Posts Tagged ‘Dunne’

Dreaming. 1860. J. Israels

You’re out driving, and there’s a cop car at the side of the road. He’s pulled someone over and is serving them a ticket. You cruise past, glance through your passenger window, and the scene triggers a flash-back to last night’s dream – the same type of cop car, glimpsed through the passenger side window. So you think: that’s a neat coincidence. Right?

It wasn’t exactly the same situation. In the dream, you were parked, and the cop car pulled alongside, and the cop said: “You don’t mind if I park here, do you, sir?” But you were definitely looking at this same kind of cop car, through the passenger side window. And if things had happened the other way around, say you’d seen the cop car, and then the next night it had popped up in your dreams, you’d know where the dream had borrowed it from. But as things stand, it was just a coincidence. Anything else, and the dream had seen your future. And that’s not possible. Is it?

So then, some nights later, you dream you’re out in a part of the countryside you’ve not been to for years. It’s not an extraordinary dream – just your usual muddle of inside out and back to front stuff, the one thing bleeding into the other, and no particularly coherent narrative. Then you wake, and you reach for the phone, and you read the blogs you follow, and a guy has posted a piece on that same part of the countryside, which triggers the memory of the dream, and you think: that’s odd. Another coincidence? Sure. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of that blog before you slept, and you just forgot. Because anything else is impossible. Right?

So then you dream you’re talking to a notorious world leader in your back garden – like you do – but you’re struggling to understand what he’s saying, and you’re worried he’ll think you’re a bit numb, but you can’t help it because he’s contorting the upper left side of his lip in the most peculiar way, which distorts his speech. The next evening you decide to check out a film on Netflix, in which it turns out the lead man is portrayed with a hair lip, which has the same way of moving as in the dream. It breaks the dream, so to speak, brings back the memory of it. Another coincidence? Startling one too, this. Or maybe you caught a trailer for the film before you slept, and you just forgot.

These are all dreams I’ve collected over the last few weeks. And the question arises: how many dreams like that does it take, before the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that your dreams are indeed previsioning little bits of your future? The thing to note is the banal nature of the images, and the fact we’re seeing in the dream what we will see, ourselves, at a point in our own future. We’re not talking about any dramatic premonition of calamity. Nor are we claiming any paranormal faculty. It seems to be the normal way the mind – any mind, your mind, my mind – Hoovers up observed events and regurgitates them in distorted form, in dreams. It’s just that the dreams seem to have access to events you haven’t observed yet. Only by habitual observation of the visual details of your dreams do you realise it. And who’s crazy enough to do that?

Isolated instances can perhaps be dismissed as coincidence, but the longer we pay attention to our dreams, and the more hits we score, the less likely coincidence becomes. Of course, if you’re of a materialist, reductionist mindset, no matter how many dreams you have, you’ll still call it a coincidence, or you’ll swerve your dreams altogether, believing them to be nonsense anyway, so the problem will not arise for you.

Others have written at length on this phenomenon, namely J W Dunne, J B Priestly and more recently Gary Lachman. Tentative explanations involve additional levels of consciousness, each with its own time reference. I can’t say for sure if this is right, but it does make a kind of sense. Let’s say, as a working hypothesis, it’s plausible, but it also strikes me that, even when science means well by the unknown, it comes across as being somewhat primitive in its toolkit.

So if we are indeed opening a crack in time by paying attention to our dreams, we have to accept there are no definitive explanations about what’s going on. There are only more questions. What draws us forward are the tantalising hints at unexplored human potential. We’ve been a long time evolving, but there’s nothing to say we’re yet done adapting to our environment, even as we shape it. In this light, precognitive dreaming might be a thing we’re evolving towards, an evolutionary mutation still looking for an advantage in the world we’re creating. Or maybe such precognition was an advantage in our hunter-gatherer past, say, warning of the bear we were to encounter in the woods next day, and which risked killing us. But now it’s a faculty that’s atrophied for want of use, like one’s appendix, or coccyx. Still, there are plenty of dangers facing us in the contemporary world, yet my dreams seem more concerned with quirky art-house details than risks to life and limb – so maybe that’s not its function at all. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philosophers paint such a gloomy picture of the human condition, the existentialists having concluded we’re just an accident of nature, and better off adjusting to that fact, than hanging on for something transcendent, or for hints of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one can hardly blame them for reaching such a bleak conclusion. Nor is the twenty-first shaping up to be any better. But I think nature has left enough clues in the shadows to hint at a path, which has the potential to lead us from the dark forest the philosophers have abandoned us in. I am confident we are more than we seem, and that there is more to the world, to its space and time.

