$5 Million Grant Awarded by Private Foundation to Study Immortality

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For millennia, humans have pondered their mortality and whether death is the end of existence or a gateway to an afterlife. Millions of Americans have reported near-death or out-of-body experiences. And adherents of the world’s major religions believe in an afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection and immortality.


Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an afterlife abound, but there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. It is the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.

“People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,” said Fischer, the principal investigator of The Immortality Project. “Much of the discussion has been in literature, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and in theology in the context of an afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory and karma. No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy.”

The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.

Half of the $5 million grant will be awarded for research projects. The grant will also fund two conferences, the first of which will be held at the end of the project’s second year and the second at the end of the grant period. A website will include a variety of resources, from glossaries and bibliographies to announcements of research conferences and links to published research. Some recent work in Anglo-American philosophy will be translated for German philosophers who, in the last 30 years, have been increasingly studying the work of American philosophers.

UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White said Fischer’s research “takes a universal concern and subjects it to rigorous examination to sift fact from fiction. His work will provide guidance for discussion of immortality and the human experience for generations to come. We are extremely proud that he is leading the investigation of this critical area of knowledge.”

Noting Fischer’s renown as a scholar of free will and moral responsibility, Stephen Cullenberg, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said, “There is perhaps no one better suited to lead a multidisciplinary research project on the question of immortality and its social implications. The Templeton Foundation’s generous support will enable scholars from across the world to come to UCR to investigate how the question of immortality affects all cultures, albeit in different ways.”

Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said. The Immortality Project will solicit research proposals from eminent scientists, philosophers and theologians whose work will be reviewed by respected leaders in their fields and published in academic and popular journals.

“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.”

Written By: Bettye Miller
continue to source article at ucrtoday.ucr.edu

45 COMMENTS

  1. aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behaviour

    Neither of those are aspects of immortality. By definition, such things could only exist if
    immortality did. But believing in things which don’t exist is easy, and scientific explanations of near-death experiences which don’t require immortality to really exist are already well-developed and empirically supported.

    there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences
    human behaviour

    I don’t know whether that’s true, but let’s suppose it not only is, but this grant will fund such study. Again, this is not a study of whether immortality exists!

    That will change with the award of a grant to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy

    We’re going to get science from a philosopher? Funny how, whenever scientists try to do
    philosophy, philosophers tell them where to go. It is scientists who should do scientific research.

    to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to
    immortality

    This is the umpteenth time you’ve essentially admitted your “study immortality” title is a lie.

    We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death

    Correction: where indoctrinated to believe there is an afterlife, most of us end up feeling a
    need to think it’s real, rather than honestly thinking about what the data says. The data says our minds are products of our brain, so should stop when we die. Indeed, since each function of our mind is lost with the right sort of damage to or removal of an associated part of the brain, death should do all those things at once, which means we’d have no mental functions left.

    No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy.

    That’s because you can’t bring them together. Science says it doesn’t exist, and here’s proof; theology says it does, and doesn’t give proof. Philosophy does whatever it pleases, but the first two are already irreconcilable.

    The Foundation supports research on infinity

    There are some questions about infinity mathematicians haven’t yet answered; only a decade or so ago they proved 2 to the aleph_0 is at most aleph_(omega_4), and who knows what other such facts are provable? But it’s a job for a mathematician, and there’s no way the JTF is dealing with infinity mathematically.

    Fischer’s research takes a universal concern and subjects it to rigorous examination to sift fact from fiction. His work will provide guidance for discussion of immortality and the human experience for generations to come.  We are extremely proud that he is leading the investigation of this critical area of knowledge.

    Maybe after he’s done it you can judge how great it was?

    Noting Fischer’s renown as a scholar of free will and moral responsibility

    So not immortality? Why choose him as the expert on this? Ask a neurologist for help! Or, if we admit research is into beliefs about immortality, just look up what Christians, Jains etc. believe on Wikipedia.

    it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis

    That’s already been done. The JTF just doesn’t like the answer we got!

    We will be very careful trying to figure out if these are biologically induced illusions

    We already know they are; not only do we understand how they are caused, we can actually make them happen in the lab!

    Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous.

    You’ve already compromised by not knowing what science has already found out about this.

    We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences

    What an odd comparison to make. Also, how different are those? He acts as if it’s obvious they are.

    We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.

