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University Receives $5 Million Grant To Study Immortality 532

Hugh Pickens writes "Humans have pondered their mortality for millennia. Now the University of California at Riverside reports that it has received a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation that will fund research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior. 'People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,' says John Martin Fischer, the principal investigator of The Immortality Project. 'No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy.' Fischer says he going to investigate two different kinds of immortality. One is the possibility of living forever without dying. The main questions there are whether it's technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. Second would be to investigate the full range of questions about Judeo, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religions' conceptions of the afterlife to see if they're theologically and philosophically consistent. 'We'll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they're all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife or are they kind of just illusions that we're hardwired into?'"
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University Receives $5 Million Grant To Study Immortality

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  • The Answer for $5M (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 04, 2012 @08:30PM (#40881719)

    'People have been thinking about immortality throughout history. We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death,' says John Martin Fischer,

    Nothing, You're dead.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @08:37PM (#40881787)

    I predict the only thing that will really happen here is that some "scientists" with questionable ethics burn through 5M! Despite their grand claims, there is zero research need here.

  • by lobiusmoop ( 305328 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @08:44PM (#40881841) Homepage

    Already happening. Her name is Henrietta Lacks [wikipedia.org]. She's recently turned 98 and will live forever in various labs around the world.

  • Incompatibility (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Livius ( 318358 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @08:58PM (#40881929)

    A near-death experience is selective oxygen deprivation. It's the opposite of studying what it would take to lengthen a healthy life.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @09:16PM (#40882047) Homepage

    I don't know who said it--when I heard it it was attributed to Mark Twain but that doesn't seem to be right. At any rate, someone asked a nonbeliever whether he wasn't terrified by the thought of nonexistence after death. He replied, "Not at all. I experienced nonexistence for eons before I was born, and I enjoyed every minute of it."

    I wish them luck with their $5 million, but I don't think they'll be any wiser than Omar Khayyam:

    With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
    And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;
    And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d-
    “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

    Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
    Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
    And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
    I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

  • by rthille ( 8526 ) <web-slashdot AT rangat DOT org> on Saturday August 04, 2012 @09:24PM (#40882093) Homepage Journal

    The body (brain) is quite enough to explain what is observable. That doesn't mean we fully understand it, or that we ever will, but consciousness very obviously arises solely out of the brain.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @09:36PM (#40882195)

    Not at all. The _only_ scientific connection between consciousness, intelligence and the brain is external observation. That is not even enough for a reasonable theory. You should read up on your science.

  • by Alex Belits ( 437 ) * on Saturday August 04, 2012 @09:40PM (#40882227) Homepage

    But there is room for reincarnation without the religious connotations.

    No, there isn't. Without a mechanism to transfer information outside of the dying brain, it is simply destroyed, and anything else is merely wishful thinking.

    Obviously, the body (brain) plays a part (for many the dominant part, it seems), but it is not enough to explain what is observable.

    We already know that brain is a biological computer with multiple chemical and electrochemical interfaces to the rest of the body. This is understood very well, and was understood even before people had computers and therefore could not yet compress this explanation into such a short statement. The only things unknown about it are the structure and mechanisms, and it's extremely foolish to claim that it breaks the laws of nature known through Physics and Chemistry.

    Any alternative to the above is LESS LIKELY TO BE TRUE than "we are all in The Matrix" or "We are in a dream of a sleeping God" hypotheses, what means that it can not be a part of any realistic philosophy and should be relegated to the realm of fiction. All support for this nonsense comes from superstition and nowhere else.

  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @09:58PM (#40882355)
    Most of the great geniuses of recorded history lived when not professing a belief in an afterlife would get you to that afterlife (or lack thereof) more quickly.
  • by grantspassalan ( 2531078 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @10:00PM (#40882361)

    This topic cannot really be studied scientifically, because science is limited to the physical human senses. For those who only believe that what is physical, touchable, viewable etc., this is a great waste of time and money. Whether there is life after death can only be grasped by faith.

    Jesus Christ came and made the claim that he is God. The people of his day, especially the religious ones were unbelievably upset by this claim. They were torqued out of shape enough to conspire with the Roman governmental authorities to have Jesus executed. Jesus proved his claim to deity by resurrection from the dead. All religions, but one, are human efforts to reach God. There is only one faith that makes an exception to this. That is the Christian gospel where God becomes a human being in order to make it possible for him to confer eternal life to all humans who are simply willing to believe this. God reaches down to man, rather than man reaching up to God.

