Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

Lead researchers of The Immortality Project — a collaborative philosophical, scientific and theological project that seeks to explore questions relating to immortality — presented the outlines of their research to the public at the Culver Art Center last Friday. This came amid the project’s capstone conference, closed to the public and open only to scholars, that was held at UCR from May 27-30.

The $5 million dollar grant from the John Temple Foundation stands as the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UCR. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Principal Investigator of the project John Martin Fischer and his team seek out questions that include whether and in what form(s) persons survive or could survive bodily death, and whether it is in some sense irrational to desire immortality.

The research conducted on the project culminated in the publishing of a book written by Fischer and the post-doctoral fellow on the project Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin titled “No Proof of Heaven: the Significance of Near-Death Experiences.”

The presentation outlined projects such as Pomona College Biology Professor, Daniel Martinez’s “Identifying and Characterizing the Genes of Immortality in Hydra” and his research in isolating the genes that allow hydras to essentially live forever through the regeneration of their amputated parts.

Another project outlined included Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Dan Demetriou, from the University of Minnesota, Morris and his exploration of “civic immortality.” This idea assesses a person’s’ reputation and standing in the historic memory of a culture as well as their influence on people in that culture. Martin Luther King Jr. was used as an example of a figure that has achieved this kind of civic immortality in the American collective consciousness.

Fischer emphasized the seriousness and legitimacy of near-death experience survivors’ stories due to the transformative and deeply profound nature of what the experiences are saying, “The people who’ve had these experiences are incredibly sincere…and you just have to conclude that they are correct in their experiences…but you also have to try to explain them in a way that does not give up on science and naturalism.”

After the presentation, audience members were allowed to ask the researchers questions in an open forum. One audience member asked the question of whether or not people would change their beliefs if the sensation of a near-death experience was duplicated in a lab as astronauts, fighter pilots and people who have taken lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to convey the internal feelings of experiencing near death experiences as a result of physical factors.

Fischer answered “Maybe. People really cling to their beliefs and I think one of the ideas is, as human beings we are afraid of death and… people cling tenaciously to supernatural interpretations partly because it’s a way of comforting one’s self in the face of death.”