When Will Survival Researchers Move Past Defending the Indefensible? (Part 1)

When Will Survival Researchers Move Past Defending the
Keith Augustine

The exchange between our Secular Web/Internet Infidels director Keith Augustine and noted “soul survivalist ” proponents was published yesterday. I’ll be blogging about it, but check out the exchange: https://journalofscientificexploration.org/index.php/jse/issue/view/85

The survivalists’ response to the author’s skeptical review did not
confront the novel criticisms and arguments made against the BICS essay
evidence. Such a candid and deep engagement with fundamental issues is
needed to advance the question of ‘life after death.’

The failure of five psychical researchers to confront my critique of
Bigelow Institute contest-winning essays with counterpoints or
concessions responsive to its novel criticisms is disappointing. Their
defensive and scattershot reply lost sight of whether the critiqued
essays met their directive to provide “hard evidence ‘beyond a
reasonable doubt’” of the survival of human consciousness. Those who
claim that science should expand its metaphysically conservative picture
to include things otherwise not known to exist assume the burden of
showing what they claim. My interlocutors’ almost exclusively
testimonial evidence does not adhere to the long-standing scientific
principles required by the scientific community. For the kind of
evidence that could be publicly confirmed is simply not the kind that
survival researchers have been able to provide, just as we would expect
of a hodgepodge of deception, embellishment, malobservation,
misreporting, self-deception, and so on; but which could be surprising
on the hypothesis that discarnate personal survival occurs. The survival
evidence does not even survive elementary scrutiny, let alone outweigh
our everyday experience of the biological fragility of our own minds.
The *totality* of the evidence renders discarnate personal survival
highly unlikely. Attempts to reinterpret this evidence away through
various analogies fail because a hypothesis that makes false
predictions, like that of the independence of individual consciousness
from a functioning brain, will continue to make them no matter what
analogy one uses to illustrate it.


Augustine points out the evidence for discarnate survival parallels to the poor evidence for the existence of God in the face of the problem of suffering:

  • It’s also perfectly reasonable to step back and take a look at the big picture. One can reasonably argue along the following lines. None of the arguments in favor of the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God are very compelling even by theistic philosophers’ standards. On the other hand, such philosophers struggle with how to reconcile the existence of such a being with a world that has long been steeped in suffering. The parallels here should be obvious. None of the variable-quality ostensible evidence for discarnate personal survival is very compelling even by parapsychological standards (cf. Delorme et al., 2021*), and those psychical researchers who acknowledge that contrary evidence should count for something struggle with how to reconcile discarnate personal survival with independent, well-vetted evidence from cognitive neuroscience (and elsewhere) (Stokes, 1993; cf. Stairs & Bernard, 2007, p. 301). When two sources of evidence appear to conflict, is it not more reasonable (absent further evidence) to give greater weight to the more reliable of the two? (cf. Rowe, 2007, pp. 159-160).

Survivalist research is akin to negative theology which characterizes God in terms of what God is not:

  • It’s worth adding that to the extent that the existence of conjectural forces or entities is not scientifically established, paranormal explanations don’t really explain anything at all. They are just an umbrella catchall of the negation of the conventional/normal explanations that researchers have thought of (maybe they didn’t think of everything) and that don’t fit. To have a real scientific explanation, we need to know something about the positive characteristics of the ‘explaining’ hypothesized force or entity—what it is—not simply what it is not (Augustine, 2015, p. 34). Until then, the label psi is just a placeholder or promissory note for an explanation. That’s why it’s solely by convention that we don’t include unknown lights in the sky, unidentified living creatures, or other Forteana under the umbrella of psi. (If conventionally inexplicable, are ghost lights ostensible spirits, ostensible extraterrestrial probes, ostensible plasma-based cryptids, or something else entirely? No one will ever be able to say without some verifiable positive characterization of what they are.)

It’s a real problem for survivalist research that evidence is largely anecdotal and cannot be re-produced in a controlled scientific setting:

  • The specifics of how Home accomplished Victorian-era feats that have no contemporary parallels—much like Mrs. Piper’s mental mediumship[1]—seem rather moot if neither Nahm, Braude, nor any other investigator can capture comparable demonstrations today using modern tools that are more than capable of clearly documenting events through high-resolution closed-circuit, livestreamed, or otherwise unalterable video recording from multiple angles. When simply informed of the general character of this evidence, most people (survival skeptics or not) would be compelled to ask: where have all the bona fide physical mediums gone?An endless debate over the strength of inherently weaker testimonial and other poorly controlled sources of evidence could be avoided altogether, of course, if only Braude et al. had more rigorous experimental evidence to offer. But one cannot produce evidence akin to an Earth-bound extraterrestrial artifact, a Bigfoot skeleton, or a working SoulPhone if the hypothesized entities never existed in the first place.

  • [1] Cf. Robert Almeder (1992, p. 249) and Nahm on the much lower “investigability of the most compelling aspects of mental mediumship” (2021*, p. 13) today since survival researchers cannot produce contemporary mediums willing or able to pull off comparably impressive performances.

It is a real problem for paranormal research, like alien research, that the evidence is always ambiguous and could be understood in other ways:

  • That is, we should hesitate to interpret UAP as evidence for the extraterrestrial visitation hypothesis not so much because crossing the vast distances of interstellar space is potentially insuperable, but because as a matter of fact, we simply do not find the sorts of evidence that we would expect to find were extraterrestrial visitation occurring. If extraterrestrials were regularly visiting Earth, why would evidence of their presence always fall within the narrow range of possibilities that we might call the perpetually ambiguous range? There is wide continuum of conceivable evidence consistent with extraterrestrial visitation, ranging from no evidence at all to undeniable evidence (indigenous peoples did not eternally debate the presence of European colonists, for example)... Similarly, near-death researchers claim that NDErs are already able to provide veridical visual information inaccessible to the normal senses during their experiences—again, just not (so far) under controlled conditions (e.g., Holden, 2009). So what’s at issue here is a historical question: have survival researchers been able to provide evidence for putative discarnate personal survival that meets the standards of scientific rigor required in, say, pharmaceutical research—or not? My concern is not with “how a parapsychological test or experiment will turn out” (future tense), but rather with how such tests have in fact turned out (past tense).

Next time I will be commenting on the second half of Augustine’s essay.