Augustine vs Nahm: Soul Survival?

Michael Nahm
“A Guardian Angel Gone Astray: How Not to Engage in Scientific Debates”

Keith Augustine
Answering More of the Same: A Reply to Nahm

A really interesting journal exchange has been published between Augustine and Nahm regarding the life after death debate.  The journal issue is here:

Here are some of the topics:

I think consciousness is but a species of awareness, which is in turn a species of attention toward, since we can be vividly absorbed yet be unconscious, such as in a dream.  In this way, consciousness as mental state is not separate from awareness of, say, my cold hand, but just a more developed kind of it.  Feeling cold is thus not fundamentally different from modelling 3X2=6 with counters in your imagination, but are both just more and less complex kinds of awareness.

Regarding life after death, Augustine is an atheist, but Augustine has no interest in advocating reductionist physicalism/materialism, and most prominent arguments against an afterlife have come from David Hume and Bertrand Russell, “neither of whom were reductionists or materialists” (Augustine, 2016, p. 204). He framed the debate there, as one between survivalists and mortalists (not “physicalists”), and more pointedly, one between proponents of brain-independence and brain-dependence (since that’s the more basic issue).

William James tried to outline how the mind could be dependent on the brain, but not rule out a survival position.  Spiegel outlines James’s argument as follows:

  • The truth is that there are several kinds of functional dependence, only one of which is the productive function that materialists assume about the brain-mind.  James asks us to consider two other kinds of functional dependence: (1) a releasing function, as when an obstacle is removed from the bow, allowing the bow to bounce back and, thus, the arrow to be shot away or when a plug is removed from a drain, allowing water to flow into the pipe and (2) a transmissive function, as when a prism or refracting lens allows light to pass through while determining the color, path, and shape of that light as it proceeds. In both of these cases there is functional dependence, but in neither case is the dependence productive… So the question is whether the functional dependence of the mind on the brain must be productive. James says no, “we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this is what the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account.” So James is proposing the possibility that the brain does not produce but rather transmits or releases mental activity, in the sense that there is a realm of consciousness beyond this physical realm—whether a single, monolithic consciousness, as conceived by pantheists or innumerable individual consciousnesses as conceived in orthodox Christian and Jewish traditions—which breaks into the physical realm via our brains…James writes, “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it put itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production-theory does. It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet.” As a Berkeleyan idealist myself, I am especially pleased to see James make this important observation. He continues: “On the production-theory one does not see from what sensation such odd bits of knowledge are produced. On the transmission-theory, they don’t have to be ‘produced,’—they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through.” So, on this view, death doesn’t bring destruction of the person. Rather, “all that can remain after the brain expires is the larger consciousness itself as such” whether conceived in a pantheistic or traditionally theistic way.

Augustine counters the Jamesian position saying:

Contra the Jamesian argument, C. S. Peirce and Sober (and many others) have shown show the (chiefly) neuroscientific evidence can favor the dependence of individual consciousness upon the brain (over the alternative hypothesis). I simply applied their abductive reasoning about evidence in general to demonstrate how this specific evidence does favor it. Empirical survivalists have long used Jamesian reasoning to deflect having to weigh the neuroscientific evidence against the survival evidence. 15 For weighing the totality of the relevant evidence available to us—that is, not arbitrarily excluding the chiefly neuroscientific evidence in one’s assessment—would clearly tip the scales against discarnate personal survival. I understand that this finding is an unwelcome one for survival proponents, but focusing on potentially favorable evidence at the exclusion of any unfavorable evidence in an evidential/empirical assessment is mere politicking, not science.

Let’s consider some tidbits from the Michael Nahm essay:

(1) Michael Nahm:

  • The reason why these two statements are perfectly accordant is simple: In contrast to for instance mathematics, one should principally not speak of obtaining proof in natural sciences including psychical research and neuroscience because it is virtually impossible to obtain 100% “proof” for something in these areas from a logical perspective. In case there should be any doubt about my position, I quote from an email I sent to the BICS staff on June 28, 2021, after I was informed that I have to frame my essay explicitly in context of the legal concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” – a requirement that I was (and am) not too happy with.  “I suppose it would be difficult to deal with such legal requirements properly because it is not clear what exactly ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ is even in court, and also because ‘proof’ is a concept generally avoided in the [natural] sciences. The term usually used is ‘evidence.’”

