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How Humans Will Respond to Immortality: A Chat with John Fischer

I chatted at length with the University of California–Riverside philosophy professor about living forever. As expected, the conversation got pretty meta.

by Austin Considine
Mar 29 2013, 9:01pm

Five million dollars is a hefty grant for any academic to receive, let alone a philosopher. And yet that’s exactly what University of California–Riverside, philosophy professor John Martin Fischer received last year for a project that will involve dozens of scientists, philosophers, and theologians from around the world to examine a subject that is probably unknowable: immortality.

With a subject as ephemeral and amorphous as immortality, one wonders what answers we can reasonably expect for the $5 million price tag. Fischer doesn’t propose to determine whether God exists (Fischer is, himself, a nonbeliever) or heaven is real. But there’s plenty to work with. Human immortality is a broad subject. It is science and religion. It is futurism and conservatism. It comprises biology, cybernetics, philosophy, theology, cosmology, and quantum physics.

The scope of the Immortality Project reflects that boundlessness. On June 1, Fischer and a panel of judges will announce their choice of ten winning proposals offered by physical scientists from around the world, each of whom will receive about $250,000. Judges are still sifting through the roughly 75 proposals they’ve received. But Fischer gave a few indications of what we might expect when I caught up with him over the phone last week.

One scientist, he said, has proposed to study the hydra, whose cells replicate indefinitely without deteriorating; several others would examine the neurophysiology of the near-death experience. “There are some interesting proposals looking at how people’s beliefs about the afterlife affect certain things like their ethical behavior, their criminal behavior,” he said.

Other projects might examine “the relationship between afterlife beliefs and economic behavior and longevity,” he added. “There’s a lot of really interesting stuff out there.”

The hard science is just part of the inquiry. In June 2014, judges will disburse a second allotment of $1.5 million among a group of philosophers and theologians to think and write about immortality’s more rarefied aspects. (The remaining million pays for administrative costs like maintaining a website and organizing conferences.) Fischer hopes to have the project, which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, wrapped up for a culminating conference in the summer of 2015.

I chatted with Fischer for over an hour about the project. As expected, the conversation got pretty meta.

MOTHERBOARD: In your writings, you use logic to dispute the idea of god; there’s also a deep, implicit acceptance of the reality of death. How did that lead you to want to study immortality? It seems antithetical to those conclusions.

John Fischer: The context that I’m interested in is death and what comes after death—if anything—in all its aspects. The basically secular view is what I’ve adopted in many of my writings, which says that when we die we go out of existence. We don’t have any further experiences. [But if we assume] death is a bad thing for the individual who dies—even if it’s just experiential nothingness—then one might wonder whether immortality might well be a good alternative. That’s how they fit together in my mind. 

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