Is Super-Psi Really a Suitable Alternative Explanation for All Survival Data?
Titus Rivas (publicatiedatum: 14 October, 2016)
Discussion of "Super Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship" by Michael Sudduth and "Perspectival Awareness and Postmortem Survival"by Stephen Braude.
Is Super-Psi Really a Suitable Alternative Explanation for All Survival Data?
by Titus Rivas
Rudolf H. Smit drew my attention to two articles about serious theoretical debates in the field of psychical research into survival after bodily death. The articles were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration. In this essay I will briefly present some comments on the main contents of these articles.
Super-psi versus survival
I'm talking about Super Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship by Michael Sudduth and Perspectival Awareness and Postmortem Survival by Stephen E. Braude, both of which were published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2009. These theoretical papers both deal with the trial of strength between the Survival Hypothesis and the so-called Super-psi Hypothesis. The central question is: What hypothesis (in the sense of explanatory theory) is best able to explain the results of parapsychological or psychical research into personal survival after bodily death?
The Survival Hypothesis, obviously, claims that the research data can best be interpreted as evidence for survival after death. The Super-psi Hypothesis starts from the assumption that these data can be explained more simply through the paranormal abilities, or psi, of the living.
Most of the literature about the battle between the Survival Hypothesis and the Super-psi Hypothesis concentrates on the evidence for communication with the dead through spiritualist mediumship. Proponents of the Survival Hypothesis, or survivalists, claim that this evidence demonstrates that the dead really are able to contact the living. In contrast, proponents of the Super-psi Hypothesis believe that all paranormal information that a deceased person seems to transmit through the medium, really is based on psi, i.e. the paranormal abilities of the medium in question. The word “super” indicates that we'd be dealing with spectacular manifestations of clairvoyance, telepathy or psychokinesis.
We should note, by the way, that within this debate between the two competing hypothesis, it is generally assumed that the evidence cannot be explained in a conventional, materialist way, such as coincidence, illusions, hallucinations, or fraud. Both parties accept that there are paranormal phenomena that are incompatible with a mainstream, materialist or physicalist paradigm.
One of the recurrent arguments that survivalists have often launched against Super-psi states that there is no reason to suppose that spectacular paranormal abilities really exist. The articles written by Sudduth and Braude both challenge this view.
Michael Sudduth argues that in order to explain the results of studies into mediumistic contact with the dead, we inevitably need to believe in a high degree of paranormal interaction between the living and the dead. In his view, this interaction can only exist if paranormal abilities do in fact manifest to an overwhelming, spectacular extent. For instance, the dead would have learned about and commented upon many events on earth that happened after they died. In order to receive messages from the dead, the medium must also possess a considerable paranormal gift. In other words, survivalists do themselves implicitly presuppose the reality of Super-psi, so that it does not make to sense to attack that hypothesis by claiming that psi would never manifest to such an extent.
Stephen Braude addresses a related point, namely the question of the perception of events in the physical world from the afterlife. While perceiving such events, the dead seem to use a type of perception that is comparable to sensory perception during physical life, whereas they no longer possess their former bodily senses. Perception is characterized by a specific point of spatial reference or perspective, whereas the deceased person could no longer have a concrete, physical positioning in space. Therefore, Braude concludes that veridical perception, which we know from Near-Death Experiences and other contexts, must be based on some type of clairvoyance. Any interaction of deceased persons with each other, and between the dead and the physical world must therefore use a considerable amount of psi.
Just like Sudduth, Braude claims that it makes no sense to deny the existence of spectacular forms of psi among the living, if for your own survivalist hypothesis, you inevitably need to postulate very similar types of spectacular psi for the dead.