If it is science. We would like to be able to demonstrate the supernatural with a similar evidentiary basis as other mundane facts such as water boils at a certain temperature.

  •  (2) Michael Nahm: On page 372 of his article, Augustine wrote: To say that dependence thesis proponents “regard survival ‘impossible’ in an aprioristic way” (Nahm, 2021, p. 66) merely attacks a straw man.  Again, what I “said” was actually something quite different: “Impartial court members […] would not regard survival ‘impossible’ in an aprioristic way.” This statement harkens back to my essay’s beginning in which I introduced three guiding principles for the adequate study of psi phenomena suggested by Hans Driesch, the first being “Do not regard any fact ‘impossible’ in an aprioristic way” (Nahm, 2021, p. 4). Although I do hold the opinion that some “dependence thesis proponents” are heavily prejudiced and some have in fact declared survival to be impossible in an aprioristic way (e.g., Vollmer, 2017), I nowhere proclaimed the sweeping generalization “dependence thesis proponents regard survival impossible in an aprioristic way” in my essay. Perhaps, Augustine inferred that I intended to proclaim this allegation. But selling inferences for facts when quoting selectively from an author, thereby attributing statements to them they did not make, is misplaced in scientific debates.

– It is perhaps helpful to clarify the nature of the a priori in science.  In modern science, this refers to the prior projection onto reality which makes particular scientific truths possible.  Heidegger in his writings on the philosophy of science points out that:

  • “So, just as a historian always has in view what the historical being is, modern science made similar projections as to what counted as nature.  For instance, Galileo projected that the motion of each body is uniform and rectilinear if every obstacle remains excluded, but also changes uniformly when an equal force acts upon it.  Modern Science: What is crucial in this genesis lies in the fact that Galileo gave a direction to natural sciences by asking (when not literally, at least intentionally) how nature as such must be viewed and determined in advance, such that the facts of nature can become accessible to the observation of facts in general. How must nature be determined and be thought in advance, so that the entirety of this being as such can become accessible to calculative knowledge in a fundamental way? The answer is that nature must be circumscribed as what it is in advance, in such a way as to be determinable and accessible to inquiry as a closed system of the locomotion of material bodies in time. What limits nature as such—motion, body, place, time—must be thought in such a way as to make a mathematical determinability possible. Nature must be projected.  It is only in light of the mathematical opening and projection of nature, i.e., by delimiting [nature] through such basic concepts as body, motion, velocity, place, and time, that certain facts of nature become accessible as facts of nature. It is only on the basis of disclosing the mathematical constitution of nature that the knowing determination of nature obtains meaning and justification according to measure, number, and weight.  What was crucial and consequential about the achievements of Galileo and Kepler was not observation of facts and experimentation, since ancient science did this too, but the insight that there is no such thing as pure facts and that facts can only be grasped and experimented with when the realm of nature as such is circumscribed.  Thus, underlying all natural sciences from the beginning are propositions and cognitions, like, e.g., the principle of the permanence of substance: “In all change of appearances substance is permanent; its quantum in nature is neither increased nor diminished.”  Moreover, the principle of causality: “All alterations take place in conformity with the law of the connection of cause and effect.”   These propositions state something a priori about nature. More exactly put, these propositions state what belongs to nature as nature. These propositions contain a knowledge of what nature is, while at the same time this knowledge is not grounded in experience.  The greatness and superiority of natural science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are based upon the fact that the investigators were all philosophers; they understood that there are no mere facts, but that a fact is what it is only in light of the explanatory concept and always in accordance with the range of such explanation.  Galileo experimented dropping objects, with the result that bodies of different weights released from the tower did not arrive at precisely the same time, but the temporal differences were slight; despite these differences, therefore really against the appearance of experience, Galileo maintained his scientific position.   But those who witnessed the experiment became rightly suspicious, thanks to the experiment itself, of Galileo’s assertion, and persisted all the more stubbornly in the ancient point of view. On the basis of this experiment, opposition to Galileo intensified so much that he had to give up his professorship and leave Pisa. Galileo and his opponents both had the same “fact” in view, but they interpreted the same fact differently and made the same happening visible to themselves differently. What appeared for each as the authentic fact and truth was something different.  Galileo and his opponents both had the same “fact” in view, but they interpreted the same fact differently and made the same happening visible to themselves differently. What appeared for each as the authentic fact and truth was something different. Both [Galileo and his opponents] thought something in relation to the same appearance, but their respective thoughts differed, not at the level of the particular alone, but in principle and in relation to the essence of body and the nature of its motion. What Galileo thought in advance about motion comes forward in the following definition: the motion of each body is uniform and rectilinear if every obstacle remains excluded, but also changes uniformly when an equal force acts upon it.  Further, regarding appearances, even if we assume that two things are absolutely similar, each one is still in each case this thing, because for instance each of these two pine needles is in a different place, and if they are to occupy the same place, they can only do so at different temporal locations. Place and temporal location individuate and distinguish otherwise absolutely similar things. But insofar as each thing has its place and temporal location, there are never two [absolutely] similar things, i.e., that essential determination of the thingness of the thing, to be “in each case this,” is grounded in the essence of space and time.  So, quantum mechanics may observe the same particle at different places at the same time, but will never observe the same particle to be simultaneously present and not present at one location at the same time and in the same way (particle X can’t both be present and absent from a location: one space can’t be both full and empty ). As axiomatic, mathematical projection is the grasping-in-advance of the essence of things, of bodies; hence, the blueprint prescribes how each thing and the relations between all things are to be constructed.  Natural bodies are now only that which they show themselves to be in the domain of projection. Things show themselves now only in the relations of places and time-points and in the measures of mass and working forces.  Because projection, according to its sense, posits a uniformity of all bodies according to space and time and relations of motion, it also simultaneously makes possible and demands as an essential mode of determining things a completely uniform measure, i.e., numerical measurement.  Specifically, the res extensa or extended substances are re-presented in terms of shape and motion as what is “really real” in them, location and mobility, that which makes the res extensa predictable and controllable.  For Descartes this made us “the masters and possessors of nature (Descartes, Opp. VI, 61 ff).”  This is made possible for Descartes via the structure of the cogito as that which, in re-presenting, unconsciously creates for beings the conditions for presentability: indubitability and certitude.  On the basis of this, error is possible, when in re-presenting, something is presented to the one representing that does not satisfy the conditions of presentability: indubitability and certitude.  (Heidegger on the history of Science)

