Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Over the years many philosophers have written about the implications of the data of psychical research to the issue of survival of death. Some modern ones include C.D. Broad, Stephen Braude, and C.J. Ducasse. Philosopher Michael Sudduth continues this tradition with his recent book A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Sudduth Philosophical Critique Survival

Michael (D. Phil., University of Oxford) describes himself in the Amazon page of his book as “a philosopher of religion with a background in analytic philosophy, Christian theology, and eastern philosophy and religion.” Furthermore, “his spiritual journey has led him from the Christian tradition to the Vaishnava bhakti traditions of India, the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and Zen Buddhism, each of which informs his approach to the Transcendent.” Michael is currently a Philosophy Lecturer at San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA). Some of the courses he has taught are: The Buddhist Tradition, Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, and Philosophical Analysis.

For more information about Michael’s ideas and work see his Cup of Nirvana page and blogs.

Michael Sudduth

Michael Sudduth

Here is the table of contents of his book:

Introduction: The Classical Empirical Survival Debate

Exploring the Hypothesis of Personal Survival

Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences

Mediumistic Communications

Cases of the Reincarnation Type

Classical Explanatory Arguments for Survival

Bayesian Explanatory Arguments

Bayesian Defenses of the Survival Hypothesis

The Problem of Auxiliary Assumptions

Exotic Counter-Explanations

Conclusion: The Classical Arguments Defeated


Can you give us a brief summary of the book?

The main objective of my book is to offer a critique of arguments for life after death. There are lots of arguments of this sort. I focus specifically on arguments based on data drawn from phenomena associated with near-death and out-of-body experiences, mediumship, and cases of the reincarnation type. I refer to these arguments as classical empirical arguments for survival.

Unlike other skeptical assessments of such arguments, my critique doesn’t challenge the alleged facts on which the arguments are based, nor do I argue that there is no life after death. Instead, I explore the kinds of assumptions the classical arguments require if they are to succeed in doing what their advocates claim on their behalf, namely, provide good evidence for survival. I argue that we have no good reason to accept these assumptions. Consequently, the classical arguments do not provide good evidence for personal survival.

That’s a general way of stating what I argue, but there are two more specific tiers of argument that make up the structure of my book. To understand these arguments, we should first be clear on what survivalists themselves have claimed about the case for survival. First, there’s an evidential probability claim: postmortem survival has a favorable net probability/plausibility based on the salient facts. In other words, survival is at least more probable than not, if not highly probable relative to the total evidence. Second, there’s an explanatory claim: survival provides the best explanation of the relevant facts. The two claims are interrelated because survivalists often assume that explanatory merit has evidential cash-value. They argue that survival is probable or very probable because it provides the best explanation of the data.

I argue that survivalists haven’t provided a good enough reason to believe either of the two main claims (in italics) above. Here it’s important to emphasize that I don’t argue that survival is not the best explanation of the data, nor that survival is improbable. I only argue that survivalists have failed to make good on their claims. Why? Because the arguments necessarily depend on assumptions that (1) we have no good reason to accept and (2) would be self-defeating to the case for survival, even if we accepted them.

What are these assumptions?

First, there are general assumptions about what the evidence for survival should look like. In the absence of such assumptions, there’s no plausible inference from features of the world to the claim that persons survive death. In much the same way, if I don’t know (or reasonably believe) what the evidence that Mr. X committed the crime should look like, I can’t plausibly regard any crime-scene fact as evidence that Mr. X committed the crime.

But second – and most fundamentally – there are fine-grained assumptions about what consciousness would probably be like if it should survive death. Without these assumptions, we could not say with any reasonable degree of assurance what would count as evidence for the survival of consciousness. These include assumptions about the memories, desires, intentions, and continuing perceptual and causal powers of surviving consciousness, as well as the conditions under which such powers can be exercised. I call these auxiliary assumptions since they’re not intrinsic to postulating the mere continuation of individual consciousness after death.

Since this is a crucial part of my argument, let me clarify. In postulating personal survival we’re postulating the persistence of consciousness and everything essential to individual consciousness. This includes whatever mental processes or content underwrites our sense of self. But this is logically consistent with the persistence of very little autobiographical memory or none at all. Nor is this a mere theoretical possibility. It’s precisely what happens in dream states, dissociative fugue, and other forms of amnesia. And what’s true of memory here is also true of our wider psychology – for example, our desires, intentions, personality traits, and skills. The content in consciousness is very fluid even over short periods of time, as are its behavioral manifestations. So, even if we suppose that postmortem consciousness is likely to exhibit the same general features antemortem consciousness exhibits, we really can’t say with any reasonable degree of assurance what we should expect survival evidence to look like in any particular case. We only get there by making further assumptions.

