Illusory Souls by Gerald Woerlee (Book review)
Titus Rivas (publicatiedatum: 29 April, 2016)
Book review by Titus Rivas of Illusory Souls by Gerald Woerlee.
Review of Illusory Souls by Gerald Woerlee
Gerald M. Woerlee. Illusory Souls. Leiden: G.M Woerlee, 2013.
During recent years, skeptical anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee has developed into a productive author who resists non-materialistic explanations of Near-Death Experiences and related phenomena.
In his book Illusory Souls, whose title immediately reminds one of his previous publication Mortal Minds, Woerlee challenges mind-body dualism. He focuses on scientific evidence that would demonstrate that the theory of an immaterial personal soul is untenable. Thus, he discusses the somatogenic consequences of various kinds of drugs, and gives an overview of techniques within his profession and their effect on consciousness.
This book can even be read and understood in most respects by readers without a scientific background, due to the author's accessible style. On occasions, Woerlee even employs a poetical idiom, for instance when he calls the soul an old succubus and expresses his hope that he will be able to release his readers from this demon. It must be said that the author is courteous enough to thank his intellectual opponents for their inspiration. As a kind of bonus he gives a short historical introduction to the development of anesthesiology, even though it is not always clear why he discusses certain subjects only to conclude later on that they don't offer a conclusive argument for or against dualism.
Caricature of dualism
If we compare its contents with those of Mortal Minds, Woerlee hardly reaches any new insights in his new book. He continues to be the same zealous proponent of what one may call "humanistic materialism." And he still shows the same major misconceptions about what would characterize (substantialist) mind-body dualism for its defenders. To mention an example of this: he claims that mind-body dualism would imply that the soul cannot in any way be influenced or affected by processes in the brain. This view is only characteristic of so-called 'parallellistic' dualists, who believe that brain processes and mental processes run parallel to each other without any type of interaction. All interactionistic dualists do in fact start from an interaction between brain and psyche. In other words, Woerlee offers his readers a real caricature, or what is usually called 'straw man', of dualism.
Thus, Woerlee claims that dualists would believe that any function they ascribe to the soul, such as perception and memory, could never be disturbed by physiological processes in the brain and that this could be demonstrated scientifically. Therefore, if it turns out that a particular function can indeed be influenced by what is happening in the brain, for Woerlee, this would prove that this function cannot be located in the soul, but exclusively in the brain. Among other things, this leads to the remarkable statement that it has been empirically demonstrated that the soul cannot possess its own memory bank nor memories of a spiritual realm or previous lives.
It remains unclear whether Woerlee has created his blatant caricature intentionally. It seems more likely that he still does not realize that his image of the 'enemy' is strongly distorted.
Another example concerns his claim that all dualists believe that the soul is continuously conscious and that there is no such thing as dreamless sleep. This is simply incorrect, because this subject is in fact a serious point of debate among dualists. In this context, Woerlee also tries to demonstrate that forgetting one's dreams can hardly be reconciled wit a dualistic model, whereas even mainstream psychologists usually explain this phenomenon by the existence of a relationship between memory functions and various states of consciousness. Whenever somebody wakes up, he or she will soon reach a state of consciousness that is different from that in the dream, and this may influence the person's ability to retain the dream's contents consciously.
As was the case in Mortal Minds, the present book is full of rather serious errors of argumentation. For example, Woerlee seriously seems to believe that there can be no such thing as clairvoyance, because if it did exist, the blind would make good use of it on a daily basis. And if precognitive impressions were real, many people would have profited from it financially. What I find even harder to understand is Woerlee's general inclination to embrace two incompatible views. I already noticed this tendency in Mortal Minds. Thus, in some chapters, he recognizes that there are indeed dualist alternatives to materialist interpretations of certain phenomena. He 'merely' points out that these interpretations in terms of a soul are more far-fetched or "less parsimonious" than the materialistic variants. However, regarding similar findings he suddenly claims that a dualist hypothesis is extremely implausible, or even that the phenomena in question prove that (it is certain that) there is no soul! Perhaps I'm a bit too nitpicking about his, but to me "less parsimonious" is not identical to "extremely implausible" and even less synonymous to "(convincingly) shown false." This habit of rather careless formulations makes it very difficult for me to take an author such as Gerald Woerlee seriously on a theoretical level.
What this book shows more clearly than anything Woerlee published before, is that the author regards all Near-Death Expriences without exception as products of the brain, in other words: as some kind of illusions or hallucinations. To strengthen this claim, he emphasizes the comparison of the phenomenology of NDEs with all kinds of symptoms observed in (especially artificially induced) neuropsychological states of consciousness. Woerlee even thinks that he has a satisfying explanation for NDEs during clinical death. Consciousness that appears to occur during clinical death, is in reality always linked, according to Woerlee, to other moments in time: the first few dozens of seconds of the cardiac arrest, the temporary cessation of cardiac arrest by CPR, or the recovery of consciousness after a succesful resuscitation. Of course, he does not seriously consider any cases that don't fit in this model. This pattern can be seen more generally whenever Woerlee can't explain certain phenomena away. He usually limits himself to cliché objections that have been repeatedly countered by his opponents without answering their arguments in a serious way. It can be observed in his treatment of the cases of the Man with the Dentures and Pam Reynolds, and terminal lucidity. It also applies to the way he deals with extreme neurological findings, for instance concerning the cases of John Lorber's hydrocephalic patients, for which he simply claims that it should be obvious that they don't point to the existence of a soul. He also repeatedly states that no one has ever seen a soul leave its body, whereas there are indeed some cases of precisely such a phenomenon, for example within the literature of so-called Shared Death Experiences. The lucid, enhanced consciousness reported by patients would simply be nothing more than an illusion - how could it be anything else?
The argumentation that led the author to the conviction that Near-Death Experiences must always have been produced by the brain may almost be termed original. According to Woerlee, the impact of the brain on memory processes demonstrates that there can be no such thing as a psychical memory bank. (This is based on his misconception that dualists typically do not acknowledge a bilateral interaction between the soul and the brain). Any memory of a Near-Death Experience must therefore have been created directly in the brain during the experience itself. This is only possible if the brain is still functioning sufficiently to be able to store memories. Since this is not the case during clinical death no Near-Death Experience can ever take place in this phase. Similary, the occurrence of veridical perceptions during Near-Death Experiences does not imply, for Woerlee, that these are the perceptions of an immaterial soul. In Chapter 13 he 'proves' that paranormal impressions most probably do not exist, because if they did, there would be undeniable and uncontroversial evidence for it. Woerlee simply refuses to take Extra-Sensory Perception seriously and for this reason it is clear that all veridical perception must in fact be based on bodily, sensory impressions.
Taking philosophy a bit more seriously
On the whole, Illusory Souls is quite an entertaining book and it gives its readers a good impression of the thoughts of a contemporary humanistic materialist. Nonetheless, I do think it would be a good idea if Gerald Woerlee would do a bit of reading in the field of the philosophy of mind. If he did, he would soon encounter the so-called hard problem and binding problem, and maybe he would even realize that it is precisely materialism which simply doesn't make sense from an analytical point of view! But perhaps his militant tunnel vision protects him from this unbearable insight. It might explain his attack on philosophers who, he believes, would simply ignore scientific data. As if cataloguing empirical facts could really make the rational interpretation of those facts superfluous, and as if rationality and materialism were synonyms.
This is an English translation of a Dutch review, published in Terugkeer 25(1), Spring 2014, blz. 18-19. It was originally prepared for Amazon.com, and placed on that website by "Smithy".