For several years now I’ve expressed my deep disenchantment with how survivalists argue for life after death on the basis of data collected from various ostensibly paranormal phenomena, e.g. near-death experiences, claims to past life memories, and claims of mediums to be in communication with deceased persons. While the situation struck me as quite bleak when I began my research over a decade ago, my pessimism has grown over the years as I’ve digested a more comprehensive body of the relevant literature and had conversations with a large number of empirical survivalists, survival researchers, and parapsychologists.
For readers tuning into this conversation at halftime, let me offer a succinct explanatory clarification. The empirical survival debate concerns the extent to which there is empirical evidence for or against the hypothesis of survival – the hypothesis that the person, self, or some significant part of our psychological life can survive the death of the brain and body. Empirical evidence involves observational data drawn from publicly observable features of the world. The empirical approach to survival treats survival as a hypothesis that, like all broadly scientific hypotheses, may be tested against the facts of experience, which can in principle confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis. An empirical survivalist is someone who believes in survival and also thinks there’s empirical evidence for survival. What I’ve designated “classical” empirical arguments are arguments designed to show this, and in many cases designed to show that the evidence for survival is very strong evidence.
My central as well as more peripheral criticisms of the classical arguments are the focus of my recently published Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). It’s still very much my hope that the book will facilitate a necessary shift in the general dialogue about the data that empirical survivalists claim provides (good) evidence for life after death, but some recent conversations with near-death experience enthusiasts have reminded me of the formidable nature of the obstacles to advancing the empirical survival debate. I want to comment on this here, specifically on how a particular presumption on the part of survivalists continues to silence a much-needed conversation about empirical survival arguments.
A Survivalist Presumption
Since the publication of my book I continue to encounter a curious pattern of presumption among empirical survivalists. They routinely presume that I deny the reality of consciousness as something distinct from physical phenomena, believe that humans are wholly material beings, or at least that I think that consciousness is completely dependent on brain functioning. In other cases, it’s presumed that my criticisms of survival arguments must nonetheless in some way depend on a philosophy of mind that lands somewhere in “physicalist” territory. For many survivalists, this territory includes not only the idea that human persons are completely material beings but also the view that mental states, even if they are distinct from physical states, are nonetheless dependent on a functioning brain.
This is perplexing, very perplexing. One needn’t read too far into what I’ve had to say about this topic in the past several years before clearly seeing that my criticisms of the classical survival arguments actually have nothing to do with any particular view of how consciousness is related to the physical world, a matter on which I remain essentially agnostic. And it’s not as if I’ve left the matter (no pun intended) to inference. I’ve explicitly stated that my arguments don’t depend on a physicalist conception of the human person, nor do they depend on the idea that consciousness is dependent of any physical state. Survivalists just seemed primed for this knee-jerk response to any kind of criticism of their arguments in favor of survival. They’re looking to exercise the physicalist demon whenever he can be found, and even where he can’t be found.
Over the past several weeks this issue has arisen in a series of still ongoing exchanges I’ve had with neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, well known for his Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012). In this New York Times best seller Alexander provides an account of his own near-death experience, which he claims is proof of an afterlife. I believe neuroscientist Sam Harris (among others) has shown why Alexander’s reasoning about his experience is defective. As I’ll emphasize in a forthcoming blog devoted to a defense of Harris, Harris’s critique of Alexander doesn’t presuppose physicalism, about which Harris has his own skeptical assessment. Harris doesn’t argue that Alexander’s experience wasn’t or couldn’t be what he claims it was, only that, for half a dozen reasons, Alexander hasn’t provided compelling evidence to suppose that his experience was what he claims it to be. For example, as Harris argues, Alexander hasn’t provided compelling evidence that his cerebral cortex was completely inactive at any point of a weeklong coma (in part because he lacks the relevant functional data such as EEG data) or that he had his NDE when his cortex was shutdown (because he hasn’t adequately ruled out other possibilities consistent with the features of his experience), and yet both claims are essential to Alexander’s argument.
Alexander’s response to these criticisms? The repeated appeal to vociferous critiques of physicalism in defense of his interpretation of his experience. He’s appealed to Bernardo Kastrup’s response to Harris. Kastrup launched a two-month long blog critique of Harris in fall 2012, but Kastrup’s entire critique of Harris incorrectly assumes that Harris is trying to provide reasons for supposing that Alexander’s other worldly interpretation of his experience is false. Alexander has also appealed to Irreducible Mind (2006) and Beyond Physicalism (2015) the latest collaborative efforts of parapsychologists, including Ed Kelly and Adam Crabtree, to show that mainstream science is wrong about consciousness.
What do we see here? The entire strategy of debunking skeptical objections constellates around a basic assumption, namely that Harris objects to Alexander’s reasoning because Harris claims (or assumes) that consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain, and consequently that it’s just antecedently and highly implausible to suppose that consciousness could survive the death of the body. Of course, Harris rejects both of these claims, and he says so in both Waking Up (2014) and his earlier End of Faith (2005). But the more relevant point is that Harris’ objections don’t depend on supposing otherwise. NDErs who insist that their exotic experience has facilitated the realization of the vastness of consciousness apparently have no space for the relatively simple “thought” that there might be criticisms of the survivalist interpretation of their experiences that aren’t based on the dogmatic assumption that such a possibility must be utterly rejected at the outset.