So, no one is asking for a demonstration of the supernatural in an a priori scientific sense, since the a priori in science means something completely different from how Nahm is using the term.  Neither is the supernatural a priori excluded, which would misunderstand what the a priori is in science

  • (3) Michael Nahm: I know that I speak for very many people including scientists when I say: For those who made solid first-hand experiences demonstrating the contrary, such authors are  simply not on a level playing field. They do not know what they are talking about.

–  We likewise have schizophrenics experiencing aliens controlling their brains, and the force of such experiences makes it very difficult to persuade them of a mundane cause

  • (4) Nahm: Mental processes are actually brain processes. It follows logically that there is no free will and that 1) we never had any chance to act differently than how we acted in the past and that 2) our futures are likewise fixed already except for quantum events we cannot influence (Hossenfelder, 2022; Vollmer, 2017).

– Kant helpfully distinguishes between Freedom From and Freedom For.  The self as making possible “freedom for” unconsciously self-legislates that I morally accompany all my actions, unlike certain mentally challenged people and animals that don’t self-determine in that way.  This unconscious giving myself a rule to follow makes possible the free will found in particular moral precepts (eg It is wrong to steal, so I choose not to).


James said:

  • The production of such a thing as consciousness in the brain, they will reply with the late Berlin professor of physiology, is the absolute world-enigma,—something so paradoxical and abnormal as to be a stumbling block to Nature, and almost a self-contradiction. Into the mode of production of steam in a tea-kettle we have conjectural insight, for the terms that change are physically homogeneous one with another, and we can easily imagine the case to consist of nothing but alterations of molecular motion. But in the production of consciousness by the brain, the terms are heterogeneous natures altogether; and as far as our understanding goes, it is as great a miracle as if we said, Thought is ‘spontaneously generated,’ or ‘created out of nothing.’ The theory of production is therefore not a jot more simple or credible in itself than any other conceivable theory. It is only a little more popular. All that one need do, therefore, if the ordinary materialist should challenge one to explain how the brain can be an organ for limiting and determining to a certain form a consciousness elsewhere produced, is to retort with a tu quoque, asking him in turn to explain how it can be an organ for producing consciousness out of whole cloth. For polemic purposes, the two theories are thus exactly on a par.