    Anyone who studies the biblical record of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ, will realize that Jesus is a physical being, capable of all the normal physical activities normal humans are able to do. There were however also activities which show that Jesus existed not only on the earthly plane, but also a higher spiritual level or dimension. He was no longer subject to time and space in the same way that we are right now. He could materialize in and out of our time–space dimension, which is a technology that most scientists can't even talk about, because they don't believe in any dimensions beyond our own. When he finally ascended into “heaven”, he did not need a thundering rocket, but was quietly lifted up from the earth and disappeared into a cloud. He promised that everyone who believes and trusts him, will at some point in time inhabit a body just like his resurrection body. This body is no longer subject to entropy or decay or death.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @10:08PM (#40882423)

    Not any type of proof. If you damage part of a TV set, it stops to exhibit all of its features, for example may stop to display color. That still does not mean the picture is generated in there. So while the brain plays a part like any good interface does, it is not enough to explain the overall thing.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @10:35PM (#40882569)

    "A different kind of computer" is actually not a computer but something else. I have the theoretical computer science background to see that. Computers are rather limited in some respects, and these limitations are fundamental, i.e. not a question of technology. There are indications that human beings are not subject to these limitations. So the current state of scientific research is that we have no clue whether we can ever built that "something else" or how it would work. Sorry.

    I am not saying religion has it right. Not at all. Religion is amply explained by memetic theory and there is really no need for anything more to explain it. I think the scientific state of the art can demonstrate rather convincingly that religion is likely wrong, but only with the usual limitations you get when there is zero evidence for something and a rather convincing explanation for something else. Most people do not understand Occam's razor, unfortunately, but rather cling to some fairy-tales to make them feel better. A relatively new and interesting research direction here is Terror Management Theory, where they explore how people deal with fear of death. Turns out that religion is one of the major ways and that fear of fear of death makes people not look the gift horse in the mouth to closely.

    But pure materialism does not come close to explain what is observable at this time either. I am just saying that at this time we do not know that death is the end of individual existence. It may or may not be so. It is most likely the end of external communication possibilities with a specific body. But "out of sight, out of existence" is a rather crude way to look at it.

  • by Vladius ( 2577555 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @10:40PM (#40882605)
    Only an Anonymous Coward would endorse Mitt Romney.
  • Re:Bad analogy. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @10:52PM (#40882683)

    I am not demanding proof of anything. I am merely pointing out that at this time we do not know wither way. My analogy is not flawed, BTW, the question is just of whether with more research we will find the brain is more like a television (think badly calibrated analog TV that distorts the signal) or whether it is self-contained. At this time, this is completely unknown. Both an interface and a self-contained unit can change its observable behavior at its external interface when manipulated. It is not an useful way to determine whether it is either.

    I admit, this poses some kind of a problem, as for people without scientific training this seems to let religion in as giving the explanation. It does not. In fact it is a rather strong indicator that religion is wrong, otherwise it should be easy by now to show that religion has it right. There is still absolutely nothing in that direction. On the other hand, religion as meme or scam works pretty well and is consistent with the observable facts.

  • by Alex Belits ( 437 ) * on Saturday August 04, 2012 @11:05PM (#40882755) Homepage

    You assume consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.

    "Emergent property" is in a non-hand-wavy language is known as "information processing". It's what computers do.

    That is a bit like assuming what is shown on a TV screen is generated in there.

    No, it's not. TV receives images using a well-known mechanism that is based on well-known properties of electromagnetic waves. TV is not special in being able to receive electromagnetic waves, and TV station produces known and observable electromagnetic radiation that is processed by TVs. Even a person who knows nothing about TVs, TV standards and protocols, can easily discover that there is a big tower on a hill that produces electromagnetic waves with wavelengths between tens of centimeters to meters, and all TVs with antennas display pictures carried by changes in parameters of those electromagnetic waves -- it can be studied by blocking those waves, passing them through a filter, adding noise, etc.

    With more sophisticated tools, a person may learn about details of how the images are encoded and how signal is modulated, but the most fundamental piece of knowledge -- that TV receives radio waves that contain encoded pictures -- is immediately evident to any person who is willing to perform research using basic knowledge of Physics, even if such person knows nothing about TVs.

    With the brain, there is no BIG TV TRANSMITTER IN THE SKY that has all matter completely unaffected, except for EXTRA-SPECIAL HUMAN BRAINS BECAUSE THEY ARE SO SPECIAL. Things don't work that way.

    So, no, we do not understand that "the brain is a biological computer".

