Survival Researcher or Christian Apologist? Could You Tell the Difference? (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from part two

11. Guilt by Association Ad Hominem

In his BICS essay Nahm repeatedly characterizes criticisms of reincarnation research found among both skeptics and proponents of psychical research as the objections of (no doubt inherently untrustworthy) skeptics (which, therefore, evidently discredit themselves). For example, there’s no question that Paul Edwards‘ 1996 Reincarnation: A Critical Examination took an unproductively mocking tone in several places, in addition to “assembl[ing] practically all relevant criticism of CORT [cases of the reincarnation type] offered up until 1996…. originally advanced by parapsychologists and concern[ing] Stevenson’s writings up until the early 1970s” (Nahm, p. 38; emphasis mine). Later, Nahm points out that “Edwards makes it clear on the first page of his Introduction that it is his goal to show that the claimed evidence for reincarnation is ‘worthless'” (p. 38). “Still,” we’re informed, “Edwards has several followers. Among them are Michael Murray and Michael Rea, who wholeheartedly recommended Edwards’ ridicule of reincarnation research in 2008 and relied almost exclusively on it” (p. 39). We’re told that this results in theistic philosophers Murray and Rea “presenting a grossly deficient overview of Stevenson’s work” (p. 39), further leading to “Keith Augustine approvingly cit[ing] Murray and Rea’s distorted critique in 2015 when he recapitulated Edwards’ arguments in his Introduction to a thick book entitled The Myth of an Afterlife” (p. 39). It’s notable here that I merely cited two points from their allegedly “distorted critique”—namely, that children seem to have rather undeveloped minds if they were once adults, and that some putative reincarnation cases might lack confirmed alternative normal explanations merely due to the absence of enough information to identify them. But with the backward chain from Augustine to Murray & Rea to “Edwards’ emotionally-tainted ridicule of CORT research” (p. 45) put forward, however weakly, Nahm can then simplify to “Edwards and Augustine’s argument” (p. 46) or “the conjecture of Edwards, Augustine, or Murray and Rea” (p. 57), having conveniently forgotten that the chain began with criticisms “originally advanced by parapsychologists”! What matters, of course, is not who voiced a criticism, but whether a criticism is valid or not—and at one point Nahm even concedes the validity of most of the criticisms under discussion, making his guilt by association ad hominem doubly pointless.

Attributing the characteristics of the most derisive skeptics to other skeptics simply because both are doubtful that a particular position is true is hardly different than stereotyping your run-of-the-mill atheist based on the murderous behavior of ruthless atheists.

Nahm did take issue with what he perceives that I “insinuated,” namely that “Stevenson performed very little research after the early 1970s” (p. 39). The fact that I never said any such thing is immaterial when the goal is to discredit one’s target. Nahm evidently believes that by publishing a summary of one of Stevenson’s research assistant’s criticisms that dates back to late 1972, I thereby “insinuated” that Stevenson conducted little research since then. In truth, I never insinuated anything about how much reincarnation research Stevenson did since the 1970s one way or the other. Of course, if you’re looking for just about anything to criticize simply for the sake having a criticism, a straw man will do. But Nahm was also aware of why I included this contribution from my explanation on this point back in 2016 in my reply to an off-the-mark book review:

The oldest of these selections warrants further comment here. The original Ransom report detailed 18 methodological problems with the late Ian Stevenson’s reincarnation research, 13 of which were noted in the abbreviated summary of the report published in the volume. The remaining 13 items address problems inherent in the testimonial nature of the evidence that Stevenson collected, which means that they are of the sort that cannot be eliminated, or cannot be eliminated very easily. Thus they are just as relevant today as they were in 1972. Since no other contribution explores the inherent weaknesses of the sort of testimonial evidence that survival research relies upon so heavily, the original Ransom report seemed a good fit for the volume. Although some of the items in the original report may be dated, they would have been offset by the inclusion of both Stevenson’s reply to the report and Ransom’s response to it, had Ransom and I been able to secure permission from the Division of Perceptual Studies to publish the entire exchange. (2016, p. 205)

Nahm best explains the other thing that he took issue with, which he calls “Edwards and Augustine’s argument” (p. 46):

One of the reasons that led Edwards, Augustine, and others to believe that Stevenson was misguided when interpreting his field studies in foreign counties was that he usually entered the scene as a stranger without deeper insights into the local conditions and that he had to rely on local researchers and interpreters in his interviews—for example, Satwant Pasricha. Because she is Indian and believes in reincarnation, Edwards considered her and other local assistants who believed in reincarnation and participated in CORT investigations principally unqualified to participate in these studies.

