There is an excellent interview with Chris Carter, author of Science and the Afterlife at Subversive Thinking by the blogger Jime. The interview was on the subject of Carter's book, which is about survival of consciousness after death. In the interview, Jime, who believes in the survival, brought up one bogus criticism of survival after another and Chris Carter thoroughly rebutted each of them in turn. Carter has an advanced degree in philosophy and it showed in his explanations which were knowledgeable, well reasoned, and cut through to the core of the issues.
The interview covered three subjects that I have blogged about here and discussed on my web site:
- There are several independent forms of very strong evidence that prove the survival of consciousness after death is a fact.
- Criticisms of survival after death based on arguments that it is unscientific are flawed.
- Survival of consciousness after death is a much better explanation for the evidence than is super-ESP.
The key points made in the interview are:
- The strongest evidence for survival comes from mediumship because, in the best cases, the evidence is from the spirit's perspective, and it demonstrates more than just knowledge of the spirit but also characteristics like purpose, personality, and skills. Statements made by a medium and recorded are an objective form of evidence and not susceptible to "mistaken eye-witnesses testimony". However, there are additional very strong forms of evidence for survival including "near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who claim to remember previous lives", and "reports of apparitions". Carter points out that these are independent forms of evidence. This is an important point since multiple independent forms of evidence provide a much stronger argument than a single form of evidence.
- Survival after death is a question of fact, it is not a theory. Therefore criticisms of theories such as unfalsifiability, inability to make predictions, or lack of explanatory power are not applicable to survival. However the survival hypothesis has been proved true by the evidence, it makes the prediction that consciousness survives death, and it is a very "simple", "straightforward" explanation for various paranormal phenomena.
- Occam's razor, which says, in Carter's words, "do not add unnecessary causal factors to explanations", should be understood as saying that factors added to protect the theory from contradictory evidence should not be added. Because of this, survival is a superior hypothesis to super-ESP. While survival requires the inclusion of spirits as causal factors, these are a direct inference from the data. However, super-ESP has been extended again and again as telepathy, and then ESP, were shown to be unable to explain the evidence for survival. It is these greater and greater capabilities attributed to super-ESP that are added as a causal factors to protect the theory from falsification. These capabilities are unnecessary because the survival hypothesis provides a simpler more straightforward explanation without them. Therefore survival is a superior explanation of the evidence than is super-ESP.
- Survival is a self-evident explanation for afterlife phenomena. Alternatives, when testable, (such as telepathy or ESP), have been shown to be false, and when not testable, (such as super-ESP or fraud), are "pseudo-scientific excuses for refusing to accept an otherwise straightforward inference from the evidence."
For ease of reference, I have included below a list of objections to survival that were discussed in the interview with links to the section of this post that explains how they were rebutted by Carter. It is not a complete table of contents so if you want to read the whole post you must scroll through it rather than jump ahead with just these links.
- The hypothesis that consciousness survives death is not falsifiable.
- The survival hypothesis does not make predictions or have explanatory force.
- The evidence for survival is only anomalous data.
Flawed Criticisms of Survival in Comparison to Super-ESP:
- The Super-ESP hypothesis is equal in predictive power to Survival.
- Survival is equivalent to super-ESP in other ways.
- The evidence of survival is really evidence of super-ESP.
- Apparitions can be explained by collective hallucinations.
- There is no independent reason for believing in survival.
- Occam's Razor favors super-ESP over survival.
- If ESP cannot explain the evidence for survival, then it may mean the capabilities of ESP are greater than expected and super-ESP is a possible explanation for that evidence.
Flawed Criticisms of Survival as a Scientific Theory:
Below, I try to summarize what was said in the interview. However, I suggest you also read the full interview since it is probable that my summary and paraphrasing will be imperfect and I may inadvertently misrepresent some of what was said.
Evidence for the Afterlife
In the interview, Carter explains that the best evidence for the afterlife comes from mediumship and "near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who claim to remember previous lives, and from reports of apparitions". He points out that these are independent forms of evidence. This is an important point since multiple independent forms of evidence provide a much stronger argument than a single form of evidence.
Carter also explains that mediumship is the strongest form of evidence for survival because in the best cases, such as trance mediumship, the evidence is direct evidence of the spirit, and it demonstrates the perspective, purposes, personality, and skills of the spirit. Statements made by a medium can be recorded so the evidence is also objective and not susceptible to "mistaken eye-witness testimony" as other form of evidence are.
Is Survival a Good Explanation of the Evidence?
In the interview, Carter also discusses whether the afterlife is a falsifiable theory. Falsifiability of a theory was identified by Karl Popper as necessary for a theory to be scientific.
Carter explained that the question of the afterlife is not a theory, it is a question of fact. A theory is an expression of the relationship between facts or how facts "fit together". For example, gravity is a fact. If you drop a stone, it falls. However the theory of gravity is a mathematical formula that describes how the force of gravity depends on mass and distance.
You can prove a theory is false by finding evidence that contradicts the theory. But you can never prove a theory is true because there is always the possibility that some day you will find an exception to it. For example, Newton's theory of gravity was believed true, until observations showed that Einstein's theory of gravity could explain a phenomenon that was not consistent with Newton's theory.
However a hypothesis about a fact, such as the fact that consciousness can survive death, can be proved true with evidence. The evidence that proves consciousness survives death includes mediumship, near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who remember past lives, and reports of apparitions. Therefore, whether or not survival is falsifiable is irrelevant.
Carter also discussed the question of whether a theory must make predictions that give it explanatory force in order for the theory to be scientific. One criticism of survival is that it lacks predictive power so has little explanatory utility and is therefore not scientific. Critics claim survival invokes "spirits" to explain phenomena whenever there is no other known natural explanation. The criticism is that survival is an ad hoc assertion rather than a theory that makes predictions.
