Sunday 1 May 2011

An Experiment with Time by J.W Dunne and the Inklings


This famous book of the late 1920s and 30s was a major influence on The Inklings, and forms a background to the Notion Club Papers.


One of the most striking aspects of C.S Lewis's The Dark Tower is the following:

" '... that we see the future is certain. Dunne's book proved that - '

"MacPhee gave a roar like a man in pain.

" 'It's all very well, MacPhee,' Orfieu continued, 'but the only thing that enables you to jeer at Dunne is the fact that you have refused to carry out the experiments he suggests. If you carried them out you would have got the same results that he got, and I got, and everyone got who took the trouble. Say what you like but the thing is proved. It's as certain as any scientific proof whatever.' "


Dunne had recorded his dreams in detail and in writing the instant he awoke. The method he describes is very specific, and he is clear that unless this method is followed, then the necessary information will not be available.

Dunne's conclusion - surveying these results, from himself and others - was that some parts of some dreams consisted of recollections of past events (especially the day preceding the sleep) mixed with anticipations of future events - quite thoroughly mixed, so that which-was-which only became apparent later.

My sense is that Lewis and Tolkien both accepted this by the late 1930s into the 1940s, sought an explanation, and discussed its implications - presumably in Inklings meetings.


Let us assume that Dunne was right and that Lewis and Tolkien were right to accept his evidence.

And let us take the evidence of the Dark Tower and the Notion Club Papers to conclude that Dunne's experiments were replicated, were verified, at least by Lewis and Tolkien and (probably) some other of the Inklings.

Then why has this idea died-out? Why do so few people nowadays believe that dreams can predict the future?


The reason is easy enough to understand on reading Dunne - that the dreams were a mixture of past, future and apparently irrelevant material - but there was no way to evaluate which elements were predictive until after they had been confirmed.

So, although Dunne seemed to show convincingly that some aspects of some dreams were visions of the future - this had no practical value: specifically this knowledge offered no powers.

You could not - therefore - use future visionary dreams to make money (e.g from bets), manipulate people, avoid disasters or anything of that kind.

To the modern mind, this means that Dunne's work seemed trivial, hence ignorable, and was eventually discarded (without consideration) as being fake, or gullible, or something...


That dreams contained visions of the future was, of course, believed by everyone until a few hundred years ago - and probably is believed by the vast majority of people in the world even now. But in ancient times, the ability to interpret dreams, and decode the future visions - so that the knowledge they contained might become useful, was regarded as a rare gift (and one associated with a lot of fakery).


On the other hand, if Dunne was correct (and I find the testimony of Lewis and Tolkien hard to ignore) then this is very interesting for what it tells us about the human condition.

Among other things, it suggests to me the following:

1. That dreams have a natural function - and not just related to memory (the past) but also to the future.

2. That this natural function happens during sleep - and does not require conscious awareness (since most people most of the time do not recall dreams - and Dunne's results depend on specific techniques of rapid recall, association and the making of an objective record, which techniques were apparently not done by anyone before him; and by very few since).

3. That - therefore - the natural function of dreams is not predictive; and that the use of dreams to predict the future is a special, individual, learned skill.

4. My guess as to one function of dreams is that they locate us in the world in an unconscious, implicit, non-verbal way; that dreams provide our relation to reality, our embeddedness in time, which we carry with us as a background to waking, conscious life.

5. That it is therefore possible that the lack of dreams, or of dreams of the right kind (perhaps as a result of some illness, or unnatural lifestyle, or drugs or something) might cause alienation: might cause someone to feel isolated, un-integrated with life, solipsistic, that life has no meaning nor purpose.

- of course this alienated state is compatible with the individual serving a social function, or operating at a high level in specific roles, or wielding power, or having high status. But that person is subjectively cut-off from the stream of time.

- sounds like the modern condition to me.



Wurmbrand said...

We Remember C. S. Lewis, ed. David Graham, includes American chemist Daniel Morris’s “Encounter in a Two-Bit Pub,” in which Morris recounts a 1959 conversation with C. S. Lewis. Lewis “went into Dunne a good bit… and he doesn’t see (neither do I) why Dunne had to postulate an infinity of times at right angles to one another. Two times would cover the whole thing. Granted, that leaves a mystery as to what makes the thing run, but Dunne simply puts that off at infinity.” Lewis told Morris of an experience of a friend. “She dreamed that a pair of her friends were driving in a car and found themselves behind a truck-and-trailer on which was a big tree. They pulled out to pass, and at just that point the axle on the trailer broke. The tree fell off, on them, and killed them. The dream impressed her enough so she wrote the account of it and mailed it to the people concerned. (Thus documentary evidence before the fact exists.) Three weeks or so later they were driving in their car and found themselves behind a truck-and-trailer with a big tree on it. The husband was driving, and pulled out to start to pass, and his wife, more or less jokingly, said, ‘Be careful, you know what’s supposed to happen!’ So he swung back instead of passing -- and it happened. The axle broke. The tree toppled. But they weren’t under it.” (pp. 112-113)

Lewis is critical of Dunne’s serialism in a passing comment in the third of the three volumes of his Collected Letters (p. 228). I believe that Dunne is mentioned in Lewis’s 1943 novel That Hideous Strength in connection with Jane Studdock’s dreams.