Nahm’s “unqualified” seems exaggerated here, but apart from that, merely mentioning a criticism found in the literature in a survey of the literature is hardly an indictment of anything, which is perhaps why fellow survival researcher Braude noted the exact same criticism in his BICS essay, as I noted in endnote 8 of my reply to Nahm:

Somehow Braude’s legitimate concern that “many cases also require the services of translators whose own biases, inadequacies, and needs might influence the direction or accuracy of the testimony obtained” (Braude, 2021*, p. 32), originally raised by prolific paranormal author Ian Wilson (1982, p. 50), becomes transformed into “Edwards and Augustine’s argument” (Nahm, 2021*, p. 46) or “the conjecture of Edwards, Augustine, or Murray and Rea” (Nahm, 2021*, p. 57) in Nahm’s guilt by association ad hominem. Even if the skeptical literature contains “a disconcerting amount of scorn, sweeping generalizations, and misinformation,” that’s not an indictment of anything that I have written.

In any case, my reply to Nahm’s commentary (and earlier exchange with Braude and co.) presents, among other things, an altogether different criticism of reincarnation researchers—namely, that they have not met their burden to show that the reincarnation hypothesis best explains cases of the reincarnation type (CORT), or merely makes reincarnation more probable than not—let alone demonstrated reincarnation “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as BICS mandated. All that Nahm does is repeatedly shift the burden of proof off of his own case for reincarnation and on to skeptics to make a case that CORT are best explained by non-reincarnation. But why should someone who is unconvinced of your assertions (in place of a case for your position) have to do anything at all? Nahm is the one claiming to have shown reincarnation beyond a reasonable doubt! So where is Nahm’s argument—his premises, recognized logical form, and derivations from combining those premises—that accomplishes that feat? Nothing has been offered to refute.

12. Shifting the Burden of Proof Off of One’s Own Positive Existential Claims

In my original BICS critique I didn’t have the space to do more than mention two instances where psychical researchers shift the burden of proof off of themselves and on to those who are simply unconvinced of their claims—namely, in their failure to establish that electronic voice phenomena represent more than pareidolia (p. 383) and in Nahm’s use of loaded terms (p. 393n19) to favor his position without actually arguing in its favor. Fortunately, Nahm felt compelled to offer a separate commentary on the summer exchange, opening the door for me to expand upon his frequent deployment of this fallacy.

While I could quote my response to Nahm’s commentary, instead I’ll keep the point brief since an entire section of my reply is devoted to examples of Nahm shifting the burden of proof on to anyone who merely refrains from affirming his conclusions. There’s a tendency for reincarnation researchers like Nahm, and psychical researchers in general, to offer certain (ostensible) facts as if they are evidence for reincarnation (or discarnate personal survival in general). However, they rarely even outline how these putative facts would lend evidential support to these hypotheses. At a minimum, such researchers should tell us why these putative facts would be more expected were reincarnation true rather than were it false. This they rarely (if ever) do, making it impossible to assess their case—which is just to say that they don’t actually provide any evidential case to evaluate. There are plenty of ways to show that a particular piece of evidence constitutes evidence for a hypothesis, as exemplified by my coauthored “The Dualist’s Dilemma: The High Cost of Reconciling Neuroscience with a Soul” (2015), or Michael Sudduth’s groundbreaking A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (2016).

Some shift the burden of proof in subtle ways by redirecting attention to secondary but related issues. A common apologetic tactic, for example, presses how to best explain why Jesus’ tomb was empty (if not due to his bodily resurrection) while ignoring or blithely dismissing the more central question of what reason we have to believe that an empty tomb ever existed in the first place.

