Precognition

At this point, I want to talk about some speculative ideas that show our perception of time, if not an illusion, exactly, is not the entire picture, and there is a greater reality than we can perceive. Again, these ideas are highly speculative, and if they are all false, it does not prove the case of open theism. Much of this analysis reflects my own thinking, so citations may be few. Still, I do not claim originality, either.

There are no clear statements in Scripture that can be taken as proof that the future does not exist. Modern physics has no such understanding, either. There are many physicists, however, that see the future as contingent, which is not the same as saying that it does not exist. Modern physics seems unable to even offer any assurance that a universal timeline exists in the universe. This limitation is because time is linked with space. Modern physics says that an object’s movement through time plus its movement through space must equal the speed of light. As its spatial velocity increases, its temporal speed decreases. Yes, I know that this concept is hard to get one’s mind around. But this idea is not just speculation. It has been confirmed by hard, experimental data. It does not greatly matter if there is a universal timeline or not. Everything in this world is moving at relatively low velocities with respect to each other, so the timeline (even if not universal) can be assumed to be the next thing to it. [1] However, the next problem is more serious, since it could be significant to human beings, even though we are moving together in space at approximately the same velocity.

This question is whether or not all humans have the same timeline with respect to the present time. Is there a universal “present’? Clearly God has given all of us “present time detectors.” We can view this time detector as a function of our consciousness, or of our soul or spirit. Whether or not the present represents a slice of real time or whether we should view the present as a sort of a wave front with no duration at all, is not significant for this discussion. The point is that we can detect the present. Furthermore, the present time is the arena within which we exercise our volition. Suppose, for the purpose of argument, that we do not all experience the same present. Suppose that my present is ten minutes into the future with respect to your present. What would that mean? How can we be sure that our perception of the present is synchronized with everyone else?

It seems to me that we cannot be sure about that—if we see the future as determined. [2] There seems to be no way to be sure that the “you,” to which I can speak and with which I can interact, is not the “you” that is ten minutes into your future. If the future is real, then I can interact with it, even if it is future for you. And even if the “me” that you interact with is (from my perspective ) ten minutes into the past, there would be no way that you would notice anything amiss. If there is no real difference between past and future, then you could talk with me as a real person, even if that event is past time as far as I am concerned. Of course, one might agree that this thought is interesting, but since there seems to be no way that we can know if it is true or not, it seems to be a mental exercise, nothing more.

I submit, though, that this idea of a nonsynchronous present might explain how some profoundly mysterious reports might be literally true. I am referring to what might be termed “tales of the unexplained,” such as precognition or déjà vu. I am sure that we have all heard of precognition. There are no shortage of tales of people that have had dreams or waking visions that seem to have accurately predicted the future. Some of these occur in the Scriptures, and so they are not to be doubted, but these can simply be explained as miracles. On the other hand, the boundary between the miraculous (implying a suspension of what are called “natural laws”) and the unusual (largely or completely explainable by natural laws) is not always obvious. The question that I want to address is this: Does the possibility of non-synchronized present time explain such concepts as precognition? [3] Could precognition be the result of our time sense temporarily advancing a few hours or days into the future, then slipping back?

I would be reluctant to accept the very idea of precognition [4] if it were not for accounts reported by trustworthy people, and if it were not for an unsettling dream that I personally experienced. I would agree that there is always the possibility that what seems to be precognition may in fact be mere coincidence. Perhaps we should consider three cases of what certainly appears to be precognition, to help focus further discussion.

Example 1—Jennie Gass’ Dream.

Jennie Gass was a distant cousin of mine. [5] She was born about 1769 in Virginia, later moved with her family to Daniel Boon’s settlement of Boonsboro, and finally to another frontier fort called Estill Station, Kentucky. Early in the morning of March 20, 1782, Jenny Gass had a remarkable dream. She dreamed that God had placed a ladder before her on which she might climb to heaven. She had the sense that she was being lovingly called to “Come, climb up!” She even remembered seeing herself grab the lower rungs and begin to climb up the ladder. Her dream was so real to her that she ran before breakfast to the cabins of all within the fort to tell them about it, in explicit, vivid detail. Later in the morning she, with a black man named Monk (the Estill slave), and another man, went outside the fort to start a fire for making maple syrup when suddenly they were fallen upon by Indians. One man outran the Indians and was able to regain the stockade, but Monk was captured and Jennie was scalped and killed. The Battle of Little Mountain followed this act. Jennie Gass’ dream was mentioned in most of the early histories of Kentucky, and for decades, school children were all told of her remarkable dream and the indelible effect it had on all the settlers of Estill Station.