Then again, before we set foot down this path, we must be sure what beckons is not simply a will-o’-the-wisp, leading us to drown in a bog of groundless speculation. Maybe there is a rational explanation for that cop car, the country roads, and the hare lip, one that doesn’t sound even more far-fetched than the suggestion we sometimes see our future. Selective bias and coincidence are the usual explainaways. Belief in the paranormal is another, as it’s highly correlated with a propensity towards selective bias and outright self-delusion. Still, none of these ring true to me, in this insance, but then I suppose they wouldn’t. From your own perspective, of course, the obvious explainaway is that Dunne, Priestly, Lachman, and me, we’re all making it up, that we story tellers are simply looking for attention, or to fill column space on an otherwise dull day.

That’s fine, until you have such a dream yourself, and then you cannot help but wonder.

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On dreams, and facing down the scallywags of the past

The philosopher Ouspensky reminds us the act of studying our dreams changes them. They take on a form that acknowledges the fact they are observed and alter their contents accordingly. This has also been noticed by the psychoanalysts. There is a difference in the way analysts of the Freudian and Jungian schools interpret dreams, which would seem to make a nonsense of the whole business, but for the fact those under Freudian analysis experience Freudian dreams, and those under Jungian analysis experience Jungian dreams. The unconscious psyche, to which dreams and other altered states are our only clue, appears to respond intelligently. This suggests dreams are more than the disjointed garbage of a sleeping brain. There is an intelligence behind them. But anyone who dreams regularly, already knows this.

I circle the literature from time to time, on the lookout for something new that will explain more of the nature of dreaming. But I find this is well trodden ground, that most new sources are based largely on the old, that what there is to know, or what it is possible to know about dreams, and dreaming, has already been written.

My most valued sources include the psychoanalysts, mainly Jung, and Hillman. Then there are the writers who were dreamers – J B Priestly especially, Ouspensky also, and the time theorist JMW Dunne. Less familiar, and less accessible, are the Tibetan Buddhist texts for which I have a great respect, but there seems a gulf of culture and language separating me from them. I have gleaned the occasional gem, however, including how to protect oneself from the night ghouls that occasionally bother us. Of the philosophers, the idealists are best suited to this territory, though the only one to have saved me from the infuriating trap of solipsism is Bernado Kastrup, to whose clear explanation of analytical idealism, and his enlightened reading of Schopenhauer, I am grateful for the leg up. Of the contemporary, western, new-age shamanistic scene, I find Robert Moss particularly engaging. On the other hand, the purely scientific literature tends to be of the dismissive sort, which I find disappointing. The exception is the Lucid Dream research of Stephen Laberge, though of lucid dreaming itself I am not an adept, and am instinctively cautious of treating the dream realm as a playground. It is a strange land, and, as in all strange lands, we should tread lightly.

My own dream life has faded. I trace it to the acquisition of the first smartphone, around a decade ago. On waking, the phone is now immediately the centre of attention. I read the news, I do a chess puzzle, I do the daily Wordle. Before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole, and anything you might have dreamed has already slipped through the neck of the hourglass, the grains of any possible dream-meaning, lost to memory and cognition. Not many dreams can compete with the noise of the material world intruding before our feet have even touched the carpet.

But sometimes reading about dreams and dreaming is all it takes to break the habit, that and installing a journal app on the smartphone, on which to dab such dream snippets as I can remember, before current affairs, chess, and Wordle make their demands.

Sometimes I can capture no more than a few brief snatches, other times I remember more, but, in general, I think the dreams are returning. I remember how I once scoured them for evidence of precognition, as per Dunne. I remember how I once dismantled them for meaning as per the analysts, how I once sought the lucid experience, as per LaBerge. My footsteps were heavy in those days. Indeed, I could easily say I trampled all over my dreams, when I think the thing is to tread lightly, as per Hillman, or at any rate just settle back and enjoy them. If they’ve anything serious to say, they’ll say it, and you’ll know. Not all dreams are the same in tone or depth, and you know them by the way they feel. With important dreams, you wake not only with a memory of the dream, but also a definite feeling. A dream that triggers an emotion is not one that is easily ignored, and it requires nothing more by way of analysis than that we do it the honour of dwelling upon it as best we can, but without tearing it apart.

