Life As We Know It?

By Joe Martone

Posted September 6, 2012 in Arts & Culture

John Martin Fisch (photo by Peter Phun)

UCR’s The Immortality Project plans on spending three years tackling the ultimate mystery

Can we live forever? Is there life after death? Is there really a way to know? There’s no doubt that these are exceptionally big questions that we’ve been asking ourselves since the dawn of time.

And now, a research group in Riverside is going to tackle them head on.

Professor John Fischer of UC Riverside has just acquired a $3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study immortality for three years. Fischer, now heading the aptly named Immortality Project, will be heading a team that will take scientific, philosophical and theological perspectives on cross cultural beliefs, near death experiences, morality and the meaning of life and death.

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCR Philosophy department, knows that this project will be big, and he’s looking forward to it.

“I plan on being there for all three years, to stick with the project,” Mitchell-Yellin tells the Weekly. “I find it really interesting. There’s so many issues that fall under the umbrella of the grant; there’s something for everyone.”

Mitchell-Yellin said that Fischer was drawn to the idea of immortality through his beliefs in semicompatibilism, a concept concerning free will and the choices people make.

“He’s a good person to run this project because he’s been writing about issues like these for a couple decades now,” Mitchell-Yellin says. “He’s written that immortality might not be bad for us. People think that you would eventually do everything you wanted to do, but Fischer disagrees.”

The grant isn’t anything spur-of-the-moment. Fischer had to go through a vetting process that took over two years, with the project’s findings will be published at the end of the three-year period.

“The Templeton Foundation has recently been giving grants for projects that bring philosophical and scientific inquiries together,” Mitchell-Yellin says. “There was one on free will in Florida State that just finished, one in Lake Forest on character, another one at UC Riverside on love and more around the world. John has been involved with the Templeton Foundation for years. It’s about getting people of different subgroups (philosophy and science) talking together.”

The Project will be able to examine these ideas and more through a series of sub-projects that will run continuously for three years. He is currently looking for researchers who will be able to work on these groups and study the above concepts and questions in more detail. Though Mitchell-Yellin does not know what will be found yet, he is interested in the results.

“The one thing that would be really great would be bringing people with different sorts of training together to study the same or similar questions. I’m very interested to see how the scientists who are looking at, for example, psychological accounts of why we believe in immortality, how they can inform philosophers who can think about what we believe in immortality, why it’s important to us, how it shapes us, important things in this life . . . I’m interested in cross-pollination. These people will be able to share ideas with each other and I’m fascinated by that.”

For those worried that the Project may have a religious slant, don’t worry. Neither Fischer nor Mitchell-Yellin are religious and want to study all the fields of thought equally, with judges brought in from all over the world. They also realize the ambition of the project, and know that this will be no easy undertaking.

“These are all difficult questions,” Mitchell-Yellin says. “People have been thinking about them for hundreds, thousands of years in some cases. In terms of the project being difficult . . . yes, it will be because the questions are difficult. But I think the way that it’s structured makes it exciting. It doesn’t make it easier, but it makes it exciting.”

Mitchell-Yellin has assured that he will keep us informed of the project as it continues and develops.


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