13. Straw Man

As I already noted in earlier items #1 and #11, a tactic common in both Christian and survivalist apologetics is to attack a caricature one’s opponents’ views rather than the views themselves. In Nahm’s winter commentary, for instance, I’m erroneously characterized as “a physicalist who maintains not only that mind is positively caused by brain activity but who additionally advocates the peculiar stance according to which all mental processes are brain processes and that the mind is the nervous system” (p. 788). This allows Nahm to (attempt to) refute faux Augustine by proposing from this straw man “deductions [that] are consequential” about “causally closed brains” (p. 790) and the like, while simultaneously making plain his ignorance of the topic of discussion (which I will address in a later item). But as philosopher David Kyle Johnson points out when addressing Christian apologists in Philosophia Christi, a person can deny “that our minds are housed in a separable substance (called a soul) that can float away from our body when we die” without, contra a common apologetic argument, rejecting that either mental processes (1) exist or (2) cause our behavior (Johnson, 2018, p. 543). The latter claims are attempts to straw man those who don’t believe in souls. As Johnson notes, all that it takes to do this is to affirm (or merely consider as possible) any theory of mind in the philosophy of mind other than eliminative materialism/illusionism (which says that conscious experiences do not exist) or epiphenomenalism (which says that conscious experiences, while they exist, do not affect the physical world in any way). In Johnson’s words: “to the extent that readers recognize either Russellian monism, property dualism, or identity theory as a naturalist theory that holds the mental to be causally operative on the basic level, the debate is over” (p. 546). Indeed, I take Johnson’s point even further in the penultimate section of my initial BICS critique (“The Mind-Body Problem, Botched”—p. 384ff). One can even affirm that nonphysical souls exist (interactionist substance dualism), or that nothing physical exists (idealism), and still have strong empirical evidence that an individual’s conscious mental processes cannot exist/occur absent a functioning brain, which thereby blocks the scientific tenability of discarnate personal survival after death. I’m forced to repeat the point in endnote 4 (p. 804n4) of my response to Nahm’s winter commentary because too many survival researchers are unwilling to give up a talking point as rhetorically useful as “It’s all just fundamaterialism, man!”—whether this claim is true or not.

14. Arguments from Revelation

Although he is vague about the details, in his winter commentary Nahm ultimately resorts to a personal argument from revelation:

In my life, I have had a number of experiences that I can solely explain in terms of psi, and I also had one time-anchored experience of dual awareness that I can only explain in terms of the supposition that one part of my mind operated independently of my brain—even though I am perfectly aware of all the evidence for the “dependence thesis,” the dangers of misinterpreting such experiences, etc. In each case, these experiences were very plain and simple—not of the kinds that are complex and difficult to interpret, such as alien abductions or fleeting apparitions in twilight. I also know that countless people, ranging from intimate family members and friends to strangers, have reported very similar experiences…. Therefore, reading theoretical treatises by people who insist that the experiences I had are “impossible” (Reber & Alcock, 2019) or that my interpretations of them must be wrong is often perplexing and sometimes even amusing; and pretty much the same applies to theoretical elaborations in which authors explicate how proper “probabilities” for the mind/brain-dependence must be gauged (Augustine, 2022a, 2022b; Augustine & Fishman, 2015; see also Nahm, 2021, p. 59). I know that I speak for very many people including scientists when I say: For those who have 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. (p. 790)

I can only surmise that Nahm’s point is that, for him, his personal experiences (whether correctly interpreted or not, or remembered accurately or not) will always trump any assessment of publicly available evidence by anyone. And that’s fair enough. Among the chosen people who’ve been privy to such revelations (divine or otherwise), I think that this is a reasonable position to take, though I would (personally) be wary of reading much more than “maybe” into a purely subjective experience that cannot be verified by others in some way. But as I point out in my response to Nahm, “It’s odd for Nahm to voluntarily enter projects to convince others of his views using evidence” with this attitude (p. 806n21). The problem is that while such experiences might be evidence for the person who undergoes them, they don’t do much for the rest of us:

But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him. (Paine, 1794/2010, p. 21)

Although Founding Father Thomas Paine was addressing the argument from personal revelations “recorded” in sacred texts like the Christian Bible, the principle is the same: your private experiences are not public evidence available to me (or anyone else not among the chosen), making them irrelevant to debates about publicly available evidence—debates that have rules of engagement, and debates that Nahm has entered of his own accord. Moreover, in my earlier reply to Braude and co., I had already asked (not unreasonably) why such experiences—particularly those that in principle could be publicly verified—nevertheless consistently evade such verification, over and over again. Those in parapsychological circles often appeal to the concept of “trickster phenomena“—to which New York Post reporter Steven Greenstreet incredulously responded, “So, we’re dealing with Loki?!”—but this is a rather convenient out from answering the question. It’s akin to acknowledging the logical possibility that the toys come to life at night when no one is looking (or recording), but that we also have no positive reason to believe actually happens. Nahm does not take up this earlier question, which seems to me to be a more salient one for a debate about public evidence. Moreover, since BICS’ directive explicitly called for a high legal standard of evidence, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” I pointed out:

