“Mystery has its own mysteries, and there are gods above gods. We have ours, they have theirs. That is what’s known as infinity” – Jean Cocteau
John William Dunne (1875–1949), son of General Sir John Hart Dunne, spent a lot of time thinking about time. That’s because he had a lot of free time. When he was young he suffered a bad accident that kept him confined to his bed for several years, during which time he was inspired by the works of Jules Verne, asking his nurse pointed questions about the nature of time. Undoubtedly, this was due to the fact that he was counting the days until he could move again, and would have preferred if time moved a little faster. He recovered, and making up for lost time, volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), where he contracted typhoid fever and was sent home. He recovered, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and returned to South Africa in 1902 where he was diagnosed with heart disease and sent home again. Realizing he wasn’t cut out for a career in knocking heads on the veldt, and with encouragment from his new best friend H.G. Wells, he turned his attention to aeronautics, developing an early version of a stable tailless, swept wing configuration. By 1913, his health had taken a turn for the worse, and he turned back to his original passion – understanding the nature of time.
After writing a book on fly-fishing, Dunne published an odd little tome called An Experiment with Time, where he expounded upon his fascinating notion of “serial time”. He reasoned that human consciousness experiences a linear past, present, and future. I ate a jalapeño this afternoon. I am experiencing heartburn right now. I hope it will pass in the future. Dunne made the perfectly logical point that in order for us to conceive of the past, present, and future as a linear progression (which we do), one requires another dimension of time from which to observe the flow. Otherwise, we would be living in an eternal present without memory. “The essence of this theory is that if Time is linear, that is to say, if Time is conceived as flowing along a line labelled past, present and future, then we need a point of reference from which to observe the flow. In other words, we need a second Time to time the first Time and so on in an infinite regress” (Osborn, 1962, p119).
That’s a whole lot of time. Or rather, a whole lot of dimensions of time. Unless of course, time is a fiction we invented to impress the chicks. Always suspect that is the motivation behind lots of human cultural and intellectual artifacts. They don’t teach that in anthropology or philosophy. Somebody might want to write a dissertation– “Human Civilization as a Way to Impress the Ladies”. Choose your committee carefully, my friend. The female gender may want to approach it from the angle of “Human Civilization as a Way to Limit the Damage done by Men Who Think They are Impressing the Ladies.” Could be a lively debate. My wife hates it when I write things like that. Very uncivilized if you ask me. She doesn’t.
I suspect that Dunne was not very popular (pretty much disowned by the Society for Psychical Research, who couldn’t reproduce any of his experimental results), as the “observer at infinity” implied by his infinite regress smacked too much of the ever unpopular, yet largely adhered to monotheism. Dunne didn’t care. Good man. Stick to your guns. Quantum physics would later make similar suggestions. Dunne was a practical guy who designed planes. You don’t want to get to crazy in that occupation as stuff tends to fall out of the sky when your calculations are wrong. Dunne needed proof. And he thought he had it in his own precognitive dreams. Now, Dunne didn’t just have a notion that precognition was explained by his theory of serial time, publish an article and retire to the life of landed gentry in County Kildare, Ireland. He actually seems to have predicted the eruption of the volcanic Mount Pelé of Martinique in surprising detail, and was looking for a way to explain what he saw in a dream state in terms of time. You see, in 1902, Dunne was still a soldier in South Africa, and awoke from a rather unpleasant dream, which he described.
In the spring of 1902 I was encamped with the Sixth Mounted Infantry near the ruins of Lindley, in the (then) Orange Free State. We had just come off trek, and mails and newspapers arrived but rarely. There, one night, I had an unusually vivid and rather unpleasant dream. I seemed to be standing on high ground—the upper slopes of some spur of a hill or mountain. The ground was of a curious white formation. Here and there in this were little fissures, and from these jets of vapor were spouting upward. In my dream I recognized the place as an island of which I had dreamed before—an island which was in imminent peril from a volcano. And, when I saw the vapor spouting from the ground, I gasped: ” It’s the island! Good Lord, the whole thing is going to blow up!” For I had memories of reading about Krakatoa, where the sea, making its way into the heart of a volcano through a submarine crevice, flushed into steam, and blew the whole mountain to pieces. Forthwith I was seized with a frantic desire to save the four thousand (I knew the number) unsuspecting inhabitants. Obviously there was only one way of doing this, and that was to take them off in ships. There followed a most distressing nightmare, in which I was at a neighboring island, trying to get the incredulous French authorities to dispatch vessels of every and any description to remove the inhabitants of the threatened island. I was sent from one official to another; and finally woke myself by my own dream exertions, clinging to the heads of a team of horses drawing the carriage of one “Monsieur le Maire,” who was going out to dine, and wanted me to return when his office would be open next day. All through the dream the number of the people in danger obsessed my mind. I repeated it to everyone I met, and, at the moment of waking, I was shouting to the “Maire,” “Listen! Four thousand people will be killed unless…” (Prince, 1928, p20-21).
The headline on the Daily Telegraph which Dunne received that summer was,” Volcano Disaster in Martinique—Town Swept Away—An Avalanche of Flame—Probable Loss of Over 40,000 Lives—British Steamer Burnt. Etc.” Well, lots of people dream of disasters. Why is Dunne any different? Mostly because of the striking correspondences between his dream and the actual events. He dreamed of a volcano on an island, administered by the French (an odd little detail for a Irish soldier, serving the British in South Africa), described a pyroclastic cloud (which he had never seen), mentioned how the mountain split in half (which it did), describes enormous devastation and casualties (erring in the number – saying “4000”, instead of the actual “40,000” – puzzling in that he seemed to have some insight into the magnitude, while getting the precise number wrong. I mean, jeez, prophecy isn’t an exact science, but that’s a pretty weird set of correspondences. This obviously made an impression on Dunne, who was at a loss to explain the striking similarities, unless one considers that our consciousness may occasionally transition from our linear time to the perspective of the “observer from infinity”. And hence his concept of serial time. One need not hold this up as an exemplar of precognition to appreciate that Dunne spent a lot of time thinking about why he saw what he did. This is the kind of deep effect that has been noted with many strange phenomena, in that the experience changes the lives of the experiencer. Rather than dismiss the dream as coincidence (a poorly defined term if ever there was one), he instead posited an interesting mechanism by which such precognitive visions might filter into our dimension. He was willing to plumb the depths of our preconceptions about time, which leads to dark places and makes us all uncomfortable. As H.P. Lovecraft said, “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far”.
Osborn, Arthur Walter, 1891-. The Future Is Now: The Significance of Precognition. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1962.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents and Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston Society for Psychic Research, 1928.