Carter pointed out that survival does make predictions, it predicts that consciousness survives death. He again pointed out that survival is a question of fact not theory. Carter also rejected the premise of the question, that scientific theories have to have "predictive power in order to have explanatory force". He explained that theories only have to be testable and that progress in science is made by testing hypotheses. What the hypothesis explains is a different issue he said. However, Carter asserted that survival does have explanatory force because it is a "simple and concise" explanation for mediumship, near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who remember past lives, and reports of apparitions.
Carter rejected the assertion that survival only relies on anomalous data, he asserted that the evidence is much more than anomalous data. I believe he was alluding the several independent forms of very strong evidence for survival that he previously mentioned in the interview: mediumship, near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who remember past lives, and reports of apparitions.
Survival After Death is a Much Better Explanation of the Evidence than is Super-ESP
Super-ESP is the hypothesis that the psychic powers of living persons are responsible for the evidence that is said to prove survival after death. For example, a medium might unconsciously use ESP to obtain information about a deceased individual and then simulate communications with the individual's spirit.
Carter was asked if survival makes testable predictions that make it a better explanation of the evidence than super-ESP.
Carter rejected the premise, that survival is a theory that should make predictions. He pointed out that survival is a "straightforward inference from the data". It is an issue of fact not an issue of theory and the necessity of predictive power is not applicable to facts, only to theories.
Carter explained that survival has been consistently inferred from the evidence for thousands of years while super-ESP was proposed only in the late 19th century by those opposed to survival on ideological grounds. When proxy sittings proved mediumship could not be explained by telepathy, extra-sensory perception (ESP) was proposed as an alternative to telepathy as the explanation. When mediums demonstrated skills and personality of the spirit, which could not be explained by ESP, super-ESP was proposed as the explanation. This shows the lack of predictive power leading to the super-ESP hypothesis. Carter states that ESP or super-ESP cannot explain several features of evidence for survival. Carter then discusses experiments by Gary Schwartz which obtained results contrary to what super-ESP would predict.
The question of how to compare theories based on various characteristics was also discussed in relation to whether survival is a superior explanation of the evidence than super-ESP. Carter explained that when two theories make the same predictions, historically they have been equivalent theories. He stated that scientific theories must be testable so you should be able to distinguish a correct theory from an incorrect theory by falsifying the incorrect theory.
However, the question of survival is not a scientific theory. In order to evaluate an explanation of the evidence for survival, Carter said, you need to consider "1) Does it solve a problem", 2) "Does it do so" in a simple manner, and 3) "Is it consistent with other beliefs" for which there are "good reasons to consider true". Carter explained that for survival you can answer yes to all three, but for super-ESP you can only answer yes to the first item.
Survival solves the problem of how to explain mediumship and near-death experiences etc. Survival is a simple inference from the data. And there are several independent forms of evidence for survival so it is consistent with other beliefs for which there are good reasons to consider true. However super-ESP is a contrived explanation, it is not simple, and there is no independent evidence for it (see the next section below), so there is no good reason to believe it. Therefore, survival is a better explanation of the evidence than super-ESP.
Carter argued there is no independent evidence for super-ESP except where it is asserted to occur as evidence for the afterlife. If super-ESP was correct, there should be evidence of super-ESP doing more important things, like protecting people from actual harm, rather than just simulating evidence for the afterlife. Therefore there is no good reason to believe in super-ESP.
Carter discussed the claim that collective hallucination could explain multiple witness apparitions. He pointed out there is no actual evidence of collective hallucination occurring among healthy people except for the cases of multiple witness apparitions.
Another criticism discussed was that the survival hypothesis does not rely on any independent reasons for believing in survival beyond the evidence for survival itself, just as super-ESP does not have any independent means of support beyond afterlife phenomenon. Carter pointed out that the different forms of evidence for survival, mediumship, near-death experiences, death-bed visions, children who remember past lives, and reports of apparitions, are independent reasons for believing in it.
Carter then explained that the best evidence for survival is different in kind not in degree of ESP and therefore something different from ESP must be required to explain it. I believe he was alluding to the cases of mediumship, where the evidence demonstrates the spirits perspective, purposes, personality, and skills.
Next, Carter dealt with Occam's Razor as applied to survival and super-ESP. Occam's razor, which says, in Carter's words, "do not add unnecessary causal factors to explanations", should be understood as saying that factors added to protect the theory from contradictory evidence should not be added. If both survival and super-ESP involve ESP, then is super-ESP superior because it does not invoke spirits and so involves fewer causative factors? While survival requires the inclusion of spirits as causal factors, these are a direct inference from the data. However, super-ESP has been extended again and again as telepathy, and then ESP, were shown to be unable to explain the evidence for survival. It is these greater and greater capabilities leading to super-ESP that are added as a causal factors to protect the theory from falsification. These capabilities are unnecessary because the survival hypothesis provides a simpler more straightforward explanation without them. Therefore survival is a superior explanation of the evidence than super-ESP.
Another criticism Carter dealt with is that if ESP cannot explain the evidence for survival it might mean that the capabilities of super-ESP are greater than currently understood and not that survival is true.
I'll end my post with how Carter responded to this criticism:
In my work I present the evidence that provides a prima facie case for survival; demonstrate that alternative explanations, to the extent that they are testable, have been proven false; and then argue that to the extent these alternative explanations are not testable (such as elaborate fraud scenarios, or super-ESP) they are pseudo-scientific excuses for refusing to accept an otherwise straightforward inference from the evidence.
I highly recommend reading the whole interview.
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