I would say the body is producing various kinds of awareness all the time, like with phantom limb syndrome for a new amputee, and so her “experience” of the hand is physical mind producing immaterial awareness even in the absence of a material locus. Awareness seems to emerge out of certain physiological processes, which is why the phantom limb still bears the physical awareness of the hand after the hand is gone. Hand awareness emerged gradually in our evolutionary history, and so is intentional – there is no contentless awareness, but as Husserl said consciousness is always consciousness of something. Lower levels of this awareness emerges in plants, for instance, though it’s up for debate if they are in any sense conscious. For James, there is one large monolithic consciousness that expresses itself differently depending on the individual physiological makeup it is being mediated by. But then why can’t we switch bodies?

James said

  • For my own part, then, so far as logic goes, I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal

Regarding plants, we know, for instance,

 Some plants respond to their environments by, for example, curling their leaves up when touched, or enclosing and digesting their prey in their leaves. The basic mechanisms of these responses have been well studied, but addressing the more philosophical questions, such as whether or not the plants ‘intelligently choose’ to execute such actions, is a much more recent idea.  While not claiming that the experiment proves once and for all that plants can and do act with conscious intent, the Rotman Institute of Philosophy’s Dr Vicente Raja, one of the authors of the study, says it does show that the beans in the experiment were doing more than simply responding to external stimuli.  “It is one thing to react to a stimulus, such as light, it is another thing to perceive an object,” he says. “If the movement of plants is controlled and affected by objects in their vicinity, then we are talking about more complex behaviours, not reactions, and we should be able to identify similar cognitive signatures to those we observe in humans and some animals.” see  We thus have the absurd conclusion that certain plants should be immortal as well, when what we have with plants is just lesser and greater levels of awareness.

James says

  • But, in the mysterious phenomena to which I allude, it is often hard to see where the sense-organs can come in. A medium, for example, will show knowledge of his sitter’s private affairs which it seems impossible he should have acquired through sight or hearing, or inference therefrom. Or you will have an apparition of some one who is now dying hundreds of miles away. On the production-theory one does not see from what sensations such odd bits of knowledge are produced. On the transmission-theory, they don’t have to be ‘produced,’—they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through.

I’m not sure of James’ point here, since the imagination unconsciously produces things all the time in dreams and hallucinations.  Anyway, James’ key point seems to be encapsulated here:

  • The sun rises and beauty beams to light his path. To miss the inner joy of him, as Stevenson says, is to miss the whole of him.

This is an idea that goes back to the Greeks, that our feelings are not just things which run their course in our inner lives, but rather are ways in which life presents itself to us, and so with the mansion “houseness” presences fully/beautifully, but presences moderately in the average house, and hardly at all in the broken down house.  Nietzsche was the end to this way of thinking, pointing out this has nothing to do with the world, and so the beautiful mansion may not appear beautiful at all to the next person, but rather gaudy, who in turn might find the shack quite lovely and quaint.  Certainly, if beauty was a feature of reality and not simply a trick of the mind, James would have an argument, but it’s like a wine expert trying to explain his evaluation criteria for fine wine to a person who doesn’t like the taste of wine.  Nietzsche called this the Being of beings or “essence (essential)” as creative form imposing Will to Power.  For example, I don’t encounter the starry night sky as the randomness it is, but rather as constellations.  Heidegger comments:

  • For example, a lizard hears the slightest rustling in the grass but it does not hear a pistol shot fired quite close by. Accordingly, the creature develops a kind of interpretation of its surroundings and thereby of all occurrence, not incidentally, but as the fundamental process of life itself: “The perspectival [is] the basic condition of all life” (VII, 4). With a view to the basic constitution of living things Nietzsche says (XIII, 63), “The essential aspect of organic beings is a new manifold, which is itself an occurrence.” The living creature possesses the character of a perspectival preview which circumscribes a “line of horizon” about him, within whose scope something can come forward into appearance for him at all.

