Conference Highlighted Immortality Project Findings

International teams presented work on immortal hydra, near-death experiences, ethics of expensive longevity treatments

immortality project logoBy Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Thirty-four teams of researchers from universities around the world reported their findings from studies related to immortality at the Capstone Conference for The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside.

The findings, presented May 28-30 in downtown Riverside, centered on a diverse set of topics, including the genetic make-up of immortal hydra, the causes of near-death experiences, the possibility of an infinite human lifespan, the ethics of expensive longevity treatments and how to conceive of eternal bliss in heaven. A public session on near-death experiences and a new book on these experiences supported by the Immortality Project attracted 120 people on May 29.

The Immortality Project is a $5.1 million, three-year research grant housed in the UC Riverside Department of Philosophy, under the direction of John Martin Fischer and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The research presented at the conference was selected through two separate funding competitions. The grant also supported student fellows and awarded essay prizes. More information may be found on the project website.

“We were extremely pleased with the Capstone Conference,” said John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy and the project leader. “The scholars shared their very exciting results, and this event helped to continue to build and foster academic relationships and even friendships. It also encouraged deeply interdisciplinary approaches to these fundamental questions of human existence. We were also very happy with the Younger Scholars Workshop, which took place during the week just prior to the Capstone Conference. This brought together younger scholars from around the nation and the world, and the presenters included philosophers from the University of Edinburgh, Yale/National University of Singapore, University of Houston, and UC Riverside.”

Some specific findings reported at the conference include:

  • Near-death experiences can be simulated through immersive virtual reality
  • The life-review component of near-death experiences has a physical basis in the brain
  • The meaning and transformative character of near-death experiences can (arguably) be given a naturalistic account
  • There are interesting and surprising relationships between Christian and Buddhist views about the nature of personhood and corresponding attitudes toward death
  • There are ways to understand secular immortal life (living forever) that would render it recognizably like our finite lives, and, at least arguably, choiceworthy
  • We might be able to use the psychological notion of “flow” to understand how eternal existence in Heaven would not be boring
  • There are important relationships between beliefs about the mind (whether it is physical or nonphysical) and attitudes toward death and the afterlife
  • There are important relationships between human tendencies to attribute mental states to individuals who have died and beliefs about their moral characters.

At least three documentary films about research supported by the Immortality Project, as well as many books, anthologies, and articles are expected. The project also awarded eight essay prizes for articles on these topics that were published in popular venues.

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights. The foundation’s vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The foundation’s motto, “How little we know, how eager to learn,” exemplifies its support for open-minded inquiry and its hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

 – Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is the postdoctoral fellow on The Immortality Project

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