    We may, indeed, find there’s likely no afterlife, which has implications too, right? Like this being all we get, carpe diem etc.

    while philosophers and theologians have pondered questions of immortality and life after death for millennia, scientific research into immortality and longevity are very recent.

    You could say that of almost anything. Philosophers have pondered atoms for millennia, and theologians adopted an Aristotelian description of astronomy and got angry when Copernicus refuted it. The real point here, which shan’t be admitted, is that science gets stuff DONE!

    Is there something in our culture that leads people to see tunnels while the Japanese see gardens?

    I hypothesise that, since people’s memory-formation is impaired during NDEs due to the brain’s oxygen deprivation, people form false memories based on what society tells them to expect (which is something humans have been proven to do in many areas besides NDEs). Unless a more interesting yet still ell-evidenced hypothesis than that comes from this work, I
    won’t think highly of it.

    Other questions philosophers may consider are: Is immortality potentially worthwhile or not?

    Well now you’re in the same territory as people who write genie-wishes stories. Sure, these are fun questions; but you can’t pretend this is scientifically rigorous $5,000,000 research.

    Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality.

    Surely there’s only one way to rationally assess hypotheses? If you two do it differently, at least one of you has to be wrong. In fact, I’d say you both are, because you differ again from science, which we all know does things right.

    free will is very important to us theologically and philosophically. And heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition is supposed to be the best place. Yet we arguably
    wouldn’t have free will in heaven. How do you fit these ideas together?

    Why bother? Why not just abandon Judaism/Christianity? It’s clearly bunk!

    slated for publication by Oxford University Press

    Sometimes I wonder why I did my Master’s there.

    The JTF serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality

    For the funding of research efforts to be philanthropic, the efforts have to be known to be sensible, and the JTF has never proven the questions it studies are big, let alone that strong atheists are wrong about the answers to one or more of them. These are all just vague
    words, or words whose true meaning they’d hate. “Ultimate reality” is particle physics.

    The foundation encourages civil, informed dialogue

    Theologians are *not* informed. Civility won’t change that; it’ll just stop us admitting it.

    among scientists, philosophers and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large

    Theologians are *not* experts!

    for the purposes of definitional clarity

    In other words, it’s all a priori. That’s not science!

    The foundation’s vision is derived from Templeton’s optimism about acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The foundation’s motto, “How little we know, how eager to learn,” exemplifies its support for open-minded inquiry and its hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

    When “seriously, I don’t think there’s a god or an afterlife & here’s why, & also here’s what
    errors I’ve noticed in other JTF research” op-ed pieces get published in the JTF’s material, they may be open-minded.

  2. @OP:twitter The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports
    research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to
    creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.

    Some recent work in Anglo-American philosophy will be translated for
    German philosophers who, in the last 30 years, have been increasingly
    studying the work of American philosophers.

    That should produced lots of rambling verbiage and conjecture, without any evidenced basis!

    Anyway!  Immortality is already known in cells with similar properties to the religious meme! –

    A HeLa cell /ˈhiːlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line.[1] The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951[2] from Henrietta Lacks,
    a patient who eventually died of her cancer on October 4, 1951. The
    cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific as illustrated
    by its contamination of many other cell lines used in research. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H

    I have just researched this!  – Can I have the money now?

  3. How do you study immortality (of the “soul”) anyway? Does someone venture into the afterlife themselves and we wait to hear from them? Something like “Hi! I’ve arrived safely. It’s nice and warm in here. Hope to see you soon. XOXO”? Their only hope of demonstrating immortality is to prove that reincarnation does happen. Which is not even worth taking seriously.

  4. “”We have
    a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,” said
    Fischer, the principal investigator of The Immortality Project. “”

    I know, where your problem is, you believe in the stork theory of human reproduction.

  5. “Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said.”

    They already have been subjected to careful analysis. Repeatedly. Of all the alleged paranormal activity people claim exists, be it UFOs, time travelers, crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot or Chupacabra, there is none that is easier to debunk than out-of-body experiences, be they near death, or merely while snoozing.

  6. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality.

    A philosopher?!? Oh, FFS.

    Near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, dreams of immortality are all purview of the brain. Why not give the $5m to the field of neuroscience and answer such questions once and for all.

    It’s almost as if they don’t want to find the reasons behind such neurological phenomena.

    The grant will also fund two conferences…

    Ah, that explains it.    

