Time Loops

Somebody on the Metaphysical Speculations forum recommended to me Time Loops: Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious by Eric Wargo. I committed to reading it but wasn’t optimistic that reading it would make me agree any more with some of their contentions about precognition that we were debating. Actually, however, I enjoyed the book much more than I had expected. Although I still can’t say I support the book’s premise, I can say that Wargo presents an idea worthy of consideration and one of the few ideas on precognition I’ve read that explains it in a way that potentially doesn’t violate what we understand from current physics, although it necessarily does rely on some extensions to current science that aren’t accepted or maybe even provable.

The idea simply is that precognition does exist and happens regularly but it doesn’t involve direct knowledge of things that will happen in the future. Rather precognition is a memory of an experience in the future. It is a future memory. If I dream of an airplane crash and the next day an airplane somewhat like the one of my dream actually crashes, the dream was the product of the future experience of my seeing the television coverage of the airplane that crashed. Reality is actually like a Phillip Dick novel where the causation of an experience can come from the past or the future. The mind contains past experiences as memories but it also has access to future experiences. Of course, the future experiences are usually disregarded because we have no context for them. We abort our future memories routinely so they must manifest to us in dreams, during hypnogogic revelry and altered states, and during psychoanalytic free association.

The first hurdle to overcome in any argument about precognition or other extrasensory perception is whether the phenomenon exists.

Memory itself is somewhat problematic in that increasingly we understand that experiences we remember are frequently inaccurate, distorted, or sometimes completely false. People who were not even at a school on the day of a tragic mass shooting sometimes can recall in detail what the shooter wore and the weapons he carried. Under suggestion, people have made themselves victims of crimes or sometimes perpetrators of crimes often describing in detail the circumstances of the crime. We recontextualize past experience with new experiences. Did I really dream of an airplane like the one that crashed? Or did I dream perhaps of something quite different, like a bus crashing, that I remembered as an airplane crashing when I saw the television coverage of the airplane crash. Memory distortion could be mitigated perhaps if I kept a dream diary into which I had written of an airplane described in some detail that crashed the morning after the dream.

The other problem is a law of large numbers. Given enough people dreaming and enough airplanes crashing, the odds that somebody somewhere will dream of an airplane crashing the day before an airplane actually crashes are high. There are enough complex interactions in the world that the improbable routinely occurs. Precognitive events are routinely debunked as coincidence and there is hardly any way of disproving they are not. Or hardly any way of proving that they all are just coincidence. Fundamentally the probabilities can’t be calculated.

I don’t think Wargo actually ever vanquishes either of these two arguments but the twists and turns he takes in his analysis are interesting. He spends a good deal of time on the Titanic, the novel Futility, and its author Morgan Robertson, who apparently had some kind of belief in predestination. Wargo’s treatment of this, however, isn’t naïve and he is completely aware of critiques of the story as precognitive including Martin Gardner’s. There is also a full chapter and some ongoing discussion on Phillip Dick that chronicles some of amazing coincidences in Dick’s novels and stories. A good amount of the book is taken up with discussions of Freud and Jung.

The psychoanalytic couch with its emphasis on free association and dream analysis would be fertile ground for finding examples of precognition. Wargo seemingly finds examples in Freud’s own dreams even though Freud himself completely rejected any notion that precognition was possible. Jung’s famous scarab story illustrates Wargo’s approach to the question. Jung was analyzing a woman, who was reporting a dream from the night before that involved a piece of golden scarab jewelry, when Jung heard a tapping on the window. Opening the window, Jung captured a scarab-like beetle and handed it to the woman. The story became the basis for Jung’s alternative to causality – the notion of synchronicity. Wargo’s interpretation was that this was an example of time loop as in the “time loops” of the title. The woman dreamed of a scarab because she accessed in her dream her experience in analysis with Jung the next day. During the session with Jung, he completed the loop and fulfilled the prophecy of the dream. Wargo writes that the patient’s “dream simply oriented her toward a highly meaningful moment, a reward, in her near future. That moment was partly brought about by her own actions, informed by that dream. The effect was its own cause”.

The rewards and experiences that are more likely to become ones of precognition are emotional and sexual ones. That is, in part, what makes psychoanalytic techniques useful for investigating the phenomenon. That also helps to explain, in Wargo’s view, why tragedies that invoke horror like the Titanic disaster tend to show up in precognitive accounts. Going beyond the anecdotal, Wargo calls attention also to Daryl Bem’s controversial priming studies. In his Feeling the Future study, Bem seemed to find that people could predict the appearance of erotic images prior to their appearance at a level significantly greater than chance. The same effect was not found for non-erotic images. Attempts to replicate the study haven’t gone well and others have reanalyzed the data and criticized the statistical techniques employed. On the other hand, Bem and others did a metanalysis of 90 studies and claimed the effect was real. Given the somewhat problematic situation with statistical results in sciences where relationships are presumed weak. it is hard to know how much of current social and medical science would fail with the same level of scrutiny provided to Bem’s studies.

In Wargo’s understanding of precognition predestination is real. We live in a block universe and our experiences are caused not just by the past but also by the future. The arrow of causality does not go just one way. Our present is determined by our past and our future coming together in a loop. Occasionally in obscure and muddled ways we are given access to that future in our dreams and thoughts. The world is the world of the movie Arrival with heptapods and their circular language. Past, present, and future coexist and can influence each other. Wargo, I don’t think, ever makes it clear whether our fate is totally predetermined or only partially so. If the block universe describes how the world is, I find it slightly plausible that mind might extend somewhat into the future as we feel it does with the past in our memories. I don’t find pleasant the idea, however, the idea that what we might learn of the future provides us no opportunity to change it. That is a vision I have had once before and it was horrible.