As for actual dreams, Last night I was walking along a road in the village I grew up in. It was an area I never knew very well, on account of it leading to what we always believed were the rougher estates. A kid from my end would only get roughed up there by the gangs of territorial scallywags. Anyway, of a sudden, there I was, and much to my surprise it was a pleasant area, rural, with a deeply bucolic air about it. I was so taken aback, I chided myself for never having had the courage to explore this way before. I mean, just look what I’d been missing!

I rounded a bend and found myself in a scene that could have been from the sixteenth century, with ancient white-washed buildings, all in perfect repair. It was like a sprawling farm, but it also had the air of something monastic, about it. And there was this guy, in monk’s robes. He was working a patch of land with a hoe. As I drew level with him, he asked me kindly to mind my step, and take care of the moss on the path. I asked him if it was all right, my being there. Oh, yes, it was perfectly all right, he said. I had simply to mind the moss. The way was soft, and easily worn away by busy feet.

Through tall pines, I could see a tower with a red-tiled roof. It had a clock, but I could not see the time. The time was held aloft for decoration, but, actually, not as important as we ordinarily believe it to be. The sky was a deep blue, with puffy clouds, the light was honey-coloured, and beautiful. I was thinking I could spend hours here with the camera, checking out perspectives. For now though, many of the ways I might have explored were impassible due to floodwaters from heavy rains, but I had the feeling these would subside, as the season matured, and I could return. I would find my way around all right. I looked back at the scene, half farm, half monastery, whitewashed walls, red-tiled roof,… there was something numinous about it, vivid contrasts, and its details easily recalled. This place exists, I’m sure of it, if not in material reality, then as a fixture in a realm more ethereal, at least in the symbolic sense.

I was welcome there. We all are. Not all ways are open at once, but with patience they will be. Time is not important. Above all, we should tread lightly, for the way is soft, and easily worn out by feet that are too busy. Oh, and we need not fear getting duffed up by gangs of scallys. Those were just stories put up to frighten away the children.

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mending clock 5I was walking along a corridor in a familiar office block, thinking to myself: what if I found some money on the floor? How would I reunite it with its owner? If I put up a note to say I had found ten pounds, anyone could come to me and say it was theirs, that they had lost ten pounds, and how would I know they were telling the truth? So I thought I could write a note instead saying I had found some money, without saying how much, and leave it to others to tell me what they thought they had lost. But this wouldn’t work either. Would anyone know exactly how much they had lost? And if they said they had lost fifteen pounds, would it be reasonable for me to say the ten pounds I had found was not at least some part of what they had lost? How would I best write that note?

This conundrum of hypothetically lost money and the note announcing it was a thing I pondered for no reason. I had not found any money. I had not lost any money. My mind had simply begun to ruminate on the problem spontaneously. There was nothing strange in this; I often ponder spurious things for no reason. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing so. And the punchline? Well, it was then I came to a notice pinned on the wall, and it said: Money found, please contact,…

To the rational mind, it was a coincidence, or I had perhaps seen the notice before, but registered its presence only subliminally, in other words without actually being conscious of seeing it. The latter explanation is more tenuous, but I admit it is plausible. To my own mind though, there is another explanation and has to do with the mysterious nature of time. It also requires a less rational approach and that we allow for the possibility we can sometimes be influenced by events that have yet to happen, that my pondering on the question of lost money was prompted by the as yet future sighting of the notice announcing lost money.

My anecdote hardly qualifies as evidence of déjà vu. All such occurrences are, by their nature, anecdotal and therefore inadmissible in the court of the scientistic pedant. And yes, I could have made my story up – I am a writer of stories after all. I suggest you have no choice then but to be sceptical, unless something similar has happened to you, for only then are the non-peer-reviewed anecdotes of time anomalies of any interest. And I bet most of you reading this have experienced something odd about time and the occasionally back to front sequencing of events.