  7. Chapter 4 of my doctoral thesis looked at ideas on the immortality and simplicity of the soul in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century England.

    Can I have my share of the three million quid now?

    No, really. The only people with anything interesting to say on the subject are historians of ideas. We’re the ones who actually deal with how ideas impact on societies. Near-death experiences are trite and uninteresting to scientists, having long since been explained away, and actual disembodied immortality is comprehensively impossible. Theologians just make stuff up, and philosophers only do good work when they take their cue from the former rather than the latter.

  8. Near-death experiences are not trite, and certainly not trite to the people who experience them.  Just look at the changes they make to people’s lives and world views.  Scientists have not long ago explained NDE except perhaps to find neural correlates for individual aspects of the NDE.  There is no scientific theory that explains all reported aspects of the NDE.  NDE are real and significant.  Interpreting NDE might be contentious especially when embedded in metaphysics and mumbo-jumbo.

  9. Yes, I agree.  Funding scientific research of NDE is a good idea.  It shouldn’t be avoided just because of the interpretations that people accord them.  As Sam Harris has suggested, it is unfortunate that some things are entangled with religion, metaphysics. mythology, and mumbo-jumbo thereby precluding rational enquiry into them.

  10. Aspects of Immortality

    No need to perform such a study, Sylvia Browne has extensive experience of the after-life. On death you proceed through a tunnel of light and evil people go through the left door to an empty abyss and after a suitable period being reincarnated back to Earth. Meanwhile good people go to the right and into Heaven. Suicides go to the “holding place” where they get to decide on left door or tunnel of light. Once actually entering Heaven you get to greet all your deceased relatives (even the ones you don’t like) and then a spirit guide er ..guides you to the “Hall of Wisdom” where your past life is displayed on the “scanning machine” (like a 3D hologram). We then meet with celestial therapists who help us in evaluating and atoning for events in our previous life. For really tough cases there is the “Cocooning room”, a kind of celestial sensory deprivation chamber, only for dispembodied spirits. The really-really tough cases are sent to the “Towers” for deprogramming. Once through the process you get to go to the “Hall of Records” where charts of everyones past lives are stored and on display. You should also checkout the “Hall of Justice” wherein lives the “Council of Elders” who advise God on your furthering progress in the spirit world.

  11. > There is no scientific theory that explains all reported aspects of the NDE.

    There’s the problem, the thing doing the reporting is the brain undergoing trauma caused by the dying process.

  12. seems you’re suggesting that there’s something wrong with first person accounts – again, i’d direct you to the many useful things that people like sam harris have to say about first person reporting – trauma or otherwise

  13. “At the end of the project Fischer will analyze findings from the Immortality Project and write a book with the working title “Immortality and the Meaning of Death,” slated for publication by Oxford University Press.”

    The ‘working title’ will ultimately become ”  How to spend $5 million navel gazing “

  14. I don’t really think that comparison is fair.  Sure string theory is speculative and  difficult to verify experimentally but it’s speculation based on known mathematics and physical theories that we do understand.  Not at all the same thing as theism which is just pulling ideas out of that  part of  the anatomy best used for sitting on. 

    Michael

  15. As I see it, any attempt to “prove” immortality is doomed to failure, I mean how long do you wait to get the results in? Indeed, what constitutes evidence for immortality?

    As for out of body experience, what would you accept as evidence for such?

    Say the subject is in a sealed room, has been searched and scanned for receiving devices etc.
    They are able to describe events (controlled by those conducting the experiment) going on in another sealed room some distance away, and claim to have obtained that info by visiting the room.

    If they are able to repeat that performance on demand or most of the time, would that constitute evidence?

    For myself, it’s evidence of something rather extraordinary. I’d want to know how they did it, and can I learn to do it too. If I could and subsequently found I could transport myself to other places and return with evidence of such – what does it prove (other than I can do a great party trick)?
    I don’t see that it proves I have a spirit that can exist without a body, although it would seem my consciousness, or something of me, is able to get to the other room.
    Of course, if the body were to die while I’m “out of it” and I remained floating about in the ether then I’d know I can survive without a body, but the experimenters wouldn’t!

    Perhaps future advances in the “Out of Body Theory” will enable us to come up with better tests, you never know.

    Of course, the blokes controlling the vat our brains are floating in are listening to all of this. Hmm, or is it just me in this vat.

