A contemporary extinction hypothesis: Mortal minds by Gerald Woerlee

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 19 September, 2011)


In his clear and well-written 'Mortal Minds', anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee advocates the so-called extinction hypothesis, the theory that there is no immortal soul and no life after death.


A contemporary extinction hypothesis: Mortal minds by Gerald Woerlee

by Titus Rivas

In his clear and well-written Mortal Minds anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee advocates the so-called extinction hypothesis, the theory that there is no immortal soul and no life after death.
However, Woerlee consistently gives his readers a distorted version of the positions taken by his opponents. He confuses plausible or implausible skeptical hypotheses with conclusive evidence for his skeptical views. And he almost exclusively uses skeptical sources about empirical evidence that might falsify his theory, without touching on the details of the main cases presented.
Nevertheless, the book does include some interesting information and it may be used as a source about skeptical misconceptions. It confirms that in general skeptics cannot deal with paranormal phenomena.

People who are interested in the paranormal will sooner or later stumble upon the phenomenon of the so-called skeptics. On the whole, these are well-educated persons who claim to have studied the parapsychological literature without prejudice. In practice, most skeptics discard the existence of paranormal phenomena out of hand, and for this reason, they are also commonly known as debunkers. Many skeptics believe that anyone who does not approve of this destructive approach should be branded as irrational or outright insane. However, there is also a number of skeptics who though essentially following the same method do not wish to attack their opponents in a personal way. An example of these can be found in the Dutch anesthesiologist Gerald M. Woerlee, raised in Australia, and presently associated to the Rijnland Ziekenhuis in Leiderdorp. In his pleasantly readable Mortal Minds: A biology of the soul and the dying experience, this author is completely concerned with the subjects under discussion, rather than ridiculing scholars who do not agree with him.
Woerlee favours the so-called extinction hypothesis, i.e. the theory that there is no such thing as an immortal soul and therefore no life after death either. This theory was first formulated thousands of years ago, and was already known among the Greek and Roman followers of Epicurus and among classical materialist Indian and Chinese philosophers. Since the European Enlightenment, the extinction hypothesis has become popular in learned circles in the West, because scientific and rational thought was increasingly equated with philosophical materialism. From the start, scholars within the secular, ‘rationalist’ tradition of humanism have tried to formulate a meaningful and positive worldview in which the reality of an afterlife is rejected.
In this article, I will briefly discuss Woerlee’s line of thought as displayed in Mortal Minds. I must admit this has not been very difficult for me, because the author has succeeded in presenting his argumentation in a very clear and organised manner, and also because he has been kind enough to answer some questions through e-mail, for which I am really grateful.

The most part of Mortal Minds consists of a discussion of the arguments of proponents of the theory of survival after death. The way this is done is crystal clear, but clarity alone will not suffice in intellectual debates.
To an important extent, Gerald Woerlee misrepresents the arguments of his opponents. For instance, he transforms the theory that the soul animates the body, into a theory that the body would need a soul to be alive (Chapter 5). He criticizes this theory, e.g. by pointing out that separate organs can also be kept alive apart from an organism. The idea that the soul gives life to the body clearly differs from the notion that a person needs a soul to be conscious. The former idea certainly used to be widespread among proponents of the idea of an immortal soul, but since Descartes scholars usually distinguish much more sharply between physical life and the life of mind or soul, and rightly so. In other words, especially in scholarly debates about a life after death, the position that we need a soul to be alive in a purely physical life ought not to play an important role anymore.
Something similar can be said when Woerlee acts as if survivalists believed that a soul could in no way be influenced by the brain (Chapter 6). Almost all contemporary proponents do in fact believe in an interaction between mind and brain, so this is also a misrepresentation.
Woerlee even goes as far as claiming that the world religions would hold there are no somatogenic influences on the mind, whereas the Bible alone repeatedly refers to drunkenness. He also misinterprets a religious statement that the soul cannot be affected by such factors (page 67), whereas the statement is not about consciousness but about the experient of consciousness (the “self”). Even if we become stone drunk when we drink too much, we will stay the same person, the same subject. In this sense drunkenness cannot touch as a conscious subject, because no matter how drunk we are, we will remain ourselves. Here we touch upon the issue of (personalist), substantialism, which Woerlee does not even mention in his book (Rivas, 2003b).

Perhaps such misunderstandings arise primarily from the author’s lack of basic philosophic education. This is also suggested by the strange remark that philosophers may claim all kinds of things, but that we should realise they are consistently disregarding physiological data! I think it is fair to reverse this accusation by saying that it is Woerlee who has not studied analytical philosophy enough, while much of his work is primarily related to philosophical questions (Rivas, 2003b).

Unfortunately, these defects are also present in his discussion of paranormal experiences, of the perception of auras and of Out-of-Body-Experiences. If we look at the references Woerlee turns out to have exclusively used skeptical sources and he does not address specific parapsychological investigations.

About paranormal experiences, Woerlee simply states that there is still no reliable evidence for them. However, he does not discuss any arguments supplied by parapsychologists. In view of his misrepresentation of the theory of survival after death, this does not exactly inspire confidence in the informed reader. But even if his position had been solidly founded, the reader would still be entitled to a much more detailed discussion of the arguments of proponents.

Even in the logical sense, Woerlee has made some major mistakes, where he first states that there is no conclusive evidence for the paranormal and later on concludes that there would be no evidence whatsoever (Chapter 7). No conclusive evidence is not exactly the same thing as no evidence at all.
Something of the kind can be seen where he first states that there probably are no paranormal perceptions and later on simply concludes that there (certainly) are no paranormal perceptions.

