Immortality: project leader responds

John Martin FischerHaving summarised a number of commentators’ initial mixed reactions to the Immortality Project – see previous Blog – I felt their concerns could be summed up in the following question, to be put to Professor John Martin Fischer, project leader: “Since so much scientific effort has gone into the study of NDEs, after-death communications and reincarnation, over many decades, why do you expect the Immortality Project to make a difference?”

I emailed him with this query and I’m delighted to report that he kindly responded very quickly with two brief answers.

“I am grateful for your interest,” the professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, wrote. “Also, I have read with great interest your two blog posts on the grant.  Thanks for your thoughtful analysis and, again, for your interest.

“Frankly, I do not think it would be productive for me to get too involved in discussions about the prospects for the grant at this point.  I think we’ll want to be judged by our results, and that is what I ask.  

“Briefly, how do I expect the Immortality Project to make a difference?  

“Please remember that I will be seeking applications from anyone in the world who wishes to apply for grants in the empirical/scientific component, the philosophical component, and the theological component of the grant.  I will invite leading academics in all of these fields to be the judges of the grant competitions.  

“I cannot, in advance, speculate on what projects will emerge as worthy of support. But I remind you that the study of NDEs (and related phenomena) may, or may not, be funded.  This grant is broad in its scope, and we will avoid reinventing the wheel.”

Prof Fischer followed that up with a second email, shortly afterwards, saying:

“Please remember that the announcements of a grant such as this are for the general public and are intended to give a sense of what kind of things we will be interested in (potentially, at least).  But, again, the specific projects that will be funded will be the result of rigorous competitions judged by leading academics in the relevant fields.”

Clearly a man with a sense of humour, Prof Fischer lastly referred to a quote I had included about Chris Jensen Romer’s explosive reaction to reading a general statement about the Project (you’ll need to read my previous Blog to understand it):

“Please allow me also to express the hope that the cat of the  researcher/author you quote has fully recovered (as well as its owner).”

So, we will have to wait to see how the Immortality Project develops and how deeply it probes those areas which parapsychologists with an interest in survival research regard as essential for establishing the existence of an after-life. The good news is that Prof Fischer has already demonstrated his awareness of these concerns and, hopefully, will tackle them head-on.

Immortality Project: mixed reactions

UCR reaching for heavenNews that the Templeton Foundation is providing $5 million dollars for a University of California, Riverside (UCR), professor – John Martin Fischer – to set up the Immortality Project (as reported in my previous Blog), an inquiry into the after-life, has been greeted with mixed reactions.

On the one hand, most commentators – myself included – are agreed that it is a worthwhile venture. But some have questioned why the Templeton Foundation feels it is necessary, when so much peer-reviewed research producing positive results has already been done, over the decades, without influencing public or scientific opinion.

In any such discussion, it is important not to point a finger at the Templeton Foundation.  Prof Fischer has not been asked by the foundation to carry out the Immortality Project. It is his concept: one that he clearly feels is important and the Templeton Foundation agrees, to the extent of funding it over three years.

One assumes that in conceiving the Immortality Project Prof Fischer was already familiar with parapsychological literature and the work of eminent scientists in the field. But if so, why did the UCR announcement include this statement:

“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.”

In fact, the UCR Today report, written by the university’s media contact, Bettye Miller, went further, saying “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 behaviour.”

When author and researcher Chris Jensen Romer read UCR’s take on previous investigations into aspects of life-after-death, he “nearly spat my coffee all over my keyboard”, adding, “the cat is still holding his paws over his ears from my indignant yelp”.

“How can anyone write this?” he asks at his entertaining Polterwotsit blog. He then proceeds to explain that the claim had resulted in such a violent reaction because “for 130 years exactly this kind of work has been going on….” Chris also points out that eight Society for Psychical Research presidents have been Nobel Prize winners. Click on this link to read Chris’s excellent response in full.

Prof John Fischer at UCRHe’s not alone in reminding UCR that an enormous amount of work has been done on investigating immortality. So why reinvent the wheel? Doug Todd, a Vancouver Sun staff writer who “explores faith, religion, sex, spirituality, politics, ethics and the soul”, urges those involved in the Immortality Project to “take seriously the impressive investigations that have already been done in the field by several key people, including philosophy professor emeritus David Ray Griffin, of Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University (which, coincidentally, is only 50 kilometres from UC Riverside).” Griffin is the author of Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality: A Post-Modern Exploration which includes chapters on studies into life after death, reincarnation and communication with the dead.

