Daily Archives: May 21, 2013

Dunne’s theory of infinite temporal dimensions

In addition to detailing his experiments with precognition, J. W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time proposes a theory of time — which he calls “Serialism” — to account for his observations. Although it was his precognitive experiences that motivated Dunne to rethink the nature of time, he maintains that his theory is not dependent on empirical evidence of that nature but rather follows directly from certain commonsense propositions about the nature of time which are universally accepted by non-philosophers everywhere.

It is never entirely safe to laugh at the metaphysics of the ‘man-in-the-street’. Basic ideas which have become enshrined in popular language cannot be wholly foolish or unwarranted. For that sort of canonization must mean, at least, that the notions in question have stood the test of numerous centuries and have been accorded unhesitating acceptance wherever speech has been made. . . .

[The man-in-the-street’s] conclusions regarding the character of his discovery seem to have been very emphatic in detail, if slightly uncertain in synthesis. His idea was that temporal happenings involved motion in a fourth dimension.

Of course he did not call it a fourth dimension — his vocabulary hardly admitted of that — but he was entirely convinced:

  1. That Time had a length, divisible into ‘past and ‘future’.
  2. That this length was not extended in any Space that he knew of. It stretched neither north-and-south, nor east-and-west, nor up-and-down, but in a direction different from any of those three — that is to say, in a fourth direction.
  3. That neither the past nor the future was observable. All observable phenomena lay in a field situated at a unique ‘instant’ in the Time length — an instant, dividing the past from the future — which instant he called ‘the present’.
  4. That this ‘present’ field of observation moved in some queer fashion along the Time length; so that events which were at first in the future became present and then past. The past was thus constantly growing. This motion he called the ‘passage’ of Time.

There is a point here worth noting. . . . An examination of the last paragraph will show that many of the words therein [those in boldface above] refer to another Time, and not to the Time stretch over which the passage of the ‘present’ field of observation was supposed to take place.

I find this to be a very compelling argument for the existence of a second temporal dimension, a sort of “meta-time.” The only way to avoid the necessity of a “time behind time” is to flatly deny our hypothetical pedestrian’s problematic fourth axiom, insisting that some of the most basic, immediate features of our conscious experience are entirely illusory or even meaningless. It is possible to do this, and I have taken such an approach to time in the past (see my post on “Two solipsisms“), but this is in the end a cop-out, a failure of philosophy to take into account all the relevant data. A theory of time which simply denies that time elapses is unacceptable; better even to give up and write time off as an insoluble mystery than to smooth over its apparent contradictions by simply throwing away some of the explicanda and pretending that the problem has been solved. “Eternalism” as I have presented it in the past is simply dysfunctional philosophy.

Later in the book, Dunne illustrates the need for a second temporal dimension by means of an elegant metaphor.

He [i.e., our man-in-the-street] symbolized this general conception of Time in several ways; most exhaustively, perhaps, in his sheets of piano music. In these, the dimension running up-and-down the page represented Space, and intervals measured that way represented distances along the instrument’s keyboard; while the dimension running across the page from side to side represented the Time length, and intervals measured that way indicated the durations of the notes and of the pauses between them. But that did not complete the symbol. So far, the page represented merely what we should, today, call a ‘Space-time continuum’. In order to complete the symbol, it was intended that the player’s point of vision should travel from left to right along the model Time dimension, and that the written chords should be played as this moving point, representing the moving ‘Present’, reached them.

The key point here is that the motion of the pianist’s eyes over the sheet music is something that cannot be represented in the two dimensions of the sheet music itself. The horizontal dimension of the page represents time — but the motion of the pianist’s eyes takes place in a distinct temporal dimension, in a time behind that time.


However, it quickly becomes apparent that two temporal dimensions are no more adequate than one. Suppose we were to create three-dimensional sheet music — the vertical dimension representing space, the horizontal representing time, and a third dimension (represented diagonally below) representing the motion of the pianist’s eyes in meta-time.


It’s clear that this still doesn’t capture the necessary element of motion, of time passing. It now contains the idea that the notes must be read from left to right — but only if we assume the motion of the pianist’s eyes in the third dimension which has been added to the score. Modeling that motion would require the addition of a fourth dimension, and so on ad infinitum.

No matter how many dimensions of time, meta-time, meta-meta-time, etc. (I may as well adopt Dunne’s more convenient terminology and call them T1, T2, T3, etc.) we add to the diagram, the element of motion is still absent. We still have nothing but a static “space-time continuum” — eppur si muove! Somehow the idea of motion and the “moving present” must be modeled, and yet it seems impossible to do so.

Dunne proposes that the problem can be solved by accepting an infinite number of temporal dimensions. For most purposes we need only concern ourselves with a few of these, but the theory implies that, however many temporal dimensions we may include in a given model, there is necessarily another such dimension behind it, one which cannot be depicted in the model.

I’m not really satisfied with this model, in which each dimension passes the buck to the next, and motion or change is never actually modeled or explained. Nevertheless, given the inadequacy of every other model of time of which I am aware, I am willing to entertain it.

Dunne maintains that, in addition to dealing with the problem of motion, his theory of time, Serialism, also sheds light on a number of other thorny philosophical problems. Near the end of his book he lists his theory’s advantages.

  1. Serialism discloses the existence of a reasonable kind of ‘soul’ — an individual soul which has a definite beginning in absolute Time — a soul whose immortality, being in other dimensions of Time, does not clash with the obvious ending of the individual in the physiologist’s Time dimension, and a soul whose existence does not nullify the physiologist’s discovery that brain activity provides the formal foundation of all mundane experience and of all associative thinking.
  2. It shows that the nature of this soul and of its mental development provides us with a satisfactory answer to the ‘why’ of evolution, of birth, of pain, of sleep, and of death.
  3. It discloses the existence of a superlative general observer, the fount of all that self-consciousness, intention, and intervention which underlies mere mechanical thinking, who contains within himself a less generalized observer who is the personification of all genealogically related life and who is capable of human-like thinking and prevision of a kind quite beyond our individual capabilities. In the superlative observer we individual observers, and that tree of which we are the branches, live and have our being. But there is no coming ‘absorption’ for us; we are already absorbed, and the tendency is towards differentiation.
  4. Its proof of the unity of all flesh in the Superbody and of all minds in the Master-mind supplies the logical foundation needed by every theory of ethics.
  5. It accounts for dreams; it accounts for prophecy; it accounts for self-consciousness and ‘freewill’; while, in its disclosure of the relations between the general and the individual fields of presentation, it provides the first essential to any explanation of what is called, loosely, ‘telepathic communication’.
  6. It does not contradict either modern physics or modern physiology.

A theory which can achieve all this is not lightly to be set aside.

I will admit that, after my first reading of Dunne’s book, I do not properly understand the reasoning behind most of these points — and I’m not sure whether this is because I am not bright enough to “get it” the first time around or because Dunne’s ideas are crazy. (Certainly his theory of time, though apparently quite popular in its day, has since been rejected and forgotten by both the scientific community and the general public.) It is my intention to go through Dunne’s book a few more times in my plodding way until I am confident that I understand him, and then to evaluate the plausibility of his theory. So expect future posts on this topic — but don’t expect them too soon!


Filed under Philosophy, Time