Studying immortality

The LA Times reports that UC Riverside philosophy professor John Martin Fischer recieved a $5-million Templeton grant to study immortality “in this world or another — and whether everlasting might just prove to be ever-boring.”

And just the existence of the Immortality Project has set off blogosphere comments from believers who contend an afterlife has already been proven and skeptics who think the $5-million grant, the largest to a UC Riverside humanities professor, could have better uses to improve life this side of heaven.

The project expects to bring together theologians, philosophers, research and social scientists.

With the help of expert jurors, Fischer expects to give 10 research awards of $250,000 each this spring to neuroscientists, physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists and others to conduct experiments and studies about, among other things: Can out-of-body experiences be simulated? Will it be possible to extend life by extraordinary amounts? Does belief in a heaven or hell make people less likely to commit crimes? About 75 scholars from around the world have applied for the grants.

Next year, an additional $1.5 million is to be distributed among 15 philosophers and theologians, financing research for essays and books about differing aspects of immortality. The remaining $1 million will support, among other things, conferences at UC Riverside, essay contests and a publicwebsite that is building a bibliography and posting essays about various religions’ views of the afterlife.

The size of Fischer’s funding “is pretty much unheard of” in the philosophy world, said Ben Bradley, the philosophy department chairman at Syracuse University, who writes about ethical issues surrounding death.

Some academics feared the foundation would impose a religious agenda on research, but scholars with other Templeton grants have found that they have full freedom, said Bradley, who received a $28,000 award last year for a lecture series.

With medicine and computer technology advancing so fast, Bradley said, it’s important for a philosophical voice like Fischer’s to guide discussion about the prospects — and desirability — of very long life.

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