Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

“Wrong Turns” in Arguments for Postmortem Survival

I’d like to welcome all the subscribers to my blog. Judging from emails I have received, many of you are excited about my blog and the current and forthcoming resources on my new website.  I’m looking forward to posting blogs every other week, or as time permits.  My current teaching load is pretty heavy and I’m juggling a number of writing projects.  But I’ll do my best to regularly post. If you’re subscribed to my blog, it will be sent to you by email.

Blog Plans

My plans for the blog are to discuss topics and questions related to my research and writing, specifically in the areas of postmortem survival, philosophy of religion, and analytical psychology and its relation to issues that fall into the former two categories.  A lot of people are interested in hearing more about my conversion from Christianity to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a topic that was discussed by a number of Internet bloggers about this time last year.  I have written a lot of unpublished material on Gaudiya Vaishnavism and my conversion, and I intend to present some of this material in the forthcoming FAQ section of my website.  Some of it will appear in my blog as well. 

Please note that at present posting comments in response to my blog is not permitted. If subscribers have comments or questions they’d like me to address, please email me at If you have a question, I’ll try to answer your question in the FAQ or blog. 

Postmortem Survival

My first series of blog posts will be on the topic of postmortem survival, roughly stated, the survival of the self or consciousness after biological death.  I’ve recently finished some articles on the topic (which may be accessed under Sudduth Articles at and have more forthcoming. I’m also in the preparatory stages of writing a book on the topic.  Forthcoming papers and chapter drafts of the book will appear on my website beginning early summer 2013.  In the present blog I want simply to sketch some of the specific issues I’ll be tackling in subsequent blogs.

Since the launching of my website, I’ve noticed a number of discussions in blogs and Internet discussion groups about a few of my previous and forthcoming papers on postmortem survival.  I hope to use my blog to discuss and clarify my position and arguments, as well as share aspects of argument that are forthcoming in my book on survival but not a part of my current papers.  Hopefully this will also help correct some rather significant errors in how my view and arguments have been presented.  I’m afraid that thinking on this topic among Internet bloggers partakes of many of the conceptual confusions that characterize even some of the professional literature.  So it may be worth trying to further clarify several forks in the road where I think my survivalist critics are taking the wrong turn.  That being said, my main goal is to encourage serious inquiry into a topic that has held my personal and professional interested for the past eight years.

Among the issues I plan on discussing is the concept of survival itself.  What is it that is supposed to survive death? Christian philosophers in the recent and thriving tradition of analytic philosophy of religion have explored the traditional Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection from the dead in the light of central concepts and problems in the philosophy of mind.  However, since my exposure to H.H. Price’s work many years ago, I’ve been interested in disembodied or discarnate survival.  On this view, it is “consciousness” that is postulated to survive biological death and to continue in the absence of a body and functioning brain. Perhaps we must also posit something like a “soul” if consciousness requires a substratum of some sort.  At this juncture, the question of what survives becomes more specifically what we might call a “content of consciousness” question.  What aspects of our consciousness, mental life, or individual psychology continue after death? Does enough of it continue to suppose that I have survived death?

But there’s another reason for focusing on discarnate or disembodied survival, say as opposed to the prominent western religious concept of bodily resurrection from the dead.  It is discarnate survival that is most relevant to the evaluation of alleged empirical evidences for survival drawn from parapsychology. Data collected from near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, and apparitional experiences are—if evidence for survival—evidence for the continuation of consciousness (or at least some part of it) in the absence of a physical body or functioning brain.  Granted, there are also cases where living agents exhibit ostensible past life memories, birthmarks, skills of various sorts, and other features possessed by some formerly living person.  Although these cases of the reincarnation type do not require conscious states in the absence of a body or functioning brain, they do rather naturally suggest the persistence and re-embodiment of a soul or immaterial substance capable of exhibiting consciousness, at least when reunited to a body.

Now there’s another important connection between the concept of survival (as disembodied consciousness or soul survival) and these domains of ostensible empirical evidence for survival.  What we postulate regarding the nature of consciousness or the soul impacts how well the hypothesis of survival can actually account for or explain the observational data drawn from the above four domains of parapsychological research.  The point is worth explaining, especially since one of my main criticisms of empirical arguments for survival depends on this observation.

The most widespread and deeply entrenched method of arguing for survival purports to follow a form of scientific reasoning according to which a hypothesis is justified or warranted for acceptance based on its ability to explain observational data in a way superior to all known nearby explanatory competitors, and where explaining the observational data involves the data being a non-trivial predictive consequence of the hypothesis.  Less technically stated, if our hypothesis is true, then the world should look a certain way and should not look another way.  The survival hypothesis is often treated in this way, as an inference to best explanation, the best explanation of data drawn from near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, apparitional experiences, and/or cases of the reincarnation type.  But the ability of the survival hypothesis to explain anything, including data from these four domains of research, depends largely on the content included in that hypothesis itself or in conjunction with various auxiliary hypotheses that will jointly lead us to expect the world to appear one way as opposed to another.  Among other things, we’ll have to adopt a particular stance on the beliefs, intentions, and powers of discarnate agents, such that their having those beliefs, intentions, and powers (as opposed to not) would lead us to expect particular observational data.  So the efficacy of explanatory arguments on behalf of survival depends on postulating a survival hypothesis with sufficient content to make genuine predictions sensible.