Surely even Nahm is unpersuaded of the occurrence of some events that others seemingly of good character swear up and down to having witnessed first-hand. There’s good reason, for example, why the testimonial “spectral evidence” propping up the Salem witch trials is no longer admissible in a court of law. (p. 806n21)

Whether the claims at issue concern first-hand reports of paranormal levitations or textual accounts of divinely parted seas, the parallels are obvious. The “evidence”—insofar as it is provided in order to convince others of one’s ideas—is no evidence at all.

15. Mere Assertions

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite -- Bertrand Russell

While Nahm may be satisfied with merely assuming without argument that we obviously have free will, the fact that this issue has been debated for millennia suggests that the answer to the question is anything but obvious. Interlocutors might therefore be reasonably expected to at least look into the issue before speaking on it, in order that they might be able to present some semblance of a reason for others to accept their views on the matter. Otherwise, speak only if it improves upon the silence:

[F]rom the perspective of the physicalists’ “world of natural science in all its mechanistic glory,” we are causally closed entities consisting of only “flesh, blood, atoms, and molecules” (Reber & Alcock, 2019, p. 10), or using Augustine’s more refined words: 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). These deductions are consequential. Thus, I often marvel at physicalist skeptics who constantly treat parapsychologists and survival researchers as if they had a free will, blaming them of having performed pseudoscience, cherry-picking, and other “inexcusable” misconduct, complaining they should have known better, behaved differently, and thought more rationally—as if the molecules constituting their deterministically operating brain matter ever had the slightest choice of having processed the physicochemical stimuli they received in any other way—and especially: more “rationally”! According to physicalist logic, causally closed brains cannot behave differently than they do. Hence, the mental by-products of survival researchers’ deterministic brain processes just cannot be blamed for anything. Mind your accusations, please! But after all, the mental accessories of physicalists’ brains can also not be blamed for what they had to write and for what they will have to write—this may alleviate brooding about the reasons underpinning such unheeding paradoxical reasoning and systematic misrepresentations of other people’s work. Say what you will: Physicalism is an astonishing world view. In all its mechanistic glory. (Nahm, p. 790)

For starters, Nahm’s (1) and (2) are entailed by determinism, not physicalism, and physicalists need not be determinists. More importantly, though, merely rejecting determinism doesn’t secure us the existence of (traditional/libertarian) free will (for reasons apart from the truism that whether or not we have a certain capacity does not depend upon what anyone believes about that issue). As I point out in the last endnote of my reply to Nahm’s commentary:

If you have a reason for acting, then that reason caused (determined) your act. Under determinism, whether the causes of acts are entirely physical, both physical and mental, or entirely mental makes no difference so long as the acts are caused. Any act that happened because of its cause was determined by it—”because he made me mad” is no less causal than “because my aggression neurons fired”—and so out of one’s control. If any of one’s acts happened uncaused, on the other hand, then they happened for no reason whatsoever since nothing caused them to happen, and they are no less out of one’s control. Uncaused acts that happen to me are no more in my control than fixed caused acts “since I have nothing to do with them” (Taylor, 1974, p. 47). So if Nahm’s (2) is true, it’s true for everyone (physicalist or otherwise). (p. 807n23)

Control over which action one performs has traditionally been understood as a prerequisite for possessing free will (and for being morally responsible for one’s actions). The point about our inability to control our determined (i.e., caused) actions is put well by the French Enlightenment philosopher Baron d’Holbach, who notes that a man is “born without his consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes … over which he has no control which … determine his manner of acting” (The System of Nature, 1770, trans. H. D. Robinson, Vol. 1, p. 98). The details elucidating this point have been elaborated elsewhere many times over, so I won’t dwell on them here.

