Review of A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Survival

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 13 December, 2015)


Book review of "A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival" by Michael Sudduth.



Short Review

Michael Sudduth. A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. ISBN 978-1-137-44093-8.

Michael Sudduth used to be a Christian philosopher of religion, but he ultimately embraced a form of (mostly) Hindu (Vedic) philosophy. He once wrote a treatise against so-called natural religion, an approach to theism, which claims that we can formulate rational arguments for the existence of a creator. [Later addition: I was wrong about this former book, see Comments on a response by Michael Sudduth below.] In his new book, A philosophical critique of empirical arguments for postmortem survival, Sudduth opposes scholars who claim there is good empirical evidence for personal survival after physical death.
I know Michael Sudduth from a modest personal correspondence and what strikes me more than anything are his enormous erudition, sophistication and intelligence, all of which are also manifest in his book. However, after some time, Sudduth stopped responding to certain crucial arguments I had sent him. In this respect, his approach in A philosophical critique is reminiscent of his attitude in our personal discussions, because in his book he also fails to address important arguments of his opponents.
Sudduth essentially claims that proponents of the survival hypothesis as an explanation for certain types of empirical evidence are naive and simply have not given alternative explanations enough thought. According to the author, the main alternative hypothesis is the Living Agent Psi-hypothesis (LAP), which states that anything that appears to be indicative of survival is really subconsciously produced by psi (paranormal abilities) of the living. He stresses that an explanation in terms of survival already implies that far-reaching paranormal abilities are real. For instance, deceased agents must be able to use telepathy and clairvoyance to observe the physical world and the minds of its inhabitants. Why then can't we assume that such powers are already present in the living, albeit in a dormant form? If we do, Sudduth says, we can't claim any longer that the survival hypothesis is more plausible than LAP. He ignores the fact that paranormal abilities are by definition linked to the [personal] mind or consciousness, which means that even in the living they point to the [personal] mind's ultimate independence of the brain. (This has important consequences for what Sudduth is saying about so-called auxiliary hypotheses, but I wish to limit this review to a few main points.)

I do acknowledge that Sudduth offers his readers a fairly reliable summary of the evidence for survival. However, he presents excessively formalized arguments to demonstrate that from a rational perspective there is no evidence for which the survival hypothesis would be the first choice.
In my view, Sudduth fails in three major respects. First, he seems to believe that we need one single hypothesis for all the evidence in the field. This assumption is only reasonable if we can be sure that all phenomena observed have the same origin. Proponents of the survival hypothesis usually assume that some paranormal phenomena are best explained by Living Agent Psi, whereas other phenomena require a survival hypothesis. Of course, there are a few scholars who sincerely believe that all paranormal phenomena are caused by spirits of the dead, but they are only a relatively small minority within the survival community. Survivalists usually do not claim that all paranormal phenomena within survival research point to survival.
Secondly, Sudduth gives the impression that his opponents mostly reject LAP because certain paranormal phenomena would simply be too “impressive” to have been caused by the living. Although some scholars do take this position, another type of argumentation is much more important. Namely that the living persons involved in many types of cases most probably cannot have had a motive to subconsciously create the phenomena themselves. This motivational argument is the survivalist's main trump card, in subfields as diverse as veridical Near-Death Experiences during an unexpected cardiac arrest, Drop-in Communicators, and spontaneous Cases of the Reincarnation Type in young children who recall a life as someone who was both unknown to his present environment and socially less attractive than the child's family members. (Regarding Cases of the Reincarnation Type there also are additional non-quantitative arguments that relate to children's behavior, unlearned skills, and birthmarks and birth defects.) By stressing the quantity and complexity of paranormal phenomena rather than this central motivational argument, Sudduth clearly makes a caricature of the argumentation of his opponents. In this context, much of his book, including needlessly complex passages about probability could have been left unwritten. [Addition February 4th 2016: Sudduth has complained that I and many with me have simply misunderstood his main critique/analysis/approach or whatever one wishes to call it. As I have understood his needlessly complex chapters on Likelihood and Bayesian analysis, Sudduth essentially claims that no approach whatsoever has so far demonstrated that the survival hypothesis is over-all more plausible than the LAP hypothesis, and that the survival hypothesis ultimately does not predict data more successfully than LAP, for any specific part of the empirical evidence. If I'm wrong about this, it really should be blamed on Sudduth. As an author, it is his responsibility to present his argumentation in an intelligible way. So far, I have no reason to think that my understanding fails to grasp the essence of Sudduth's reasoning.]
Thirdly, although Sudduth does mention the survivalist's motivational argument, he hardly gives it any serious attention. Sudduth seems to believe it is sufficient to stress that the human subconscious mind is so unfathomable that we may assume paranormal phenomena can always be explained by subconscious motives, even if those motives would be very hard to imagine! This appears to release him from his scholarly duty to offer plausible concrete LAP explanations for all types of evidence. However, if somebody claims there may always be a hidden motive for people to use psi subconsciously to produce pseudo-evidence for survival, the least we may ask from such a person is to show why this would be psychologically plausible. If this does not happen, the person in question cannot even be said to have contributed anything to the serious debate in this field.

