Now, or after we die, does an afterlife matter? $5 million seeks to answer that question

SuperStock / Alamy ALAMY BNF7NW Italy, Florence, Museo di San Marco, The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico, circa 1450-52 Today … Continued

SuperStock / Alamy


BNF7NW Italy, Florence, Museo di San Marco, The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico, circa 1450-52

Today from the Department of Perhaps the Most-Awesome Academic Grants: The Templeton Foundation has awarded $5 million to create something called The Immortality Project, a sprawling research venture into the implications of human’s expanding expiration dates.

The grant for University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer may be one of the country’s biggest investments in looking scientifically at how we view death, what role it plays in our psyches, whether our brains are hard-wired to experience an afterlife.

Part of the project will look at cultural variations in reports of near-death experiences. Americans, for example, consistently report a tunnel and a light at the end. In Japan, reports often find the individual tending a garden.

Philanthropic giant Templeton, one of the biggest funders of research on the role of religion, isn’t just investing in something esoteric here. The project, Fischer told me today, stems from the very real boom in interest in human longevity. With experts learning how to replace faulty organs with high-quality ones, the conversation needs to happen at some point: What if we CAN live forever? What role does death, and our concepts of mortality, play in our lives?

Some of the questions Fischer says he’ll pursue are hard science: Are there structures in the brain that make it natural for us to believe in an afterlife? What role do they play?

Some are more sociological: What do people believe about heaven and hell and how does that affect their behavior?

Some sound scary: What if eventually scientists can make an exact computer model of our brain architecture, upload it onto a computer and we’d be conscious, but without a body?

Some sound just funny: Would existence in an afterlife be boring?

You may not know this (I didn’t) but in this community there are people called “immortality curmudgeons,” who pretty much believe death is what gives our lives purpose. Fischer is not one of these.

“I argue against this,” he said from Germany, where he’s on sabbatical. “I think immortality could be engaging and attractive.”

Templeton gives away tens of millions each year to explore the outer edge where science and faith intermingle. I asked Fischer what he, someone “not inclined toward religious belief” was doing in this inquiry, which seems destined for conflict. After all, a good chunk of the world starts with the premise that there IS an afterlife, even if they can never prove it.

“I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. But it’s fascinating to think about whether it could be desireable or choice-worthy,” he said.

The project begins in January.

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  • itsthedax

    Dear Templeton folks. I have the answer for you. There is no afterlife. “Near death” experiences have been explained by modern medicine.

    Pay me.


    Oh well, Lady Gaga makes that much in an evening.

  • Rongoklunk

    Even the great Carl Sagan said that the afterlife is nothing more than wishful thinking. If we didn’t die – we wouldn’t need to pretend there’s an afterlife, or a God. Personally, as an atheist, I’m glad that death is death. My worst nightmare would be dying and waking up in Heaven, with those real creepy religious people everywhere, and hymns and organ music, and nuns and monks and priests and bishops and mullahs. I would rather go to Hell. At least the people down there would be a lot more interesting. But I every confidence that death is death. That’s why nobody ever came back to tell us anything about it.

    What we usually believe is what we were raised to believe. That’s how precious and true our beliefs are. Just a matter of where we live and what we’re taught.Though the good news is that superstitions don’t cut it anymore – especially among the better educated. It’s all about what makes sense these days – in this wonderful miraculous age of Science and technology. Surveys are showing that religion is on the rocks, especially in Britain and Europe. Islam has slowed things down, but eventually they too – will have to cave in to reason, as the years go on – and religious superstition will join other superstitions like astrology and alchemy on the margins of society.

  • ghova0

    “What if eventually scientists can make an exact computer model of our brain architecture, upload it onto a computer and we’d be conscious, but without a body?”

    They won’t lose any money on this one: The British polymath Roger Penrose (“The Large, the Small and the Human Mind”) has demonstrated that the mind has capabilities that can’t be equaled by any computer no matter how powerful. And the idea that a machine will become conscious simply by executing some algorithm is believed only by hard-core Artificial Intelligence types.

  • ceodata

    No, they haven’t (not all of them, anyway).

  • edbyronadams

    $5 million might get a cornerstone only for a very large air castle.

    Faith is required to overcome the suffering of humanity and there is no proving or disproving anything based on faith.

  • itsthedax

    References, please.

  • jsmith4

    Yeah, but she can make the evening seem like Eternity.

  • allinthistogether

    In Hell.

  • tony55398

    Oh you athiests, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, this you will eventually discover. I know this, I really do. You should ask God to help you, really, just ask before you go to sleep at night, ask Him to help you, honestly, just try it night after night, and don’t give up.

  • itsthedax

    Let’s hope that Templeton applies a little more rigor than skimming anecdotes on wikipedia.

  • PhillyJimi1

    I can’t believe in the mythology that the creator of the Universe somehow showed up 2000 years ago by knocking up a virgin with himself so he could be born in order to fake his death for 3 days (2 if you’re counting) and come back as a zombie. The appearance of this zombie god now offered all of humanity a loophole for the fruit eating crimes of the first rib woman who liked to talk to snakes. Of course there is true because the book of stories says it is true.

    Tony if you have faith that this story is true that is your right but understand you’re trying to sell it and I am NOT buying it. I am an atheist only by definition not by some choice. I didn’t reject any god or gods. The stories are just wishful thinking, as if a rabbits foot makes you lucky or a black cat crossing your path has any influence on random chance.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Your point has nothing to do with an afterlife.

    Who in their right mind would wish for an afterlife that last an enernity? Do you understand how long forever is? I mean heaven might be nice the first trillion years but after another 100 trillion years I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference between heaven and hell.

    Sure heaven is a nice make believe place to tell a child where is parent is when they die. But like Santa it isn’t real.

  • persiflage

    Hmmmm, the afterlife. Do you think the Mormons have a state all to themselves in heaven? Just wondering………..

  • tony55398

    Know and you shall be like gods was the path chosen by mankind, while the fruit of Love remained unchosen, with knowledge they became aware of their nakedness, the leaves that covered their embarrassment was public hair, those who are young are not embarrassed but as they grow older they become so when puberty arrives. Jesus showed us the path to salvation not only in this life but to life eternal, Love God and your neighbor as yourself, why He chose this time and not another may be that mankind was ready to advance to greater knowledge and ever more deadly weapons, almost certain to destroy itself. This may be speculation, but seems to be the path of mankind at present.

  • Madtown

    You’re aligned with christianity, which is certainly fine if that’s what you prefer. But, what of the millions of humans on this earth(creations of God) who will never hear of the concepts of christianity, through no fault of their own? They won’t be shown the path to salvation? They will never hear the name Jesus, much less learn anything about him.

  • tony55398

    India and Pakistan are on a hair trigger, as is much of the Middle East, they may yet destroy themselves, the best that can be hoped for is that the Christian west as well as the Christian eastern countries such as Russia can somehow keep these countries from pulling the trigger, instead of stiring the pot. They should remember to use Love as the weapon of choice and Love is a real power, an infinite power, in other words diplomacy, and working through none violent means as much as possible, building up, not tearing done. They must remember the second world war was no picnic and a nuclear war would be far worse.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s religions best card – the get-out-of-death card. Folks believe it because they can’t handle the truth – that death is for real, for us as for all living things. And gods are mythical be definition.

  • tony55398

    Why would people want to live forever in this world with all its pain and suffering, boredom, limited means of enjoyment, while your friends and family die and your left alone??

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