    Not only we do understand that as a result of rigorous scientific research, it's such an important piece of knowledge that a person who "disagrees" with it, should be considered to be unqualified for any kind of discussion related to science or brains, in the same way as a person who believes that Earth is flat is unqualified for any kind of discussion related to geography or astrophysics.

    Nobody knows how strong/true AI could be built

    I do! There are over 7 billions of examples of it currently in use! They even occasionally assemble new instances! The only question is, how it can be built USING SOMETHING OTHER THAN EXISTING BRAIN CELLS. And obviously, it's important to understand how it works. However fundamental processes are known very well -- neurons, electric pulses carried by changes in relative concentration of ions, various chemicals involved in the process either directly or indirectly regulating the speed and intensity. On top of that, there is plenty of math, however the same can be said about any computer.

    Can you produce a Nintendo 64 starting from sand crystals and ending with playing a Mario game? Will I have to do it personally on my desk over this weekend, for you to believe that there is nothing magical about it? And if no, then what the hell do you want from scientists to do about a much more complex and much more weird computer, so you will shut up about your religious nonsense?

  • Re:Bullshit. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by narcc ( 412956 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @11:10PM (#40882783) Journal

    Ah, you seem to think that science has answered that question. Don't mistake a belief based on a set of metaphysical assumptions to be a belief based on evidence.

  • Re:Bad analogy. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @11:38PM (#40882971)

    Sorry, but you really do not know the current scientific state of the art. The mind-body problem is currently unsolved by science. Your view is that of a "physicalist". It may or may not be correct, there is no convincing evidence either way. (No, there really is not, ask an expert. I am just an amateur in this game.) Most scientists active in neurology and related areas are not touching the topic, because there is really no evidence either way.

  • by surveyork ( 1505897 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @11:51PM (#40883081) Journal
    For $5M I'd tell them whatever they want to hear.
  • by tmosley ( 996283 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @12:06AM (#40883203)
    No, you are the one that claims that there is such a thing as a soul. Prove it or shut up.
  • Re:Bad analogy. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @12:07AM (#40883215)

    Exactly. The problem is that all that "evidence" the physicalists here put up can at his time not be falsified either and hence is non-scientific by nature. Hence my "we do not know" stance. Actually, the whole debate could be subject to incompleteness. But "the works is physical, hence all observable in it is too" is just circular reasoning and does not cut it.

  • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @12:08AM (#40883219) Journal

    Will his consciousness cease to exist or will his ability to show us it exist cease?

    That's sort of a serious part of the question. Does someone's consciousness really cease to exist or just our ability to perceive it.

  • Pot ... kettle ... (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 05, 2012 @01:14AM (#40883633)

    Mitt Romney refuses to release his tax returns.

    And Hussein O'bummer refuses to release his Real birth certificate
    We are still waiting ...

  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Sunday August 05, 2012 @01:23AM (#40883679)

    The medical definition, which is quite easy for me since I'm also a physician. Death can be reversible or non reversible. The legal definition of death is the minute I put my signature to the death certificate. Either way clinical death is defined as lack of pulse, blood pressure, breathing deep tendon reflexes, etc. It is identical in both reversible and non reversible cases, which is why efforts are usually taken to reanimate a recently dead person, especially if the death happens in front of medical staff and is not obviously irreversible (example, decapitation, a body that is obviously cold/stiff to the touch, etc).

    but we know the brain doesn't 'die' immediately.

    The tissue does not "die", however it stops working almost immediately when blood flow stops. The brain consumes huge amounts of oxygen and will immediately deplete any oxygen present in the blood. That's the reason people will suffer "transient ischemic attacks" (sort of like a mini-stroke) even with partial blockages of their carotid arteries - because there is a momentary disruption of blood flow. Now you could argue that a cell that is still alive in that it can maintain the permeability of its cell membrane for the moment, is not technically dead and you are correct. However that cell, at that moment, is not "working". All remaining ATP is being used to try to keep the cell alive, and it has no energy spare to do things like depolarize and transmit signals.

    Maybe the angels, lights and funny guy with the beard show up later.