Example 2—Abraham Lincoln’s Dream.

Three days before his assassination (April 15,1865) Abraham gave this account of a strange dream that he had experienced:

About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since. [6]

Lincoln, (though having no interest in the occult) did comment about dreams in general and said he thought that dreams and presentiments, in his judgment, did not originate in the supernatural but were connected to the natural order of things, however mysterious they might seem. On the other hand, he agreed that some dreams and visions clearly were sent by God. [7]

Example 3—My Own Dream.

I had a vivid dream on early on a Monday morning in March, 1979. I was working for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Carson City, NV. I still clearly remember the dream, even though it was not a long one. Also, I don’t usually remember my dreams to be in color, but when I awoke, I clearly remembered colors in this one. I was flying in a light airplane, flying over topography that looked very much like Nevada. The airplane seemed to be something like a Super Cub, with the passenger (me) sitting behind the pilot. Then I became aware that the airplane was maneuvering, and I felt thrown to one side, and then the other. Then I clearly heard the pilot say, “We’re going in!” But I don’t remember feeling any fear, since I really believed that he was over-reacting, and that somehow we would pull out of it. Then I looked out the side window and I saw green pinion and juniper trees going by (in full, living color, and quite near to the airplane) and some trees were higher than the wing of the airplane. I realized that we were not going to be able to pull out. Then the dream abruptly ended.

I awoke in a sweat, and was not able to get back to sleep. My wife can testify as to how unusual that is for me. Sleeping and dozing off are activities that I normally do very well. Although the dream made a big impression on me, and I even mentioned it to Carroll, my wife, I did not think too much about it. I had not been flying in a light plane for some time, nor did I expect to fly in one in the immediate future. I did not know of anyone in our organization that planned any such flights, for that matter. So I simply passed it off as a vivid dream, nothing more.

I went into the office as usual, and worked all morning at my desk, as I did more often than I liked. Then in the afternoon we heard that there had been an airplane crash, about mid-morning, and, even though the plane was literally in fragments, both the pilot and passenger had somehow escaped serious injury. The passenger was a contractor working for BLM, not actually a government employee. I knew about him, though, since he was hired to conduct an aerial inventory of wild horses, north of Reno, Nevada. I was confused, though, since I had understood that he was using a helicopter for his work. Then I learned that the helicopter was down for maintenance, so this particular morning, they had used a light plane, a Super Cub, instead.

On Wednesday, my boss, Tom Owen, District Manager of Carson City District, and I went to our Reno office for a meeting. After the meeting, we stopped by the hospital to talk to the young man who had been doing the census for us. He had severe sprains in both ankles, but no bones broken. He was mainly being held for observation, and to make sure his condition was stabilized. We found him in good spirits and glad to be alive, as he should have been! We chatted about what he had been doing and told him how glad that the crash was no worse than it was. Then I asked him what he had thought when he had realized they were going to crash. He said in words to this effect:

Well, I didn’t really think we actually were going to crash. I had great faith in my pilot. But I knew we were in trouble when he did a violent maneuver to try to regain airspeed. Then I heard him say that we were going in. The last thing I remember was when I looked out the plane window and saw pinions and junipers going by and some were higher than the airplane wings. You see, I really have no memory of the actual crash at all! [8]

We learned that he had apparently been suffering from what some people call “impact amnesia.” [9] Sometimes, apparently due to serious shock, the short-term memories cease, for a time, to be stored in long-term memory. The pilot said that his passenger seemed to be alert and conscious after the crash, yet he said that he had no memory of anything from impact (and not even the impact) to about 15 minutes later. When he told his story, it nearly dumbfounded me. His account of his crash, and my dream experience seemed to be absolutely and totally the same. The kind of plane was the same, the maneuver seemed to be the same, the trees passing by seemed to be the same, what the pilot had said was the same, and the fact that my dream ended before the crash seemed to be the same.

I mentioned, briefly, that this account sounded like a dream that I had experienced two days before, but neither my boss, nor the accident victim seemed to pay it much heed, except to say that it did sound a bit strange. I did not want to make too much of it, because it sounded crazy, even to me. Other than my wife, I have mentioned this experience to very few people. It certainly changed my opinion about the possibility of precognition. I have never been able to shake the conviction that the dream and the story that our contractor recounted could not have been simple happenstance. I must admit, though, that it could be a wildly improbable coincidence.

