Jime Sayaka, on his blog Subversive Thinking, has published a written interview with a philosopher, Michael Sudduth, about survival. Sudduth takes the view that books by proponents of the survival hypothesis don’t amount to much. A few, by philosophers like Broad, Ducasse and H.H. Price cut the mustard, he thinks; he also likes Alan Gauld's Mediumship and Survival. But most of these are old books; more recent ones tend to overwhelm the reader with information instead of providing carefully reasoned argument.
Survival is typically asserted as an ostensible conclusion drawn from a mass of empirical data for which there is apparently no better explanation, to which some authors append facile dismissals of materialist philosophies of mind and arguments from the data of cognitive neuroscience purporting to show the dependence of consciousness on a functioning brain.
The widespread claim among empirical survivalists—survivalists who endorse empirical evidence for survival—is that the survival hypothesis provides the best explanation of the data. But what does it mean for a hypothesis to explain data? How does a hypothesis explaining data convert the data into evidential cash value? What logical principles are being enlisted to show this and assess the weight of the evidence relative to competing hypotheses? And how do we arrive at judgments concerning the net plausibility of the survival hypothesis?
These are crucial questions for evaluating the empirical case for survival, but you’ll find a deafening silence with respect to these questions in survival literature since the 1960s. One gets the impression from much of the literature that the survival hypothesis simply wins by explanatory default: since nothing else explains the data, survival explains the data.
Sudduth, an analytic philosopher of religion at Oxford University, is not actually arguing against survival. He calls himself a survivalist, saying he used to see apparitions as a child and had other (unspecified) paranormal experiences. Also, he was an active Christian before moving towards Indian mystical philosophy. His project, he says, is concerned with the ‘critique and dismantling of the existing and deeply entrenched tradition of classical empirical arguments for survival’, paving the way for ‘new and fruitful approaches to empirical arguments for survival.’
This immediately brought to mind the philosopher Stephen Braude, who has made similar complaints about a lack of rigour. So it was no surprise to learn that Sudduth and Braude are chums and often beef about it together. The outcome for Braude was his excellent Immortal Remains, and Sudduth too is writing a book which he says will be completed towards the end of the year.
I see the point - up to a point. Writers like Broad, Ducasse and Gauld get to grips with the data in an appropriately sceptical fashion, whereas some recent books – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? comes to mind – take the view that the meaning of survival phenomena is so blindingly obvious it’s perverse to take any other view of it. I don’t think that works; for most of us the logic has to be clearly spelled out.
Chris Carter’s books are more rigorous, but clearly still fall short for Sudduth. I don’t think he even makes an exception of Robert Almeder, a philosopher whose book I read years ago when I was working this stuff out for the first time, and which I remember as a pretty thorough logical workout, especially on reincarnation-type experiences.
Like Braude, Sudduth takes the view that the standard objections against the super-psi hypothesis are much less forceful than is maintained by survival proponents such as Fontana and Carter. His arguments here are quite technical – this quote gives a flavour:
Let’s suppose that Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K). That is, the predictive power or likelihoods of S and C are equivalent. The survival hypothesis might still have a greater posterior probability than C (maybe even be more probable than not) if its prior probability is greater, especially if the prior probability is much greater. From a Bayesian viewpoint, if Pr(e/h1&k) = Pr(e/h2&k), then Pr(h1/e&k) > Pr(h2/e&k) just if Pr(h1/k) > Pr(h2/k). That is to say, if two hypotheses have equal predictive power (or likelihoods), then the evidence and background knowledge confers a greater probability on h1 than h2 just if h1’s prior probability is greater than h2’s prior probability. So a survivalist might simply argue that, worst case scenario, Pr(DMAX/S&K) = Pr(DMAX/C&K), but since Pr(S/K) >> Pr(C/K), the survival hypothesis has a greater posterior probability, maybe it’s still more probable than not. To put this otherwise, a survivalist might argue that the net effect of deflating the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis on the grounds of co-equal likelihoods is negligible since the prior probability of the survival hypothesis is much greater.
I understand what is being said here (I think), I’m just not convinced that this approach puts matters on a more sound footing. I spend a bit of time on philosophy blogs (like this one) and enjoy their logical approach to big moral questions, where, for the most part, they write in plain English. But when analytical philosophers go at each other hammer and tongs in their specialist lingo it doesn’t settle the matter for anyone, apart from peers who understand it. They may triumphantly claim to have spotted a logical flaw that makes a nonsense of their opponent’s argument - the rest of us just have to take their word for it.
Surely such life-and-death questions are never settled on narrow technical grounds. On the contrary, most people will be influenced here by the kinds of emotional factors that form their personal worldview, over which the logician can claim little influence, whatever the results of his professional efforts.
For me there are two salient points that rarely get mentioned in the survival-super-psi ding-dong. One is that there is actually a third player in this argument: materialism itself. To propose that living agents are responsible for the appearance of survival may undermine the survival hypothesis, but in acknowledging the reality of psi it also plays havoc with secular scientific materialism, the ideological norm that demands we argue against survival in the first place. If the mind is no longer be explained in purely physicalist terms, but, on the contrary, in terms that are far more hospitable to the possibility of it surviving the death of the body, how is that an argument against survival? That line of reasoning surely counts for something, but I don’t expect to see it in a narrow analysis like Sudduth’s.
Also, if we’re arguing for super-psi as opposed to survival, we still need to account for the existence so much survival-type phenomena, also the fact that they appear in such various contexts - deathbed visions, apparitions, NDEs, mediumistic communications, and so on – all pointing in the same direction, and often with remarkable clarity. A super-psi explanation of a given case over a survivalist interpretation, however devastatingly argued, leaves this mystery untouched. To be sure, an uninformed sceptic would argue for ‘wishful thinking’, that humans interpret otherwise formless impressions in a way that accords with their deepest needs and desires. But anyone who is literate in this subject knows that such experiences often occur in trance states, dreams and near-death, where the conscious mind is in abeyance and in no condition to shape or influence anything.
So we’re left considering unconscious influence. We might argue for some kind of adaptive mechanism, the evolution of a mental module that activates at moments of extreme insecurity to convince us that the ego will never die, in order to help it continue to function. But even if we felt inclined to do this – and such approaches seem to be falling somewhat out of fashion – the premise is utterly fantastic: we are bombarding ourselves with highly realistic stimuli whose purpose seems to convince us of something that is absolutely the opposite of the case.
Actually I’m glad to see a philosopher taking an interest in survival phenomena - it’s very much to be welcomed - and I look forward to reading Sudduth’s book. I do hope for a couple of things though. One is to see him getting to grips with the body of survival data, as Braude does in Immortal Remains, and without obscuring his arguments in technical abstractions. I shall be interested to see whether, having done so, the empirical data is as vulnerable as he implies.
The other is to hear less about the shortcomings of survival proponents when they argue their case. If they fail, and I don’t think they all do, this is surely only a symptom of the abysmal isolation in which parapsychology finds itself, trying to fill the gap left by contemporary philosophers who, as a profession, consider the subject beneath them.