Best Explanations and Likelihood of Truth

It is clear from my current papers on survival that I think empirical arguments for survival, specifically construed as inferences to best explanation, are subject to a number of debilitating, and perhaps even fatal, objections.

To briefly rehearse the form of argument I’ve addressed in my papers.  Many survivalists are quite convinced that data collected from near-death experiences, mediumistic communications, apparitional experiences, and cases of the reincarnation type (severally or jointly) constitute good evidence for survival. More precisely, the evidence makes survival at least more likely than not, if not highly probable.  This judgment of evidential probability rests on the premise that (i) the survival hypothesis is the best or superior explanation of the data from among a small group of known nearby explanatory competitors.  To this explanatory premise is usually added the additional premise that (ii) the antecedent likelihood of survival (i.e., its likelihood independent of the empirical data allegedly suggestive of survival) is not too low.

Although initially confident about this approach, I have come to adopt a more skeptical attitude.  For the past two years I’ve been fairly confident that this way of developing the case for survival faces insurmountable difficulties and should probably be abandoned.  It would appear that some survivalists are less than happy with this conclusion.  I find myself in the rather challenging position of having a significant degree of empathy for these survivalists (as I am—contrary to what some writers have suggested—a survivalist), but I simply don’t share their conviction about the force of traditional empirical arguments, at least not in the form in which they currently exist.  I suspect I also don’t share the epistemological assumptions that appear to drive their interest in turning survival into a “scientific” hypothesis.

Consider some of the general problems with the above form of reasoning that are not as much as acknowledged by survivalists who employ this argumentative strategy in the effort to justify belief in survival.  And I’ll begin by placing the survivalist argument in an optimal position. Let’s grant something that I think ultimately we can’t really grant. Let’s suppose that we’re in an epistemic position conducive to making reliable judgments about survival being more likely than its various explanatory competitors.  OK.  How exactly do we get to absolute judgments of probability on the basis of premises affirming superior comparative probability?  Again, never mind the problem of teasing out comparative probabilities from comparative explanatory virtues.  Even if we grant that the survival hypothesis is more likely than explanatory competitors B, C, and D, how does the survivalist reach a conclusion about the survival hypothesis being likely true, more likely than not, much less very likely?

Mundane examples may help illustrate the difficulty here. It may be more likely that John robbed the bank than Tim, but this does not by itself sanction the stronger claim that it is likely true that John robbed the bank.  It might be of course, but it might also be that the higher likelihood of the one hypothesis is washed out by the fact that both hypotheses are all things considered pretty improbable.  A’s being more likely than B (relative to some body of evidence) doesn’t tell us how likely A is, unless of course we can specify the probability of B (relative to the evidence).  The same holds true for comparative explanatory power.  Hypothesis A may be a better explanation of data than hypothesis B, but this does not by itself sanction the stronger claim that hypothesis A is a good much less great explanation.  Mary may be a better math student than Jane, but if Jane is pretty incompetent, Mary’s superiority is hardly a glowing endorsement of Mary’s math skills.

If I follow the response of one prominent survivalist (shared with me through personal correspondence), the inference from A is more likely than B to A is likely true is sanctioned because all the alternatives besides A and B are highly implausible.  The suggestion seemed to be that, however weak we might judge A and B to be, one of them must be the real deal.  If I know that a bank was robbed, and I have two plausible suspects (John and Tim) and no other plausible suspects, then it must be that either John or Tim robbed the bank.  If it’s more plausible that John robbed the bank than Tim, then surely we can conclude that this is the likely truth of the matter.

I don’t think this works without granting a pretty extravagant assumption, one no less controversial than the survival hypothesis itself.  It should be clear that this line of argument depends strongly on the assumption that all other explanations are highly implausible, and to such a degree that we’re warranted in concluding that it comes down to “either John or Tim robbed the bank, and no one else did it.”  But which explanations are we claiming to be highly implausible?  Clearly, we can only judge as implausible the explanations that have been proposed and inspected.  But the needed assumption must cast a wider net.  We must really have warrant for supposing that the currently available set of explanations contains the real deal, and that we’ve narrowed it down to only two in this set.  Otherwise the entire argument is simply a form of the “only game in town fallacy”: no other reasonable explanation is available, so this explanation is the correct explanation.  But this is one of those forks in the road that I refuse to take.  I don’t see that we have an adequate justification for the claim that our current stock of explanations contains the correct one, nor that we can narrow the candidates down to just two hypotheses within this set, nor can we claim with sufficient justification that one of the hypotheses (survival) has a clear explanatory advantage.  These are all highly questionable assumptions. These are wrong turns, and I’m afraid survival arguments are simply lost as a result at this point.