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Mysteries, Randomness, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Time Loops

  1. I didn’t realize Google Groups was still around and kicking. Interesting.

    I think the block universe is plausible. And there have been speculative scientific theories about retrocausation at the quantum level, although I don’t know what assumptions they make or how plausible they actually are. Even if true, I think you’re right that a lot of dots would have to be connected for human minds to be able to tap into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. paultorek says:

    I think you can rule out memories-of-the-future on thermodynamic grounds. But the argument is very complex. The easy part is to show that the process of laying down, then recalling, then erasing a memory (so that room for more memories is made) must increase entropy. Another easy part is showing that “closed timelike curves” (where the same event is both in your past, and in your future) don’t seem to exist anywhere near us. The hard part is explaining why you should expect the change of entropy is in the same direction all across your light-cone.

    If all these are correct, then you can only remember things from a lower-entropy time. The last step is to connect entropy to temporal direction. That part is easy: just define “future” as the direction in which entropy is increasing. You will also thereby imply that the universe expands toward the future; that macroscopic events in the future are easier to influence than those in the past; and various other sensible results.

    But you also get surprising results. If there was some time of minimum entropy, on both sides of which entropy is larger (as some “bouncing” cosmologies would have it), then that minimum entropy time was the beginning of two timelines, one going in each direction. Any people living in that other timeline would be within their rights to regard our tomorrow as “further in their past” than our today. Just like Australians might regard our heads as further beneath them than our feet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Cross says:

      “The hard part is explaining why you should expect the change of entropy is in the same direction all across your light-cone”.

      I agree with that in particular and, I think I’ve asked this, isn’t that an issue for many worlds interpretation of QM too? But it would apply also to block universe in general, wouldn’t it? And almost every other theory of anything?

      At any rate, there are local phenomena that go against entropy all of the time. Life and consciousness are prime examples. They don’t violate any law because they are not closed systems but that would seem to be exactly what is being argued here. I would think there would be plenty of spare energy to remember some future events even if it couldn’t work for all events.

      Or, maybe I’m not following your thermodynamic argument.

      Your argument about two timelines seems similar to Julian Barbour’s. Are you familiar with that?

      I’m not totally sold on the relationship of time and entropy anyway but that is based more on intuition than any firm reasoning.

      Liked by 1 person

      • paultorek says:

        Sounds like you understand fine. Your point about living things getting a local entropy decrease by shuffling entropy off into the environment, is part of why I think it’s hard to show that at large scales, entropy does strictly increase. But I think it does; I think some scientist would have noticed any exception.

        Note that the article I linked, about memory and entropy, considers the entropy of an organism (or other memory-system) PLUS its environment. The only way the organism could remember the future would be if its whole “world” (organism+environment) were losing entropy. (The previous sentence indirectly specifies what I mean by “large scales” in the previous paragraph.)

        I haven’t read Barbour, but I’ve read a detailed explanation of some things Boltzmann said, which no doubt Barbour also knows of. And a two-arrow timeline was proposed by Boltzmann (maybe not in so many words, I’m not sure) when he said that our universe might be in a downhill slide of negentropy from an extreme random fluctuation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          Here’s a Barbour reference. I don’t know it implies anything about “future memories”.


          “It is widely believed that special initial conditions must be imposed on any time-symmetric law if its solutions are to exhibit behavior of any kind that defines an `arrow of time’. We show that this is not so. The simplest non-trivial time-symmetric law that can be used to model a dynamically closed universe is the Newtonian N-body problem with vanishing total energy and angular momentum. Because of special properties of this system (likely to be shared by any law of the Universe), its typical solutions all divide at a uniquely defined point into two halves. In each a well-defined measure of shape complexity fluctuates but grows irreversibly between rising bounds from that point. Structures that store dynamical information are created as the complexity grows and act as `records’. Each solution can be viewed as having a single past and two distinct futures emerging from it. Any internal observer must be in one half of the solution and will only be aware of the records of one branch and deduce a unique past and future direction from inspection of the available records”.

          Liked by 1 person

        • paultorek says:

          I didn’t know that about Newtonian physics, but that’s exactly the kind of situation I was talking about. Only what I was thinking about did include a special boundary condition of low entropy.


        • James Cross says:

          The question I’ve had about Barbour’s records is about what requires what the “records” to be accurate. Also, since everything is subject to change, what prevents “records” from changing, in effect the past would be mutable.

          Another sort of block universe question would be what would require our particular timeline to have only one past. If we think of a piece of sewing thread enclosed in a block of ice as a visualization for the timeline and the block universe, then there would be no reason there might not be two or more threads passing through a shared point or even running along the identical line. Barbour’s “records”, to the extent they do portray the past of the timeline, might show more than one timeline.

          Here’s a less technical link to Barbour’s idea.


          BTW, Barbour says his idea is not the same as block universe but similar, although I’m not exactly as to the difference.

          Liked by 1 person

        • paultorek says:

          RE what requires what the “records” to be accurate – I think it is just the definition of records. In other words, first you have to establish that the relationship between footprints (defined as indentations of certain very specific shapes) and feet is reliable. And only then can you declare that a footprint is a record of an animal’s walk across some soft-ish medium.

          The theory of relativity implies that from any observer’s inertial trajectory, there are two time-cones. Influences propagate across (typically) both time and space, so in some sense there are many sub-directions within the general “past” direction. So yes, multiple threads converge. But provided that the observer isn’t located at an entropy *maximum*, only one of the two cones could be the past. If physicists like Sean Carroll are right about the importance of entropy, that is (and everything else I’ve seen strengthens his case).

          Interesting link. Jenann Ismael is my favorite living philosopher, so go figure.

          Liked by 1 person

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