    Buddy you are free to believe whatever you want. For me I just remember not finishing a sentence in the ER, and then being ventilated with a crowd of colleagues and nurses around me a few minutes later. There was no passage of time. There was no pain. There was no suffocation. In fact when I "came to" it took me a while to realize what had happened, with the obvious disbelief that it was happening to me. I do remember a certain disconnect from my body and it took a few minutes to register all the poking and prodding that was going on as IV lines were inserted, etc. And after a few minutes the incredible pain from the burns I had from the defibrilator started to be felt. But it's an amazing feeling to not have to do your own breathing. But I wouldn't read more into it than that. At least now I know that death is completely painless, and I'm not afraid for next time. I was taken completely by surprise, so now I figure that no one realizes when they are going to die. Oh they might feel really ill, or they might realize they are in real danger. But there's no "I'm dying" sensation. It just happens, quite suddenly, and just like the exact moment when you fall asleep, you have no idea exactly when it happens. But all the religious stuff I chalk up to people making shit up because they want/need attention, or they have to justify their beliefs to others in order to convince themselves that it's "true".

  • by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @02:39AM (#40883955)

    ...until somebody mentions death. Then the nutbars come out of the closet. If anybody thought religion was ever about anything except the fear of death, this is some fascinating evidence to the contrary. Slashdot threads about religion in general don't get nearly this strange. The prospect of dying is so terrifying that people who write otherwise perfectly reasonable posts in other threads go completely batshit insane and start trying to claim that consciousness is completely unknown and therefore they must have an immortal soul.

    I have bad news for you fucks. You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. You WILL die. Your consciousness will cease to exist. Your precious "you" is going to end, and in less than a century, no one will even remember you were here. All your fairy stories you tell yourself to avoid spending your pathetic life shaking in fear, unable to move, are lies, and I'm sorry for you that the prospect of your own end is so debilitating. But shut the FUCK up about science and the real world. The rest of us don't need you in the way, with your terrified babbling bullshit.

  • by williamhb ( 758070 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @02:42AM (#40883979) Journal

    "Emergent property" is in a non-hand-wavy language is known as "information processing". It's what computers do.

    No, "emergent property" is a term co-opted from complex systems research that if you have enough agents with fairly simple rules (say, termites laying down pheromones) you can get some astonishingly complex macroscopic behaviours (say, termite nests). It gets co-opted and used in some hand-waving to try to explain away consciousness as an "emergent property" (and abstraction) of there being lots of neurons in the brain.

    Unfortunately, it also entirely misses the point -- consciousness is not an abstraction, it is atomic (as you sit staring out of your eyes -- which by definition is the only way you have of knowing that you have a consciousness -- you experience only the consciousness and not the neurons).

    Not only we do understand that as a result of rigorous scientific research, it's such an important piece of knowledge that a person who "disagrees" with it, should be considered to be unqualified for any kind of discussion related to science or brains, in the same way as a person who believes that Earth is flat is unqualified for any kind of discussion related to geography or astrophysics.

    Your rhetorical bluster merely suggests you don't understand of how science works. There is no such thing as "unqualified for any kind of discussion" -- when you submit a paper for review you will never be asked your qualifications or whether you agree with a prescribed set of opinions. Certainly I am yet to contact the author of any paper I have ever reviewed to say "Before I read your paper, I just want to check you're fundamentally opposed to dualism..."

    Moreover the way we choose to define science (necessarily third party observational) makes this question inaccessible as it is necessarily first party observational. The philosophical question has always been "I am" not "my neurons fire in a particular way", nor even "you are" or "he is".

    Nobody knows how strong/true AI could be built

    I do! There are over 7 billions of examples of it currently in use!

    You are aware of what the "A" stands for in AI, aren't you?

    On top of that, there is plenty of math, however the same can be said about any computer.

    Nope, we've found out since the '60s that things work remarkably differently than a computer, and AI is no longer slavishly attempting to replicate theories of human cognition in algorithmic form.

  • by cheekyjohnson ( 1873388 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @12:09PM (#40886609)

    I can see why someone would be a bit scared of, for instance, the Christian god. Seems like a bit of a tyrant...

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Sunday August 05, 2012 @04:52PM (#40888755) Journal

    Death is the cessation or permanent termination of all biological functions that sustain a living organism." Cessation; not interruption.

    This is an exceptionally silly definition, because how exactly do you determine permanency?

    To give a simple example with GP. Suppose the people around him decided to not reanimate him. What, precisely, would be the moment of his death? Is it when he lost consciousness (since that's where "termination of biological functions" began, and it was "permanent" since he didn't get reanimated)? Or the moment when they decided to do nothing? Or the moment when they could have still done anything with non-zero chance of success, regardless of whether they did or not? What if that happened when defibrillators didn't exist, did death occur earlier back then?

As of next Tuesday, C will be flushed in favor of COBOL. Please update your programs.