UC Riverside gets $5 million to study immortality

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A private foundation has awarded the University of California at Riverside $5 million to study age-old questions surrounding immortality and life-after-death. They’re calling it the “Immortality Project,” and its goal is to apply rigorous scientific research to questions surrounding immortality and the afterlife.

The John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia awarded the grant to UCR philosopher, John Martin Fischer, the project’s lead investigator. Fischer, who studies free will and moral responsibility, admits that he’s not so sure this whole life–after-death thing even exists.

“I’m kind of a skeptic about an afterlife,” Fischer said in a Skype interview from Germany, where he’s a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Bioethics, University of Muenster. “I’m inclined not to believe there is one, but I certainly don’t know.”

Fischer said the research at UCR will last three years and will look into a wide range of immortality issues. Among them: the cultural differences that shape near-death experience, such as why Americans who have a near-death experience usually report a tunnel with a light at the end, while in Japan most who experience the phenomenon report tending to a garden.

Other research will delve into such issues as whether technological and medical advancements could create immortality or at the very least much longer life spans for humans. And if so, how would immortality affect the meaning and value we place on our lives? Or do we need death to give life meaning?

“We can chip away at the problem by figuring out what features make life more meaningful and attractive and what features take that away,” he said of the project that will solicit research topics from scientists, philosopher, theologians and others worldwide, beginning Sept. 1, 2012 and will announce grants next year.

Fischer said he’s allotting $2.5 million to fund up to 10 scientific research projects into various questions of immortality. Another $1.5 million will go to 15 philosophers and theologians to support them in writing articles and books. He said the research topics will also include such questions as:

-- Whether and in what form a person could survive bodily death.
-- Whether the information in our brains could be uploaded into a computer to allow one to exist there in perpetuity.
-- How a person’s beliefs about immortality influence their behavior, attitudes, and character.

The remaining $1,000,000, Fischer said, will fund post-doctoral and graduate students; the Immortality Project website and two conferences on immortality at UC Riverside.

“One of the main goals I have is just to try and understand more about what we value and what we care about in our own finite lives,” Fischer said. “By studying pictures and conceptualizations of immortality -- in religion and in literature and science fiction -- we can come to figure out something about the meaning of our own finite lives.”

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