A 5 million dollar question: Is Life after Death real? The Immortality Project.
Today I should be working, but about the time I’m writing this my Becky is finally submitting her PhD thesis at Coventry University, entitled something like A Century of Apparitions: The Census of Hallucinations in the 21st Century. I have read the Abstract, and got to look at a few pages last night and it looks very interesting, and annoyingly looks like it may disprove one interesting hypothesis I had developed, at least based on one chart I saw in the content analysis section. (Becky was too tired to discuss it!) Once she has had her viva and made corrections, I will read the whole thing, but for now congratulations to Becky on getting it all done. Becky’s Ph.D thesis was made possible by generous funding from the SPR, and I know she wants to rework the whole thing for publication in the JSPR or PSPR.
Why do I mention this? Well another funding story caught my eye this morning, on the Facebook at Paranthropology, where the excellent Nancy Zingrone commented, and then at Roy Stenman’s blog Paranormal Review. It seems the Templeton Foundation are putting 5 million dollars in to a research programme, but not just any research programme –
Newswise — RIVERSIDE, Calif. — For millennia, humans have pondered their mortality and whether death is the end of existence or a gateway to an afterlife. Millions of Americans have reported near-death or out-of-body experiences. And adherents of the world’s major religions believe in an afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection and immortality.
Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an 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. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. It is the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.
The full story is here – do read it! Now I know humanities are suddenly fashionable, at least in the UK and we are now treated like the cool kids in uni, ending 90 years of humanities and social science types being seen as not real academics by Science, Medicine and other numerate types — a rather odd trend, but apparently a real one. I think the rampant Scientism of the 2000′s has caused a reaction; but even so, it’s rare and rather wonderful to read of an award of this scale being given to a philosophy department. I expect Richard Dawkins will be unimpressed!
Anyway, I can imagine my friends broadly agreeing on something. The atheists and materialists will say “what a waste of money — it is all bunk”. (I hope to be proved wrong though!) My fellow Christians and folk of other faiths will say “we know we survive death, why not spend the money on medicine, feeding the hungry or getting clean water for the millions living in poverty?” (or so I hope, because that was my first thought). My scientifically orientated friends will know just how many areas a few hundred thousand dollars could help with. However, none of these are the real reason for my unease, though I am not sure the question needs so large a sum when people are starving and dying of preventable diseases or suffering injustice or poverty in this life which we all know exists.
No, my real issue is that the plans seem seriously odd. Let’s look at the Immortality Project page. All good and worthy stuff, and great news for philosophers and theologians. Now I sometimes wear one or the other of those hats, and I have no issue in principle with allocating resources to these areas, and while I’m surprised that spending money on translating American philosophers in to German, and one hopes vice versa, is seen as a pressing issue in survival research I am utterly amazed at one thing.
Since 1882 psychical researchers have worked constantly on exactly this issue, and the SPR have published millions of words, including all manner of top rate scientists and philosophers writings on the area. Yet I see nothing on any of this work? Let’s look again at the Press Release
Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said. The Immortality Project 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.
I nearly spat my coffee all over my keyboard. The cat is still holding his paws over his ears from my indignant yelp. The bolding above is mine, obviously, but really, how can anyone write this?
For 130 years exactly this kind of work has been going on, and being published in the peer reviewed parapsychological and psychical research journals. This has been an interdisciplinary research programme, involving doctors, neurologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, and many other brilliant thinkers. I believe the SPR has had 8 Nobel Prize winners as Presidents, though Tom Ruffles will doubtless be able to correct me if I am wrong. Believers, sceptics and agnostics alike have attended annual conferences, study days and monthly lectures, and published millions of words in the JSPR and PSPR, That’s just the SPR. On top of that we have the Parapsychological Association, the ASPR, and many many more groups and research institutions. With I believe 13 postgraduate research centres studying these issues in UK universities alone, it seems bizarre this has all been dismissed as anecdotal and by implication lacking careful analysis. Now hopefully parapsychology is included under scientists mentioned: but I can think of an awful lot of established research centres from the Alister Hardy Research Centre now at the University of Wales, to the KPU at Edinburgh, to Lund University, to the SPR, ASSAP, the ASPR and Scottish SPR, through to Chris French’s APRU at Goldsmith’s, who all deserve a slice of that money. What about Atlantic University? Coventry? Bucks New University? Northampton? Middlesex? The Rhine Research Centre?
Yes I know the plan is to bring philosophers, medical men, theologians and scientists together to study the issues, but surely the Templeton Foundation must realise that the SPR and PA conferences already do just this? Yes there are other aspects mentioned, which fall under sociology and psychology of religion in the main, but those are already represented at the psychical research conferences.
I have tried for twenty years to get funding to study survival and immortality. On paper I look like a good candidate – not up to Stephen E Braude or Anthony Flew’s level, or the wonderful and sadly departed David Fontana, and Christopher Moreman is the current expert here, but hey I’m passionate, hard working and my academic background is in exactly these fields. Given half the money is going on grant awards, I should be sensible like everyone else will be, and keep my head down and hope for funding and be delighted the subject will finally be investigated with lavish funding. I’m not going to. I’m going to howl in protest that there is no mention of any of the above peoples work, or the recent large scale scientific projects on NDE, contemporary scientific research on OBE, in fact just a general suggestion, if I do not infer to much, that the subject has never been academically or scientifically investigated rigorously before. If there is a life after death you can test it empirically now: Myers, the Sidgwicks, Podmore, Gurney, William James et al will be spinning in their graves!!!
I’m going to suggest that rather than funding two new conferences, the PA and SPR conferences, or even the ASSAP conference, could have benefited. I’m going to make a noise about this, because I’m frankly offended. I need about $15,000 maximum for my PhD fees: $5 million is probably more than the SPR has spent on funding research in the area in I know not how many years, possibly since 1882. In an area starved of funding, this is indeed welcome news, but not if the research effort ignores “controversial” areas like psychical research.
Maybe I’m being too hasty. I though of writing to Professor Fischer to express my concerns, but than thought I’d post publicly, and now. I’m tempted to create a detailed bibliography of research on human survival, NDE, OBE and other peer reviewed articles of relevance, but today I am very much pressed for time. SO I write these words, and realise that once again my outspoken nature when I perceive injustice may debar me from any of the Templeton loot. So be it: I have in the past been a big fan of the Foundation’s work, and I am absolutely delighted for Riverside and Prof. Fischer, but this press release has done nothing but arouse my fears that psychical research and 130 years of serious academic study is to be side-lined in a project designed to re-invent the wheel. I look forward to future statements however that will hopefully allay these suspicions, and show that those who have worked in this area for their whole academic lives will not be, once more, overlooked.
I wish everyone involved in the project the very best, and desperately hope my reservations prove unfounded.
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