I met George Lyman in the Huntington Common retirement community at age eighty-six. In a retirement community, we generally introduce ourselves by who we have been. George was an inventor of medical paraphernalia. I was a professor of Ancient American art at Columbia University. George had many inventions besides the medical ones, such as the lettering on credit cards, referred to as the “Lyman font.” An Italian-car aficionado, he gave me his article on the art of hand-finished Italian cars that he had written. Various people came to consult him on new inventions. I gave him a book I had written on Pre-Columbian art. He liked my writing style and asked to read my other books, including the unpublished manuscripts. Naturally, I thought he was a genius.
George was in Huntington Common waiting to die from renal failure, because he declined dialysis. He was looking forward to the experience of death, since as a young man he had an intriguing near-death experience. He felt his soul leave his body and move from room to room, across walls, looking down at his body (an experience that many others have claimed to have had and some have retold in bestseller books). George was convinced that at death the soul does not die but leaves the body and enters some kind of an afterworld. He consulted mediums and was put in contact with various spirits, including his father. This impressed him positively. A few years later he died, if not entirely convinced, with the scientific spirit of curiosity animating him to the end.
Normally, I would have chuckled at such a story—I had read some books about near-death experiences, but George’s scientific credentials and personality made it hard to laugh it off completely. I too became curious. I asked him to give me a book, the best one he had for a skeptic, and I would read it for myself. (I no longer remember what book he gave me, but a perusal of the internet suggested that it might have been, Life After Death: A Renowned Psychic Reveals What Happens to Us When We Die, by Mary T. Browne, 1995.) This book consists of the interviews—séances—she has had with her clients and their spirit encounters. They covered all kinds of topics, such as what the afterworld was like, how spirits were reincarnated, what they did to pass the time, how they visited the living, etc. What impressed me most in the accounts was their specificity—she described each of the clients, the places, the spirits, and the circumstances. Not only were they specific, there were hundreds of them. It was hard to imagine that Mary Browne sat down and faked that many complicated individual stories just to make a buck.
The book left me asking nagging questions, to which there was no answer. Why would spirits who knew the future and chose the bodies to be reincarnated in, incarnate themselves in fetuses who were going to be aborted—as she claimed. Also, how did the numbers work out—there are many more people now in existence than there used to be; how can they each have a spirit from the past when there were fewer people? I realized that these were perhaps trivial questions and let them go. The idea of a spirit world was a powerful one, and I pondered It, pro and con, for a while. I decided to keep an open mind.
It then occurred to me that perhaps we did not know everything. For example, a hundred or fifty years ago, no one knew that animals, especially mammals, lived in complex families and communities and that when big game hunters shot an elephant or a lion, they were shooting someone’s father or aunt, and the individuals were distressed. Starting with Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Gombe, Africa, we now know that animals have personalities and complex emotions. Work has now been done on almost all animals, including things like cooperative feeding by whales. Evident in all these animal studies is how much like us animals are. A key to animal behavior is communication, which is turning out to be everywhere, from amphibians to birds and going even lower on the evolutionary scale. We don’t know much about dinosaurs, but they have all the necessary infrastructure for communication.
Most recently, driving down a long stretch of highway in Maine, I turned on the radio to catch an interview about communication among trees, by Peter Wohleben. (The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleban and Jane Billinghurst, 1964, 2016.) Somehow I was not surprised. Evidently, communication occurs through chemicals and sugars in the roots. It is slow, but in forests not touched by human axes, it works among a large groups of trees. One can now find dozens of titles of studies of vegetative nature in communication systems. While I don’t know how far this goes, it would seem that all life forms live and communicate as we do. Nor would we have known this when fifty years ago it was a naïve fad to “talk” to plants, as my mother did. While not as simple as that, life and intentional communication apparently correlate.
Just as I am no specialist in psychic phenomena and animal and plant life, I am even more of a naïve listener of astrophysical information. Yet as a lay person, I too try to make sense of the information randomly available to me through Nova programs and conversations in my culture, as I try to puzzle out what may be happening. I gather, perhaps correctly or perhaps not, that life is based on proteins formed by amino acids perhaps in watery environments. It has been suggested—I am not sure where—that the universe has no shortage of the proteins that make up amino acids, and they are to be found in very many places. While I don’t know enough how amino acids combine to form life, it now appears that watery environments are reasonably common.
For me the takeaway from this information is that the building blocks of life are all over, if not almost everywhere in the universe, and that this life may be very similar all up and down the evolutionary scale. This life, in fact, is very like our life and lives, dies and communicates with others.
What this has to do with the souls of the dead and the afterworld, I don’t know and hesitate to speculate. But it does suggest that the universe is alive in a certain sense and interrelated. As we knew nothing about whale and tree interaction until recently, there may yet be a lot of things we don’t know. I will keep my eyes and ears open with the spirit of George Lyman’s curiosity, as well as skepticism.
According to the medical establishment, the near-death experience is located strictly in the human brain itself. Modern drugs can call it forth at will. It is a grand hallucination about twenty percent of people have at the moment of dying. There could be no soul and no heaven in the medical view. I confronted George with this analysis. He shrugged and said he knew, but he preferred to think it was the other way.