(Part 1) Keith Augustine’s How Not to Do Survival Research: Reflections on the Bigelow Institute Essay Competition

See Augustine’s essay here: https://journalofscientificexploration.org/index.php/jse/issue/view/85

This is a large essay so I’m breaking reporting of it into 2 parts.

Augustine points to the difficulties in using eye witness testimony as evidence for the mind surviving death:

  • Nahm later writes that impartial judges “would take eyewitness testimonies just as seriously as they would do in other contexts” (2021*, p. 66). While Elizabeth Loftus’ (1979) seminal research into the reliability of eyewitness testimony provides all sorts of reasons to hesitate to rely upon it so heavily (as survival research typically does), what DRW say about it in their prize-winning essay is more than sufficient: “eyewitness testimony would not convince those who also take into consideration the relevant literature from the neurosciences, clinical, cognitive, and perceptual psychology, and court cases. Research in those disciplines has shown that eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as one might hope because perceptions and memories are easily distorted” (2021*, p. 3).So, although Nahm concludes that “the available evidence for survival of human consciousness after permanent bodily death clearly matches the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt” (2021*, p. 66), survival agnostics might well note that there’s an abundance of eyewitness reports for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, too, that they find just as unconvincing. For all the talk about courtroom standards of evidence, empirical survivalists have habitually engaged in a hitherto-unacknowledged evidential sleight of hand by demanding that the “defense” (survival skeptics) produce their own counterevidence to offset the “prosecution’s” (survival proponents’) weaker testimonial evidence for personal survival, all the while seeking to rule as inadmissible the defense’s much stronger “DNA evidence”—the chiefly neuroscientific evidence that our mental lives cannot be sustained absent a functioning brain.

Decades of research into mediumship have failed to produce desired results for paranormal investigators. Moreover, there have been many survival researcher who have set up tests to demonstrate their continued existence after they died, but none have panned out:

  • This raises an obvious question: if communication with the dead occurs, as the vast majority of empirical survivalists evidently believe, then why have we heard nothing from any of these deceased psychical researchers, many of whom were dedicated to providing “proof” of discarnate personal survival during life? Why can’t a single one of them “authenticate” their continuation (or come as close to that as possible) by providing their “passwords” to a medium (or as an ostensibly reincarnated child—à la Berger, 1991—or via EVP/ITC, for that matter)?In her prize-winning BICS essay, Beischel does not mention such tests directly, but does seem to try to preempt questions about them, writing:
  • During any research reading, we need to ensure that we only ask the mediums to report the types of information they usually report. Since this does not include winning lottery numbers, combinations to locks, or what color shirt the sitter should wear tomorrow, I didn’t ask for any of those things in my experiments. Additionally, although in your physical life you are regularly known by your personally-identifiable information (PII), like your name, date of birth, social security number, address, and phone number, these are not the types of information mediums are regularly observed reporting, so I didn’t ask for those during research. (Beischel, 2021*, p. 23)

Of course, this is exactly the kind of evidence we should be asking for and would validate the claim. Augustine continues:

  • Their failure gives the scientific community good reason to doubt the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP) of any sort akin to why many scientists doubt the existence of psychokinesis (PK): if it’s real, why can’t anyone demonstrably move an object for any distance behind sealed glass? If seers can provide accurate specifics about future events that defy chance, then why have premonition registries (Ruickbie, 2021*, pp. 48-51), which securely document precognitive claims before prophesied events, produced hits less than 1% of the time (Shadowitz & Walsh, 1976, pp. 116-117), if at all? (West, 1948a, p. 268).

The type of evidence we get is exactly what would be expected on the brain dependent mind thesis, such as the Covid virus causing brain fog, and peculiar on the mind independent thesis. Augustine comments:

  • Here philosopher of mind Colin McGinn poses a fair question: “Why does brain damage obliterate mental faculties if minds do not owe their existence to brains?” (1999, p. 27). For a less direct, but no less relevant kind of evidence, consider my paraphrase of philosopher Mathew Iredale’s upshot: “The greatly enhanced mental powers of human beings, compared to those of our primate cousins, are a clear result of the enlarged brains that we possess but that they do not. But then how could human minds retain their impressive mental faculties in the complete absence of brain functioning after death?” (Augustine & Fishman, 2015, p. 232).

Moreover, events like supposed NDE’s are culturally specific:

  • For example, on cross-cultural comparisons of NDE reports, which Nahm concedes are characterized by more differences than similarities (2021*, p. 18), Satwant Pasricha and Stevenson wrote of reports of encounters with others in NDEs: “For Americans this is usually a deceased relative or friend; for Indians it is usually the messengers (Yamdoots) of the god of death. The variations in the persons of the ‘next world’ do not weigh against (or for) their reality” (1986, p. 169).

Survival research seems a lot like what we see with Young Earth Creationists who pick a few pieces of data that do not disagree with their model and disregard everything else. And, why could psychics not just post their predictions for the future online to be vetted?

We know that the brain makes experience possible, so it would take a discarnate mind to have something like brain assistance for NDEs to be experienced at all. Specifically, we know from general anesthesia that the medicine causes the brain to shut off the experience of time, and so the patient goes under and re-awakens a dreamless hour later in what feels like an instant. Without the brain supplying this internal stretching of time there is nothing in which experiences can appear.

We know mass hallucinations are unusual but perfectly natural events (like the claim of Jesus appearing to the 500 or the so called Fatima sky miracle), so:

  • The remaining three sources—apparitional experiences, induced experiences, and ADCs—received DRW’s lowest assigned grade, C. On apparitions, DRW conclude that “despite a few cases with multiple witnesses, the rest of the available evidence is anecdotal and there are numerous potentially mundane explanations,” such as that (in addition some witnesses priming others) “the perceived [collective] apparition may be explained by group exposure to environmental factors that correlate not only with feelings of anxiety and/or disorientation but in extreme cases with hallucinations” (2021*, p. 22).