Todd also names a number of Canadian scientists who have made important contributions to the subject, and concludes his excellent piece (which can be read in full here) with these words: “Let’s hope the 20th-century pioneers in the field such as Griffin, and newcomers like Norenzayan and Beauregard, are welcomed into the Immortality Project at UC Riverside”.

And since the Immortality Project seems to be particularly interested in near-death experiences, it will find a paper just published by Italian scientists Enrico Facco and Christian Agrillo invaluable. “Near-death experiences between science and prejudice” has been published online by Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. As well as outlining the three essential items they consider necessary for a proper assessment of NDEs, they also provide an extensive list of reference sources which demonstrate how much research has already been conducted into NDEs.

John Martin Fischer is currently based at the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics, University of Muenster, Germany, where he has a fellowship until December. In an interview with Los Angeles Times writer Larry Gordon, he said of the Immortality Project: “It doesn’t mean we are trying to prove anything or the other. We will be trying to be very scientific and rigorous and be very open-minded.”

Fischer has indicated he is “not a religious person” and is sceptical about an afterlife, but believes “endless life without death could be a good thing”.

Perhaps most disturbing revelation, in an interview with Marc Parry of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is Fischer’s statement that “the Immortality Project will avoid trying to prove or disprove whether an afterlife exists”. Instead, it will “chip away at the problem by studying what we can study”. For example, Parry writes, “possible subjects like whether brain structures predispose people to believe in an afterlife, or whether people who believe in an afterlife are more likely to behave morally”.

His thinking seems to be influenced by scientific advances that suggest human and computers will merge at some time in the future. That promises physical immortality. But, surely, looking for evidence that we are already immortal – in spiritual terms, having a soul – is a far more exciting prospect and one that deserves the lion’s share of the Templeton Foundation’s $5m funding.

$5m grant to probe immortality

Prof John Fischer at UCR

I have often argued that if just a fraction of what is spent on space exploration or sub-atomic particle research were to be given to investigating evidence for an after-life, we might soon have an incontrovertible answer to the question everyone asks at some time in their life: What happens when we die?

So I am overjoyed to report that the wonderfully philanthropic John Templeton Foundation has given a grant of $5 million (£3.19m) to enable an American professor, John Martin Fischer, to set up the Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

My initial concern was that most of the finance might be used to explore philosophical topics at the expense of empirical issues, and that would not get us any closer to the truth. But an announcement released today on the UCR website gives an assurance that half the funding will be used for research projects. The Immortality Project is inviting eminent scientists to make research proposals.

Though near-death experiences (NDEs) are a particular focus of the announcement, the Immortality Project will not have lived up to its title if it does not also explore spirit communication and reincarnation. After all, it is frequently argued that the apparent glimpses of an afterlife reported in NDE cases are created by a dying brain and have nothing to do with an after-life. That’s a question the Project will attempt to answer. But alleged spirit communications, through mediums or through electronic voice phenomena, for example, and also cases suggestive of reincarnation, deserve just as much attention.

There have, of course, been many scientific investigations into after-death communications and claims of past lives in the past, so it remains to be seen why Prof John Fischer believes his Project’s findings will be any more convincing or acceptable than others. But I wish him, and those who work with him, every success in their exciting, if challenging, endeavour.

Here’s the full statement from the University’s website:

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.

“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 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 John Templeton Foundation, located near Philadelphia, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.

Half of the $5 million grant will be awarded for research projects. The grant will also fund two conferences, the first of which will be held at the end of the project’s second year and the second at the end of the grant period. A website will include a variety of resources, from glossaries and bibliographies to announcements of research conferences and links to published research. Some recent work in Anglo-American philosophy will be translated for German philosophers who, in the last 30 years, have been increasingly studying the work of American philosophers.

UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White said Fischer’s research “takes a universal concern and subjects it to rigorous examination to sift fact from fiction. His work will provide guidance for discussion of immortality and the human experience for generations to come.  We are extremely proud that he is leading the investigation of this critical area of knowledge.”

Noting Fischer’s renown as a scholar of free will and moral responsibility, Stephen Cullenberg, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said, “There is perhaps no one better suited to lead a multidisciplinary research project on the question of immortality and its social implications. The Templeton Foundation’s generous support will enable scholars from across the world to come to UCR to investigate how the question of immortality affects all cultures, albeit in different ways.”