The point about our inability to control any undetermined (i.e., uncaused) actions that we perform, should there be any—the only logically possible alternative to determined/caused actions—is well argued by the late ‘Amish‘ philosopher Richard Taylor:

Suppose that my right arm is free, according to this conception; that is, its motions are uncaused. It moves this way and that from time to time, but nothing causes these motions…. Manifestly I have nothing to do with them at all; they just happen, and neither I nor anyone can ever tell what this arm will be doing next. It might cease a club and lay it on the head of the nearest bystander, no less to my astonishment than his. There will never be any point in asking why these motions occur … for under the conditions assumed there is no explanation. They just happen, from no causes at all…. [S]o far as the motions of my body or its parts are entirely uncaused, such motions cannot even be ascribed to me as my behavior in the first place, since I have nothing to do with them…. I can have no more … control over the uncaused motions of my limbs than a gambler has over the motions of an honest roulette wheel. (Metaphysics, 1974, 2nd ed., p. 47)

It’s doubtful that I ever actually perform any uncaused actions, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that I do. Conceptually, any actions that I perform that are uncaused simply happen to me, and so are no more in my control than fixed caused acts since, as Taylor put it, “I have nothing to do with them.” But then undetermined/uncaused actions are no more “free” (that is, within my control) than determined/caused ones, leading to this dilemma argument against the existence of free will (“autonomy”):

  1. Either our choices are necessitated or they are not.
  2. If they are necessitated, then we do not control them, and so we lack autonomy.
  3. If they are not necessitated, then they are random, and so we lack autonomy.
  4. Therefore, we lack autonomy.
 — Russ-Shafer Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics (2018), p. 187 [formatting mine]

In my reply to Nahm’s commentary, I point out that instead of trying to defeat this simple dilemma argument, from the 20th century onward metaphysicians have tended to move more toward “decoupling causal responsibility for an act (which determinism entails) from moral responsibility for it” (p. 807n23), which (if successful) might give us some wiggle room for holding people morally accountable for their actions even if free will doesn’t really exist. But even if such a project were doomed to failure, we’d still have societal grounds for legal accountability or similar approximations to genuine moral responsibility. So there’s no mystery in how even “ardent determinists can call out bad behavior or reasoning,” as I put it in my reply. Just consider how 20th-century philosopher Walter T. Stace argued this point:

You do not excuse a man for doing a wrong act because, knowing his character, you felt certain beforehand that he would do it. Nor do you deprive a man of a reward or prize because, knowing his goodness or his capabilities, you felt certain beforehand that he would win it.

Volumes have been written on the justification of punishment. But so far as it affects the question of free will, the essential principles involved are quite simple. The punishment of a man for doing a wrong act is justified, either on the ground that it will correct his own character, or that it will deter other people from doing similar acts….

Punishment, if and when it is justified, is justified only on one or both of the grounds just mentioned. The question then is how, if we assume determinism, punishment can correct character or deter people from evil actions.

Suppose that your child develops a habit of telling lies. You give him a mild beating. Why? Because you believe that his personality is such that the usual motives for telling the truth do not cause him to do so. You therefore supply the missing cause, or motive, in the shape of pain and the fear of future pain if he repeats his untruthful behavior. And you hope that a few treatments of this kind will condition him to the habit of truth-telling, so that he will come to tell the truth without the infliction of pain. You assume that his actions are determined by causes, but that the usual causes of truth-telling do not in him produce their usual effects. You therefore supply him with an artificially injected motive, pain and fear, which you think will in the future cause him to speak truthfully.

The principle is exactly the same where you hope, by punishing one man, to deter others from wrong actions. You believe that the fear of punishment will cause those who might otherwise do evil to do well….

The assumption on which punishment is based is that human behavior is causally determined. If pain could not be a cause of truth-telling there would be no justification at all for punishing lies. If human actions and volitions were uncaused, it would be useless either to punish or reward, or indeed to do anything else to correct people’s bad behavior. For nothing that you could do would in any way influence them. (Religion and the Modern Mind, 1952, pp. 289-291)

Parallel points could be made for concluding that an idea is true because one has good reasons for affirming it. Although machines as simple as calculators have no “choice” in how to solve arithmetic, nevertheless their solutions are completely caused by underlying computational activity that’s fully realized by solely physical processes—and yet there are simultaneously mathematical reasons to provide the solutions that calculators produce (making various arguments from reason moot).