So simple survival does not logically entail (nor make probable) a surviving self that retains all the right stuff: the stock of memories, desires, intentions, and perceptual abilities and causal powers required for ongoing lifelike interactions with our world and that would justify identifying a person as the same as (or the continuation of) some previous personality. We need auxiliary assumptions to bulk up a generic or simple survival hypothesis (or theory) into a more conceptually robust hypothesis (or theory) that can plausibly account for the data.

I argue that simple survival – postulating the mere persistence of individual consciousness after death – explains nothing because there’s no fact about the world it would lead us to expect or not to expect. For example, simple survival doesn’t lead us to expect on-going veridical perceptions of our world, causal interactions with our world, or any of the individual memory and personality features the data allegedly exhibit and that survival is invoked to explain.

What’s needed is a robust survival hypothesis, but that’s problematic. There are lots of assumptions we can make about what surviving consciousness might be like. After all, as explained above, consciousness in our antemortem state is highly variable, even for the same person. But the assumptions we make about what postmortem consciousness will be like affects the extent to which the data are what we would expect if survival is true. That in turn affects the explanatory power of the survival hypothesis. At present there’s no rational basis for privileging survival assumptions that would lead us to expect the data, and no rational basis for favoring such assumptions over alternative assumptions – equally consistent with survival – that would not lead us to expect the data.

But also, there’s no sufficient reason for favoring the kinds of assumptions needed for a successful survival argument over the kinds of assumptions that would empower proposed counter-explanations of the data and thereby undermine survival arguments. For example, the assumptions that would empower living-agent psi explanations are no less reasonable than as those required for survival arguments. Survivalists will deny this parity, of course, but I’ve tried to show that this denial isn’t plausible.

It’s important to remember that the survival hypothesis will be the best explanation of the data only if it better explains the data than do alternative non-survival hypotheses. I argue that survival can’t explain the data without being bulked up, and it can’t be the best explanation of the data if it’s bulked up. Why the latter? Because the kinds of kinds of reasons survivalists adduce to rule out counter explanations also rule out a bulked-up survival hypothesis.

Let me illustrate the point. Take the standard two-tiered strategy to rule out the appeal to living-agent psychic functioning. On the one hand, survivalists like to point out that living-agent psi can’t account for persons possessing linguistic skills characteristic of a previous personality, the motivation for mediums to impersonate the deceased or confabulate communications with them, or – in cases of the reincarnation type – for persons possessing information about a previous personality in the form of memories. On the other hand, when a living-agent psi hypothesis is bulked up with assumptions drawn from psychology regarding motivational dynamics, dissociative phenomena, rare mnemonic gifts, and the sudden manifestation of linguistic skills not previously evidenced, then survivalists complain that these assumptions are ad hoc, introduce unnecessary complexity, or lack adequate independent support.

As I see it, survivalists either exploit the explanatory limitations that trivially apply to a simple version of the living-agent psi hypothesis or they object to the assumptions used to bulk up such a hypothesis so that it can explain the data. I show that these objections are equally applicable (if not more so) to the assumptions required for any robust survival hypothesis to explain the data.

What’s especially important to appreciate here is how the survivalist is often engaged in a (perhaps unconscious) logical sleight of hand that masks the self-defeating nature of his reasoning. Survivalists routinely contrast a simple survival hypothesis and a robust living-agent psi hypothesis to show that living-agent psi – unlike survival – is overly complex and relies on assumptions that are ad hoc or lack independent support. But when survivalists wish to focus on the explanatory advantages of the survival hypothesis, they contrast a simple living-agent psi hypothesis (which explains very little) and a robust interpretation of survival. And they usually don’t acknowledge the conceptual cost of achieving the alleged explanatory advantages. As a result, they miss how the kind of survival hypothesis that adequately accommodates the data requires assumptions that are at least as complex, ad hoc, and lacking in the way of independent support as those adopted by the defender of the living-agent psi hypothesis in the interest of accommodating the data.

