John Martin Fischer, a philosopher with UC Riverside most famous for his work on free will and determinism, will soon be leading a $5 million academic project to study “immortality.”
In a statement, the Immortality Project said that it would be a “rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality”. Around half of the money will be used to fund research, while the money will also be used to fund two conferences. A website has also been set up to publish “a variety of resources, from glossaries and bibliographies to announcements of research conferences and links to published research”.
However, the study and its huge grant are already proving controversial, with critics arguing that theology doesn’t have a place in a serious study of the afterlife.
For example, the lead comment on an article about the project on the Chronicle of Higher Educations website reads:
If the intent is to do “serious scientific work” then why include theologians? They aren’t a discipline with scientific methods at the base of their field and it’s pretty safe to say they’ll tend to come to this topic with some pretty huge preconceptions and biases, and arguably even conflicts of interest.
Critics of the theological bent of the study have pointed out this may be the influence of those funding the project, the Templeton Foundation, which was founded by the late investor John Templeton. Templeton, an American-born stocks trader who later renounced his citizenship, was a practicing member of the Presbyterian Church before his death. Critics say that his religious beliefs have coloured his scientific philanthropy.
Perhaps the most prominent critic of the Templeton Foundation is Richard Dawkins, the famed British biologist and author. Dawkins wrote in 2010 that he believed the aim of the foundation was “blur the boundaries between science and religion, debasing the former and buying off the many scientists whom it supports with its deep pockets.”
Can a study of immortality that involves theology be impartial? We spoke to Fischer via phone in Germany to hear his thoughts on the project.
What’s the core aim of the project?
It’s a big project so it’s hard to summarize to its core being but I’d say we’re investigating two different kinds of immortality.
One would be the possibility of living forever without ever dying. The main questions there are whether it’s technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. I think another more interesting and important question is would we choose to be immortal in that sense, or does death and finitude give life meaning? So that’s kind of the philosophical side of the question of never dying.
But then there’s the religious notion of immortality, which involves an afterlife. So we’ll be looking at a full range of questions about Judeo, Christian and also Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religions’ conceptions of the afterlife to see if they’re theologically and philosophically consistent. We’ll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they’re all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife or are they kind of just illusions that we’re hardwired into?
Has the study of immortality and/or the afterlife been neglected?
I would not say that. What I would say its been relatively neglected in scientific study and it’s only now that some scientists (and even now they’re at the fringe at science) are considering whether we could be immortal, either through medical and pharmaceutical and biological enhancements, or possibly eventually being able to take scans of our minds and then upload them on to a computer.
I would say its been relatively neglected in science probably because it was never plausible — we never really had even the beginning of the ability to achieve longevity, much less immortality, but now the average lifespan of human beings is continuing to go up and who knows the interesting possibilities the future will bring. However, I will say in theological and philosophy and literature and science fiction and great literature in various genres (going back to Frankenstein) there’s been a lot of treatment of immortality.
Is it important that this is a multi-discipline study?
Yes, its important. Practically speaking there will be a mid-point conference after the 2nd year and then a capstone conference after the 3rd year and we’ll bring together people from the various different disciplines doing the research and encourage conversations.
This is one area where i think we can benefit from conversations and inter-disciplinary approaches. There will be some projects that will be purely philosophical or purely theological and there may be some that are just empirical — there may be some research we’ll support on the possibilities for biologically enhancing longevity, for instance — but many of the most important questions will be interdisciplinary.
For instance, if you are looking at people’s reports of near death experiences, part of that is just empirical and comparative: charting the experiences and describing them and looking for patterns in them. But then there’s a lot of analytical work where we can ask philosophical questions about the meaning of the experiences. Do they indicate glimpses of an afterlife or are they delusions? And also the very interesting philosophical question of what they might point to or mean about our lives as we live them.
The Templeton Foundation has been accused of blurring the line between science and theology by high-profile critics such as Richard Dawkins. How do you respond to such criticism?
First I would say the Templeton Foundation is doing very important philanthropic work because they are stepping into a big void. There’s very little money for the humanities provided by governments. Who else has the money and the interest to support these great questions of human interest? I might even say it’s inappropriate for governments to ask citizens to support this kind of research. Yes, the government should be supporting research into cancer and heart disease and diabetes and so forth but with the more speculative and great questions of human nature and free will and life and death I think it’s wonderful that a private foundation is stepping in and supporting it.
Further I should say that in my experience [Fischer sits on the board of the Templeton Foundation] I have seen no pressure by Templeton to go in one direction or another or to tilt results. I think that they’ve given me free range to pursue the issues in a way that I think is appropriate and so I think Dawkin’s criticism is off the mark. I have seen no attempt to intellectually distort or encourage me to go in one direction or another. I myself am not a religious person (though I have great respect for religion) and yet they have given me this grant.
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