Suspend disbelief as any sci-fi film would have you do, and humans inevitably possess the ability to outsmart time, or at least, its decaying effect on the human body. In the not-so-distant future, perhaps even in our lifetime, life actually could imitate art as technology keeps making impressive advances towards extending our mortal coil out far beyond current expiration dates.
While it's near impossible to imagine living hundreds of years, let alone an eternity, the very real possibility, along with some new research on immortality, begs the question: Would you do it—would you live forever?
Death, and the prospect of infinite life, have both been fixtures in human consciousness since our ancestors became self-aware, and are intricately connected to matters of spiritual, religious and deeply personal views that have shaped every culture on the planet. And we may soon know a bit more about the way these concepts impacts the human condition.
John Martin Fischer, professor of philosophy at the University of California Riverside and head of the Immortality Project, has received a $5 million grant (the largest in UC Riverside Humanities department history) from the John Templeton Foundation to research the broad subjects of immortality and the afterlife.
Blending collaborative research from scientists, philosophers and theologians, half of the funding will go towards specific research projects, while the rest will go towards two conferences on the subject matter. A comprehensive website will host resources on immortality including glossaries, bibliographies and links to other published research on the topic. The result will culminate in a book by Fischer with the title, “Immortality and the Meaning of Death,” slated for publication through Oxford University Press after the three-year project concludes.
Some of the interdisciplinary research will explore near-death experiences and whether or not they offer a true glimpse into the afterlife, or whether they are merely biologically induced illusions, and what we can learn about our values from these experiences. “We hope to bring to the general public a greater awareness of some of the complexities involved in simple beliefs about heaven, hell and reincarnation, and encourage people to better understand and evaluate their own beliefs about an afterlife and the role of those beliefs in their lives,” Fischer told the UCR Today.
The research team will also explore whether immortality is a worthwhile pursuit or not, attempting to answer questions such as: Does death give meaning to life? Could we still maintain certain virtues like courage if we knew we couldn't die? Would an infinite lifespan become repetitive or boring?
“Many people and religions hold there is an afterlife, and that often gives people consolation when faced with death,” according to Fischer. “Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality. If you believe we exist as immortal beings, you could ask how we could survive death as the very same person in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, how can the very same person exist if you start over with no memories?"
What would a world look like if populated by a species that had the option of chosing an eternal life? How would we do things differently if we knew—beyond religious beliefs and dogmas—what exactly happened after death? “People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,” says Fischer, and he hopes to get as close to understanding it as possible.
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Image: Jill Ettinger