In the quotation opening this section as a graphic, Russell was addressing William James’ views about “the will to believe.” This will infects survival researchers no less than those whose religious beliefs are more explicitly faith-based. Recall that in Braude’s opening approach in his BICS essay, he asks whether we are permitted to believe in discarnate personal survival, which is different from asking whether the evidence indicates that survival probably happens. The latter—Russell’s “the wish to find out”—is the tough-minded approach of the scientist. The former—James’ “will to believe”—is the soft-minded approach of those concerned merely with what they are allowed to believe in—most probably, what they would like to believe is true, not what’s likely to be true. This, of course, opens the door to an irrational propensity to favor comforting delusions over potentially uncomfortable truths, whatever the evidence for those truths. What’s more important—blissful ignorance for the sake of the bliss, or having a grasp of what’s actually going on around you? Knowledge has value for its own sake, independently of whether the (probable) truth makes us happier or not.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Survival Research: Post-Misrepresentation of the BICS Exchanges

“No good deed goes unpunished,” the old adage goes. Perhaps it’s time for a new one: “No statement goes undistorted.” Despite the fact that reincarnation researcher James G. Matlock exhibits a pattern of demonstrably “disseminating misinformation that is often difficult to erase again from the literature” (Nahm, 2022, p. 787) (like others defending discarnate personal survival), Nahm frequently treated Matlock as the last word on contentious subjects in his commentary on the summer exchanges (e.g., p. 785, 787, 791n6). It’s consequently notable that Matlock continues to mischaracterize my work (as he did in an earlier review) in his passing comments on the BICS exchanges in a new Psi Encyclopedia entry on critical responses to what Nahm dubbed reincarnation “before-cases”:

In addressing Michael Nahm’s assessment that strong early-bird cases provide some of the best evidence for reincarnation, Keith Augustine allows that they ‘would be impressive’, but ‘only if normal/conventional sources of information for ostensibly anomalous knowledge were not present’ in these cases. However, he avers, without substantiation, ‘we already know’ that ordinary sources of information account for the apparent memories. In a footnote, Augustine does not directly support this allegation, but refers to what he regards as a related issue, the ‘law of good enough’ evoked by Sudduth in his attack on the James Leininger case; but this has since been undermined by Matlock.

In the above quotation, I bolded an example of how Matlock (like Nahm) repeats a misrepresentation in order to shift the burden of proof. What I had actually said was that Nahm’s unsupported assertion that “Retrospective tampering is much more difficult and unlikely” in his prized before-cases (putative reincarnation cases investigated before the families involved met and so could not share details) “would be impressive only if normal/conventional sources of information for ostensibly anomalous knowledge were not present in before-cases, and we already know that they have been” (p. 380).

My point was that before-cases do not even constitute prima facie evidence for anything paranormal (reincarnation or otherwise) unless normal/conventional sources of information (or influence) have been ruled out in them, and I cited Sudduth’s careful analysis as an example of a before-case where normal/conventional sources of information not only failed to be excluded, but were actually found. I never said that ordinary sources of information were definitively uncovered in all before-cases, just that Nahm (and other reincarnation researchers) never ensured their absence. But that’s exactly what science requires researchers to do to make a prima facie case that something paranormal is going on in such cases. Matlock, like Nahm, merely attempts to shift the burden of proof off of reincarnation researchers to provide the promised “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of reincarnation. Instead, they place the burden on anyone who dares to doubt that they have delivered the goods (such as agnostics about whether reincarnation occurs). Their obligation to demonstrate that reincarnation has occurred in the cases that they cite in favor of it is transmuted into an obligation on the unconvinced to show that it hasn’t occurred. That’s all fine and well for marketing your conclusions to a sympathetic audience—but don’t pretend that it’s science addressed to everyone.

Sudduth had earlier shown that normal sources of information for putatively paranormal knowledge that James Leininger ‘couldn’t have known otherwise’ were not, in fact, particularly “unlikely” in the Leininger before-case. Does this demonstrate that such normal sources definitely were available in all other before-cases? Of course not; but that’s not the point. The point is that bald proclamations about how unlikely they are need to be supported, not merely asserted. Anyone can assert anything. Supporting what you assert is another matter, and Nahm did not do that on this point in his BICS essay.

