In my last post I discussed a couple of issues raised by Michael Sudduth and Bernardo Kastrup in regard to Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander's bestselling book about his NDE. Dr. Sudduth was good enough to respond via email, and to give me permission to post his response, which follows.
Thanks for commenting on my blog "In Defense of Sam Harris on Near-Death Experiences," as well as the responses to it. Let me say, at the outset, that I appreciate your less tilted and more sober analysis of the discussion. Nonetheless, I wanted to offer a rejoinder to your commentary, mostly in the spirit of clarification. Reality may be an irredeemable mess, but there's no good reason for supposing that arguments must be. So permit a few more flaps of the butterfly's wings, come what may.
As I made clear in my response to Kastrup, I didn't say (or imply) that on Harris' view Alexander's NDE could not be explained by postulating some purely natural mechanism, such as one invoking biologically active DMT compounds. Moreover, I didn't say, contrary to what you've suggested, that Harris wasn't trying to discredit Alexander's particular interpretation of his NDE by introducing such a possibility or by arguing for that Alexander's NDE resembles DMT experiences. The issue here is how the appeal is supposed to discredit Alexander's NDE.
To repeat what I stated in my original blog, and also in my response to Kastrup, I've objected to Kastrup's contention that Harris was trying to argue that a DMT explanation (or similar reductively naturalistic explanation) of Alexander's NDE is the likely explanation of the experience. There's no textual basis for attributing this strong claim to Harris, which as I illustrated actually contradicts what Harris said. Much less is there any textual support for attributing this claim to Harris for the reasons Kastrup invokes in the form of an argument Harris intact never presented.
The claims you and Kastrup have subsequently extracted from Harris are logically weaker claims than the claims Kastrup made in his original blog and book discussions of Harris. I'm assuming that we don't need a course in confirmation theory to understand the conceptual distinction between the following claims:
(i) Hypothesis h is a likely or probable explanation of an experience
(ii) Hypothesis h might explain the experience
(iii) Hypothesis h is a "far more credible" explanation of some experience than some other hypothesis h*.
Since these weaker claims ((ii) and (iii)) are logically compatible with everything I've said in my critique, adducing them does nothing to undermine what I originally argued concerning (i). It actually distracts from my original argument. It's an illustration of a red herring.
Moreover, to repeat the point central to Harris's actual discussion, Harris is not (by his own explicit admission) arguing that we have compelling reasons to suppose that Alexander's NDE was not a transcendent experience. He's arguing, as he says repeatedly (though systematically ignored by Kastrup) that Alexander has not provided good enough reason to accept that his NDE was a transcendent experience. Kastrup fails to grasp this, despite Harris' explicitly stating it at the beginning and end of his discussion. Kastrup's misrepresentation of Harris's larger argument, as well as my own, is an unfortunate and inexcusable amalgamation of poor critical thinking and poor textual exegesis. And his flagrant and flamboyant disregard for the need for conceptual clarity is an illustration of why the vast majority of professional philosophers, including those who believe in survival, don't take any of this stuff seriously.
As for your critical comments about Alexander's experience, I largely agree. But here I think we should return to the broader structure of Alexander's own argument. As Harris correctly points out, the transcendent interpretation of Alexander's experience depends on two crucial premises: (a) Alexander's cerebral cortex was completely inactive during his coma and (b) Alexander had his NDE when his cortex was completely inactive. Harris is correct that neither Alexander nor anyone else is justified claiming at least one of these premises. Consequently, Alexander's argument lacks cogency.
I'll have more to say about the factual and conceptual aspects to Alexander's NDE-argument in a subsequent blog, once I've completed my discussions with various neuroscientists and medical doctors, but sufficient for the day are the criticisms thereof.
As for my own views on survival, you wrote: "Michael Sudduth, a philosopher who is open to postmortem survival but thinks the current evidence and arguments for it are inadequate ..." Well, thanks for at least acknowledging my openness to postmortem survival. As you're probably aware, but it's worth reiterating, my agnosticism with respect to personal survival represents the further side of my earlier firm conviction on the matter. Nonetheless, as I've explained in several blogs, my views on survival are more nuanced than is usually recognized. For example, see my Personal Reflections on Life after Death. That being said, I don't say that the current evidence is inadequate. What I've consistently argued over the past few years is that the arguments purporting to show that the evidence is good are unsuccessful at showing this. I argue this in considerable detail in my recently published book, A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Postmortem Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
You also wrote: "As I've explained on other occasions (once in direct response to Michael Sudduth), I'm very skeptical of the super-psi idea, which Sudduth seems to find somewhat persuasive, or at least well worth considering." As Stephen Braude and I have argued for several years now (arguments that have gone largely unanswered), survivalist rejoinders to the super-psi hypothesis have been wrong-headed and steeped in some profound conceptual confusions. But this is all dialectical foreplay. I'm not entirely sure what you've taken away from our earlier discussions, Michael, but as it turns out, the fundamental problem infecting classical empirical arguments for survival doesn't really depend on attributing any plausibility to the so-called super-psi hypothesis. It's for this reason that I've been saying for some time now that there needs to be a rather profound recalibration of the entire empirical survival debate. That's the challenge my recent book offers.