These are excerpts from an interview with William G. Roll, director of the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, originally published in THETA, the PRF’s journal. Roll was interviewed by the late Robert H. Ashby of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship. (OBE is parapsychological shorthand for out-of-body-experiences.)
Ashby: What is your personal view of survival after death? Do you think it is certain, probable, possible, improbable, or impossible?
Roll: Before I can answer that question, I need to make clear what kind of survival I am talking about. There can be at least two types. There may be continuation of human personality after death and there may be continuation of consciousness. Personality includes traits, memories, and special skills. These are generally considered as “belonging to” a particular individual. That of course is not to say that there is any such private ownership. The work in ESP raises the question in which sense my emotions and thoughts belong to me if they can be directly experienced also by you, and in what sense your thoughts and emotions are yours, if some of them originated in my brain or mind. Nevertheless, there are certain temporal and spatial identification marks which enable us to say that a certain past event or current personality trait is associated with my physical organism rather than with yours (or at least associated more with mine than with yours).
Consciousness or awareness refers to experience. In our ordinary waking state, consciousness easily becomes relational and we speak of being conscious of something — for instance, I may be conscious of a sweet taste or of a beautiful view. But the “I” is extra: We can be aware or conscious without tagging the experience as “mine” It is when we stop and think, when we leave the immediate stream of awareness, that we identify a segment of this as my experience of something.
In altered states of consciousness, experiences cannot always be related to any I or personality — even in retrospect. In some dreams in moments of absorption, and at other times, the experience is just that, without any ego or personality to reflect back on. But most of us have not paid serious attention to that aspect of ourselves.
When we think about the survival question, that activity in itself is generally the product of our ordinary waking state of consciousness. Thus we are immediately faced with an I or personality around which this state of consciousness seems to revolve. Our culture and education focus on this type of experience as representing the real me and the real world. When we recall our dreams and other forms of altered states we rarely believe they represent anything other than some kind of illusion. We therefore think of ourselves in terms of individual existence both when we consider this life and when we speculate about the next.
However, people sometimes claim that they have been conscious — indeed, optimally so — without identifying with a separate personality or self. There can be experience, then, without any particular self or personality. And vice versa, there can be evidence for an identifiable personality — or train of memories — without any (identifiable) consciousness.
In answer to your first question, finally, I must respond separately with respect to the continuation or survival of personality and of consciousness. In both cases, it happens, my reply is “probable” — but obviously for different reasons since we deal with different types of evidence.
Ashby: Has your position concerning survival changed appreciably over the past several years? If so, why? If not, why not?
Roll: Yes, I consider the case for the survival of personality to have been strengthened in recent years mainly as a result of Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation studies. I also think that drop-in cases, the cross correspondences, death-bed experiences, haunting apparitions and other data contribute to the evidence. Of course much of this material is weak on scientific grounds, but collectively it becomes interesting. And there is consistency in the findings produced over many years and in many places.
Ashby: What about the survival of consciousness?
Roll: Two types of evidence have led to my belief that consciousness probably continues: research findings in parapsychology and personal experiences. In our ordinary state of awareness we have created the illusion of a private world — or rather our parents, teachers, and culture have programmed us to see the world in that way — where we define ourselves in terms of certain limitations (traits, memories, etc.), which describe a space we call “me,” and from which we seem to observe an outside world. This outside world, which may include all or some of our body, in part consists of a different substance from our “real me,” or “mind.” We say it is “material”; and in part it consists of an assemblage of “you’s” and “they’s,” similar to the “me.” To the extent that we can recognize ourself in the environment, we see other me’s, and to the extent that we cannot see ourself in the environment, we see this foreign material or inanimate substance. However, the findings of parapsychology require a revision of this way of looking at things.
If in fact my consciousness does not only belong to my mind or body but to others as well, then it is difficult to suppose that this consciousness will cease when my mind or body ceases. On the contrary, it is reasonable to suppose that the loss of the brain will result in an increase in awareness since one of the main functions of the brain seems to be to screen out information which does not serve biological life.
Ashby: Do you believe the survival issue can be determined to a satisfactory degree of probability or improbability by those empirical means available to parapsychologists? If so, how do you envisage it being accomplished? If not, why not?
Roll: Yes. Survival of personality can be explored empirically following traditional lines of research. Of course it must be remembered that since there apparently is no such thing as an independent encapsulated personality before death, we cannot reasonably expect to find one after death.
To determine whether consciousness continues, as far as I am concerned, the best approach is to explore it where we are certain of finding it, that is in ourselves. Since we are concerned with the continuation or survival of consciousness, then this consciousness also exists before death and presumably can be studied there.
Ashby: What is your view of the pertinence of OBE cases to survival? Do you agree with Ducasse that any analogous conclusions about consciousness being able to operate apart from the body based on OBE’s is inadmissable evidence for a post mortem survivable potential since the brain is extant in the OBE and is not in the post mortem state?
Roll: In the typical or traditional OBE, consciousness is experienced in terms of something closely akin to the waking, ordinary self or personality. OBE’s are thus relevant both to studies of the continuation of personality and of consciousness.
Ducasse raised a crucial question about OBE’s, which equally applies to other forms of extra-somatic experiences such as field consciousness. However, in my opinion he underestimated the possibilities of current research methods, particularly those of psychophysiology. Of course this work was not as prominent during his lifetime as it is now, only a few years after his death. Though it is still uncertain how much, say, the EEG reveals about mental life, a few correlations seem fairly stable — and there is universal agreement, I believe, to define death in terms of a flat EEG. Thus, should we find evidence of OBE’s or field experiences when the person has a flat EEG, this would in my opinion be strong evidence that consciousness is not a function of the central nervous system and that awareness will continue when the brain is permanently inoperative. Of course in this example I assume that the clinically dead person revives to tell — and verify — his experiences.
Ashby: What, in your opinion, are the greatest obstacles to survival research?
Roll: The greatest obstacle to meaningful work in survival, as in parapsychology generally, consists in our unexpressed basic assumptions regarding our subject matter. A second serious obstacle is insufficient funding. But of the two, paucity of concepts and cash, the former is the more serious because it makes us look in the wrong places for the important facts. Our thinking and general research approach have come from the behavioral sciences and these, in turn, usually operate in the Newtonian universe. People and things are like billiard balls which only interact when they bump into each other. When a ball disappears from the table, we go fishing in the pockets around it — that’s usually how we look for evidence of survival after death. There is an apparent conflict between our concepts and methods of research on the one hand and our subject matter on the other. In the same way as we would not get very far using Newtonian thinking and testing in exploring the electromagnetic field of the universe so it seems that the billiard ball approach is insufficient in probing the characteristics of psi. For here too we deal with interconnections rather than with discrete entities which only meet when they hit. Especially in survival research, which may deal with extended or public states of consciousness, it is necessary to recast our basic assumptions if our understanding is to increase.