In response to: ‘The intrinsic probability of an afterlife’ with recourse to Underdetermination

In this essay, I intend to reply to Shane Dunne’s article: ‘The intrinsic probability of an afterlife’ which was so stimulating that I felt the need to continue discussion on the matter. I recommend you read it. The link is here:

Before embarking upon the critique, I would but first outline the main assumption I base my argument upon, namely, the principle of underdetermination. Underdetermination is commonly incited in the philosophy of science. A sceptical argument, it is used against a theory which has evidence not purely dependant on that theory alone, thus it appears applicable to all scientific hypothesis, or any such aposteriori argument. It is formulated in this way:

‘For any theory, T, and any given body of evidence supporting T, there is at least one rival (i.e., contrary) to T that is as well supported as T’ – Willard Quine

Underdetermination states that any theory containing of evidence must, as the process of scientific induction concludes only of the probable, have antithesis or various multiple hypothesis for which the evidence could quite equally support. Hence, the theory in question is said to be underdetermined by the evidence. To appeal to mathematical analogy; many lines of different gradients all may pass through the same point, likewise many opposing theories may all rely on the same evidence for support. If given, but a moment’s thought, one can make use of this argument to any modern theory, having especial applicability in the study of gravitational theory and in particular, quantum theory, where the evidence is so slight and the speculation so at variance.

Logical argument applied to the philosophy of science is given in the following manner:

P1) All empirical evidence underdetermines scientific theory ‘x’.
P2) Only empirical evidence is necessary for scientific theory ‘x’.
C1) Thus, there is no evidence for believing scientific theory ‘x’.

In the face of such sceptical argument, scientists may claim that we can locate the most probable hypothesis on the basis of heuristic techniques. For example, one may discern a particular hypothesis with application of Occams razor – “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”, or in the case of Copernicus – appealing to aesthetic beauty (when postulating his heliocentric cosmological model). However, principles thereof seem somewhat arbitrary and appeal to no logic per se; indeed ‘rule of thumb’ may be a simple elucidation of such concepts.

Therefore, in light of underdetermination, one must be wary when postulating arguments aposteriori. For instance, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, posited a form of underdetermination when claiming that our assumption of reality is seemingly underdetermined by the facts, due to an apathetical conclusion pertaining of the same evidence. Descartes postulated that it was equally likely that an evil demon could be deceiving us, casting a veil of illusion over the subject. In this way, apparent intuitive concepts are seriously challenged by underdeterminism.

In much the same manner, the evidence of near-death experience does not wholly support the theory of eschatology; it seems to adhere to scientific hypothesis also such as I shall outline in due course. With this in mind, I fail to see that the ‘reasons to believe an afterlife far outweigh reasons given for the non-existence of an afterlife’. In fact, I see only that this proposition is underdetermined by the evidence. Take for example, as evidence, the appeal to religious experiences of an afterlife. Would Hume’s argument not clear up the matter somewhat? Hume claims that one should always believe the lesser miracle in proportion to the evidence. Now I am not calling the subjects in question liars. Merely I am suggesting that there are other possible scientific explanations that seem adequate. For example, one such experiment has found that by electrically stimulating the temporal lobe in the brain, the patient experiences some elements of near death experiences such as memories of the subjects’ life flashing past and of feelings of leaving oneself behind.

For further examples and critical discussion of the evidence, I recommend this link containing various scientific hypotheses for near death experiences:

I am not by any means positing that this scientific explanation shows evidence against the concept of an afterlife. Rather, I am taking somewhat a more sceptical approach on this matter on the grounds that I see no clear evidence for concluding of an afterlife nor of apathetical evidence concluding of no afterlife.

Having observed underdetermination regarding the empirical evidence, one must not speculate on the concept of the afterlife in the absence of compelling evidence. I would here add Immanuel Kant’s qoute:

‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’

In other words, Kant means one can only pertain of true knowledge through empirical evidence coupled with rationalism; this is known as apriori-synthetic knowledge. As there remains no probable empirical evidence to suggest an afterlife, one might be tempted to fall back onto pure speculative reasoning. Yet such reasoning is ‘empty’ and insufficient to explain the concept of an afterlife; for that which contains only pure reason apriori has also an antinomy – there exists no afterlife. By using pure reason alone, one fails to logically distinguish objectivity of either doctrine, the choice between thesis and antithesis is entirely of preference, that is: subjective.

The Kantian position is further supported by the modern logical positivist movement. Logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer would not give meaning to the idea of an afterlife because it is not analytic or synthetic statement. To further explain, the concept of an afterlife is neither true by definition or empirically verifiable.

“The disputants speak as if they are concerned with a matter of scientific fact, or of trans-sensual, trans-scientific and metaphysical fact, but still of fact and still a matter about which reasons for and against may be offered, although no scientific reasons in the sense of field surveys for fossils or experiments.” – A J Ayer

Although Ayer regards such statements as factually meaningless, he would give of them meaning subjectively. He says, “Perhaps when a man sings “God’s in heaven” we need not take this as more than an expression of how he feels.”

To conclude, I must reiterate that one cannot logically agree with the conclusion: ‘the reasons to believe an afterlife exists far outweigh reasons given for the non-existence of an afterlife.’ But I would rather state that this is a prime example of underdetermination, in that the evidence for the theory of an afterlife can be equally shown to fit within the context of a scientific theory, supporting physicalism. Furthermore, with the empirical evidence for an afterlife underdetermined, one cannot look towards pure rational argument for explanation as shown by Kant and Ayer. Therefore, it must be said that both empirically and rationally we find of no conclusive proof or of any such ‘intrinsic probability of an afterlife’.

I think that we have elucidated enough on this issue but I have recourse to part with the words of David Hume.

‘No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.’

To my mind, Hume’s words seem most pertinent.

Contributed by Tim Livingstone

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