specifying the relevant kinds of evidence, distinguishing between narrow and broad descriptions of evidence, explaining how the total evidence requirement (of inductive reasoning) should be qualified, and explicitly acknowledging that some strands of evidence (I discuss) may have equally good or better non-survival explanations without this impugning the survival inference. Rivas cannot plausibly attribute to me a view that I explicitly deny (e.g. §10.2.2, especially no. 17). Fundamentally, my arguments are calibrated to diagnose a problem intrinsic to arguing for survival from any relevant domain of empirical evidence. So Rivas is exhibiting remedial confusion on a dominant theme of my book. Since he’s silent about how he’s tied the knot of his own confusion, there’s precious little I can do here to help untie it.

Secondly, Sudduth gives the impression that his opponents mostly reject LAP because certain paranormal phenomena would simply be too “impressive” to have been caused by the living. Although some scholars do take this position, another type of argumentation is much more important. Namely that the living persons involved in many types of cases most probably cannot have had a motive to subconsciously create the phenomena themselves. . . .By stressing the quantity and complexity of paranormal phenomena rather than this central motivational argument, Sudduth clearly makes a caricature of the argumentation of his opponents.

Where exactly do I state, or even give the impression, that survivalists “mostly” reject the LAP hypothesis because it would require psi too impressive to have been caused by the living?  Indeed, this is actually not the case.  As I carefully explain (with substantial citations from the literature), there are two general survivalist objections to the LAP hypothesis: (i) the LAP hypothesis doesn’t account for the data or (ii) the LAP hypothesis can be “bulked up” to better account for the data but at the cost of proportionally less plausibility (resulting from diminished independent support for the requisite auxiliaries, less fit with background knowledge, or increased complexity).  The LAP hypothesis being too “impressive” is presumably Rivas’s way of referring to at least one of the more specific arguments under objection (ii). Rivas’s specific consideration  is relevant to (i).  If there’s evidence pointing to “no motive,” a hypothesis that posits that there is a motive will have at least prima facie difficulty accommodating the specific pieces of evidence that point in the opposite direction.  Rivas is merely emphasizing one argument for supposing that the LAP hypothesis has a low Likelihood relative to a subset of evidence.  What Rivas has not done is show how this one argument fares any better than the others proposed in the net interest of securing the desired survival inference.  Much less has Rivas addressed my arguments for supposing that this strategy is unsuccessful, even if the LAP hypothesis has, for whatever reason, a low Likelihood.

This being said, it’s worth adding that in his book Immortal Remains (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) Stephen Braude has shown that survivalists have typically had psychologically shallow and philosophically shortsighted reasons for supposing that living persons could not have had (or were unlikely to have had) a motive to unconsciously produce the relevant phenomena. I agree with Braude’s assessment. And again, it’s important to keep the larger picture in mind here. Even if it were true that we had good reason to suppose, for any particular case, that the appropriate motive was not present, this would not guarantee the survivalist’s desired inference to survival as the best explanation of the data. As I explained in detail in my book (though ignored by Rivas), it’s absolutely vital to understand the structural features of the survival argument and the range of ways that this argument can fail.

Thirdly, although Sudduth does mention the survivalist’s motivational argument, he hardly gives it any serious attention. Sudduth seems to believe it is sufficient to stress that the human subconscious mind is so unfathomable that we may assume paranormal phenomena can always be explained by subconscious motives, even if those motives would be very hard to imagine! This appears to release him from his scholarly duty to offer plausible concrete LAP expanations [sic] for all types of evidence. However, if somebody claims there may always be a hidden motive for people to use psi subconsciously to produce pseudo-evidence for survival, the least we may ask from such a person is to show why this would be psychologically plausible. If this does not happen, the person in question cannot even be said to have contributed anything to the serious debate in this field. 

Here Rivas is engaged in more attributions for which he provides no evidence and that are in fact false. I don’t assume that “the human subconscious mind is so unfathomable that we may assume paranormal phenomena can always be explained by subconscious motives,” nor does my argument depend on this assumption. And, as usual, Rivas nowhere shows to the contrary by quoting from my book or providing a textually supported analysis.  As for the impression that I’ve not given the motivational argument any serious attention, this impression is the result of Rivas’s failure to understand the implications of my actual argument (discussed above).

Let’s now take stock of Rivas’s short review.  

  • Rivas has written a review of a book, the central concepts and arguments of which he doesn’t state, let alone analyze.
  • Rivas saddles the author with assumptions he’s nowhere exegetically justified from his reading of the text.
  • Rivas claims certain points have not been accounted for in the book, but he misses how the author’s actual arguments cover the point, and Rivas fails to show how the inclusion of the point would alter the outcome of the author’s argument.