Incredibly, Matlock’s Psi Encyclopedia entry straw-mans my endnote #13 as alleging that we already know that putative memories of reincarnation are fully accounted for by “ordinary sources of information.” That I never said any such thing is immaterial to those who polemically aim to paint me in a certain way. Moreover, I don’t seek to even indirectly support this imaginary allegation by way of reference to the statistician’s law of near enough. In fact, I was quite explicit in that endnote that Sudduth had previously made an entirely different point to the one that I was making in the main text:

13. So much, then, for Nahm’s response to conventional counterexplanations of CORT already noted in the literature: “none of the critiques listed above applies to the strong before-cases in which written documents were made before the previous personalities were identified and the families met” (2021*, p. 40). And I haven’t even mentioned how spurious specific correspondences between one’s life and that of a (supposedly reincarnated) person can be manufactured from whole cloth due to the law of near enough (Sudduth, 2021, pp. 999-1000, 1006; cf. Angel, 2015, pp. 575-578), even when supposed correspondences are conflicting (Sudduth, 2021, p. 1022n62). (p. 392n13)

In the main text I was obviously addressing “conventional counterexplanations of CORT already noted in the literature” apart from Sudduth’s (relatively novel) point about spurious correspondences being generatable from whole cloth. Indeed, right after explicitly asking how reincarnation researchers have ruled out normal sources, I even added the qualifier “nonspurious” to be as clear as possible that I wasn’t addressing Sudduth’s other point about spurious correspondences: “The boggle factor for CORT requires the assumption that there is no normal source of any (nonspurious) factual correspondences” (p. 380).

And since my point was about the “the assumption that there is no normal source of any (nonspurious) factual correspondences,” the issue here wasn’t about the law of near-enough at all (the source of spurious correspondences), but about other than spurious potential normal sources of such correspondences, such as the possibility “that they were not investigated deeply enough” (p. 379), which is something that Sudduth had earlier demonstrated in the Leininger before-case apart from his independent concerns about the likelihood that some correspondences were spurious ones. In other words, Sudduth had previously shown that both spurious and nonspurious (but normal-means-informed) correspondences could account for the correspondences that reincarnation researchers appealed to as strong evidence for paranormality in the Leininger before-case.

Conclusion: Which Opposing Authors are the Good Ones?

In John Loftusoutsider test for faith, Loftus suggests that believers subject their own religious beliefs to the same degree of scrutiny that the faith claims of rival religions would receive from them. Presumably this procedure is designed to minimize the influence of confirmation bias, subconsciously or otherwise, on one’s conclusions.

I would recommend a similarly motivated test for survival research. If you’re skeptical of discarnate personal survival, ask yourself: Which survival sympathizers are the reasonable ones? (Chief on my list would be classic thinkers like C. D. Broad, H. H. Price, or Gardner Murphy, or contemporary ones like Carlos Alvarado, Alan Gauld, or David H. Lund.) Alternatively, if you believe in discarnate personal survival, ask yourself: Which survival skeptics are the reasonable ones? For the sake of maximizing self-awareness, understand “survival skeptics” to refer to authors who doubt the existence of both discarnate personal survival in particular and genuinely paranormal phenomena in general. With that broad definition in mind, can you think of any reasonable skeptical authors?

If you cannot, this says less about the traits of skeptical writers and more about your own intolerance for dissenting points of view. There are a large proportion of people who are skeptical of both survival and the paranormal, ranging from scientists to journalists to next-door neighbors, and they are not cookie-cutter clones from some monolith of “fundamaterialists” or “pseudoskeptics” (or whatever other childish label you want to slap on the other). No doubt there will always be some skeptics who are opinionated and pigheaded, but why waste your time on them? With so many different things competing for our attention during a finite lifetime, and in the interest of steel-manning, wouldn’t it be better to limit your attention to the reasonable opponents?

If you cannot name even one writer who reasonably doubts the existence of both personal survival and the paranormal, then I suggest that the problem lies with you, not with such writers. Instead of projecting your own insecurities outward on to those who challenge your beliefs, you would do better to pause to consider the reasons for your unwillingness to consider why a writer might come to a completely different conclusion than you do. If those with no dog in this fight can come up with lists of perfectly reasonable authors on both sides of the issue, then there’s no reason (apart from your own intransigence) why you can’t do it, too.