22 May 2017


Michael Sudduth. A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Post-Mortem Survival. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

This book offers a detailed critique of the arguments used to defend the notion of survival of bodily death. In the first section of the book Sudduth lays out the classical arguments for the belief in life after death and what that belief make actually entail. In the second section he gives accounts of the sort of evidence relied upon, using as examples near-death experiences, mediumistic communications and memories of past lives.
He deliberately excludes cases of apparitions.

In the third and largest section he analyses various arguments for the belief in survival and shows that they are more complex and unclear than is usually thought. I wish I could give a detailed survey of these arguments but I encounter a major problem in doing so, for they expressed not in clear English language prose but rather in the form of quasi-mathematical equations, impenetrable to those of us who have not undertaken university courses in formal logic. I imagine this may well include many people interested in psychical research and the question of human survival of bodily death. This is a great pity because I suspect that Sudduth is making some really important points.

Here is a much simplified and therefore perhaps incorrect summary of what I feel are the major points he raises. The first is that the claim that certain paranormal phenomena provide evidence for survival of death relies first on an argument from elimination, in particular that there are only two other alternatives available: the evidence is due to fraud, misobservation, defects of memory etc., or the evidence is due to 'super-psi'. Eliminate these and default you have proved survival. Of course there are any number of alternative logical possibilities, the evidence is due to the actions of mischievous boggarts, daemons, demons, jinns, fairies, aliens, etc. Or maybe the universe is a computer simulation and these are communications from the programmers; perhaps they are communications from the living breathing individuals in alternate worlds, or any number of possible explanations that no-one has ever thought of, including those no human ever will be able to think of, any more than chimpanzees can think of nuclear physics.

The second argument is that in order to account for the evidence certain additional assumptions must be made about surviving entities; that they are fully human personalities with human needs and intentions, that they carry memories of terrestrial life, that they can acquire information from and transmit information to the terrestrial world, and that they desire to communicate and have the means to do so. There is another hidden assumption which I don’t think Sudduth brings out, and that is there must be a one-to-one temporal correspondence between 'their world' and ours in order for communication to take place.

It also strikes me that given these assumptions there ought to be a prediction that as more and more people with a deep interest in psychical research 'pass over' the communications should become increasingly more sophisticated and impressive, perhaps involving cross correspondences dealing with highly technical scientific matters. In reality the bulk of the most impressive evidence comes from before the Second World War and most of it from before the First World War.

The third of Sudduth’s arguments is that the dichotomy between survival and super-psi is a false one. For surviving entities to receive and transmit information implies they must use a process which could be called psi. When someone in a NDE describes what is going on in the operating theatre, or the whereabouts of false teeth or slippers on a hospital roof, no-one sees disembodied eyes floating around, so if genuine this information must come from some form of ESP. The same is true with mediumistic communications.

Take one example, this was something known as the book test, in which the sitter was told by the communicator to go to the library of someone else (presumably their country house library) and to select, say, the sixth book from the left on the third shelf of the fourth bookcase from the right and look at line ten on page 150 where they will find an appropriate message. Now I assume that spirits were not expected to be able to open books and read them, therefore they must have acquired the information through ESP of some sort.

In other worlds it is not survival versus super-psi but survival + super-psi, versus embodied super-psi, with no clear way of distinguishing between them. Sudduth also points out that we have no way of knowing what super-psi ought to look like, so may indeed always look like survival. Sudduth here also notes the role of dissociation, multiple personality, role playing and the like in the production of such communications.

As you will see even from this grossly oversimplified summary, this is a very complex and difficult book, but one that those with a serious interest in psychical research should try and struggle through. Even those sceptical of both survival and psi should find something of value if they persist, the arguments may elucidate that non-paranormal explanations may be more complex and subtle than is usually thought. – Peter Rogerson.

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