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.