The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 15 November 2006

An Experiment with Time

by J. W. Dunne

The author of this peculiar book (the edition here was published in 1927) was an aviation engineer in the early days of flight. His biography is full of adventures in the Boer wars, as well. But, later in his life, living off the patent royalties for his innovative aircraft designs, Dunne turned his scientific and philosophical mind toward the nature of dreams and their relationship to time. Any reader who is aware of his or her dreams will probably be familiar with the strange experience of a dream that has predicted the future. This is usually coincidence. J. W. Dunne, however, relates several instances of his own experience with this phenomenon (interestingly enough, dating from around the turn of the 20th century) and goes on to seek a physical and temporal explanation for it. What he comes up with is a theory of multi-dimensional time, in which the dreamer's unconscious drifts throughout a four-dimensional landscape of time and space, both past and future, leaving traces in the dreamer's memory when he awakens. The result, based on observation, is that dreams are as often "memories" of the future as of the past. This is all fairly convincing, despite Dunne's rather ornate theorizing. We are, in effect, four-dimensional beings, with our fourth dimension experienced as linear time. If one imagines the by-now common suggestion that all events in time are already in existence and that all we do is to pass through them in a linear way due to our consciousness, then one can also envision a fifth-dimensional being who can see our whole time-space existence, as it were, from above. This is Dunne's essential thesis, and he extrapolates it into as many higher "time" dimensions as you care to postulate, eventually ending with an "ultimate observer" at infinity. The very basis of Dunne's theory, however, rests on the assumption that there are more-or-less conscious observers present in all of these higher time dimensions. The assumption that there must be observers (all of which are tied to the conscious 3-d person) is not very well supported. His theorizing on higher dimensions, however, does express a certain "young" thinking on relativity and quantum theory, and presages some of the multi-dimensional string theory prevalent today. In the end, though, Dunne uses this to prove the existence of a soul and, perhaps, God. It's a bit of a stretch. Since this book came out, there have been eighty years of research into dreaming and the mind, so Mr. Dunne's theory is out of date. Besides, our brains are incredible recorders of information and vast pattern-recognition computers. Our dream images have much to do with that basic structure. The concept, however, that in our dream lives, an essential bit of our unconscious self drifts through the fifth dimension witnessing events past and future, is an intriguing experiment with time.

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