Other arguments against Super-psi
I personally stopped endorsing the claim that spectacular subconscious psi among the living is simply impossible years ago. In my view, the question is not whether spectacular paranormal phenomena based on psi may exist or not, but exclusively whether all individual cases of paranormal phenomena can be completely ascribed to subconscious psi of the living. Precisely if you have a spiritual world view, within which paranormal abilities are in a way “normal” because they belong to our standard make-up as spiritual beings, it is peculiar to claim that far-reaching psi among the living simply does not exist. From a theoretical standpoint, it is well possible that spectacular evidence in the field of survival research, in a technical sense, could in principle be produced by psi among the living. In an article from 2008, Anny Dirven and myself wrote that we simply do not know what the limits of psi among the living are in terms of quantity or complexity. However, in our opinion, this type of survivalist argumentation that doubts the existence of far-reaching psi, does not provide the main argument against the Super-psi (or Living Agent psi) Hypothesis. It is a bit strange that Braude does not address this point, because he seemed fully aware of it in earlier publications.
The relevant debate for me concentrates on the question whether it is plausible from a psychological perspective that certain paranormal phenomena were subconsciously produced by the living. The mere fact that something is possible on a purely technical level, does not at all in itself make it plausible that it happens that way. We may compare this with a murder investigation. If someone could have committed a murder, this does not at all mean that that person really did so. One of the main ways we can make his or her involvement in the murder plausible, concerns an analysis of the suspect's background and personality.
Proponents of the Super-psi Hypothesis often forget to include psychological considerations in their assessment, and in fact act as if psi were a bizarre phenomenon that typically manifests in utterly meaningless forms. Whereas Super-psi could really only function efficiently if it is in accordance with the psychological background of its human source.
There are many cases within survival research in which it is not at all plausible, psychologically speaking, that the Super-psi Hypothesis applies. For example, cases of young children who remember previous lives, who identify with the life of a completely unknown deceased person. Perhaps they could have gathered information about that person through subconscious psi, but I can't think of even one plausible motive that could explain why a child would want to do so, if the person in question is completely unknown to the child and the child's social environment. Something similar can be said about spontaneous NDEs that occur during a cardiac arrest, while a patient has little or no cortical activity in the brain. In principle, it is thinkable that veridical perception during an NDE is based on subconscious retrocognition (clairvoyance concerning the past) at a later moment in time, after the brain starts demonstrating sufficient cortical activity again. However, this hypothesis is really too implausible from a psychological perspective. It is much more plausible that the events witnessed by an NDEr during a cardiac arrest were perceived in real time.
These two articles in the Journal of Scientific Exploration written by the two contemporary “champions” of Super-psi or Living Agent Psi should be seen as technical papers for insiders. If you are largely unaware of the debate, the articles will cause unnecessary doubt about the status quo in survival research.
Of course, the authors are right to criticize weak arguments for survival, but it would have been better if they had taken some effort to also address stronger arguments. Especially if we realize that the hypothesis of survival after physical death really has become more plausible than ever before.
- Braude, S.E. (2003). Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life after Death. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Braude, S.E. (2009). Perspectival Awareness and Postmortem Survival. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 23, 2, 195-210.
- Fontana, D. (2004). Is there an afterlife? Deershot Lodge, Park Lane, Ropley, Hants: O Books, 2004.
- Gauld, A. (1983). Mediumship and survival: A century of investigations. London: Paladin Books. - Rivas, T. (2003). De theoretische interpretatie van bijnadoodervaringen [The Theoretical Interpretation of Near-Death Experiences]. Terugkeer, 14(3), 11-14.
- Rivas, T., & Dirven, A. (2008). Aanwijzingen voor een overleven na de dood: Super-Psi versus Voortbestaan [Evidence for Survival After Death: Super-psi versus Survival]. Paraview, 12, 1, 18-20.
- Sudduth, M. (2009). Super-Psi and the Survivalist Interpretation of Mediumship. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 23, 2, 167-193.
This is an online free translation of a Dutch article, “Is Super-Psi een aannemelijk alternatief voor voortbestaan?”, published in Terugkeer, 20(3), Autumn 2009, pp. 18-19.