An Experiment with Time JW Dunn 1927 – Introduction

Introduction to the Third Edition

An Experiment with Time was published first in March of 1927. It has passed through two editions and a reprint without any substantial alteration. For this (third) edition I have thought it advisable to overhaul the book from the beginning to end. I have inserted about eighty pages of new matter (including a new chapter, IOa), and I have done my best to simplify still further the arguments in the analytical chapters. The most important addition however, is Appendix III, which deals with a new method of assessing the value of the evidence obtained. This amounts in affect, to a new experiment of very great potency.

The general reader will find that the book demands from him no previous knowedge of science, mathematics, philosophy, or psychology. It is considerably easier to understand than are, say, the rules of Contract Bridge. The exception is the remainder of this Introduction. That hs been written entirely for specialists, and is in no way a sample fo what is to come.

Multidimentional worlds of the kind beloved by mystics, and dating back to the days of the Indian philosopher Patanjali, have never appealed to me. To introduce a new dimention as a mere hypothesis (i.e., without logical compulsion ) is the most extravagant proceeding possible. It could be justified only by the necessity of explaining some insistent fact which would apear, on any other hypothesis, miraculous. And a new and still more marvellous miracle would need to be discovered before we could venture to consider the possibility of yet another dimension. Even then the major difficulty would remain to be overcom. For why should the, say, five-dimensional observer of a five-dimensional world perceive that world as extended in only three dimensions.

The universe which develops as a consequence of what is know to philophers as the ‘Infinite Regress’ is entirely free from the forgoing objections.

This ‘Infintite Regress’, I may explain to the uninitiated, is a curious logical development which appears immediately one begins to study ‘self-consciousness’ or ‘will’ or ‘time’. A self-conscious person is one ‘who knows that he knows’; a willer is one who, after all the motives which determine choice have been taken into account, can choose between those moives; and the time is — but this book is about that.

The usual philosophic method of dealthing with any regress is to dismiss it, with the utmost promptitude, as something ‘full of contradictions and obsurities’. Now, at the outset of my own perplexing experiences, I suppose that this attitude was justified. But the glaring regress in the notion of ‘time’ was a thing which had intrigued me since I was achild of nine (I had asked my nurse about it) The problem had recurred to me at intervals a I grew older. I had troubles enough without this one, and I wanted it out of the way. Finally, I set to work to discove what were the contradictions and where were the obscurities. I spent two years hunting for the supposed fallacy. None, I think, can have subjected this regress to a fiercer, more varied or more persistent attack. These assaults, to my grea surprise, failed. Slowly and reluctantly I acknowledged defeat. And, at the end, I found myself confronted with the astonishing facts that the regressions of ‘consciousness’, ‘will’ and ‘time’ were perfectly logical, perfectly valid, and the true foundations of all epistemology. It was not, however, until years later that it downed upon me wherein lay the full significance of any regress. A regress is merely a mathematical series. And that is merly the expression of some relation. But the relation thus expressed is one which does not become apparent until one has studied the second term of the series concerned. Now, the second term of the regress of time brings to light relations of considerable importance to mankind. It is the existence of these relations that the regress asserts. But the information thus disguised is entirely lost if we confine our study o the opening term alone. Yet that is what mankind has been doing.

As soon as I realized this I sat down and wrote the book. It contains the first analysis of the Time Regress ever completed. Incidentally, it contains the first scientific argument for human immortality. This, I may say, was entirely unexpected. Indeed, for a large part of the time that I was working, I believed that I was taking away man’s last hope of survival in a greater world.

J.W.Dunne March 15th, 1934

Extract from a Note on the Second Edition

It has been rather surprising to discover how many persons there are who, while willing to concede that we habitually observe events before they occur, suppose that such prevision may be treated as a minor logical difficulty, to be met by some trifling readjustment in one or another of our scieces or by the addition of a dash of transendentalism to our metaphysics. It may wee be emphasized that no tinkering or doctoring of that kind could avail in the smallest degree. If prevision be a fact, it is a fact which destroys absolutely the entire basis of all our past opinions of the univers. Bear in mind, for example, that the forseen event may be avoided. What, then, is its structure?

I would suggest that we are lucky , on thewhole, to be able to replace, our vanished foundations by a system so simple as the ‘serialism’ described in this book.

Anywon who hopes to discover an explanation even simpler would be well advised to examine his own statement of the difficulty to be faced – viz., that we ‘observe events before they occur’. Let him ask himself to what time-order does that work ‘before’ refer. Certainly not to the primary time-order in which the occurring events are arranged! He may see then that his statement (and every expression of his problem must bear that same general form) is in itself a direct assertion that Time is serial.

If Time be serial, the universe as described in terms of Time must be serial, and the descriptions, to be accurate, must be similarly serial – as suggested in Chapter XXV. If that be the case, the sooner we begin to recast physics and psycology on such lines, the sooner we may hope to reckon with our present discontinuities and set out upon a new and sounder pathway to knowledge.

J.W. dunn

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