There have been many other reports of such dreams. David Ryback, an Atlanta psychologist, estimates that nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population have experienced what could be described as precognitive dreams. So what can we make of all this experience? It is possible that these instances of precognition could be viewed as evidence that there is no absolute, universal, present. Perhaps, particularly when we are dreaming, our sense of the present is advanced in the direction of the future. Chronology “slips a cog” and we experience the future while in a dream state. Of course, when we slip forward, we are not actually in the future, but what was once the future is suddenly now the present. It is a new present, lasting only a short while. Apparently, the effect is often temporary, probably only lasting a few minutes.

How does this thought line up with the dreams mentioned above? At first glance, none seem to fit the explanation particularly well. In the case of Jennie Gass, her dream seems highly symbolic and not representative of what she would experience in the future. Abraham Lincoln’s dream does not seem to represent a future experience of his own. When he told of his dream, he did not even seem to think that the body lying in state was himself. My dream, if it meant anything, appeared to have been a precognition of another person’s experience. Perhaps we should take a second glance.

In the case of Jennie Gass, her dream could have represented her future in a few hours if it gave her a preview, not of her death, but of something that happened immediately after her death. Some people who have had near-death experiences have reported similar previews. Could her perception of the present have slipped a chronological cog? In the same way, my dream may not have been a preview of what would happen later in the day to our young contractor, but a preview what I would visualize when I heard the story he told on Wednesday. That would explain why my mental image of the airplane wreck in my dream so closely matched the image that came into my mind when I heard him tell the story of the wreck. Abraham Lincoln’s dream is more problematic, but it could be argued that it, too, was a preview of an actual after-death experience. If such a preview is possible, then the idea of chronological slippage would seem to be a way to explain the dream, even in Lincoln’s case.

Another strange phenomenon is called déjà vu. This term is from French, meaning something like “seen already.” It is the very strong sensation that an object or an event being experienced has already occurred in the past. Dr. Alan Brown, who has done research into déjà vu, told of a typical incident:

Several people in email contact with Dr. Brown say they experience déjà vu frequently, many times in a year. One of them, Suketu Naik, 26, a graduate student in Utah, has kept a diary of the sensations.

In one entry, Mr. Naik writes of attending a birthday party for a friend at a restaurant: “Everything, the conversation, the position of people, position of tables, plates were extraordinarily ‘in place.’ Most remarkable of all events. Very intense. Lasted for a long time. Which is odd—usually intensity and time are reciprocal. I could predict every single future event in this time period to utmost precision. Felt extraordinarily weird after this one. I sat there for the next minute to come back to reality.” [10]

The idea of chronological slippage would explain some instances of déjà vu as being not a mistaken perception of reality, but as a true experience. We seem to see a place or series of events as though we had seen it all before. If our consciousness were to be displaced along the temporal stream and then quickly return, we would actually be experiencing the same event twice.

So this idea of our conscious perception of “now” or the present time as being loosely attached to time does have the ability to explain some baffling phenomena. There are at least two problems with all of this analysis. The idea of a slippage of our conscious perception along spacetime lines does not involve the actual movement of anything material through time. It is not time travel as it is viewed in science fiction. Neither does it seem to contradict current scientific thinking, since, as we saw above, scientists such as Einstein have denied that there is any real difference between past, present and future. He said that the perceived difference was an illusion. So this idea simply involves a slippage of this illusion toward the future and then a return to normal. This slippage seems to be allowed by the deterministic future concept held by many modern physicists. However, if nothing material moves when our perception of the present changes, then our brains do not actually move, either. So when our perception of the present returns, our consciousness should return to the same brain with the same memories as existed previously. So if all our memories are stored in our brains, then we should have no memories of our brief experience of future time. If we had no memory of it, we would have no idea that it happened. A second problem would be this: if we return backwards in time to the same chronological point, but with a memory of the future, would not the future have changed the past? Is this slippage not a paradox? So either way this idea of slippages seems to be fraught with difficulty. What shall we make of this problem?

Christians have not [11] accepted the idea that our personalities, our memories, our consciousness and our very selves are nothing more than biochemical patterns stored in our brains. If we believed that, we certainly should have no reason to believe in any kind of survival after the death of the body. Having rejected the materialist view of human consciousness when we consider life after death, we certainly should not cling to it here, either. This is not to say that we have any good answer to the question concerning the survival of memories after our brains die, or even give an adequate explanation of consciousness. The Scriptures affirm that our essential selves (our souls) do survive death, but do not explain how it works. Science also seems increasingly reluctant to affirm that consciousness is anything as simple as can be explained by classical materialism, to include classical physics. One of the greatest thinkers in modern physics is Sir Roger Penrose. In a recent interview for Discover Magazine, Penrose commented on this issue as follows:

In my view the conscious brain does not act according to classical physics. It doesn’t even act according to conventional quantum mechanics. It acts according to a theory we don’t yet have. This is being a bit big-headed, but I think it’s a little bit like William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. He worked out that it had to circulate, but the veins and arteries just peter out, so how could the blood get through from one to the other? And he said, “Well, it must be tiny little tubes there, and we can’t see them, but they must be there.” Nobody believed it for some time. So I’m still hoping to find something like that—some structure that preserves coherence, because I believe it ought to be there. [12]

Is there anything that confirms the formation of memory within the consciousness that seems to be independent of the brain? I know of nothing outside of God’s revelation that absolutely proves that there can be memories formed independently from the brain. There, however,  are suggestive reports of experiences of people that narrowly escape death. These are usually referred to as near-death experiences or NDE’s, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of these reported experiences are called out-of-body experiences. Dr. Pim van Lommell published a scientific article in The Lancet concerning a thirteen-year study of NDEs. One case involved a man who was unconscious and in a coma, which lasted for a week. When he recovered he said that he had an out-of-body experience and had seen a nurse remove his dentures and even described where they had been placed. The nurse who had removed the dentures said:

I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. [13]

I realize that these sort of anecdotes fall far short of hard proof of the kind demanded by hardened skeptics. Yet here is a case where a patient “saw” details that would have been impossible to see, since they would have been out of his line of vision (even if he had had his eyes open). Of course, nothing short of observations performed under controlled conditions in a laboratory and repeatedly replicated elsewhere would be admitted as hard proof. The very nature of these experiences means that they only provide suggestions and not scientific proof. It is all too easy to pass these accounts off as a dream that, by a wild coincidence, bore an uncanny similarity to real events about which the patient could not have known. We must recognize, though, that there have been a large number of these out-of-body experiences reported, many with reports of detailed images that the patient could not logically have been able to see. How many does it take before we have to rethink what is possible and plausible?

I am not at all sure that NDE reports of traveling to heaven or hell or seeing Jesus are useful for verifying or denying spiritual truths. This lack of usefulness is because there is nothing about them that is verifiable. On the other hand, out-of-body experiences often do include information that is verifiable. If a patient reports seeing earthly events in a NDE, this information can be confirmed or denied. That is why I consider them as worthy of some consideration. If a person’s consciousness (which we could describe as his soul or spirit) actually separates from his body in a spatial sense, then the memory of what he sees while disembodied must be somehow stored in the consciousness without using the physical brain as the storage medium. When the person’s consciousness returns, the memories are then stored in the usual way, and are available for recall upon awakening. If this idea is true, then there has to be a form of memory that does not depend on our physical bodies.

Does the idea of memory that is independent of our bodies conflict with Scripture? Not at all. In 2 Corinthians 5:6 we see this: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.” [14] In Revelation 6:9–10, we see the souls of those who were martyred for the faith, at a time before the “first resurrection” of the righteous saints in Revelation 20:5. Yet they were clearly aware of their past lives and the manner of their death. So there seems to be no scriptural difficulty at all with the idea that our souls possess memory, even though our old bodies have been slain, and even before the resurrection that gives us new bodies.

I probably should leave it at that. The simplest (and most honest) summary would be to say that we will have memories of this life after we die, based on the authority of God’s Word, but we do not know how that is possible. We also are aware that God and the angels (and demons or fallen angels) have consciousness, a personality and memory without physical bodies. Upon reflection, it seems clear that angels exist in time and space in much the same way as we do. Whether a created spirit is composed of matter or energy or some entirely other form of existence is not at all clear. Since spiritual beings have a personality, consciousness and memory without the need for a body like ours, perhaps the fact that humans also have a spirit might be the key to the puzzle.

I do not want to debate whether the human soul and the human spirit are different things, different names for the same thing or different names for different aspects of the same thing. Suffice it to say that the Scriptures are clear that we have a soul and/or a spirit as well as a body. Perhaps the memories stored in our earthly body, our brain, are only working copies of memory, and there is another “spiritual memory” stored somewhere else. As an illustration, we might have a computer that has data stored in on-board memory within the computer, but all this data might also be backed up somewhere else. That would mean that even if the computer is destroyed, the “soul” of the computer still exists somewhere else. A new computer could be loaded with the stored memory, which would effectively restore the old computer to new life.