But it doesn’t seem to matter how often or clearly I broach this subject, issue the denial, and clarify the nature of my criticisms, survivalists are hell-bent (or perhaps I should say, heaven-bent) on attributing to me views I simply don’t hold and that utterly miss the point of the arguments I’ve presented. The worst offenders tend to be near-death experience enthusiasts like Eben Alexander, who wish to wrap their ideas into the larger project of “consciousness research,” often deploying the language of quantum physics, though sadly in a way that resists interpretation by the people who should be the most conversant with the language, actual physicists. Like the apocalyptic visionaries of faith-based religions, the survival researchers herald the end of “materialism” with a conviction that rivals Christian proclamations of the end of the world. But the facts are as they are: Jesus hasn’t returned and we’re still here, and so are mainstream physicists and neuroscientists. Surely it’s more than a bit premature to pop the celebratory cork.
I suppose comments like the above contribute to rousing survivalist suspicions. Fair enough. But the conversation we need to have should be fueled by discriminative judgment, not paranoid impressions or knee-jerk intellectual spasms. I say, “the rebels don’t have a good challenge,” not “I know the mainstream guys have it all figured out.” The difference is transparent, at least to me. But more to the point: after a decade of looking at the classical arguments and the data on which they’re based, I think the classical arguments are otherwise more fundamentally challenged. And that’s what I’ve argued in my recent book, and for this reason I’m not impressed with the shelter survivalists wish to take in a model of consciousness that, even if it were true, wouldn’t suffice to transform their arguments into cogent pieces of reasoning.
Just to be clear. I’m not claiming, nor implying, that the mind-body issue is not highly relevant to empirical arguments for survival. Nor am I denying that the mind-body issue is relevant in particular ways given my criticisms. I acknowledge this, and I explain it within the argumentation of my book, but the relevance of the mind-body issue is downstream of the problems that are central in my critique. And in this way my critique differs from some of the more prominent traditional skeptical objections.
Let me also add here that I acknowledge, and actually have a deep interest in, the transformative nature of experiences like near-death experiences for those who have them. Yes, these are transcendent experiences, and like other transcendent experiences (e.g. in meditation, while looking at the starry night sky, or after ingesting ecstasy or DMT), do tell us something about consciousness that is highly salient to how we may experience the sacredness of life, even in its more mundane moments. And as someone who has had many spiritual experiences in the course of his life, I experientially understand the kinds of experiences on the table here. But it’s important to distinguish questions about the phenomenology and transformative effects of these kinds of experiences from the question concerning whether they provide good reasons for accepting a story, often times a very detailed one, about what will happen to consciousness after death?”
The Survivalist Polemic Against Physicalism
But why do survivalists carry this presumption? Why do so many survivalists have this particular interpretive grid of criticisms of their arguments as the default?
It’s tempting to suppose that it just stems from another widespread survivalist confusion, namely supposing that those who contend that survival arguments are defective are arguing that the survival hypothesis is false. While this is a conflation that any undergraduate philosophy major should be able detect, perhaps survivalists are seduced into this mistake by additional factors. It’s plausible to suppose that survivalists are just so used to the physicalist foot kicking them in the empirical balls that their hyper vigilance over the family jewels has resulted in a kind of default defensive posturing that distorts the criticisms directed at them. They’ve been habituated to the thought that all skeptical kicks directed at the survivalist’s cognitive nuts are of the physicalist variety. Consequently, when skeptics like Sam Harris challenge the claim that near-death experiences provide compelling evidence for survival, it’s just assumed that they’re arguing that the survival argument fails because they claim to know that humans are wholly physical beings or that consciousness depends on a functioning brain. And this is precisely the deeply entrenched prejudice than I encounter time and time again, even though my actual arguments depend on no such assumptions.
Now it’s obviously a sensible strategy for survivalists to address objections to their arguments that might arise from the facts of cognitive neuroscience or the conceptual territory of philosophy of mind. If there are reasons here that count against the persistence of consciousness after death, then certainly survivalists should address these considerations. Moreover, to the extent that physicalism gives life to non-survival counter-explanations of the relevant data, knocking out physicalism can contribute to “ruling out” alternative explanations, an important premise in the traditional explanatory arguments for survival. So survivalists do have good reason to critically respond to arguments for physicalism.
The problem is that survivalists are in the grip of a counter-productive polemic against physicalism. This survivalist assault tactic neutralizes the advantages that might otherwise be had by a balanced and sensible critical response to physicalist arguments. What’s the difference here? A “polemic” is an attack, often focused and sustained, which tends to generate the conceptual equivalent of the optic blind spot in the larger dialectical field. Consequently, one issue (however relevant it may be) overshadows other salient issues that equally, if not more importantly, bear on the cogency of arguments. The other issues simply don’t register on the cognitive radar and thus are not even addressed. The survivalist polemic against physicalism is an aggressive attack on conceptions of consciousness and/or its relation to the physical world that appear to threaten to the plausibility of the survival hypothesis. Sadly it undermines the kind of conversation we should be having about empirical arguments for survival. And we can see here at least one way it preempts the required dialogue: it generates misinterpretations of criticisms that might advance the discussion because the criticisms arise from questions that can facilitate an important step forwards in the debate.
In my next blog, I’ll more deeply explore how the survivalist polemic against physicalism silences the much-needed conversation.