The Scientific Method, Part 1

If you want to blame anyone for the death cliché of the tunnel and the bright light and the dead relatives lining up to greet you and the review of everything you've ever done in your life, Dr. Raymond Moody is your man, though if you ask him, he will give all the credit to Plato, one of his favorite philosophers, who started investigating the afterlife 2,300 years before Moody was born.

Moody began his formal investigation in 1965, when he was still a medical student at the University of Virginia. At that point he already had a PhD in philosophy and specialized in logic. But when a friend told him about his own near-death experience, Moody was intrigued. He began seeking out other people who'd had near-death experiences. Since the advent of CPR in the 1950s, there were a lot more than there had been previously. The doctors and nurses he knew were more than happy to hook him up. It didn't seem strange to them, Moody says, because they were more familiar with death than the average person.

RFT Photo-illustration. Illustrated elements by Mark Andresen.

In his first book, Life After Life, Moody outlines the typical near-death experience like a medical case, listing and describing each phase. He has read Oliver Sacks' work about hallucinations, and he admits Sacks may have a point: He knows that hallucinations can seem real, realer than real. But he's not sure Sacks' argument is philosophically sound.

"The biggest mistake you can make is to put things into a framework of other things you already know," he says during a phone interview before the conference. "Especially in the realm of the afterlife." Like Galileo: His idea of the solar system didn't make any sense until people realized that Earth was floating in space, too, just like the sun, moon and stars.

Besides, as he tells the conference attendees during his keynote address, he hasn't been able to find any medical explanation for the shared-death experience, a cousin to the near-death experience that happens to healthy people in close proximity to other people who are dying. They too see the tunnel and the light and the waiting relatives and, in the case of one of Moody's interviewees, watch the entire life review. ("It must be so embarrassing," Moody says, shaking his head in dismay. "I'm not even looking forward to mine.") But they're not injured. The oxygen flow to their brain isn't impaired. They're perfectly fine.

It was his investigation of the shared-death experience that pushed Moody over the edge. He tells the story of a trauma surgeon who was working on a man who had been in a horrific car crash that killed his wife. The surgeon knew the patient was going to be OK, though, because he followed him through the tunnel and into the light and then the patient's wife appeared to tell him so.

"The point is," Moody tells the conference attendees, "I give up. At the point a trauma surgeon was working on a patient, he had the flow of oxygen cut off to his brain?"

Maybe, he thought, he'd been going at the problem all wrong. As another of his favorite philosophers, David Hume, wrote, "By the mere light of reason, it seems difficult to prove the Immortality of the Soul; the arguments for it are commonly derived either from metaphysical topics, or moral and physical." Maybe after 2,300 years it was time to figure out a new sort of logic for discussing the possibility of an afterlife.

And here comes Moody's big announcement, the point of this whole speech:

If death is a gradual, rather than instantaneous, process, he asks the audience, wouldn't people in the process of dying have some insight into the process of crossing over if that is, in fact, what's happening to them? Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to be speaking nothing but gibberish. (You, the skeptic, have seen this. At the time, it kind of freaked you out.) But Moody has a plan to deal with that, too. He has found a hospice worker who studied linguistics who is going to try to find some logic in the rantings of the terminally ill.

"There will be a point when we will be able to detect when they shift from this state into another," he promises.

But he has already established a policy of having an open mind. "I always thought," he tells you over the phone, "who am I to say? This person had something happen to them that is medically impossible. Who am I to contradict them? I haven't been in this situation, but supposing I had?"

To you this sounds suspiciously like a rebuke.


The Forbidden Zone

The first rule of Eckankar is that we don't talk about Eckankar, at least not to the press, at least not without authorization from the group leader, who happens to be at a wake today. (Of all the ironies!) Pages of information and a sealed envelope of spiritual exercises, once eagerly proffered, are reclaimed once the woman behind the table in the conference bookstore bothers to notice the words Riverfront Times on your name badge.

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