So, contrary to how some reviewers of my book have presented my position, I do not claim that living-agent psi is a better an explanation of the data, only that survivalists are in a particularly poor position to argue that it’s not. And the same holds for other counter-explanations of the data.

I apply similar considerations to argue that classical empirical arguments for survival as far back as C.J. Ducasse fail to show that survival is more probable than not, much less highly probable. I develop this line of argument in considerable detail using different models of evidential probability used in confirmation theory (the logic of evidence assessment). All three forms of survival argument I consider converge on the same basic conceptual problem: the unjustified inclusion and exclusion of auxiliary assumptions required to underwrite what survivalists have wanted to say on behalf of the survival hypothesis.

What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically? 

I’m a philosopher by profession and academic training, with concentrations in epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. But I’ve had something of a life-long interest in anomalous phenomena, especially phenomena suggestive of survival, based on personal experiences and philosophical reflection.

I developed an interest in the work on survival by H.H. Price, C.D. Broad, and C.J. Ducasse after reading John Hick’s book Death and Eternal Life in graduate school at Oxford. When I started teaching philosophy and religion courses, I incorporated the topic of survival in a lot of my classes, eventually using it as a regular narrative in some of my classes for many years. During that time, I did the bulk of the research on the topical territory of my book.

While the book reading was helpful, I also benefited from a decade of conversations with parapsychologists and fellow philosophers who have worked and published on this topic. I’ve also joined parapsychologists on some field investigations over the years (with Loyd Auerbach, for example), and I’ve critically examined mediums firsthand. I’ve also personally experienced a broad range of ostensibly paranormal phenomena.

The first half of my academic career was devoted to applying developments in epistemology, logic, and philosophy of science in the exploration of questions in the justification religious belief and arguments for the existence of God. After my first book on this topic, I shifted my focus to life after death, philosophy of mind, and a broad range of issues in psychology.

I think my academic training in Anglo-American philosophy, together with an extensive educational and teaching background in Eastern and Western religious traditions, has enhanced my approach to the topic of survival. 

What motivated you to write this book? 

Three things.

First, it was the natural result of a decade-long inquiry during which time my views changed. I started as a survivalist who thought the arguments for survival were good. I became a survivalist who thought the arguments were defective upon closer scrutiny. I ended up concluding that the arguments were more defective than I initially thought, unable to accomplish what their proponents claim on their behalf. I’m no longer a survivalist – I neither affirm nor deny survival – though I remain open to future evidence persuading me. I suspect that evidence will come from cognitive neuroscience and technological developments in artificial intelligence, not parapsychology.

Second, following the lead of C.D. Broad and H.H. Price, I wanted to critically explore the conceptual aspects of reasoning about survival. The literature has emphasized the empirical dimensions of research, the so-called facts, but as is often the case it’s not the facts that divide people but the interpretation of the facts. I wanted to go right to that. That’s what philosophers do. We try to unearth the deeper strata of assumptions that drive a line of reasoning. This allows a more effective assessment of the coherence and plausibility of the underlying commitments and argumentation.

Third, and related to the above, I wanted to write a book that treated the topic with more logical rigor than has typically been the case in the literature over the past thirty years. Much of the literature, the bulk of it I’d say, is little more than a heap of facts and a hasty, if not opaque, inference to survival as being “probable” or “the best explanation.” Survivalists place far too much emphasis on how counter-explanations allegedly fail, but they’re deficient in showing how the survival hypothesis succeeds. Even the importance of this distinction is often not on their conceptual radar. As a philosopher, I’m interested in how we make good arguments and justify claims about evidence, probability, and the explanatory merit of hypotheses and theories. I’ve found the bulk of the literature at this juncture underwhelming at best.

It is unclear why survivalists have so frequently lacked logical rigor in their treatment of the topic. My charitable reading is that they’re calibrating their publications for popular consumption. That has its place of course, but it can become a liability, a conceptual bypass that sidesteps the crucial questions rather than advances the discussion with the appropriate critical scrutiny.

Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

I think the importance of my book is its approach. It’s a new approach to long-standing, widely discussed arguments. And it provides a new analysis of why the classical empirical arguments for survival are defective. I hope this will encourage survivalists and non-survivalists alike to recalibrate their arguments in the light of my critique. That’s a good way to move the dialogue forward.

