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9781137440938A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival

Michael Sudduth

In A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) Michael Sudduth provides a critical exploration of classical empirical arguments for postmortem survival—arguments that purport to show that data collected from ostensibly paranormal phenomena constitute good evidence for the survival of the self or individual consciousness after death.  Focusing specifically on arguments based on the data of out-of-body/near-death experiences, mediumship, and cases of the reincarnation type, he aims to revive the tradition of empirical inquiry into life after death associated with philosophers William James, C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, and C.J. Ducasse. Sudduth proposes to advance the debate with a novel approach.  For the first time, the traditional arguments are formalized using the tools of formal epistemology.  Sudduth shows that this procedure exposes the Achilles Heel of the classical arguments, a self-defeating dependence on auxiliary assumptions. He further argues that when reformulated in the light of the “problem of auxiliaries,” long-standing skeptical objections to survival arguments are immune to traditional survivalist counter-arguments.


CHAPTER 1:  Introduction: The Classical Empirical Survival Debate

In this introductory chapter Sudduth provides an overview of the empirical debate concerning life after death, a debate focused on whether there are observational data that constitute (good) evidence for life after death.  The salient data are drawn from three kinds of unusual or ostensibly paranormal phenomena: out-of-body/near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, and cases of the reincarnation type.  Sudduth outlines the relevant data, as well as the views of prominent researchers and philosophers regarding the interpretation of these data.  The classical arguments for survival based on these data are sketched and traditional objections noted.  After identifying some of the deficiencies in the current literature, Sudduth outlines his own approach and argument for supposing that the classical arguments fail to show that the salient data are good evidence for personal survival. 

CHAPTER 2:  Exploring the Hypothesis of Personal Survival 

As a conceptual preliminary to the subsequent discussion, in this chapter Sudduth explores conceivable models of survival that might inform the content of the survival hypothesis and thereby bear on what sort of observational data would confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis.  Since the empirical debate has traditionally focused on the prospects for personal survival, Sudduth limits his attention to this widespread view of survival.  In the tradition of C.D. Broad and C.J. Ducasse, Sudduth outlines various models of personal survival, with particular emphasis on the thesis of psychological survival, the postmortem persistence of some significant aspect of our present psychology, usually an important feature of hypotheses of personal survival and especially important to survival arguments.  Sudduth distinguishes between stronger and weaker conceptions of psychological survival based on how strongly our postmortem psychological make-up resembles our antemortem psychology. 

CHAPTER 3:  Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences 

This chapter begins with a general description of the empirical approach to survival, which is contrasted with religious and philosophical approaches to survival.  Sudduth goes on to review widely discussed out-of-body and near-death experiences as providing one kind of ostensible empirical evidence for survival. Drawing on data from spontaneous and experimental cases, the chapter includes discussion of the phenomenology of such experiences (i.e., their subjective characteristics) and their apparent veridical features (i.e., their involving apparent accurate perceptions of the world), despite subjects being sensorily isolated from the happenings they describe. Sudduth considers how such experiences might provide indirect evidence for survival under an extrasomatic interpretation, that is, postulating the separation or independence of consciousness from the body.  The chapter concludes with a summary description of six key points of evidence. 

CHAPTER 4:  Mediumistic Communications

Chapter 4 provides an overview of the evidentially salient data from mental and trance mediumship, with emphasis on cases investigated by researchers associated with the British and American societies of psychical research.  Cases include the mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper and Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard.  Sudduth illustrates and outlines important features of proxy sittings, drop-in communicators, and cross correspondences as distinct kinds of mediumistic phenomena that allegedly provide the best evidence for survival.  In the final section he provides a summary description of the most relevant kinds of evidence.  These include the qualitative and quantitative aspects of accurate information the medium conveys about the deceased, the independent verification of mediumistic claims, and the manner in which the medium conveys the information in trance mediumship, namely by way of convincing personations of the deceased. 

CHAPTER 5:  Cases of the Reincarnation Type

This chapter provides an overview of data collected from cases in which human persons, especially children, claim to have past life memories and exhibit other behavioral and physical features characteristic of some identifiable formerly living person.  Over against a hypothetical ideal case, Sudduth provides an account of six actual cases of these “cases of the reincarnation type” (so named by researcher Ian Stevenson), and also compares and contrasts them with cases of ostensible possession. In the final section he provides a summary description of the most relevant kinds of evidence, including the qualitative and quantitative aspects of accurate information subjects convey about an identifiable deceased person, the independent verification of the subject’s claims, and the subjects exhibiting other personality/behavioral and physical characteristics of the identifiable deceased person. 

