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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.