Outside academic philosophy, the bulk of the literature on survival since the latter part of the 1960s has been almost exclusively focused on presenting data (allegedly suggestive of survival), but the literature has neglected to adequately engage a variety of conceptual issues involved in evidence assessment and explanatory reasoning. As a result, there’s been a disconnect between the data and the kind of argument that’s required to justifiably maintain that the data are good evidence for survival. My book addresses this head on.

Otherwise put, I’m addressing architectural or structural issues in the reasoning about survival. What’s required for survival to be the best explanation of the data? What’s required to “rule out” out counter-explanations? What does it even mean to rule out counter-explanations? When are we reasonable to conclude that evidence makes a hypothesis probable? When highly probable? What kinds of assumptions are built into such reasoning?

To be sure, other books have provided useful informal explorations of some of these questions, but they’ve neglected to dial-in some of the crucial conceptual issues – for example, the role of auxiliary assumptions in hypothesis/theory testing and how this impacts the argument for survival.

But also, I’ve offered a rigorous formal treatment of the classical arguments for survival, something that Broad and Ducasse hinted at in their day. I’ve addressed the favorable probability claims made on behalf of survival by examining these claims through the lenses of the two most widely adopted models of evidential probability – Likelihoodism and Bayesianism. It’s somewhat surprising that survivalists haven’t already done this. After all, many of them rely on and invoke Bayesian principles – for example, referring to prior probabilities in trying to assess the total probability of survival relative to the evidence. And those who don’t invoke Bayesian principles typically rely on Likelihoodist principles, which provide a metric for determining when evidence favors one hypothesis over another.

Oddly, a few reviewers didn’t care for my deployment of the resources of confirmation theory, but they missed the implications of their own critique. As I show, it’s survivalists who tacitly or overtly rely on the assumptions that confirmation theory explicates and systematizes. The formal techniques of confirmation theory create no problems that aren’t already inherent in the informal assumptions about evidence. So if there’s a problem here, it’s a problem for survivalists who rely on Bayesian or Likelihoodist measures for assessing evidence. Naturally I agree that such assumptions make it difficult, if not impossible, for survivalists to justify their claims about the survival hypothesis. However, in the absence of arguments for survival that rely on different, more plausible assumptions about the nature of evidence and how we assess it, survivalist claims look more like wishes and hopes than the conclusions of serious argumentation.

I would also emphasize how my analysis provides results that are provocative and immune to the typical strategies survivalists deploy in defense of their arguments.

First, on my view, arguments for survival are challenged for reasons that have nothing to do with positions in philosophy of mind. This is important because survivalists routinely devote a lot of space to trying to debunk so-called materialist philosophies of mind. But neither my arguments nor their cogency depends on any particular position in philosophy of mind. For example, I argue that the classical arguments fail to show that survival is more probable than not, but without the assumption that materialism is true. In fact, my arguments work even if we assume that materialism is false.

Second, I show that survival arguments fail even if we don’t treat survival as antecedently improbable. Some prominent survivalists claim that critics of survival stack the deck by assigning a very low initial probability to the survival hypothesis. I don’t do that. For example, I show that the classical arguments will still fail to show that survival is more probable than not, even if we begin with the generous assumption that survival is as probable as not.

Third, survival arguments fail even if rival non-survival explanations are antecedently improbable. This is significant because some survivalists think rival explanations of the data can be reasonably invoked only if we assume that such explanations are initially plausible or even more plausible than survival. Or, at any rate, that such counter-explanations couldn’t pose a serious challenge to survival arguments unless we invested them with initial plausibility. This is not true. For example, I argue that the appeal to living-agent psi can challenge survival arguments even if this exotic counter-explanation strains credulity and is antecedently very improbable.

Finally, I show that classical explanatory survival arguments are self-defeating. They must show that survival explains the data, and that rival explanations do not explain the data as well as the survival hypothesis does. But, as explained above, I show that survivalists typically rule out counter-explanations for reasons that equally apply to any formulation of a survival hypothesis or theory that has a ghost of chance of explaining anything at all.

As I said above, when I set out to write my book, it was my hope that I would provide an analysis and set of arguments that would advance the survival debate, perhaps only a smidgeon. To that prospect I think I must say at present what C.D. Broad said about survival: “one can only wait and see, or alternatively (which is no less likely) wait and not see.”