Campus News

Philosopher to argue against an afterlife at Romanell Conference

By BERT GAMBINI

Published July 10, 2019

“Although he has argued that immortality would be welcome, Fischer is an atheist who doesn’t think an immortal posthumous existence awaits us.”
David Hershenov, professor
Department of Philosophy
John Martin Fischer.

John Martin Fischer, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of a $5.2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation in 2012 to study different aspects of immortality, will deliver the keynote address as part of this year’s Romanell Summer Conference, titled “Death, Disease and Identity.”

Fischer’s talk, “Near-Death Experiences: To the Edge of the Universe,” will take place at 4:45 p.m. July 25 in 141 Park Hall, North Campus.

The three-day conference, presented by the UB Department of Philosophy, will run July 25-27 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. All events take place in 141 Park and are free and open to the public.

A complete schedule of events is available online.

Fischer is among the world’s leading authorities on free will, moral responsibility, and metaphysical and ethical issues related to life and death. His keynote seeks to explain away the alleged out-of-body experiences of those near death, according to David Hershenov, a professor in UB’s philosophy department and co-director of the university’s Romanell Center for Clinical Ethics and the Philosophy of Medicine.

Romanell Conference poster showing keynoter John Martin Fischer "rising" from the dead.

“For Fischer, these near-death accounts, though often sincere, are not evidence of the soul leaving the body or that anyone has gone to heaven and come back,” says Hershenov. 

But Fischer is not an “immortality curmudgeon,” a term he actually coined to identify an opposing belief to the widespread notion that eternal life is indisputably desirable.

These curmudgeons, by Fischer’s definition, view potential immortality as most likely boring and maintain the absence of an end point in the narrative structure of human existence makes life meaningless.

“Although he has argued that immortality would be welcome, Fischer is an atheist who doesn’t think an immortal posthumous existence awaits us,” says Hershenov. “And his talk will be easily accessible to non-philosophers."

Hershenov says Fischer has worked on how death can be harmful — a statement that inspires pause until Hershenov provides context.

“We think harm occurs when you’re in a particular state that we compare to a state when you weren’t harmed. Someone who injures their knee is harmed because we can compare that to the state when the same knee wasn’t injured,” he explains. “But with death, you don’t exist. So how can that be harmful?”

This is among the puzzles addressed by another conference speaker, Travis Timmerman, an assistant professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University, who will discuss if death is a harm and when it can be harmful.

Barry Smith.

Barry Smith

Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Julian Park Chair in UB’s philosophy department, will look at the possibility of a digital afterlife.

“We have these Hail Mary passes to the future trying to prolong existence through cryogenics or downloading the contents of our brains onto a hard drive,” says Hershenov. “Barry thinks it’s a false model of the mind to believe that information from our minds can be extracted and put somewhere else, where we will live on digitally forever.”

Stephen Kershnar.

Stephen Kershnar

The conference closes with the “ever-controversial” Stephen Kershnar, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the philosophy department at SUNY Fredonia.

“If you’re religious, death might not be bad,” says Hershenov. “We hear people say, ‘Grandma is in a better place.’ Stephan’s talk will explore how that belief might relate to decisions we make about resources and health care.

“Like I said, he’s always controversial,” notes Hershenov.  “That’s why we schedule him last, so if protestors arrive they’ll only disrupt his talk.”