The Antecedent Probability of Survival

But the problems don’t end here.  Think now about “antecedent probability”? By virtue of what can we say that the antecedent likelihood of survival is not too low? How low is too low?  What even approximate value is being ascribed to the survival hypothesis here? How is this even being determined?  It is typically being determined by arguments that purport to show flaws in arguments against survival.  OK.  Let us grant that there is a particular flaw in this or that argument against survival.  Maybe all physicalist objections to survival are based on defective arguments.  What follows? We lose some reasons for supposing that the survival hypothesis is false. But it’s far from clear how this results in the more general assessment that the antecedent likelihood of survival is not too low.  The antecedent likelihood of survival can be just about anything you want it to be by including or excluding anything you want from your background knowledge and placing greater or lesser weight on other considerations like simplicity. And, apart from the difficulty of determining these initial antecedent probabilities, we might sensibly wonder whether we need explanatory inferences to boost the epistemic credibility of hypotheses that already enjoy a sufficiently favorable epistemic status at the outset.  So if the survival hypothesis has just the right sort of initial favorable epistemic status to make it a good candidate for explanation, it’s at least not clear how its explanatory power is going to improve the epistemic situation.

Of course, a hypothesis that is evidentially probable to degree .5 relative to evidence e might, in principle, have its evidential probability boosted to .7 or .9 by expanding the evidence set to e*.  So in principle the initial or antecedent probability of survival could be increased.  Let’s even grant that explanatory power can do this sort of thing.  The basic problem is that no survivalist is willing to state the initial numerical values being assigned to the survival hypothesis, much less how these could even be approximately determined.   Therefore, we have no idea whether or to what degree explanatory considerations are doing anything other than providing a cover for simply re-asserting an initial judgment about the epistemic credibility of survival.  And this might come dangerously close to what William James said is often dubiously passed off for “philosophy:” a mere rearranging of our prejudices.

Survival as the Alleged Best Explanation

Now I have not to date developed the above two particular problems that survival arguments will face as inferences to best explanation.  I’ve chosen rather to focus on the alleged truth of (i)—survival is the best explanation of the data. More precisely, I’ve examined some fairly widespread arguments that have actually been offered for this claim.  I’m afraid to say that these arguments, even as developed by some capable philosophers, don’t really live up to what is claimed on their behalf.  In fact, they seem to be rather significant failures.

In my next blog I’ll note some of these more serious defects in arguments for survival construed as inferences to best explanation, but I’ll specifically explore the ways in which survivalists have cleverly masked these logical defects.  It isn’t just that the arguments are defective; it’s also that these defects are hidden or concealed as the result of how the arguments are presented. “Masking maneuvers,” as I choose to label them, are not necessarily conscious maneuvers on the part of survivalists.  There’s no plot here to trick people into believing in survival with dishonest argumentation.  Some survivalists really do think that their arguments are strong, even compelling.  And they are . . . to them.  I don’t wish to rob them of what is probably an important bit of doxastic autobiography.  But their portrait of survival arguments is largely a matter of the survivalist “connecting the dots” in the light of his own subjectivity, much of which appears to be unconscious in the dialectical unfolding of argumentation.  For the same reason, people who believe in God clearly see evidences of design in the world, and people who believe in miracles clearly see Jesus Christ in a Turkish coffee stain.

Of course it does not follow that there are no good arguments for (i), much less would it be fair to characterize my dismantling of arguments for (i) as “anti-survival” arguments. A few Internet bloggers seem to have made the mistake of supposing that an argument against an inference from p1, . . . ,pn to c is an argument against c.  But this is transparently fallacious.  Losing reasons for believing c is not to acquire reasons for believing the negation of c.  My arguments are not anti-survival, anymore than someone who argues against Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence is presenting an anti-theist argument.  An “anti-survival” argument would be an argument that purported to show that the survival hypothesis is false.  I have claimed no such thing, which is good since I actually believe in survival, and I’m generally not in the habit of arguing that my beliefs are false.  But I’m also not in the habit of supporting my beliefs through arguments that I judge to be logically defective. With any luck, wheeling away the rubbish might just clear the ground for something more sensible.

I suspect that some readers have drawn the anti-survival inference because I’ve expressed skepticism about whether we will ever be able to effectively argue that (i) is true.  Even this, however, is not a reason to give up on arguments for survival.  There are other strategies of arguing for survival in addition to “best explanation” strategies.  These are certainly worth exploring.  However, let’s take the worst-case scenario. What if all arguments fail? Is belief in survival any worse off epistemically?  I’m afraid that the tacit assumption of many survivalists is old-fashioned evidentialism, roughly, the view that a belief is rational only if it is backed by evidence.  Of course many survivalists, like most garden-variety evidentialists, want their beliefs to conform to evidential standards of a particular sort, standards that will make their beliefs appear scientifically respectable. But this is another one of those “wrong turns.”  And this one leads to a dead end.

I’d say it’s time to rethink the entire epistemology of belief in survival, unless we wish to remain content with a constant reshuffling of subjective probabilities by hands that can, in the final analysis, sign off on nothing more than an embarrassing promissory note of empirical validity.

Michael Sudduth 2/8/13 

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