It’s happened to me before. I find the dream a good place for encountering the influence of events that have yet to happen. I once dreamed repeatedly of a time – twenty past seven – then woke groggily from a deep sleep to hear my wife telling me I was going to be late, that it was already twenty past seven.

It doesn’t happen a lot – just now and then. I mean, I’m not a freak or anything. Moreover, you don’t have to believe in any of this. I’m not claiming a penetrating scientific insight, now will I be attempting an explanation. But if it’s happened to you, you may find such musings of interest.

For a time, between the world wars, the question of time anomalies, time slips and dream precognition were pondered openly and in all seriousness by intellectuals, by artists, writers, poets, and the general pre-soap opera public, all of them inspired by publication of a book called Experiment in Time, by J W Dunne (1927). Post war however, it was a fascination the popular world quickly grew out of. I don’t know what happened, but dreams, precognition, time anomalies and such were suddenly embarrassing topics of conversation to be having at parties. Instead we became ensnared in the theories of Freud, at least in so far as they pertained to advertising and trivial want, and we became docile consumers thereafter, with never questioning thought in our heads as regards the nature of time and reality. But the question has not gone away. And the anecdotes continue to mount. Can our thoughts be influenced by a future event? Can we visit the future in our heads before it happens?

I come back to Dunne and his book “Experiment with Time”. In it Dunne writes about time anomalies, and a kind of low level dream precognition. Then he presents a theory which attempts an explanation but which reads like a textbook exercise in geometry. I was always good at geometry, but try as I might Dunne’s lecture on it doesn’t make sense at all. Only the anecdotes stick. Thus Dunne manages to be both visionary and annoying at the same time.

Priestly (JB) writes of Dunne along similar lines in “Man and time” (1964), in which he too explores the time-haunted world, while wisely avoiding too much theorising and geometrical diagrams. Priestly had plenty of his own time-slip anecdotes, plus an archive of anecdotes sent to him by the public. Priestly is more content to rest in the philosophy and the mystery, that these things happen, and we don’t know how or why, only that it opens a door into the unknown through which many things become possible. We are wise I think, to follow his example.

But the critic will argue it’s absurd to claim we can see the future, because by seeing it we might then take steps to avoid it. But if we’ve seen it, how can we possibly avoid it? This attempt at paradox is rather a feeble one, however, presupposing as it does a single linear line in time. It does not allow for the idea of multiple lines, of the possibility that what we see of the future is only one possible version of it. We take our permission for such speculation from the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and by so doing also usher in a semi-scientific basis for our idle postulations, but without actually explaining anything. Quantum Mechanics is endlessly useful for us dreamers in this respect. We can use it to prove anything.

This is where the way becomes strange and all explanations equally valid. If these slips in time are real, and I have no choice but to accept they are, it points to something perhaps, to a future evolution of consciousness where the actual nature of time is revealed and becomes useful to us. Or it may be there’s just something a little frayed around the edges of the consciousness we posses, that it is only an imperfection that allows sporadic glimpses of a place outside of time, beyond the curtain so to speak, a place we do not belong and can never explain within the limited paradigm of which we are a part and spend our entire lives.

But if we are trapped for the most part, in a purely linear flow of time, while being capable of more, we must ask ourselves what purpose does it serve, this self imposed imprisonment, this pedestrian view? And what nightmares would it unleash, were we ever to break free and see the universe as it really is?

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Before the Storm (Clouds) by Isaac Ilich Levitan (1860-1900)

The weather has changed. The dead-heat has gone out of it and though we’re still enjoying startling blue late summer skies, those skies are now a broad canvas, at times full of storms, compact blooms of white, towering to a great height like the smoke-plumes of a sinister weapon. They drift ponderously across the land. I saw them first in a dream, at the weekend, but I misinterpreted them, turned them into apocalyptic mushroom clouds, out of which poured the ruin of mankind. Then, on Monday, I drove a long way, travelled south, through the Midlands,  the North Wessex Downs, and the Chilterns. And there, all along that two hundred mile roaring ribbon of the M6, the M42 and the M40, I saw them, those same towering storms, painted on the blue, like lotus flowers, or old English roses. They were remnants of a hurricane that’s blown clean across the Atlantic, and are still lending a richly animated energy to our days, breaking up the sluggish humidity that has lingered since mid July.