Augustine comments that:

  • Doing research on near-death experiences up to 2007, I didn’t pay much attention to the largely physiological explanations for NDE content, thinking that changes in brain physiology simply opened the mind up to content that was supplied by psychology more than neurophysiology. The near-death literature always emphasized how different NDEs were compared to hypoxia, ketamine trips, G-LOC experiments, etc. Even psychologist Ronald Siegel, specifically likening NDEs to hashish experiences (greater dose marijuana/THC), didn’t list much in the way of clear side-by-side phenomenological similarities between the experiences.
  • But the near-death literature that I read, largely aimed at refuting physiological models of NDEs for obvious reasons, gave no hint about how similar NDEs were to other psychedelic experiences–and was particularly deafeningly silent on the incredibly similar transformative aftereffects of both, which is now blatantly obvious if you look at both research databases separately. Back in 2007, I naively wrote (from the online Secular Web version of my response to one of Bruce Greyson’s Journal of Near-Death Studies commentaries): “Taking an afterlife interpretation largely explains the transformative effects of NDEs on those who have them as well. (Though to gauge the extent of this, it would be interesting to see if “nonbelievers” had the same transformations as “survivalists” among NDErs.) “
  • In the psychedelic renaissance of the last ~20 years, where these substances are used in psychotherapy, “set and setting” (mindset going into a “trip” & the social/physical environment that the tripper is in) and purposefully setting intentions for what psychological issues the tripper wants to work on (using blindfolds and headphones to direct one’s mind inward) are important if you want to reap the therapeutic benefits (hence why recreational use didn’t make blatant their therapeutic value). There’s also post-trip “integration” putting your “reset” ego back together, though I’m not entirely clear on what these stages mean in practice. But those who have undergone successful psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy report therapeutic benefits nearly identical to the “transformative aftereffects” of near-death experiencers long emphasized in near-death studies–regardless of whether they take their psychedelic experiences to literally be experiences outside of the body, or merely hallucinations.
  • Anyway, apart from mentions of ketamine out-of-body experiences–always said by near-death researchers to be phenomenologically nothing like spontaneous (“real”) OBEs–I can’t recall the psychedelic parallels even being mentioned by them in order to be refuted. I can’t help but wonder if this was a blind spot–or intentional misdirection.
  • I haven’t read this all yet, but it’s interesting that Pascal Michael finally calls out near-death researchers (50 years since the term “near-death experiences” was coined) for failing to acknowledge the parallels between psychedelic experiences and near-death experiences, particularly in the positive aftereffects of either (which read as if they are indistinguishable if you weren’t told what kind of experiencer had them). From Pascal Michael’s opening Abstract, emphasis mine:
  • In the present article, I provide a thorough essay-style analysis of the publication, focusing on how much of what Greyson reported is consistent with, yet also lacks considerable recognition of, the model of NDEs provided by a psychedelic framework. That is, substantial explanatory power can be derived from considering NDEs as a psychedelic phenomenon in terms of possible neurobiological correlates, its acute state, long-term sequalae, and putatively parapsychological effects. In writing this article, I hold no a priori ontological assumptions but hope at least to offer the necessary neurally-oriented explanations where the literature indicates them. However, I also note that certain NDE dimensions may not yet be fully explicated in terms of such a reductionist paradigm, and even where they could be, the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is still to be resolved within the natural sciences. Although I believe the book would have benefited from this embrace of the phenomenon’s likely mediation by such endogenous neurotransmission, or convergence on similar mechanisms, I nevertheless affirm that Greyson has delivered a laudable exposition of the transcendent experience as having deep psychiatric, personal, interpersonal, ethical, and possibly metaphysical implications.

One would suppose that if there were on unified supernatural consciousness, we should be able to switch bodies, which we can’t. Similarly, if everything about the self excluding life can be erased through brain injury, what would be left over that would constitute the soul. We know that individuals who are still alive but are in irreversible vegetative states that they are no longer “there.”