M. F. Cleugh has a chapter on Dunne in Time and Its Importance in Modern Throught (1937). I think Dunne’s book was pretty widely known in its day. There is a reference to it in M. M. Kaye’s The Sun in the Morning: My Early Years in India and England (p. 199).

Incidentally, a friend who hasn’t read Dunne so far as I know sent me on 27 Dec. 2004 an account of having just seen, 10 minutes before, an image on TV that triggered a memory of a “strange yet very vivid dream” from “a year or two ago,” of the Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Sometimes Morison and Lamont’s account of apparent waking clairvoyance at Trianon (An Adventure, 1911; 4th ed with note by Dunne, 1934) is mentioned along with Dunne. But see Joan Evans’s “An End to An Adventure” in Encounter 47:4 (Oct. 1976), pages 33-47.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for this.

I am not really interested by Dunne's explanations of Time - nor were the Inklings; it is the raw observations which impressed Lewis and Tolkien and which they apparently replicated.

In terms of *how* dreams might predict the future, for a traditional orthodox super-naturalist Christian there are two basic sources - angelic and demonic.

Since God is outside time He sees everything (Boethius) - this could un-problematically (from a theological perspective) be communicated to the dreamer e.g. via angelic messengers.

Since demons are of greater intelligence than humans, have greater knowledge, and (presumably) a whole range of greater abilities - they might in principle be able to have greater *predictive* powers.

(i.e. Demons do not *know* the future, but can do a much better job than humans of *apparently* predicting it/ making it happen.)

Since demons (as angelic beings) are assumed to be able to implant ideas/ images and emotions into human minds, and also to influence the material world - they might be able to make impressive 'apparent' predictions on the basis of probability and demonic influence: i.e. they predict by extrapolation something likely to happen, then try to make it happen.

So, the first big question for Christians like Lewis and Tolkien concerning dreams of other times or places would probably not have been the implications for physics, but understanding their *source*: divine or demonic.

Troels said...

What a fascinating idea!

I admit that I am rather uncertain how to react to it — being, by education, a physicist, I have no problem as such with backwards causation, but I would like to see some firmer evidence for the experimenting (that they read Dunne's work is well-known).

I don't think one has to accept the premise that Dunne is correct in any of his theories in order to accept the basic observations (history does repeat itself and sometimes in stunning detail), but that is rather besides the point for my own interest in the matter, which would be how Tolkien, and to a lesser extent the other inklings, reacted to the theories.

It's been a while since I read Flieger's A Question of Time, but I recall that she discusses Dunne's book — time to get that book out again, I think.

You propose that we ‘take the evidence of the Dark Tower and the Notion Club Papers to conclude that Dunne's experiments were replicated, were verified, at least by Lewis and Tolkien’. I haven't read Lewis' book and I'd be interested to hear what evidence from either work you think points further than a knowledge of and interest in Dunne's work and to personal experiences with the techniques described by Dunne.

As always, thank you for posting something that makes me think more than once :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - thanks!

My understanding is that Dunne believed his findings had implications for physics - but this is not really correct, in my opinion, since biological/ psychiological evidence carries no weight in phsyics.

However, Lewis and Tolkien seem to have accepted Dunnes psychological findings (and implicitly, by the way they refer to them, they seem to have replicated Dunne's experiences themselves), but I don't suppose L&T explained the experiences in terms of Dunne having discovered something fundamental concerning the 'physics' nature of time.

(Having said that, Veryln Flieger reproduces some diagrams of Tolkiens which clearly derive from Dunne's book.)

As I said elsewhere, Dunne's findings are not hard to understand and explain from a traditional Christian perspective - where angels and demons can provide information about future, and in dreams.

On the other hand, Dunne's idea is that these future elements fo dreams are assumed to be happening all the time, but mostly forgotten (or the memories are implict but not explicit) - so this is not the same as prophetic dreams.

In the Notion Club Papers the participants accept that the Unseen Warfare which plays out in human life (e.g. between good and evil angels and demons) continues during sleep - albeit in a modified form.

e.g. Tolkien seems to say that evil forces attempt to influence humans by 'feeding' them false or partial information, or apssing off fiction as fact.

In the NCPs Tolkien seems to be hinting that this is the basis (or at least reinforces) many of the crazily wrong ideas current in his own day (and even more so now).

Guy Inchbald said...

Guess I'm a bit late to the party.

Thank you for one of the more sensible analyses of Dunne that I have read.

Can I suggest that you in turn should read Dunne's last, posthumously-published book, "Intrusions?"

Dunne was a devout Roman Catholic. He strayed during his youth, even getting involved with spiritualism, but in due course returned to the fold. So he, Lewis and Tolkien all shared the same basic Christianity.

