Investigating the Afterlife

"Near Death Experiences" involving a blinding light may represent chemical actions in the body as it shuts down.
"Near Death Experiences" involving a blinding light may represent chemical actions in the body as it shuts down. afterlife life after death hereafter

Clint Eastwood has made a new movie about the afterlife. Does he know anything about that? Katie Couric decided to find out ...

When asked what he thinks happens when you die, Clint Eastwood responds, "I haven't the foggiest idea."

Generally, when Clint Eastwood wants you dead, you're dead. But in "Hereafter," the new movie directed by Eastwood, death is only the beginning.

"It's the one unknowable thing, isn't it, in terms of what happens to us when we die?" Couric asked.

"Exactly - and nobody's in a rush to find out," he replied.

But the characters in "Hereafter" ARE in a rush to understand their brushes with death.

There's the woman who has a "near-death experience" in the 2004 tsunami … and the boy desperately trying to reach out to his twin who's been killed.

Then there's the psychic, played by Matt Damon, haunted by his ability to communicate with the dead.

"I'm optimistic that there's a point to all this," Damon said, "and that the decisions we make here really matter. And so I want to live my life here that way. And if the light switch just goes off, then it goes off and I'll be none the wiser."

"I think everybody is curious about the hereafter," Eastwood said, "because even as a young kid, if you were at Sunday school, or whatever, if you're part of some organized religion, you've always believed there's a hereafter, and if you're really good, you get to stay around forever, you have immortality or something."

If anyone has spent a lot of time pondering the afterlife, it's psychiatrist and philosopher Dr. Raymond Moody. He says the pivotal question of existence is whether we live after we die.

Dr. Moody has been collecting thousands of first-person accounts of near-death experiences for four decades, putting them in books, and even a movie.

In fact, he coined the term "near-death experience."

"All over the world, we found out that many people who are brought to the brink of death and resuscitated come back and tell us a very similar story of leaving their physical bodies," Dr. Moody said.

Such as the woman who says, "I felt myself pop out of my body."

"They tell us that they seem to go through a passageway of some sort, and come out on the other side into this incredibly brilliant light," Dr. Moody said.

One man described it like this: "I came to a place, like walking out of a dark room into a bright room, as if my eyes were trying to adjust to this brilliant light."

Every detail of their lives is displayed around them, like in a hologram, Dr. Moody says. Relatives or friends of theirs who have died are there, almost in the role of a greeting committee.

New age mumbo-jumbo? Consider this: About three-quarters of Americans believe there is an afterlife as an article of faith.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, says, "One of the major challenges that religions address is the problem with death.

"If you think of religion as a competition," he said, "the religions that have been winning in the spiritual competition have been those who offer the most benefits in the afterlife: You're gonna die, [and] after you die, the good people or the faithful people or however it's determined will go to this amazing place - and the bad people or the unfaithful people will go to this horrible place."

Prothero uses Moody's research in his classes, acknowledging skeptics of the near-death experience who say the bright lights and floating feeling might just come from the chemical process of the body as it shuts down.

And Prothero wonders if Moody's concept might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"I think it's tricky now, because his ideas are so 'out there' in the culture now that we have in our head an expectation of what's supposed to happen when we have a near-death experience in a hospital," Prothero said. "We're sort of like, 'Where's the light?' Like, 'Where are the beings of love'?"

"We're taught to believe there's heaven, a white light, spirits rise," Couric said. "Could this be almost psychosomatic, if you will?"

"Yes, well, Katie, I'll tell you what I have reached about it - I think that it's really the other way around," Dr. Moody said. "My thought is that probably the reason we have a notion of an afterlife is that in remote antiquity, people had these experiences. And the explanation they put on it [was] that there is some sort of afterlife."

And if you're just getting used to near-death experiences, how about SHARED-death experiences, where witnesses get involved as their loved one crosses over to the other side.

It's something that Connie Phillips believes she experienced first-hand, 23 years ago.

She says she was terrified her mother was going to die. As Betty Jo Phillips was lying in a hospital bed following brain surgery, "she would have these experiences," Connie said, "where she would say, 'I'm leaving, I'm floating, I'm floating out the window.' And when she said that, this actually began happening to me. I was in this awareness with her that we were floating out the window. It was the strangest experience I've ever had."

Dr. Moody says the stories he's been collecting, like that of Connie Phillips, are leading him to believe that one day we might know what has always seemed unknowable.

"I am going through a stage in my life right now where I'm really beginning to think, 'My goodness, there does seem to be something to this,'" Dr. Moody said. "But we're just here at the very beginning of researching this. We haven't even scratched the surface yet."

"You really think that one day, we'll be able to know?" asked Couric

"I wouldn't say it's impossible," he said. "And I think that it may be, yes."

But until that day comes, despair not: There's a new way to achieve immortality . . . at least, digital immortality.

Meet Don Davidson. Actually, his avatar. The real Don Davidson is the CEO and chief talking head of Intellitar, which just came alive online this month.

Its concerpt, Davidson explained, is to "build your own legacy."

You give them a photo of yourself and an audio recording of your life story. Employing artificial intelligence, your avatar is able to "talk" to future generations.

"So that years from now, family and friends could come back and actually have a conversation with you and find out what you were like," he said.

"So, this is sort of a digital family history, if you will," Couric said.

"It's a living scrapbook."

Couric tried it out with Davison's avatar, asking him/it where he went to college.

"I went to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia," he/it replied.

"Is there something borderline freaky about this to you?" she asked the real Davison.

"Well, we get the word 'creepy' every once in awhile," he said. "I think it's all an individual's perspective. You know, I lost my mother a couple of years ago. And you know, I'd give anything to be able to go in and just hear her say the five or ten things that I remember her saying that used to make everyone laugh."

We may or may not ever have proof of an afterlife.

But now there's at least one way to insure that some version of you could be around for all eternity.

For more info:
Dr. Raymond Moody
Stephen Prothero