In August of 2012 I wrote about the Templeton Foundation’s funding of an “Immortality Project,” in which a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside was given 5.1 million dollars to head a consortium of academics studying the afterlife, its ramifications, its possible existence, and its influence on people’s behavior. The studies also included Near Death Experiences (NDEs), and the possibility that they might say something about our life after death. There were also some real science projects. Well, maybe the research on “immoral” invertebrates can help us live forever (I doubt it), but funding theologians for this endeavor is just a waste of money.
At any rate, part of the dosh was just handed out to a philosopher at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was reported in the local paper, and a reader sent me a scan of the Daily Press‘s front page story, with the reader’s addendum:
A philosopher at Christopher Newport U. got some money from the Templetons to study “philosophies of the afterlife.” OK. No problem. The comparative study of views of the afterlife is a legitimate cultural pursuit. My issue is with the treatment of the story. You can see from the attached jpeg of today’s front page. The headlines make it seem like this guy and his collaborator (from Regent University) are taking direct observations of Valhalla, the Pearly Gates, the place where dead terrorists get all those virgins, the LDS Celestial Kingdom, etc. Of course, they’re not “seeking answers,” they’re just using 57 grand to ponder the same old pointless questions. And it’s part of the Immortality Project, which seems to toss poor defenseless hydras into a mix with human near-death experiences.
I thought to myself that this front page is a good example of the media’s role in the process by which philosophical matters become transmogrified into woo.
Note the subheadline, which explicitly presumes the afterlife is real (“What is the hereafter like”?) and that questions about it will be answered by the Templeton-funded professor. I wonder if Professor Silverman has clarified this misconception in a letter to the paper.
Anyway, I was told the story was behind a paywall, but I found it here. The sub-project sounds pretty dire:
The Christopher Newport University professor [Eric Silverman] received a $57,000 grant from The Immortality Project, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and University of California at Riverside, to study philosophies of the afterlife. Silverman is working with Regent University professor Ryan Byerly on the project, which they hope will lead to a published anthology with several contributing writers.
“Anything that we come up with, there’s some speculation here, there’s no getting around that,” Silverman said.
Silverman said many Western concepts of the afterlife are rather disappointing.
“It’s not a very attractive view. You have these images of an afterlife that is kind of less real than the real life — clouds floating around semi-isolated, not really doing very much,” he said. “I understand the reasons for the metaphors, but they’re kind of crass metaphors if you really think about it.”
Silverman hopes by using philosophical concepts, some new ideas can be found on what paradise would be like.
“Can you become a better person morally? What would the afterlife be like constitutionally? Is it a material physical life, is it immaterial, are there institutional structures?” Silverman said. [JAC: I have no words to respond to this]
“There’s a whole series of questions that are worth pursuing and really have not been dug into, at least not in a philosophical way in the past century,” he said.
“Some speculation here”? Now that is the understatement of the year! And it’s a great pity that some people’s concepts of the afterlife, FOR WHICH THERE IS NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER, are disappointing. I myself could envision a wonderful afterlife, engaged in great conversations with people like Spinoza (of course we’d all speak the same language, whatever that is), and having Szechuan food delivered to our clouds. Well, maybe it would get boring after a while—after all, it’s eternity, Jake!
The curious thing is that Silverman thinks that by using philosophy he is going to find out what the afterlife is like. This is what gives philosophy a bad name, and I’d be delighted if people like Michael Ruse (or, more likely, Elliott Sober) would criticize this. Philosophy isn’t going to answer such questions, but perhaps a fertile imagination combined with wish-thinking will.
This $57,000 is an indefensible waste of money. But i have no doubt that some commenters will justify this kind of investigation, and perhaps Eric MacDonald will as well. After all, such studies could tell us about human truths, and give us a kind of knowledge that is simply inaccessible to “naturalism.”
But wait! There’s more:
Silverman, who is a Christian, said religion inevitably plays a role in any discussion of afterlife, but he and Byerly’s work is not focused on trying to do a comparative study of views from faiths such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
“Anything we come up with that’s likely to be true should be compatible with mainstream religion in general,” he said. “That’s what would we hope.”
Now how are they going to know what is “likely to be true” among the things they “come up with”? That, in a nutshell, is the problem of theology. And their attempts to force whatever they make up into the Procrustean bed of “mainstream religion” shows that their project is doomed from the start, for they already have determined that their results must be compatible with already-existing fiction. That isn’t objective investigation, but apologetics. What an embarrassment for the University!
I’m sure, however, that Templeton doesn’t mind the misleading reporting about their project in papers like The Daily Press. After all, the public desperately wants to believe there’s a heaven, which accounts for the over-the-top sales of books like Proof of Heaven and Heaven is For Real. I think Templeton would be delighted that people think their project somehow vindicates the reality of the afterlife—all the while declaiming, as does the guy in the video below, that of course the Foundation is not presuming an afterlife.
Here’s a video of the project’s principal investigator, philosophy professor John Martin Fischer:
Note that some money goes to theologians, and note also how he hedges about the possibility of an afterlife. Nevertheless, there’s that tiny bit of plumping for The Big Questions that Science Can’t Answer. As Fischer says:
“They [near-death experiences, or NDEs] point to the possibility that our own physical world—our own natural world—is more wonderful and complex, and perhaps mysterious and beautiful than we might have imagined: that they don’t necessarily and obviously point to the existence of an afterlife.”
Well, the phenomenon of NDEs itself, which has been known for a long time, already tells us that the workings of the mind at the point of death are fascinating (but not necessarily “wonderful”), yet we already know some explanations for those experiences.. So we already know about the “wonder and complexity” of the human brain evinced by NDEs. I doubt, though, that Fischer and his team are going to find out what physiological changes cause NDEs. No, they’re clearly aiming at the numinous.
In the article, Fischer avers that because he’s getting flak from both atheists and religionists he’s on the right track. As he says, “We get criticized from all sides, which probably means we’re doing just the right thing,” Fischer said. “As a philosopher, for me disagreement is a good thing.”
Not if you’re wasting money investigating fiction! This “we must be right” trope is simply crazy, and especially crazy for a philosopher. While doubt is a good tool for getting at the truth, you can’t always take universal criticism as a sign that you’re right. They might have laughed at Edison, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.