CHAPTER 6:  Classical Explanatory Arguments for Survival

Sudduth examines two paradigmatic forms of survival argument construed as explanatory arguments, specifically as inferences to best explanation. Based on an examination of the work of several prominent empirical survivalists, Sudduth distinguishes between “modest” and “strengthened” explanatory arguments. According to the former, explanatory salience is parsed solely in terms of the extent to which a hypothesis leads us to expect the relevant data (so-called predictive power).  According to the latter, the survival inference is mediated by predictive power together with additional plausibility factors interpreted as explanatory virtues. The chapter concludes with an initial attempt to bring confirmation theory to bear on survival arguments. Sudduth proposes the formalization of explanatory survival arguments as Likelihood arguments. He concludes, though, that Likelihoodism does not adequately handle the strong form of explanatory argument. 

CHAPTER 7:  Bayesian Explanatory Arguments

In this chapter Sudduth focuses on important Bayesian analyses of the empirical arguments by philosopher C.D. Broad and classical scholar E.R. Dodds.  Their arguments highlight important features of Bayesian confirmation theory, specifically how likelihoods and prior probabilities jointly determine the net plausibility of a hypothesis. Sudduth explores this by formalizing each of their analyses in the language of Bayesian confirmation theory.  The analysis highlights two points of significant vulnerability for survival arguments: the survival hypothesis’s initial degree of initial plausibility (which might be low) and its explanatory power (which might be low because of effective counter-explanations of the data), each of which influences judgments of net plausibility.  Sudduth shows how Broad and Dodds each interpreted these salient issues and concluded that the case for survival fails to show that relevant evidence, largely from mediumship, renders the survival hypothesis more probable than not. 

CHAPTER 8:  Bayesian Defenses of the Survival Hypothesis

Sudduth considers two Bayesian survivalist defenses of the empirical case for survival, each of which is designed as a response to the Broadian-Doddsian critique.  He first critically explores philosopher Curt Ducasse’s defense of the survival hypothesis, followed by a critical analysis of contemporary philosopher R.W.K. Paterson’s cumulative case argument for survival.  Inasmuch as Ducasse and Paterson each develop their case for survival on the basis of the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis together with judgments about its prior probability, their arguments are Bayesian in structure.  Sudduth formalizes the arguments of Ducasse and Paterson and shows why they fail to show that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not. Sudduth draws particular attention to how an inadequately acknowledged dependence on auxiliary assumptions undercuts their arguments by affecting both judgments of explanatory power and prior probability. 

CHAPTER 9:  The Problem of Auxiliary Assumptions 

In Chapter 9 Sudduth examines how survival arguments are dependent on a range of auxiliary assumptions, without which the survival hypothesis would not lead us to expect the relevant evidence.  Sudduth shows how this “auxiliary assumption requirement,” introduced in Chapter 8, generates the “problem of auxiliaries.” He argues that the auxiliary assumptions needed for the classical arguments are claims that lack independent support. Sudduth shows how this generates an initial problem for survival arguments since it prevents the survival hypothesis from being an empirically testable hypothesis.  Among the wide range of survival-friendly auxiliaries only a small subset would lead us to expect the relevant evidence. The inability to determine which set of auxiliaries is the correct one entails that we really do not know how the world should look if survival is true. This undermines the empirical survivalist contention that survival is an empirically testable hypothesis. 

CHAPTER 10:  Exotic Counter-Explanations 

Chapter 10 explores the nearest explanatory competitor to survival—the appeal to living-agent psychic functioning (psi) in the form of extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis.  Sudduth shows how this living-agent psi hypothesis poses a challenge to the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis, even if it is itself not a particularly good explanation of the data. After considering traditional survivalist criticisms of simple appeals to living-agent psi, Sudduth explores a more robust version of this hypothesis based on Stephen Braude’s motivated psi model.  On this model, psi is construed as guided by the interests or needs of persons, and is linked to important features of abnormal psychology, e.g. dissociative phenomena and the sudden manifestation of latent skills.  Sudduth shows how such a counter-explanation substantially weakens Likelihood and Bayesian survival arguments. 

CHAPTER 11:  Conclusion: The Classical Arguments Defeated

In this chapter Sudduth begins by providing a defense of robust living-agent psi hypothesis of Chapter 10 against a widespread survivalist objection, namely that it involves an unwarranted extension of psychic abilities in the form of “super-psi.” Drawing on the arguments of chapters 8 through 10, Sudduth argues that this objection is implausible and self-defeating. The second half of the chapter is devoted to a summary of Sudduth’s complete argument against Bayesian, Likelihood, and explanatory arguments for survival.  He highlights the way in which the defeating considerations for the first two kinds of arguments become defeaters for all classical explanatory arguments.  In this way, he concludes that the classical empirical arguments for survival, in their explanatory and confirmation-style forms, fail to show that there is good evidence for personal survival.

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