Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A study of life after death

Today we have news that the Templeton Foundation is giving a three-year, five million dollar grant to John Martin Fischer of the University of California-Riverside to conduct an in-depth study of the afterlife.  [Source]

"People have been thinking about immortality throughout history.  We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death," said Fischer, the principal investigator of what is being called the Immortality Project.  "Much of the discussion has been in literature, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and in theology in the context of an afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory and karma.  No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy."

The project will involve an in-depth analysis of reports of near-death experiences, spirit survival, and out-of-body experiences.  Fischer is careful to emphasize the rigorous nature of the study his team intends to undertake.

"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.  We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked.  We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife."

And that's the problem, isn't it?  How can you tell the difference between the two -- a true, scientifically verifiable "glimpse into an afterlife," and a mere collection of stories that tell us "something important about... our values?"  With near-death experiences, and anything else that relies solely on anecdotal reports, it is often impossible to eliminate the effects of the inevitable skewing of memory that occurs because of inherent flaws of our perceptual and integrative neural mechanisms.  If there is a commonality between stories of NDEs, what does that mean?  Are reports of NDEs similar because people are experiencing contact with a consistent, real afterlife, or because we all have basically the same brain wiring and that wiring fails in a consistent way when we are nearing death?

I just don't know how you'd sort the two out, frankly.  Myself, I have no idea if there is an afterlife -- but even if there is, it may well be out of the reach of an acceptable empirical protocol that would convince someone who wasn't already convinced.

And that brings up the second problem.  The Templeton Foundation is a granting agency whose stated purpose is
[to serve] as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.  We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.  We encourage 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.  Our 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 our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.
All of which sounds nice, but it does put a rather heavy burden on the researcher receiving their grant money to find a connection between science in spirituality, given that taking five million dollars and turning up empty-handed would be a bit of an anticlimax.

I'm not alone in having some questions about the Templeton Foundation's motives.  Rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, John Horgan, and Peter Woit have all made pointed comments about the Foundation's money biasing any projects that they might support.  Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, said, "the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking. It's all about appearances."  Carroll did add, however, "I appreciate that the Templeton Foundation is actually, in its own way, quite pro-science, and is not nearly as objectionable as the anti-scientific crackpots at the Discovery Institute."

It's telling if in order to place a funding agency on the side of rigorous research, you have to compare it to the Discovery Institute.

On the other hand, I'm cautiously in favor of such research.  As I've said many times before in this blog, I'm perfectly willing to entertain the possibility of there being many phenomena that fall outside the ken of current understanding -- but if you think such things are real, you damn well better have some hard evidence to support your position.  The "Big Questions" -- and the existence of an afterlife is certainly one of the biggest -- are deserving of research, and if it is done with acceptable scientific rigor, the Immortality Project is a fascinating thing to undertake.  I can only hope that the researchers involved with the project aren't going to end up being corrupted by the inherent bias of their grant foundation.

1 comment:

  1. It seems like a waste of money to me. I'd be happy to take on that job for only 3.5 mil.