As I drove, marvelling at this beautiful spectacle, my dream broke, or rather the storms broke my dream, brought it back to me, fished it from the black waters of unconscious memory. I don’t know how the mind does this, how it sometimes works ahead of itself, lets its dreams be informed by imagery we have yet to encounter in our ordinary waking reality. I only know that when we do encounter it, it turns a key and we cannot doubt a part of us has passed this way before.

I’ve written about Dunne, the pioneer aircraft designer who first studied this phenomenon, and who published books on it, to very mixed reviews. Word of it still falls upon a largely sceptical audience, so I won’t labour it here, except to say that in the West we have forgotten how to dream, are no longer in awe of them, and consequently no longer open to their potential for revelation, or healing.

I puzzled for a long time over Dunne’s books, troubled, because to see the future implies our future is fixed, and I didn’t like to think of the world being that way. Unless we have a choice in the paths we take, unless we can choose our future, I felt the world had no meaning for me. But nowadays I think it’s more a case of seeing not the future but a future, that only on occasion do our waking lives coincide with one of the futures we have already seen.

I did not dream of that weary journey down the sluggish motorways. It was too tedious, I think, to make anything other than the most abstract impression upon the dreaming. But the images of those storms was so impressive, they could not help but be borrowed as background for an allegorical tale, one in which I was preoccupied with visions of a civilisation on the brink. The dream made no sense to me, just as my journey didn’t in the end. It was just ten hours in a new-smelling lease-car, a night in a worn-out hotel in a fold of the Chilterns, within earshot of the rumbly M40, and all for a one hour meeting. But like many things, purpose and, more, the direction of our lives is often only revealed in retrospect, and with the perspective of long years passed.

Meanwhile the storms continue to drift across the land, darkening skies of a sudden, and sending down great wetting rages of rain to paint the roads black and slick and splashy. Mazzy and I slipped out last night, in a pause between the squalls, but I kept the hood up. My rational excuse for the impulsive jaunt was that I’d run out of bush tea, so made a circuitous 10 mile twisty-road tour, finally swinging back by the Sainsbury’s store in the neighbouring village for my Rooibos. I didn’t really need the tea. It was more that I’d been away for a long time in the south, and had missed her.

While we were out we clipped the northern lash of a slow moving cyclone, a vast thing, slow circling across the plain, raising columns of dirty white against a blue grey, dusky sky. Cars were coming out of its shadow with their headlights on, looking drenched and startled. We turned north and outran it. Mazzy and I were both safe under cover before it staggered sideways a little and tipped its buckets over us, to no effect.

Clear skies again this morning, but a tuggy wind and more rain forecast.

I dreamed of trees, and butterflies, and I was among a gentle, brown skinned people; we fished clear, shallow waters with long spears for rainbow-coloured fish.

And we were happy.

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dunneIt’s about quarter of a century now since I first encountered the book “An Experiment with Time” by the former gentleman-designer and aircraft pioneer, J W Dunne (1875-1949). In 1902 Dunne had a dream about the eruption of Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique, shortly before it happened for real. He did not dream of himself being present during the eruption but, more crucially, of picking up a newspaper at home and reading about it. Why crucially? Well, Dunne concluded the dream was not a presentiment of the disaster itself, but of his own action of picking up the newspaper. Dunne had seen himself at a point in his own future. This incident spawned much private theorising on the nature of time and existence, which in turn led to a series of very popular books, the first of which was “An Experiment with Time”, published in 1927 and which has been steadily reprinted ever since. This book suggests that in certain mental states – dreams or hypnogogic imagery – we are all capable of a form of first hand precognition of ourselves at a point days or weeks in our own future.

When we dream, we often recognise the influences of the recent past playing out in the dream narrative. But what Dunne suggested was that if we paid sufficient attention to our dreams we would find unequivocal influences from our immediate future as well. Dunne picked up a newspaper and read of the eruption in Martinique, but that event had already imprinted itself in his consciousness sufficient for it to appear as a fairly clear influence in his dreams some time previously. Dunne professed no psychic abilities and was rather disturbed by the prospect that he might be “gifted” in this way. Rather than assume this to be the case however, he chose instead to pursue the idea that the ability was in fact latent in all of us, and that all we have to do is make a record of our dreams in order to realise the truth of it.

