Pop quiz: Does life exist after death?
A University of California, Riverside philosophy professor, John Martin Fischer, has been awarded a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to study just this topic—and yes, students can take his class.
Fischer noted in an email to Yahoo News, "Both I and my post-doc, Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, will teach related classes over the next three years. I have frequently taught classes on death, immortality, and the meaning of life both at Yale University and UC Riverside."
So what's the meaning of life? More on that in a moment.
Fischer noted, "We'll be open both to studying religious and non-religious views about immortality. One thing that we'll study is whether human beings would want to live forever: would it be boring? Would it lose its meaning and beauty and urgency? Does death give meaning to life?"
According to the university's website announcing the grant award, many anecdotal reports of the afterlife abound, but there has been "no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior." The research will look at a range of phenomena, including heaven, hell, purgatory, and karma. The grant is the largest ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.
Fischer said in a statement, "We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions," Fischer said. "Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We're not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports."
The grant will also fund two conferences to discuss the findings. Said UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White, Fischer's research "takes a universal concern and subjects it to rigorous examination to sift fact from fiction."
The Immortality Project, as it is called, will solicit research proposals from eminent scientists, philosophers and theologians whose work "will be reviewed by respected leaders in their fields and published in academic and popular journals."
The research will also delve into cultural aspects of the afterlife. For example, there are reports of millions of Americans seeing a tunnel with a bright light at the end. In Japan, reports often find the individual tending a garden.
The professor added that the academic research could include a range of issues, like "heaven and hell: If we are material beings, how can we exist in heaven, where we would not have physical bodies (or not of the sort we have here)?
"There is a lot of interest in near-death experiences. We can carefully catalog them and look into whether there are patterns. There has already been a lot of work on this. Perhaps some cross-cultural studies would be helpful.
"We'll also be open to studying the relationship between beliefs in afterlife and behavior--moral behavior and crime rates."
Sounds like the kind of research topics that many college students have already spent hours pondering. As for the meaning of life? The professor says check back in three years.