Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Survivalists in the Crosshairs


Palgrave Macmillan has scheduled a tentative publication date for October this year for my Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Post-mortem Survival.  Although the book is now in the production phase, I plan on writing further on the topic. I’d like to elaborate more on aspects of the arguments in my book, as well as cover material and issues that, due to constraints of space and time, I was not able to include in my book.

One of the things I’d like to do is provide further commentary on some recent writers on survival. 

As some of you know, I discussed David Lund’s work in one of my 2013 publications in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. I might revisit my earlier critique of Lund in the light of my subsequent and more refined reflections, as well as some detailed correspondence I’ve had with David over the past two years.  One particularly interesting part of the personal correspondence has been David’s response to my challenge to show how he arrives at a judgment of favorable posterior probability for the survival hypothesis, namely that the survival hypothesis is more probable than not given all the relevant evidence and background knowledge.  Unlike his book Persons, Souls, and Death, Lund did try to show this using probability theory. Naturally, I don’t think he succeeded, in part because his argument is, like the arguments in his book, blind to the problem of auxiliaries. But I thought his response was interesting nonetheless.  It would be nice to get Lund to do a round table with me on this, which would be published on my website. We’ll see.

Robert Almeder is another philosopher whose work on survival I’d also like to single out for critical scrutiny, though I do provide critical comments on his arguments in several places in my book.  While Lund at least exhibits an appreciation of the complexity of the survival debate, I don’t think Almeder does. This is what strikes me about his dialectical maneuvers in debate with both Steven Hales (unfavorable to survival) and Stephen Braude (favorable to survival), and it is transparently obvious when anyone claims, as Almeder has for years, that the evidence for survival is so compelling that we would be irrational to reject the survival hypothesis.

Almeder’s argument for survival fails for very much the same general reason that all the classical arguments fail.  His argument is blind to the problem of auxiliaries.  This is particularly acute in his critique of appeals to living-agent psychic function as a rival explanation of the data.  As Almeder argues, this counter-explanation cannot account for the data unless it’s amplified into a “super-psi” hypothesis, which posits a degree/kind of psychic functioning for which we have no independent evidence.  The lack of independent support allegedly rules out “the super-psi” hypothesis as a legitimate explanatory competitor.  But the objection applies mutatis mutandis to the survival hypothesis since it cannot account for the data unless it’s amplified into a “super-survival” hypothesis (or what I more neutrally call a “robust” survival hypothesis) for which there is no independent support.  

Almeder’s objection to the so-called super-psi hypothesis is, more carefully and neutrally stated, an objection to a reliance on a hypothesis whose explanatory power depends on the hypothesis being amplified by auxiliary assumptions for which there is no independent support.  Almeder is correct in principle, but what he fails to see is that this objection defeats the argument for survival since there is no independent support for the kind of auxiliary assumptions required for the survival hypothesis to have explanatory efficacy.  The only reason why this would not be utterly apparent is if one were utterly unaware of the extent to which the simple supposition of personal survival carries no predictive consequences unless amplified by further assumptions which do not satisfy the very epistemic requirements survivalists impose on rival hypotheses.  I plan to focus on Almeder in connection with this issue in my next blog.

And then there’s Chris Carter.  I’ve commented on Carter’s pro-survival arguments in a 2011 review, my January 2014 interview with Jime Sayaka, and in my May 14, 2014 blog.  I have more to say about Carter, not because I think his arguments are particularly good but because so many parapsychologists and survivalists seem to think otherwise.  In fact, Michael Prescott has said of Carter’s most recent book Science and the Afterlife Experience that it is “perhaps the best book I’ve read on evidence for life after death, and I’ve read quite a few. I recommend it highly.”  Now blurbs can be misleading, but I think, knowing Prescott as I do, that his comment was intended as genuine praise of Carter, rather than an indirect statement about how utterly crappy the rest of literary field is on the topic. (Being the best of a poor lot is a fairly underwhelming achievement.)  While I hold Michael Prescott in high regard, and he has been a wonderful interlocutor, I could not more strongly disagree with his assessment of Carter’s work.  No, Carter’s work is not even “perhaps” one of the best; it’s quite probably one of the worst. And yes, this means that I also disagree with the “distinguished” contingent of researchers who have praised Carter’s work in their review blurbs (including Pim van Lommel, Charles Tart, Guy Lyon Playfair, Larry Dossey, and Neal Grossman). I gladly part company with these gentlemen.  They are simply incorrect.

To be quite frank, I have no interest in saving parapsychologists and survival researchers from the deplorable reputation they have on the whole rightly merited, for example because they continue to endorse shoddy scholarship and perpetuate philosophically unsophisticated treatments of psi and survival. However, since I have devoted part of my project to wheeling away the rubbish that has buried empirical inquiry into survival, expect some further commentary on Carter.

Let me repeat a point I’ve made in this blog, and which I also make in my book.  We need to return to the kind of empirical inquiry into the survival question that C.D. Broad, C.J. Ducasse, and H.H. Price had in view and modeled for us.  Apart from the empirically-informed and conceptually-elevated critical discussions by writers like Alan Gauld, Stephen Braude, and David Ray Griffin, the current debate is simply the most recent in a series of bad sequels to what was once an intriguing and promising plot.

Michael Sudduth

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