If there was ever an example of how not to write a serious review, even a short one, this is it.  In other contexts, the whole production would score points for comedy, but because it’s intended as serious commentary, the shoddy scholarship is mildly disturbing I must admit.

However, Rivas needed to end his review on a high note and so the capstone of his review is a speculative and quite frankly silly discussion of my motive for writing my book. This is the default tactic when people have throttled their bandwidth for critical thought, which Rivas seems to have done a few sentences into his review.

Rivas writes the following:

What could have been the author’s motive to write a whole book against the survival hypothesis for empirical evidence? The first reason that comes to mind is of course that he simply does not believe in an afterlife. However, this obvious reason does not apply to Sudduth’s case. He is a Vedantic scholar who as such (considering the particular school within Vedanta he adheres to) simply must believe in survival after death. Therefore, I think that what motivated him to write this work is a desire to demonstrate that people need to base their belief in survival on a non-rational, purely religious conviction. This is very similar to what must have motivated him when he wrote his previous book against natural religion and in favour of supernatural revelation.

I’m not going to belabor the point that motive is irrelevant to the cogency of my arguments. Let’s just bracket out the interest in whether my arguments are good ones and just focus on Rivas’s psychological fixation.

Rivas wonders what my motive for writing the book could have possibly been. This is odd because in the Preface, §1.3, and §1.4 of my book I plainly answer this question. Not surprisingly, Rivas fails to state, much less assimilate into his own speculations, what I claim my motive was for writing the book. Perhaps Rivas didn’t read my introductory chapter. Maybe he thinks he understands the content of my mental life better than I do.  Or maybe he has some other reason for choosing to ignore the salience of my clearly stated and long-standing interest in this topic, my stated belief that there are serious deficiencies in the existing literature, my stated disappointment in how survivalists have masked these deficiencies, and my stated intention to advance the debate by diagnosing these deficiencies. It’s unclear why Rivas feels none of my stated reasons for writing book should be taken at face value.  What is clear is that the alternative conjecture Rivas offers up is patently absurd.

1.  I don’t adhere to any school within Vedanta that involves a belief in survival. And I utterly disavow appeals to any sacred text as authoritative. My spiritual practice for the past three years, influenced as it has been by Advaita and Buddhism, is an empirically grounded approach to spirituality, which stands in sharp contrast to adherence to the dogmas and alleged supernatural revelations of faith-based religions. This should be utterly clear to anyone who wishes to discuss my views and has the capacity to use the Google search engine.

2.  Rivas describes my first book as one “against natural religion and in favor of supernatural revelation.” Rivas would be referring to my book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate, 2009), but this book is not a treatise against so-called “natural religion.” Quite the contrary: in this book I defended the project of natural theology (developing rational arguments for the existence and nature of God) against streams of opposition to it within the Protestant theological tradition. And a person doesn’t need to read a single page of the book to know this, as the Amazon synopsis says, “Sudduth argues that none of the main Reformed objections is successful as an objection to the project of natural theology.”

Since a string of false statements only results in larger false statement, Rivas offers a robustly unsound argument as alleged support for his wacky psychological conjecture. Ironically, anyone who so ineptly handles a very simple, ordinary case concerning motive erodes confidence in his ability to reliably discern motives in the more exotic scenarios associated with evidence for life after death.  While I’m tempted to offer my own conjecture about Rivas’s psychology, unlike Rivas I’ll confine my claims to what I’m actually in a position to know.  Like his account of the content of my book, his conjecture is simply false.  I don’t believe that “people need to base their belief in survival on a non-rational, purely religious conviction.” In fact, I deny this claim.  It would be misleading to call Rivas’s conjecture a stupid one; it’s actually an outrageously stupid conjecture.  In Titus Rivas’s world, his reasoning about my motive for writing my book will no doubt appear as cogent to him as does the argument for survival. But in the actual world, the reasoning astonishingly lacks cogency.

As I’ve said repeatedly, there’s a conversation we need to be having on the topic of postmortem survival.  This conversation isn’t advanced by survivalists who bury the discussion in a heap factual inaccuracies and distortions of the criticisms leveled against their arguments. It’s not advanced by a novel form of scholarship in which critical book reviews fail to actually state the arguments developed in the book under critical examination.  And the remedy for these deficiencies is not poorly constructed and psychologically superficial conjectures concerning the motives of one’s critics, which in the final analysis would be irrelevant even if correct.  There’s no substitute for understanding arguments, but there’s sometimes a vital prerequisite – better understanding what you don’t adequately understand in order to see more clearly what you need to know to sensibly critique it.

Michael Sudduth

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