Dunne also saw angelic visions, the "intrusions", at intervals throughout his life and sometimes in association with the precognitive dreams he records in An Experiment with Time. One of his motivations was to unravel whether these visions were indeed angelic or demonic.

And yet he was a rational scientist. After all, he had built the Army's first aeroplane (though his colleague Cody smartly nabbed the only engine they had which was powerful enough to fly) and developed a revolutionary theory of fly fishing based on the science of optics. Serialism is from the ground up a rational, scientific theory and he claimed in An Experiment with Time that it strayed into theology most unexpectedly - he originally assumed he was nailing the lid on the coffin of eternal life. He kept his visions out of the story at the time, for fear of invoking ridicule and misunderstanding. Nevertheless, Welding modern physics, brain physiology, his Catholic theology and bizarre experiences all together into a coherent whole must have been an untold delight to him.

The ruthless dismissal of anything spiritual lay at the heart of Dunne's Serialism and earned him much criticism at the time from the psychic community. It is perhaps ironic that today such folks often fail to read his small print and seem to be among his most dedicated admirers.

Perhaps the most honest and balanced appraisal of Serialism I have seen may be found in J.B. Priestly's study, "Man and Time", where he devotes a whole chapter to Dunne. Priestly had met Dunne, who even delivered a lecture on serialism to the cast of one of Priestly's plays.

Of course, the extent to which one believes Dunne was right is another question. As you say, Lewis and Tolkien both seem to have cherry-picked to taste.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Guy - Thanks for the comment. Recently, a penfriend and commenter on my blogs tried to replicate Dunne's dream research -

Guy Inchbald said...

Late correction: Dunne was an Anglican, which is technically one of several "Catholic" churches along side the named Roman Catholic. I found that out after I posted.

I think your friend's attempt at verifying the results shows the enormous difficulty of objectively judging a subjective experience based on an essentially subjective evaluation of correlation. Dunne also commented that the rational mind tends to shy off from recognising a precognitive correlation and comes up with all sorts of excuses to discount it. Dunne kept it up for a long time and evolved both experimental procedures and statistical techniques to try and eliminate such bias. Those of his friends who merely dabbled had very mixed results. Replicating his study is never going to be easy: when he once cooperated with the Society for Psychical Research, he and they came to very different conclusions, due to different evaluations of statistical likelihood.

Re. why we don't seem to accept such dreams any more, I have seen it said, and I rather agree, that the best predictor of any parapsychology experimental outcome remains to this day whether the lead researcher is at heart a sceptic or a believer. The sceptics have as much responsibility to demonstrate rigour as the believers do, but it is almost impossible for anybody to establish a rigorous method based on the scientific model of a passive observer. If the observer is capable of influencing the outcome (which is precisely the effect we are looking for here) then the rationale for the conventional scientific method breaks down. As long as blind atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety dominates intellectual thought, any kind of world beyond the laws of modern physics will get short shrift. Progress cannot be made until the paradoxes of the observer in both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are resolved. Dunne was one of the first to grapple with exactly this issue.

By the way, both Lewis and Tolkien owned copies of An Experiment with Time - Lewis' copy is now in some American college archive.

Guy Inchbald said...

Just to let you know, I realised not long ago that CS Lewis re-imagined Dunne's endless regress of higher and higher levels of consciousness in the last four chapters of his final Chronicle of Narnia, "The Last Battle". With Narnian time ended and their own physical bodied dead, the protagonists follow a series of Narnias "higher up and further in" in such an obvious parallel to Dunne's theory that it is astonishing how we all seem to have missed it for so long. I have put up a bit more detail at The Last Battle: J W Dunne in Narnia.

john said...

Fascinating stuff! The neglect of dreams these days is strange.
Some fifty plus years ago I read Dunne's Experiment. I was very poorly educated, and had little knowledge or experience, so, much went over my head - but I did make a habit of recording my dreams as soon as I awoke, and, although I have lost the notes and the memory has faded, I do remember being convinced that some aspects of the future could certainly crop up here and there - but certainly it needed the future to confirm such precognition.
What now involves me as much (and which has led me back to Dunne) is cogitation on "Time" itself. Material science tends to dismiss the "subjective" which is so odd. After all, the objective concrete block falling upon the objective foot has a decidedly powerful subjective response. The objective sight of Hawkings being carried into a strip club (and, presumbably, later carried out)also gives rise to some musing on subjectivity . . .in an objective manner. What most centres my attention as regards Time is "now". A strange wave upon which we surf. No sooner do we sense it than it is gone. The past. No sooner do we sense it, than the future arrives to displace it. And yet we exist only then.
Each "now" is filled with potential/indeterminacy/possibility and probability. Some"nows" are so obviously crucial for the course of our lives. Shall I propose marriage or wait or keep my mouth shut - and run? Out of all the potential actions I do make a choice. Even indecision is a choice. Once we do chose - our life is on "that" course - and no other. In making our decisions we exercise free-will which is free to the extent that our understanding is good.
But, of words ,there is no end. . . . . .

Bruce Charlton said...

@JH _ You might be interested by the observations of blogger WmJas on ?precognitive dreams