UC-Riverside Philosopher Will Lead $5-Million Study of Immortality

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In America, people who survive near-death experiences often report seeing a tunnel with a light at the end. For Japanese people, the experiences often involve visions of tending a garden. Such cultural differences are among the topics the three-year project may study.
July 31, 2012

Millions of people fervently believe in an afterlife. John Martin Fischer, a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside, is not one of them.

But Mr. Fischer does see the subject as ripe for academic research, and on Tuesday the John Templeton Foundation awarded him a windfall to make that happen—$5-million for a multidisciplinary investigation of human immortality.

The three-year effort may look at questions like how belief in an afterlife influences human behavior and how near-death experiences vary across cultures. In America, for example, many who survive such events report seeing a tunnel with a light at the end. For Japanese people, the experiences often involve visions of tending a garden.

The Immortality Project will invite research proposals from philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Stressing interdisciplinary projects, it will award grants ranging from $100,000 to $250,000. There will also be two conferences and a Web site.

"We will not be studying alien-abduction reports and things like that," says Mr. Fischer, the project's leader. "We're going to do serious scientific work."

Templeton previously invested $4.4-million for another cross-disciplinary project called "Big Questions in Free Will."

Mr. Fischer, who describes himself as "not a religious person," stresses that the Immortality Project will avoid trying to prove or disprove whether an afterlife exists. Rather, he says, it will "chip away at the problem by studying what we can study"—possible subjects like whether brain structures predispose people to believe in an afterlife, or whether people who believe in an afterlife are more likely to behave morally.

Immortality is one of the oldest of human questions. But Mr. Fischer points to a fresh impetus for studying it now: the increasing interest in possibilities for extending human life through science. He notes the work of thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, who predicts that humans and computers will merge, and Kenneth Hayworth, who studies "mind uploading."

"Part of it is motivated by the fact that there are advances now in longevity that naturally raise the question of whether immortality is possible and whether it would be desirable," Mr. Fischer says.

Those questions are of interest to philosophers. "Immortality curmudgeons," as Mr. Fischer calls them, have argued that death gives meaning to life. "Immortality optimists" feel they take too dim a view—that endless life may well be "rewarding and attractive," he says. "I'm on the side of the immortality optimists."