Michael Sudduth argues that survivalists are wrong to claim certain kinds of evidence as indicative of postmortem survival, because the instances they cite require untested "auxiliary assumptions" that are just as problematic as any assumptions that underlie the super-psi hypothesis. (By the way, I'm using the term super-psi because it's familiar to most people who follow this kind of thing, though Michael Sudduth prefers the term "living agent psi," or LAP.)
Here are some specific examples. At least as far back as Richard Hodgson's investigations of Leonora Piper, it has been noted that newly deceased communicators speaking through mediums often exhibit feebleness and confusion; their messages are brief and muddled. But with the passage of time (usually just a few days) the communicators improve noticeably; the confusion is largely dispelled, and the messages become clearer and more lengthy. Moreover, with continued practice, some communicators seem to hone their skills, and some just seem better at it than others; certain individuals come through a variety of mediums with consistently good results, while others never seem to get the hang of it.
Hodgson and other survivalists argue that these developments are just what we would expect if the communications are genuinely coming from discarnate individuals. The trauma of the dying process leaves these persons fatigued and befuddled for a short time, but with the opportunity to rest and orient themselves to their new environment, they grow stronger and shake off their lethargy. Furthermore, practice improves their abilities in some cases; and just as some incarnate individuals have a gift for mediumship and others don't, some discarnates are better able to communicate through mediums than others.
None of this, Hodgson et al. w0uld say, is what we would expect from super-psi, or any kind of psi among the living. We would expect psi to generate all messages with approximately equal clarity, since all are originating from the same source. Even if mediums and sitters differ in their native psychic abilities, we would at least expect the same medium in conference with the same sitter to produce roughly the same quality of results from one week to the next, rather than a dramatic improvement consistent with the discarnate's period of R&R and orientation.
The argument made by Michael Sudduth, as I understand it, is that this line of reasoning is flawed, because it assumes too much. We are merely assuming that the dying process is traumatic in some cases, and that it leaves the discarnate person weak or confused. We are also assuming, without proof, that a period of rest and recovery follows the trauma of passing over, and that this recovery period will allow the discarnate to think more clearly and communicate more effectively. Further, we are assuming that practice will improve some communicators' skills, and that some people are better communicators than others. All of these "auxiliary assumptions," being untested, are arbitrary and ad hoc, and thus of little value in supporting the survivalist case. Until and unless these assumptions can be properly tested and verified, the survivalist case is at least as open to criticism as the case for super-psi.
It's an interesting viewpoint, but I don't go along with it. I think the main difference between Michael Sudduth and me is my approach to this kind of evidence. I don't think that a rigorously logical proof, along the lines of proving a mathematical theorem, is possible when dealing with empirical evidence, especially when the evidence involves something as in inherently ambiguous and subjective as states of consciousness (incarnate or discarnate). Instead, I think what is needed is something more like the reasoning we hope to find in a jury's deliberations.
A jury looks over all the evidence presented at trial and tries to construct the most plausible narrative – a narrative that is both internally consistent and consistent with the facts. It is understood that there may be some loose ends, since, outside of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, no case can be tied up with perfect neatness. It is also understood that there will always be room for doubt, but the goal is to eliminate reasonable doubt – "reasonable" being a somewhat elastic and subjective term, but (we hope) agreed upon broadly enough to make consensus possible.
The scenario that the jury constructs will be grounded in the jurors' own experiences and common sense. Certain assumptions about human behavior and motivation are taken for granted.
Now, in the context of the survivalist argument, it seems to me that the survivalists are thinking the way jurors are supposed to. They are looking at the facts (such as those I listed above) and trying to integrate them into a reasonably consistent storyline, using their own common sense and personal experience as a guide.
So they say, for instance, that some people undergo trauma during the dying process, and that this leaves them weak and confused. This is, as Michael Sudduth observes, an auxiliary assumption, and it has not been independently tested (nor can it be, as far as I can see), but it is consistent with the experiences and observations that most of us take for granted in the world of the living. That is, most of us have found that if we go through a traumatic event, we are shaken up for some time afterward, and may find it hard to focus or function. Moreover, most of us are aware of cases where people seem to have experienced significant trauma while dying.
Survivalists also say that discarnates will improve after a period of recuperation. Again, this is consistent with our own experience and common sense. We all know that some time off, some rest and quiet meditation, can work wonders in restoring our vitality and clarity of mind.
Survivalists say that even discarnates who were not unduly traumatized by their passing may need time to adjust to their new condition. This again matches up with everyday common sense. Even if we were in perfect health, if we were suddenly and unexpectedly transported to China, we would surely need some time to learn our way around and figure out how to send a message home.
Survivalists say that practice can improve the skills of certain discarnate communicators. Again, as Michael Sudduth says, this is an untested auxiliary assumption; but again, it is consistent with everything we know about our own behavior. Practicing a skill usually does produce improvement. We are usually better at serving a tennis ball after a few weeks of practice than we were when we tried it for the first time.
Finally, survivalists say that some communicators seem to have an innate gift for communicating through mediums, while others never quite get the hang of it – and that these individual differences are consistently observable across a range of mediums. This matches what we know about ourselves and the people we've observed. Some of us are just naturally better at certain things. We've all known someone who was a natural athlete or who had an ear for music (as well as those who were hopelessly unathletic or unmusical). It also seems clear that some people have an innate talent at mediumship, which manifests at an early age, while others have no such talent and must learn the skill through tedious trial and error, if they can learn it at all.
The untested auxiliary assumptions, then, are grounded in real-world experience and common sense. While they can't be decisively proven, they do make sense of phenomena that would be otherwise hard to explain.
In response to this, it could be argued that our subconscious minds, having absorbed these experiences and being aware of common-sense assumptions, simply generate messages in line with our expectations. But then we seem to get back to the issue I raised in a post titled "The Two Options" – namely, that something akin to a global conspiracy of our subconscious minds would have to be at work in order to fool us into thinking that these communications are real. And a while a universal conspiracy unknown to our conscious selves can never be logically ruled out, it also does not seem like a proposition susceptible either to proof or to falsification. It can't be proved, because by definition we are unaware of it; and it can't be definitively falsified, because any evidence that might count against it can be explained as part of the conspiracy itself.
Finally, it should be noted that the explanations proffered by survivalists are often seconded (or even originated) by the communicators themselves, who justify variations in their own communication skills in terms of fatigue, recovery, and practice, and who tell us of recuperation centers and the need for orientation upon arrival. Either our subconscious minds are telling elaborate lies (a possibility that can never be ruled out) or these communications can be taken at face value. In either case, there appears to be no obvious way of testing or verifying such claims, beyond the methods that are already in use.