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.

“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.”

Fischer noted that while philosophers and theologians have pondered questions of immortality and life after death for millennia, scientific research into immortality and longevity are very recent. The Immortality Project will promote collaborative research between scientists, philosophers and theologians. A major goal will be to encourage interdisciplinary inquiry into the family of issues relating to immortality – and how these bear on the way we conceptualize our own (finite) lives.

One of the questions he hopes researchers will address is cultural variations in reports of near-death experiences. For example, the millions of Americans who have experienced the phenomenon consistently report a tunnel with a bright light at the end. In Japan, reports often find the individual tending a garden.

“Is there something in our culture that leads people to see tunnels while the Japanese see gardens?” he asked. “Are there variations in other cultures?” What can we learn about our own values and the meanings of our finite lives by studying near-death experiences cross-culturally (as well as within our own culture)?

Other questions philosophers may consider are: Is immortality potentially worthwhile or not? Would existence in an afterlife be repetitive or boring? Does death give meaning to life? Could we still have virtues like courage if we knew we couldn’t die? What can we learn about the meaning of our lives by thinking about immortality?

Theologians and philosophers who examine various concepts of an afterlife may delve into the relationship between belief in life after death and individual behavior, and how individuals could survive death as the same person.

“Many people and religions hold there is an afterlife, and that often gives people consolation when faced with death,” Fischer said. “Philosophy and theology are slightly different ways to bring reason to beliefs about religion to evaluate their rationality. If you believe we exist as immortal beings, you could ask how we could survive death as the very same person in an afterlife. If you believe in reincarnation, how can the very same person exist if you start over with no memories?

“We hope to bring to the general public a greater awareness of some of the complexities involved in simple beliefs about heaven, hell and reincarnation, and encourage people to better understand and evaluate their own beliefs about an afterlife and the role of those beliefs in their lives.”

For example, “We think that free will is very important to us theologically and philosophically. And heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition is supposed to be the best place. Yet we arguably wouldn’t have free will in heaven. How do you fit these ideas together?”

At the end of the project Fischer will analyze findings from the Immortality Project and write a book with the working title “Immortality and the Meaning of Death,” slated for publication by Oxford University Press.

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.

Doctors testify to patient’s spirit return

Faye AldridgeA case that will challenge sceptics to find a non-spiritual explanation is making headlines in America’s media, following the publication of Real Messages from Heaven by Faye Aldridge (right).

When the author’s husband, Burke, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, Faye expected God to perform a miracle. Both she and her husband were devout Christians. “I expressed my faith. I covered him in the word of God. I read the Bible to him every day,” she says.

The miracle she expected did not happen. Just 21 days after the diagnosis, 53-year-old Burke passed away. But a different miracle did occur.

Within hours of Burke being pronounced dead at the hospital, two members of the medical team who had treated him received a “visitation” from Burke in their own homes – before they knew that he had passed on. What’s more, the men had never met.

Dr Cushman, arms raisedThe testimonies of oncologist Dr Carl Willis and neurosurgeon Dr Arthur Cushman are included in the book and they have both testified to the occurrence in a TV news report (see video below or go the the WSMV website).

Learning that he was in the final stages of cancer, Burke made a promise to his wife that he would find a unique way to reach out to her from heaven. The website of Channel 4 carries the video of the interview and the headline story, “Woman Says Fax From Husband Proves Afterlife”, that stretches the truth somewhat. She did receive a fax, but it was from the two medical men, telling her of their surprising encounter with the spirit of her dead husband.

Dr Cushman explained: “He was holding his arms up and was surrounded by this light. He said ‘This is wonderful – and don’t ever worry about dying’.”

Dr Carl WillisDr Willis testified that on seeing Burke: “I pretty well knew what had happened and who it was – it was just amazing.”

Faye Aldridge believes her husband chose to appear to the oncologist and neurosurgeon, rather than to her, so that people would believe the story. Her book, Real Messages From Heaven tells not only her own remarkable story but “other true stories of miracles, divine intervention and supernatural occurrences”.

Phone calls from the dead?

Callum CooperIt’s more than 30 years since Raymond Bayless and D. Scott Rogo wrote their ground-breaking book Phone Calls From the Dead. What has happened since? Well, for one thing, telephones have changed radically and we also have various new methods of communication available to us – such as emails, texts and Skype. But people continue to receive anomalous messages on phones as well as these new forms of electronic media. It’s a phenomenon in which I have long had an interest so I was delighted to learn that Callum Cooper (right), who is pursuing doctoral research in psychology and parapsychology at the University of Northampton, England, has decided to reprise the subject and bring the work of Bayless and Rogo up to date.