Having made this startling observation, Dunne then began to puzzle over what it revealed about the nature of time if a part of us was indeed capable of seeing into the future. The familiar stuff of fiction and pseudo science, precognition – if true – has some serious implications for our understanding of the nature of reality. We might dream of ourselves in a situation we’d like to avoid – say a fatal accident – and decide not to get out of bed that day, so altering a future we had apparently already witnessed. But if we have already witnessed it, how can we avoid it? This is one of the paradoxes which cannot be reconciled in a deterministic universe, which suggests our futures are fixed, but which Dunne’s observations apparently bull-doze aside.

Was Dunne right? Can we dream of future things? As experiments go, the protocols Dunne uses and describes in “Experiment with Time” wouldn’t pass muster in modern parapsychological research, but his examples are compelling, and anyway, we can all sit down and make an accounting of our own dreams and decide for ourselves, so I decided to take a look at mine. It took several months, but sure enough my own little experiments with time revealed a number of intriguing de-ja-vous experiences. The first was a dream of myself sailing down an industrial backwater, on a canal boat. The following evening, when channel zapping on the TV, I zapped into the scene from the dream. Another was a dream of walking along a beach with peculiar dune formations, then of visiting that beach quite by chance some time later, a place I’d never been before. There were other incidents, most of them undramatic – indeed quite banal – but sufficient to convince me Dunne was not a crackpot, and that he had indeed revealed something peculiar, not only about time, but of our place in it.

Scientifically speaking  dream anecdotes do not equate to data and you must bear that in mind dear reader while reading this exposition by a self confessed mystical fiction writer. Sure enough Dunne met with serious opposition in academic circles on both the scientific and philosophical fronts. Among writers though, especially those of a mystical bent, and non-academic philosophers, and indeed the general public, his theories became very popular.

A man who knew Dunne and had the pleasure of discussing these ideas with him personally was the author, playwright and broadcaster J B Priestly. Priestly’s book Man and Time (1964) deals in part with Dunne’s work and in my opinion does a better job of exploring the philosophical issues. Unlike Dunne, however, Priestly wisely avoids any home-spun theorising on a scientific explanation. Such theorising however was to be Dunne’s undoing.

Dunne’s first rate technical background meant he was unable to let his experiments rest without coming up with a detailed conjecture involving maths and charts that explained it all, text-book fashion – at least to his satisfaction. Thus Dunne plunged headlong into a field that few theorists at the time were equipped to deal with, and duly came a cropper. He speculated that while the conscious mind experiences time linearly, the unconscious can plunder images from any point in our life from birth to death. We therefore exist, he said, for all time as an infinite number of moments whose direction lies at right angles to the familiar direction of time’s arrow, a series of “serial” moments. We never die, argued Dunne, because although we do exist somewhere at the point of death we are also still young, somewhere in time. Although I’m personally open to such a notion, it is vulnerable to philosophical attack, and Dunne was to spend much of his later years locking horns with learned critics, gaining the reputation of a bit of a crackpot.

Suffice it to say, he was never invited to expound upon his ideas at the Royal Institution, and while this may not be without sound reason, it’s a pity his actual observations were thrown out with the bath-water of his dubious scientific theories. It remains an awkward fact, I believe, that we do sometimes dream of things that are influenced by events we have yet to encounter. Where this leaves us in terms of an understanding of the nature of time and our place in it is no more certain now than it was when Dunne first dreamed of the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. Indeed it’s probably best not to think too hard on it, but it is interesting. Writers of course are free to speculate and plunder his ideas at will for material. As well as Priestly, he was an influence on the Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein, and of course on more obscure scribes such as yours truly – see my story The Choices.

We can of course make a great deal of sense of the universe from the perspective of reductionist thinking. We paint a very convincing picture of a materialistic and mechanistic world, and for the day to day stuff this is fine – we get by – but we also do well to bear in mind that this is not the real nature of the universe at all. It’s much, much stranger than our physical senses perceive it. How strange? Well, how strange can you imagine it?

An Experiment with Time – 1927 J W Dunne (1875-1949)

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