Using the here and now to get a handle on the hereafter

UC Riverside philosophy professor John Martin Fischer won a $5-million grant to study something that, in the end, is probably unknowable: immortality.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Announcements of a well-funded research project at a major university often elicit, welcome or not, professional and amateur advice. But those messages usually don’t recount a dead cat’s spirit flitting into the afterlife.

UC Riverside philosophy professor John Martin Fischer has been besieged with hundreds of such unusual missives for the last few months as word spread that he had won a $5-million grant to study something that, in the end, is probably unknowable: immortality.

Under his direction, scientists and theologians will be digging into such mysteries as whether humans should even aspire to eternal life in this world or another — and whether everlasting might just prove to be ever-boring.

Plenty of non-academics think they have at least a glimmer of the truth. One man emailed Fischer to describe how his late feline seemed to move on to “another plane of existence.” One man recalled how, near death after a motorcycle accident, he felt he “could walk forward to warmth and eternal comfort.” Someone else contended that reincarnation can be “based on the laws of physics.”

Fischer, an internationally recognized expert on such heady issues as free will and death’s meaning, said he and his Immortality Project researchers won’t be chasing the most kooky tips, hunting ghosts or attending seances to chat with the dead.


But Fischer emphasized the need to keep an open mind, respect religious traditions and apply strict scientific standards to research on near-death experiences, possible forms of eternal life and how belief in heaven affects earthbound behavior.

“These questions have been great traditional questions in human literature, religion and philosophy for millennia,” he said. “We do not think we are going make revolutionary advances that completely solve these problems. What we hope to do is to make progress toward understanding these issues better even if we can’t completely answer them.”

It might seem a peculiar project for an atheist who considers the afterlife unlikely (although he won’t rule it out, and is particularly interested in the Buddhist concept of rebirth).

Fischer, 60, grew up in a Jewish family in San Jose and struggled as a teenager to comprehend his grandfather’s murder by the Nazis during the Holocaust. “How could God allow so much suffering in the universe?” he recalls asking.

His quest separated him from organized religion but led him to study philosophy as an undergraduate at Stanford University and then earn his doctorate at Cornell University. Among the books he has written or edited are “Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will” and “The Metaphysics of Death.”

There is nothing otherworldly about Fischer, a sharp-featured man who resembles actor Martin Landau and has been a lifelong fan of, yes, the Grateful Dead. Even as he speaks of deadly serious issues, his dry humor lightens the mood. He quips that the vampires populating American movies and television series show “that achieving immortality by a certain means — having to suck someone else’s blood — can be unjust or problematic.”

His reputation for fair judgment in an emotionally charged area will be tested over the next three years as Fischer doles out much of the mega-grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton was a religiously minded mutual fund magnate who died in 2008; his Philadelphia-based foundation finances scholarship into “big questions” of spirituality, science and character.


The potential for controversy is evident in the debate surrounding Eben Alexander’s recent and popular book, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” Alexander wrote of glimpsing heaven during a severe illness and coma, with a beautiful woman letting him know: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

Critics contend he was just hallucinatory. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, wrote in the Atlantic magazine that such hallucinations can have spiritual meaning but “cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.”

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.

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 public website 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.

Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago law and philosophy professor, described Fischer as a good choice to lead immortality studies.

“I do not think the prospects for finding evidence of a life after death are high (unfortunately!),” Nussbaum said in an email. “But Fischer is a splendid person to conduct a rigorous open-ended inquiry into this question, and to insist on the highest standards of philosophical clarity and transparency.”


Already underway this term is a weekly non-credit reading and discussion seminar for UC Riverside students and faculty to debate Immortality Project subjects.

Led by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, a post-doctoral fellow who assists Fischer, a dozen people attended a recent session to discuss the Singularity, the predicted creation of a super-consciousness combining human brainpower and artificial intelligence. Some futurists see it as a way to achieve immortality.

The lively talk juggled aspects of science fiction, ethics and religion. Some participants spoke of fears that such immortal super-brains could enslave or destroy humans. But one graduate student said it wasn’t clear whether the new creation would be a “God-like intellectual being or a sad sack stuck forever in time.”

Fischer, who attended the seminar, raised the question of hubris, noting how religion and literature recount punishments to those who seek immortality or omniscience, including Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Bible and the Faust legend of a doctor selling his soul to the devil.

“The whole perception is that we overreach when we seek immortality, and then we get into trouble,” he said.

Fischer later said he understands that many of the people who email him hope that their stories will be validated by scientists and that many religious people “take great comfort in their belief that there is an afterlife and that it is benign or comfortable.”

He and his wife, Tina Louise Fischer, have not spoken much with their three children about the inevitable; the family doesn’t have a cemetery plot or cremation arrangements. They are focused, he said, on staying healthy.

Death, he said, “seems like a scary thought.” But the best reaction, he added, is to live “as long as possible in a healthy and productive way and figure out how to accept death gracefully when it comes.”