When Will Survival Researchers Move Past Defending the Indefensible? (Part 3)

So, this is my last post on Augustine’s “Defending the Indefensible” Essay I particularly liked Augustine’s distinction between analogies that illustrate and analogies that argue, since we are all familiar with debates that are just opposite sides throwing illustrations at one another as though they are arguments (eg pro life vs pro choice; conservative vs liberal).

It is a general point that there is a reason hospitals don’t have faith healer teams on staff, or that psychics don’t repeatedly predict and win the lottery. Augustine comments:

  • Until survival researchers produce evidence of the sort that replicable positive results from properly controlled tests of survival would have provided, the rest of the world is quite justified in responding: “Call me when a medium gets even one hit out of dozens of vetted attempts to get an afterlife code, or when an out-of-body NDEr has actually identified a visual target in the latest installment of the AWARE study. Then I’ll be keen for replications. Until then, tend to your own garden.”

It’s not of importance that scientific data doesn’t render survivalism impossible, since “impossibility” is a ridiculously high standard:

  • Braude et al. (2022) think that I believe that the chiefly neuroscientific evidence “puts survivalists in an awkward position empirically, because they can’t explain away a large and respectable body of neuroscientific data suggesting that survival is impossible.” First of all, I’ve always characterized this evidence as rendering discarnate personal survival highly unlikely, not impossible, since that’s the most that any evidence can do for any hypothesis.[1] Second, the issue is not that empirical survivalists cannot reinterpret away such evidence—it’s that, if they wish to proceed scientifically (rather than pseudoscientifically), they ought not reinterpret it away

  • [1] Discarnate personal survival may well be nomically or even metaphysically impossible, of course, given the true nature of consciousness (whatever that turns out to be). But the issue here is what we can know, in the same sense that we can be said to know things about other scientific matters, about the relationship between our individual mental lives and our brain functioning in light of the total relevant evidence. Here we can only speak in probabilities, as with all scientific hypotheses. As far as we can ascertain, personal survival does not seem possible, given the evidence, without technological or miraculous intervention. But that conclusion is highly probable, not certain.

There is a growing body of evidence in favor of naturalism when it comes to mind/brain dependence, so it really a question of academic honesty of letting the evidence point the way instead of explaining the evidence away:

  • Early on it might be reasonable to try to save one’s pet theories [1] from unfavorable evidence in order to avoid their falsification (or at least a reduction in their overall probability). The data themselves might have been bad, for example. But as more unfavorable evidence accumulates—and from a variety of independent, reliable sources—at some point it becomes unreasonable to continue to cling to one’s theories in the face of the evidence. All that I ask is that psychical researchers adhere to the same standards that other scientists do.

  • [1] The term ‘theory’ should be understood as a synonym for ‘hypothesis’ throughout—as Braude et al. (2022) also use these terms—following the conventions of philosophers of science.

The self is too shaped by the brain to survive in any meaningful sense after death:

  • Whenever empirical survivalists get more specific about their theories on the mind’s relation to functioning brains, they are forced by the facts to concede that the functioning brain changes our mental functioning through and through. Thus it is as if we are never really ourselves when we are incarnate. The corollary of this implication is that who we are now in a substantial or ‘thick’ sense will not survive death even if some mere part of us becomes discarnate. Some abstract impersonal part (not all that different from our bones) might ‘survive’ biological death—perhaps with the mind of a paramecium—once the brain activity that sustains human consciousness during life drops away. But that is not personal survival... [W]hat the independence thesis predicts we will find contradicts what ‘neuroscience-plus’ has in fact uncovered, whereas what the dependence thesis predicts matches it. We thus have pretty compelling evidence that having a functioning brain almost certainly is necessary for human mental processes to exist/occur.

We can see analogs to survivalist approaches with Young Earth Creationism:

  • It’s no less logically possible, after all, that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older geological strata than those of complex ones because God created the fossils that way all at once 10,000 years ago (rather than due to biological evolution). Just as no evolutionary biologist takes such “alternative accounts of the data” seriously, no neuroscientist should take a ‘dependence-looking independence thesis’ seriously, either. If all signs from reliable sources of evidence point to existential or functional dependence, then we should tentatively take such evidence to indicate exactly what it seems to indicate (barring forthcoming, comparably reliable bodies of evidence that suggest otherwise—but we are here talking about available evidence).

That concludes my 3 defending the indefensible posts. Check out Augustine’s journal exchange here: https://journalofscientificexploration.org/index.php/jse/issue/view/85 . Next time I will be blogging about further issue related to this exchange.