Cooper presented some of his findings at a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research in London yesterday, based on his new book, Telephone Calls From the Dead.

I confess that when I first became aware of the Bayless and Rogo book, many years ago, I initially shrugged it off as a mass market paperback that would be sensational and colourful but short on facts. But when I realised that one of its authors was Rogo, a writer and parapsychologist whose approach to the paranormal had impressed me greatly, I bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, learning in the process that Rogo’s co-author was, if anything, even more demanding and sceptical.

Telephone Calls From The Dead coverWho better than these two dedicated researchers to delve into a phenomenon which many would dismiss as impossible? And who better than Cal Cooper to continue their studies, providing new material that reinforces the American parapsychologists’ findings.

In fact, some of that new material originated with Rogo but has never before been published. Rogo was murdered in 1990 and his papers were given by his family to the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Cooper contacted Rogo’s father, who was also a friend of Bayless, and he gave his permission for the Northampton University researcher to have access to his papers.

The institute’s library staff sorted through the files – no one else had apparently looked at them since they were gifted – and found a folder containing case studies that had come to light and been investigated after the book was published.

One of those cases, which Cooper shared with his SPR audience, concerned a man named Carl who took himself off to the coast in 1969 for a much-needed break. He found a cottage which had a room to rent. The woman who greeted him said he should call her “Grandma”. She then showed him to his room, which was full of antiques, including a wall-mounted 19th century telephone which had a crack handle on the side to call an operator and place a call. He paid little attention to it until one night, after spending the day on a beach, he was woken by its ringing at 11:13pm. He tried to ignore it but eventually picked it up. He heard his father’s voice saying:

“Ah, there you are Carl. Your mother will be trying to reach you. Call her up, she has a message for you.”

Wondering what the problem might be, the son responded, “Call her to the phone Dad, I’ll talk to her now.”

“I can’t, she is not with me,” his father replied.

“Where are you calling from?” Carl enquired.

“It’s a very beautiful place. Be sure you call your mother. Good-bye Carl.”

Concerned, he tried to call his mother but was unable to get the phone to work, so he decided to go back to sleep and try calling her in the morning. When he recounted the experience to “Grandma” at breakfast next morning she looked puzzled. She explained to Carl that the telephone in his room had been bought in an antique shop by her late husband. What’s more, it wasn’t connected to any wiring that would enable calls to be made. Handing him a mordern kitchen phone she told her guest he ought to call his mother immediately. When he did, she said:

“Carl, where on earth have you been? I’ve been nearly frantic, trying all night to locate you! Your father died last night of a heart attack at 11:13. Nobody knew where you were.”

Clearly, cases of this kind appear not only to suggest that in special cases the dead can make contact with the living by using electronic or telephonic devices, but that they can do so even when those objects are not functioning.

There may well be parallels with EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) in which discarnates appear to communicate with researchers using white noise on radios or similar devices.

Let’s hope that Cal Cooper’s research uncovers more recent cases. It’s certainly good news that a university researcher is focusing on phenomena relating to survival of death.

I discussed the phenomena of EVP and telephone calls from the dead, including Bayless and Rogo’s research, in my book Spirit Communication, and have been on the look-out for such cases ever since. The most recent, which I shared with Cal at the end of his lecture, comes from Maureen Lipman, a well-known and much-loved English actress whose husband of many years, playwright Jack Rosenthal, died in 2004.

Speaking to Daily Telegraph columnist Mandrake in 2011 (see below), Lipman revealed that she believes she was admonished by her late husband in a posthumous text message on her mobile phone. She does not indicate when this occurred.

“Our son, Adam, showed me the first draft of a novel he had been writing, and criticised it,” she explained. “One of the characters in the novel was called Enk and later that day I was fiddling with my phone and a text message popped up from Jack. It said, ‘The lad’s done well – Enk’.”

The actress added: “I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know how it happened, but there was Jack’s name. Of course, it could have been an old message he had sent me that I had kept that had got mangled, but God only knows. I felt it was Jack’s way of telling me – ‘Our boy’s doing alright. Leave him alone’.”

Maureen Lipman story in Telegraph