Later addition - January 15th 2016: The motivational argument precisely concentrates on an aspect regarding which LAP and survival would not be equally plausible (or indeed implausible). The argument depends on general assumptions about psychology, such as that human motivation in people who are not psychiatric patients follows certain clear rules. One of those rules is that a person will not - consciously or subconsciously - want to avoid a conclusion (for instance, "Death means personal extinction"), which he cannot even draw because he is too young for this, for developmental reasons (e.g. that he is a young toddler without such a concept of death). We may derive this from a general principle, namely that people will only avoid things they do not like or are afraid of.
Another rule is that a child will not identify with a completely unknown person to whom the child has not been exposed in any way, if there are plenty of known objects of identification in the child's life. We may derive this from the general principle that identification will only be triggered by emotional exposure to the object of identification. Et cetera.
Such general assumptions about human motivation might one day be corrected by new information (for example, clear and unequivocal evidence for the existence of a Jungian collective unconscious or subconscious and its special kind of impersonal or even incomprehensible motivation that would affect people on a deeper level) but until that hypothetical day it makes no sense to just go against them.
Similarly, it makes no sense either to assume LAP follows general principles of human motivation in many cases, but not in particular cases which could not be explained by this process. Such an ad hoc solution should convince no one, as LAP is ONLY plausible in some cases because psi would follow (subconscious) motivation! As any phenomenon intrinsically linked to the psyche, (using) psi should be assumed to be ruled by motivation. After all, psi is not a separate entity, but an aspect of the psyche or an aspect of the psyche's interaction with others or the physical world.
Also, there is no reason to claim that in LAP we may simply assume absolutely anything (meaning that LAP does not need to be plausible), because personal survival would be a very 'revolutionary' and implausible assumption as well, which would clash with everything we assumed thus far. This is because the concept of personal survival is not a new psychological assumption that would go against anything that we so far assumed about the psychology of motivation. Incorporating a concept of personal survival after death into our theory exclusively means that we add a new dimension to a well-founded and central ontological concept most psychical researchers already have, for analytical reasons, namely that of an irreducible personal psyche (a concept shared by most dualists, idealists, several Vedantic schools, Jainism, etc.).
Personal survival after death is even a very basic assumption of classical substance dualism and subjective idealism. So if we start, as I do, from a classical (philosophical) substance dualist ontology, we do not even need to make any new assumption, but we can simply build on something that already follows from classical substance dualism in general. In that case, strictly speaking, survival research is not about proving survival (which would be an analytical, ontological matter) but about investigating if personal survival is conscious, etc.

(Here are a few additional errors in Sudduth's present book.)

Talking about motivation: what could have been the author's motive to write a whole book against the survival hypothesis as the most plausible hypothesis for any type of empirical evidence? The first reason that comes to mind is of course that he simply does not believe in an afterlife. However, this obvious reason does not apply to Sudduth's case. He is a Vedic scholar who as such (considering the particular school within Vedanta he adheres to) simply must believe in survival after death. [Later addition: I based this notion of his beliefs on his personal correspondence and apparent connection to Vaishnavism.] Therefore, I think that what motivated him to write this work is a desire to demonstrate that people need to base their belief in survival on a non-rational, purely religious conviction. This is very similar to what must have motivated him when he wrote his previous book against natural religion and in favour of supernatural revelation. [Later addition: This particular remark is based on my misconception about that other book, mentioned above, see comments below.]
What Sudduth seems to forget, is that for real rationalists, his destructive approach (if judged to be valid) will lead to agnosticism rather than to any religious or spiritual path.

Titus Rivas, December 2015.

Contact: titusrivas@hotmail.com

Comments on a response by Michael Sudduth