  16.  As for out of body experience, what would you accept as evidence for such?

    You should have a look at 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

    There are people doing serious research on this.  One issue is to try and see if people report an NDE when their brains seems to be inactive.  Although I don’t see how you rule out the NDE actually occurring after the brain starts again and just seeming to be occurring earlier.  Another test people are doing is to put pictures or numbers in places in operating theatres where they can’t be seen by anyone and see if people having NDE’s report seeing them correctly.

    I would have thought there should have been some results from the AWARE study by now 

    http://www.southampton.ac.uk/m

    Michael

  17.  I’m not surprised. After all, mainstream science seems rather uninterested in the topic and resigned to people dying any time after age 80.

     

    What makes you say that ?  Independent of the scientific research into NDE’s such as 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

    there is lots of research into prolonging life beyond 80 years.  There are scientists even talking immortality.  Have a look at 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L

    There is even some guy called Dawkins who gets a mention.

    Michael

  18.  Five Million Dollars to investigate what happens after death?

    I got the answer for free !!

    Absolutely nothing

    If organisations have got 5 million to throw around, please consider giving the money to various charities that do real work, and are trying to do good in the world

    Now, that would be money well spent

  19.  Thanks for the links, they look interesting.

    Woody Allen said something along the lines of “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. After looking at some accounts of NDE, I’m not so sure I’d want to miss it! Not that I’m in a hurry to experience it. And there are some accounts, I’ve yet to read, that were not so pleasant.

    Perhaps research can help us develop better ways to die. I imagine you’d need training in something along the lines of yoga or meditation. Once you’d mastered it, you go into a trance and then shut down your brain in a controlled manner. Obviousely you’d have to pay all fees up front.

  20.  How is an understanding of the neural activity that goes on the brain of the person experiencing a mental state NOT an explanation of that mental state? It’s not a “correlate” it’s the actual phenomenon itself. There is nothing more to brains and mental states than patterns of neural activity. Why on earth would anyone expect there to be?

  21. True, but nothing as mainstream, well-funded, and media-covered as say, food science or low-tech disease “prevention” that perhaps keeps us from dying prematurely (i.e. at 50 or 60) but has little effect on us living past 100, much less achieving “immortality”. We are centuries away from mainstream science even taking the topic seriously.

  22. Because they’ve always believed that what we can today observe neurologically is really just the emergent physical event caused by MAGIC. No matter how precisely neural science will manage to observe, describe, simulate and reproduce NDEs, religious or drug-induced experiences, there will always be the people who kick their feet and insist that what’s really happening is MAGIC. This is one of these cases where many minds will not be changed by facts and evidence, but collective intellectual progress will occur simply by ignorance going all but extinct along with the brains clinging to it. Superstition is on the way out in better societies, confirmed by the various churches’s absurdly proud declarations of gaining an increasing follower base only among the most ignorant people living in the farthest backwaters of civilization on the planet.
    Does Templeton fund building schools and colleges in those regions? Somehow I doubt it.

  23. no, what really needs to be distinguished is the phenomenon and the interpretation brought to that phenomenon.  the two shouldn’t be conflated or confused; and until we know what consciousness is, and how it arises both are worthy of serious, objective investigation.

  24. Given that NDEs can be triggered with Nitrous Oxide and oxygen deprivation would it not be more logical to ascribe them to to nitrous oxide and oxygen deprivation than an invisible man on a cloud preparing you for immortality? The only reason the cloud explanation has any weight is endless repeated assertion.

    I personally have had OOBEs, so I can attest they feel completely as advertised. They tend to get triggered in times of boredom, so they might just be a special type of dream.

  25. “People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,”

    now i’m no philosopher so excuse my ignorance, but isn’t the answer to examine a corpse?

    I might suggest he reads Atkins “on being” with a great little chapter on what happens to us after we die. then again, $5M? sure, i’ll accept it’s far more “complicated” for a piece of that…

  26.   The John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects … .. .. .

    But it’s primary function is to advertise and try to claim serious scientific credibility for religious wooo!  Any science which comes out of this is just coincidental spin-off!

  27. I recall reading a long time ago that if we eliminated medical causes of death, our lifespan would be about 200 years.  This is because we have so many accidents.  This lead me to speculate that we would become much more risk averse if there were an immortality pill. That lifestyle might seem unacceptable to us non-participants.

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