This approach then allows us to return to the problem of a person that experiences precognition by a chronological slippage of his consciousness in the direction of the future, and then returning to normal. How would he have a memory of the event? The reason he would have a memory of it would be because his memory of the future was saved in the form of data in his spirit. When his consciousness returned to normal, his spiritual memory was then was impressed on his physical brain to form the memory of a future event. This idea seems like a reasonable possibility, at least.

This discussion has been confusing, I know, but take heart, there is only one more point that I want to make in this blog before deriving some conclusions. The final problem that I can see is the paradox involved in a future event changing something in the past. Precognition does not have to be seen as a paradox. If the whole event was planned as such in the mind of God before the creation, then it is not a paradox, because past time was not changed. In other words, if God decreed that my consciousness would slip forward two days in time, experience an event on Wednesday, then immediately return to Monday morning, then that slip was always decreed, it was always planned, and my memory of a future event always existed on Monday, in an ultimate sense. This explanation seems perfectly transparent and satisfying to me, at least, and hopefully, the reader will find it so.

Conclusions:

1. Precognition suggests that the future exists. Precognition, or knowledge of a future event, comprises evidence that a determinate future exists. Precognition has certainly occurred in Scripture, such as Joseph’s dream in Matthew 1:20–25, so there is no doubt that it exists. Furthermore, there are persistent reports that seem to show that precognition is not terribly unusual. If precognition amounts to an imprinting of future events on our conscious mind, whatever the exact process involved, then logically, there must be a real future. My tentative explanation of how precognition might work depends on the existence of a future that is just as real and tangible as the past. The explanation might be far from correct, but open theists have a serious problem with reconciling the concept of precognition with the idea that the future does not exist.

2. Many principles of modern physics suggest that there is no difference between past, present and future. If modern physics is correct in this regard, then open theists have a problem. If they deny that the future exists, and if modern physics is correct, then they are denying that any time exists. To deny that time exists is tantamount to denying that reality exists. That would cause open theists to be driven into the same camp as the nihilists, which (in the most extreme form) denies existence, itself. In any event, to base one’s theology entirely on a concept that is not supported by explicit revelation from Scripture nor even strong support from modern physics, is dubious.

3. The idea of a universal timeline has not been proven. Open theists demand a universal timeline, since they see the present as dividing reality from nonexistence. If the timeline is not universal, then the universe at any one time would be partly existing and partly nonexisting. Modern relativistic physics sees no reason to suppose that a universal timeline exists, since time and space are entangled to the point that one affects the other. For this reason, many physicists see the future as having ontological reality. If the future is as real as the past, there is no problem if there is no universal timeline and no instances of the universe being partly existing and nonexisting at the same time. It also follows that if there is no assurance of a universal timeline, then there is no assurance that the “now” perceived in the consciousness of each person is experienced at the same spacetime moment. The assumption of the open theists that the future does not exist absolutely depends on the fact of a universal timeline. An absolute timeline may or may not exist. Therefore, not only is the idea of a nonexistent future an unproven assumption, it depends on other assumptions, which are also unproven.


[1] We must not forget, though, that the lack of a universal timeline would represent a formal proof against the premise of a non-existent future.

[2] This does not mean that we have to believe that B-series time is the only true model of time. We only have to believe that the future is real. We can still accept that A-series time, with its emphasis on change, is also valid.  Space will not permit a discussion of these two types of time, but the reader is referred to the writings of William Lane Craig.

[3] We must not lose track of the idea that precognition does imply a real future.

[4] Except, of course, for the instances mentioned in the Scriptures.

[5] She was the daughter of my 4th great grandfather, David Gass (1735–1806).

[6] Lamon, Ward Hill. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847 –1865. 1995. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, NE. pp. 115–116

[7] Lamon, op. cit. p. 120.

[8] I used bold face to try to duplicate his tone of voice when he mentioned the trees.

[9] See Wikipedia article, “Anterograde Amnesia.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anterograde_amnesia&gt;

[10] Carey, Benedict (2004-09-14). “Déjà Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason”. New York Times.

[11] It must be admitted that some Christians favor a doctrine called “soul sleep,” but this is a minority view.

[12] Kruglinski, Susan. “Roger Penrose Says Physics is Wrong, From String Theory to Quantum Mechanics.” Discover Magazine. September 2009. Published online October 6, 2009. < http://discovermagazine.com/2009/sep/06-discover-interview-roger-penrose-says-physics-is-wrong-string-theory-quantum-mechanics/article_view?b_start:int=1&-C=&gt;

[13] Van Lommel W, Van Wees R, Meyers V, Elfferich I. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet 2001;358:2039–2045. http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research11.html

[14] King James Version

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