In July, a philosopher named John Martin Fischer was awarded a five million dollar grant to oversee a philosophical, theological, and scientific study on the question of immortality. Fischer called the resulting venture, which will last for three years, the Immortality Project. The grant was given by a group called the John Templeton Foundation, and it breaks down like so: 2.5 million for empirical research, 1.5 million for philosophical and theological research, and 1 million for conferences and other expenses.
Fischer is highly respected in philosophical circles for his work in free will and morality. He does not believe in an afterlife, but he isn’t an asshole about it like some people. I spoke with him by phone from Germany, where he is a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics at the University of Münster. We discussed his project, some spectral hypotheticals, the potentialities associated with physical and non-physical immortality, and the meaning of Halloween.
VICE: One aim of the Immortality Project is to examine why and how people are disposed to believe in post-mortem survival. On that note, what would you say is the point of a holiday like Halloween that focuses on death?
John: Halloween, I think, is about the fear that we have of death, and that’s something that is going to be a central focus of the grant. Human beings have a fear of the unknown, a fear of death. It’s well known that a lot of what we do in our religious practices and in our lives is done in an effort to manage that fear, to manage that terror. Halloween is one of the ways we do that. We poke fun at ghosts and skeletons. We scare ourselves, but not so badly that we’re damaged. It’s kind of like we want to admit it and come to grips with it. The function of Halloween, I think, is to manage the terror of death.
You just mentioned ghosts. I’d like to pose a few thought experiments: Would ghosts, if they exist, have ethical obligations? That is to say, how would the quality of being disembodied affect ones ethics?
Well, you could first ask if in a disembodied form you would be able to affect people who still exist as psychical entities in the world. And if so, as a ghost or a disembodied form, I think you would have many of the same moral obligations as we do now. Whatever moral principals you accept would still apply. Interestingly, Plato famously asked what you would do if you had a ring that made you invisible, the Ring of Gyges. If you had that ring, you could steal things from the king, you could sleep with his wife, and no one would know. But Plato argues that you should still be just and moral, because in the long term that’s what’s going to pay for you—what’s going to be in your best interest, even if in the short term you could get away with some things. So here, this thought experiment is kind of like an extension of Plato’s Gyges Ring thought experiment, and I still think the same morals apply. Now, let’s say that as a ghost or disembodied form you wouldn’t have interactions with the world. Then you would have to ask, would you have a community of other disembodied persons? If you did, then ethics would still apply.
Let’s say a ghost is apprehended (busted) and tried for a fatal haunting, could one morally or logically sentence a ghost to "life" in prison?
[laughs] Well, that’s a hard one. One thing, let’s just say, uh… well, I don’t know exactly what to say about that.
OK, going back to Halloween. I've really grown tired of this whole "sexy costume" thing. It bugs me because I love Halloween because it spooks me. I love the hint of death that comes with the smell of decaying leaves, and the chilling sensation you get when you hear cold wind blowing through trees. But Halloween seems to be losing its way. Things that are considered "scary" now are usually just gut wrenching. What does it say about our culture that we have sexy costumes instead of scary costumes and that horror is turning into gorror?
I’m not very familiar with the sexy costume trend, but I am aware of the existence of the hyper violent slasher movies, and to me they don’t tap into anything of interest. Now this is just my gut-level response, off the top of my head without any real professional expertise, but I do think in general that our culture is getting more and more debased. Aspects of our film and media and music are just so unsubtle and in your face. And maybe this is just an extension of those trends to Halloween. And that’s really unfortunate. If you want to make an impact on other human beings, the best way to do that is through subtly and nuance, and if you do use violent imagery or profanity or explicit sexual images, they can have a tremendous impact when they’re placed in the context of something bigger.
And as for Halloween, it’s great that it happens at this time of year. Presumably it does for a reason. The leaves are falling, it’s getting cold. Insofar as winter is symbolic of death, death is coming on. And it can be a deeply emotional, moving time. But that can be lost if the culture goes to extremes and our emotions don’t get engaged.