Furthermore, he acts as if he knew exactly how paranormal perception would work, if – contrary to his beliefs – it existed after all. For instance, the deaf would be able to use it just as easily as they use their remaining normal senses. However, there is not a single parapsychologist who would claim that paranormal perception works in exactly the same way as the known normal senses, or that one could use them consciously and at will without any special requirements.
Again, Woerlee fundamentally misrepresents the position of his opponents. This occurs once more in a later chapter, in which he acts as if the existence of precognition would imply that people have to be able to freely use this ability during gambling (Chapter 8)!

Auras and Out-of-Body-Experiences (Chapters 9 to 13) are also interpreted as by-effects of purely physiological processes without serious attention for the evidence. Once more, Woerlee confuses a hypothesis with an irrefutable truth.

We repeatedly find this combination of an erroneous presentation of the positions taken by opponents with disregard for empirical evidence that goes against Woerlee’s theory. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the author also reduces Near-Death Experiencers to mere by-effects of disturbed brain processes. This is also the only starting point for his speculations about what people experience during the dying process. Not a word about Pim van Lommel (Van Lommel et al, 2001) or Pam Reynolds (Smit, 2003). Let us hope this book will not be first title discovered in the bookstore by NDE-ers who are in search of good literature about the Near-Death Experience. It could give them a wrong idea about the subject, and in theory it might even affect their own positive interpretation of their experience. Before reading the book, I was very naïve in this respect, as I really hoped a physician would feel compelled to give a more honest overview of this important subject (Smit, 2003; Rivas, 2003a).

Defects of content
With this book, Woerlee has demonstrated that he writes very well and clearly, but in terms of content he has not done a very good job. He hardly mentions any names of important survivalist theorists and he ignores, among other things, all the evidence for reincarnation (Stevenson, 2000; Rivas, 2000) and apparitions (Rivas, 2003c). He also claims that persons would never be perceived by others during an OBE (Rivas, 2003c).
No one is under the obligation to give an exhaustive overview to be allowed to write about a certain subject, but such major omissions and errors cannot be justified. To be honest, these shortcomings are to a certain extent compensated by references on his website to serious investigations of NDEs, but on the other hand, these references suggest the author realises that things are at least a bit more complicated than how they are presented in Mortal Minds.
The book closes with indirect ways in which someone who does not personally survive death, may still somehow be immortal, for instance in terms of memories of the berieved or through a lasting good reputation (Chapter 19). Woerlee proclaims a creed that has long been very popular among materialist freethinkers. It is a pity that the author even believes it necessary to judge the theory of survival more negatively than the extinction hypothesis. Eternal immortality would eventually lead to eternal boredom, because a personal soul would in essence be incapable of developing beyond the stage he had attained during his earthly life – because such development would cause loss of personal identity. This curious idea is again presented as a normal part of the survival hypothesis, while proponents almost by definition start from a notion of personal evolution (compatible with personal identity)!

Value of the book
Mortal minds shows serious shortcomings that seem almost inherently to belong to the skeptical (debunking) method. Anyone who is aware of survival research could not have expected otherwise. From a scholarly point of view, the evidence for the theory of a personal survival after death is stronger than ever before, so that only ignoring, twisting or underestimating this evidence can lead to other conclusions. That only a small part of the academic community openly acknowledges this does not alter the state of affairs in any way. This book has nothing to offer regarding philosophical foundations, but this is also very common for skeptical authors.
Therefore, the message of this book is only interesting for ‘believers’ who already support the extinction hypothesis, such as materialist freethinkers and humanists. Fellow skeptics will doubtlessly welcome Woerlee’s work, as a refreshing reinforcement of their viewpoints. Although I am aware some debunkers may be appalled by the shocking lack of nasty personal attacks.
Even so, Woerlee mentions some interesting medical facts in this book, e.g. that physical death may be identified with the cessation of activity in the brain (Chapter 2). Furthermore, for non-skeptical readers the book could serve as a source of misconceptions about the main claims of proponents of the survival theory.
Finally, the book shows that skeptics really are powerless when faced by valuable parapsychological research. In a sense, this is positive, because by now the evidence for paranormal phenomena may certainly be called impressive. Only someone who for some reason refuses to accept this will read more into a sad skeptical theory like Woerlee’s than the materialist delusion long discounted it really amounts to.
Any individual paranormal phenomenon is an inevitable falsification of the skeptic’s worldview.

- Lommel, P. v., Wees, R. v., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2039-2044.
- Rivas, T. (2000). Parapsychologisch onderzoek naar reïncarnatie en leven na de dood. Deventer: Ankh-Hermes.
- Rivas, T. (2003a). The Survivalist Interpretation of recent studies into the Near-Death Experience.The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 26, 1, 27-31.
- Rivas, T. (2003b). Geesten met of zonder lichaam: pleidooi voor een personalistisch dualisme. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink.
- Rivas, T. (2003c). Uit het leven gegrepen: beschouwingen rond een leven na de dood. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink.
- Smit, R.H. (2003). De unieke BDE van Pamela Reynolds (based on the BBC-documentary "The Day I Died"). Terugkeer, 14 (2).
- Stevenson, I. (2000). Bewijzen van reïncarnatie. Deventer: Ankh-Hermes.
- Woerlee, G.M. (2003). Mortal Minds: a biology of the soul and the dying experience. Utrecht: De Tijdstroom.
- Woerlee, G.M. Mortal Minds
- A friendly debate between Kevin Williams and Gerald Woerlee.

Published Dutch version of this review.

Contact: titusrivas@hotmail.com

I wish to thank Gerald Woerlee, Rudolf Smit, Anny Dirven and Chris Canter.