Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Survival and the Empirical World (Book Abstract)

The following is a revised short abstract of my book in progress, Survival and the Empirical World. – M.S.


Most broadly stated, Survival and the Empirical World is a philosophical exploration of the empirical approach to postmortem survival, that is, the attempt to assess the prospects for the survival of consciousness or the self after physical death on the basis of observational data. According to this approach to survival, we can in principle arrive at rational judgments about the possibility, plausibility, or probability of survival based on features of the empirical world that may be discovered and analyzed using the kinds of methods employed in the investigation of the world and as paradigmatically represented by the empirical sciences.

I. Book Focus and Thesis 

In the present work, I aim to critically evaluate arguments offered in support of the contention, shared by many who believe in life after death, that there is empirical evidence that justifies belief in personal survival.  My exploration focuses on empirical arguments in the tradition of philosophers such as William James, C.D. Broad, C.J. Ducasse and H.H. Price.  These “classical” arguments for survival are based on a wide range of empirical data drawn from five kinds of ostensibly “paranormal” phenomena: out-of-body and near-death experiences, apparitional experiences, mediumship, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Many survivalists maintain that these phenomena (individually or jointly) provide good perhaps even compelling evidence for postmortem survival.  I argue that empirical survivalists have not adequately made their case for these claims. Empirical arguments for survival, as traditionally formulated by prominent philosophers and survival researchers during the past century, are unsuccessful at providing a robust justification for belief in survival.  In this way the present work aims to make a contribution to the philosophy of postmortem survival by examining fundamental issues in the logic of empirical survival arguments. 

II. Core Issues in the Empirical Survival Debate

The critical evaluation of empirical survival arguments has usually focused on two kinds of skeptical challenges: the prior probability challenge and the alternative explanation challenge.  According to the first, the survival hypothesis has a very low degree of initial credibility, so low that, even if the hypothesis has the explanatory virtues empirical survivalists attribute to it, the survival hypothesis would still not be justified.  According to the second, the relevant data may be at least equally explained by any number of non-survival hypotheses, so the survival hypothesis is not the best explanation of the data adduced in favor of survival.

Whereas skeptics argue that these challenges, individually or jointly, defeat the empirical case for survival, empirical survivalists argue that this is not the case. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the literature in favor of an empirical case for survival has tended to focus on responses to these standard criticisms.  Empirical survivalists routinely emphasize the alleged defects of various non-survival explanations of the relevant data. They also typically attempt to diffuse the prior probability challenge, either by arguing that considerations of prior probability are not relevant or that purported reasons for supposing that survival has a low prior probability are unsuccessful at establishing this. 

III.  Recalibrating the Empirical Survival Debate

My critique of empirical survival arguments calls for a significant recalibration of the core issues in the empirical survival debate.  While the prior probability and alternative explanation challenges raise salient issues, I maintain that the more fundamental issue concerns the generally unacknowledged role and status of auxiliary hypotheses in empirical inferences to survival.  By “auxiliary hypothesis” here I mean a hypothesis whose content adds something to the simple supposition of consciousness or a human person surviving death.  I therefore propose what I call the auxiliary hypothesis challenge. I argue that traditional issues in the empirical survival debate must constellate around problems essentially connected to the reliance on auxiliary hypotheses.  It’s here that we find the most formidable challenge to empirical survival arguments. Moreover, the traditional prior probability and alternative explanation challenges take on their most potent forms when viewed in the light of the closed-allied problems associated with the adoption of auxiliary hypotheses.

IV. The Auxiliary Hypothesis Challenge

According to the auxiliary hypothesis challenge, (i) the relevant data constitute evidence for survival only if we adopt a number of auxiliary hypotheses about what persons would be like if they were to survive death, but (ii) this auxiliary hypothesis requirement actually generates a defeater for survival arguments in all their current formulations.  The auxiliary hypothesis requirement itself is based on a common feature of empirical survival arguments, namely the contention that the survival hypothesis leads us to expect the relevant data.  All such predictive features of the hypothesis depend on more than the simple supposition that some human persons survive death.  It involves adopting a wide range of assumptions about what persons would be like if they were to survive death.  However, these auxiliary hypotheses are either unjustified or, if justifiable, can only be justified by very liberal principles of epistemic justification that would equally justify other kinds of auxiliary hypotheses that may be conjoined with non-survival hypotheses to lead us to expect the same body of data.

I maintain that the auxiliary hypothesis challenge poses a dilemma for the empirical survivalist, and I show the several ways in which this dilemma constitutes a defeater for empirical survival arguments.  More precisely, I show why the dilemma prevents us from justifiably concluding that the survival hypothesis has a favorable net plausibility, that is, that it is at least more probable than not.  I also show that it prevents us from justifiably concluding more modestly that the survival hypothesis has a favorable comparative probability, that is, that the survival hypothesis is, if not more probable than not, at least more probable than the nearest competitor.

Since it is widely held among survival researchers and parapsychologists that the empirical approach to survival offers grounds for belief in survival that are superior to religion as a source for belief in life after death, my skeptical conclusion undermines this contention and thereby serves as a defense of religiously-based belief in survival.  Neither parapsychology nor survival research has succeeded in offering a viable epistemological alternative to religious grounds for belief in survival.

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