Another aim of your project is to examine whether or not it would be rational to desire immortality. One time in high school I was talking about life and death with a friend of mine and his mom. She brought up the idea that maybe, when we die, we just vanish. Poof! That’s it. And I'll never forget it, my friend was so relieved. He said that he “just couldn't take" the idea of being around forever. He was lying on a couch, staring up at the ceiling, and he slapped his hands down and said that he "just needed a break.” And what he meant was that he just needed a break from being. So, if there is an afterlife—or for that matter, if we find a way to scan our minds onto a computer and live forever—would that be a good thing, or a bad thing?
Well, it’s interesting now because science is helping to increase our longevity. In 1900, the average life expectancy in developed countries was 47 years. In 2000, it was 76 years. Now it is almost 80 years. It’s increasing all the time—about five hours per day according to some estimates—and there are some biologists and some scientists who think that we’ll be able to increase our longevity to the point where we’ll be able to live forever, absent being murdered. Just naturally living forever. Now, those scientists are sort of out there and it’s very controversial stuff, but there are some biologists who are beginning to take seriously the possibility that we could significantly increase our longevity to the point that we could become immortal. And so the philosophical question is this: would that be desirable? Many philosophers have answered no. They say that death and limits give meaning to our lives and if we were to live forever our lives would lose their urgency and their preciousness. We could become alienated, or even just bored. I call these philosophers the Immortality Curmudgeons. That’s the first part of it. Then there is a separate but related question, which is, would eternal life be desirable or something to hope for in an afterlife? And a similar debate goes on. There are curmudgeons, or pessimists, who say, “No, release me from existence, I don’t want to live forever." Mark Twain, you know, famously talked about heaven as a very boring, unpleasant place. What do you do? Just hear all the harps and hang out with angels?
But I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m an Immortality Optimist. I think that immortality could well be desirable, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be boring or unpleasant and monotonous. If my body is not deteriorating and—I don’t have to be rich—but if I have material means to live comfortably and to get around, then I could have projects and relationships. I could travel. I could pursue whatever I’m interested in intellectually. Conversely, the model that the Immortality Curmudgeons have is this: you’re in a station wagon with three children in the back seat driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco on highway 5, or from Miami to Boston on 95, and it’s a hot day, and you’re driving, and driving, and the kids start to unravel. Everyone just starts to unravel.
Final question, would you say that working on this project has changed you in any way?
I’ve been addressing these sorts of questions for a long time. I’ve thought about what death involves for a long time. If it’s just nothingness, how can we wrap our minds around it? And I’ve thought about whether immortality could be choiceworthy. What has been new for me with this project is learning more about the emerging science of longevity and the possibility of immortality, which is really interesting. What has also been new for me has been reading and learning about people’s recorded near-death experiences. Of course I knew about them before, but I hadn’t really immersed myself in them or systematically studied them. And so it’s been kind of eye-opening to learn that there’s a community of people out there who are very sincere and very earnest, and who have had experiences that have transformed them. Many people have emailed me or written me sharing their experiences, and often they seem to be very sincere and very detailed. One thing I’ve learned is to respect the fact that people have had these experiences and to take them seriously. Now, what it is that these experiences mean is another story. I don’t necessarily believe they offer a glimpse into the afterlife, or that they show that we are more than our material bodies and brain—I have not been convinced of that. But I have come to realize that there is a phenomenon out there that has to be taken seriously, and that has to be respected.
[pauses] Can you hold on for a second? Someone’s knocking at my door.
[a couple of seconds go by] Hi. I’m back. I did not plan this, I swear. I thought I heard a knock on my door, but when I opened it, nobody was there.
Maybe it was a ghost! Anyway, it’s been eye-opening to learn about the community of people who’ve had these experiences. So part of what I’m going to do in this project is inspect them and take their experiences very seriously. I myself don’t believe they indicate that materialism is false, but frankly, I don’t know what is causing so many people to have them. My own guess is that it’s a combination of physical changes and stresses to the brain when someone is undergoing a physical catastrophe—that together with background cultural elements, stories, films, and religious teachings. I think that will prove the answer. But again, on the other hand, I honestly don’t know what makes so many people have structurally similar near-death experiences. So I guess an emotion that I’m having more and more of is one of respect and humility, which is something we’re trying to cultivate in our project—intellectual humility.
More from Vinnie Rotondaro: