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Precognition—An Excursus

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 that 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, who see the future as contingent, which is not the same as saying 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 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 this concept is hard to get our minds around. Yet 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. All things in this world are moving at relatively low velocities with respect to one another, so the timeline, even if not universal, can be assumed to be the next thing to it.1)

The next problem is more serious, however, since it could be significant to human beings, even though we are moving together in space at about 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 our perception of the present is synchronized with everyone else’s?

It seems to me 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” with whom I can speak and 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 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 we can know whether or not it is true, it seems to be no more than a mental exercise.

I submit, though, that this idea of a non-synchronous present might explain how some profoundly mysterious reports might be true. I am referring to what might be termed “tales of the unexplained,” such as precognition or déjà vu. Most of us have heard of precognition. There is no shortage of tales of people who 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 I want to address is this: Does the possibility of a 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, and then slipping back?

I would be reluctant to accept the idea of precognition4) were it not for accounts reported by trustworthy people, and for an unsettling dream I personally experienced. I would agree it is always possible that what seems to be precognition may in fact be mere coincidence. Perhaps we should consider three cases of what appears to be precognition, to help focus the discussion.

Example 1—Jennie Gass's Dream

Jennie Gass was a distant cousin of mine.5) She was born about 1769, in Virginia, later moved with her family to Daniel Boone's settlement of Boonesboro, and finally moved to another frontier fort called Estill Station, Kentucky. Early in the morning of March 20, 1782, Jenny Gass had a remarkable dream. She dreamed God had placed a ladder before her on which she might climb to heaven. She had the sense she was being lovingly called to “Come, climb up.” She even remembered seeing herself grab the lower rungs and begin to climb 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's 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 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 to 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 he had no interest in the occult) did comment about dreams in general and said he thought 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 early on a Monday morning in March, 1979. I was working for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Carson City, Nevada. 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 the 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 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 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 I normally do 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. For that matter, I did not know of anyone in our organization who was planning any such flights. So I simply passed it off as nothing more than a vivid dream. 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 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 had been hired to conduct an aerial inventory of wild horses, north of Reno, Nevada. I was confused, however, since I had understood he was using a helicopter for his work. Then I learned 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, 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 broken bones. He was being held mainly for observation, and to ensure 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 we were the crash was no worse than it was. Then I asked him what he had thought when he’d 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 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.

We learned he had been suffering from what some people call “impact amnesia.”8) Sometimes, apparently due to serious shock, the short-term memories cease, for a time, to be stored in long-term memory. The pilot said his passenger seemed to be alert and conscious after the crash, yet our contractor said he had no memory of anything from the impact (and not even the impact) until about fifteen minutes later. When he told us his story I was dumbfounded. His account of his crash, and my dream experience seemed to be 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 I had experienced two days before, but neither my boss nor the accident victim seemed to pay it much heed, except to say 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 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, it could have been a wildly improbable coincidence.

There have been many reports of such dreams. David Ryback, an Atlanta psychologist, estimates nearly nine percent of the U.S. population have experienced what could be described as precognitive dreams.

So what can we make of all this? Possibly these instances of precognition could be viewed as evidence that there is no absolute present. Perhaps, particularly when we dream, 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 lasting only a few minutes.

How does this thought line up with the dreams mentioned above? At first glance, none seems to fit the explanation 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. But perhaps we should look again.

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 of 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 were possible, then the idea of chronological slippage would seem to be a way to explain the dream, even in Lincoln's case.

Déjà vu

Another strange phenomenon is called déjà vu. This term is from French, meaning “already seen.” It is the 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, said he was in email contact with several people who said they experienced déjà vu frequently. He wrote:

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, the position of tables, the 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."9) The idea of chronological slippage would explain some instances of déjà vu as being not a mistaken perception of reality, but 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.

Discussion

So this idea of our conscious perception of “now” or the present time 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, however. The idea of a slippage of our conscious perception along space-time lines does not involve the actual movement of anything material through time. It is not time travel as science fiction views it. Nor does it seem to contradict current scientific thinking, since, as we saw above, scientists such as Einstein have denied there is any real difference between past, present and future. He said 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 in the concept of a deterministic future 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 that existed previously. So if all our memories are stored in our brains, we should have no memories of our brief experience of future time. A second problem would be this: if we returned backwards in time to the same chronological point, but with a memory of the future, wouldn’t the future have changed the past? Is this slippage not a paradox? Either way, this idea of slippages seems to be fraught with difficulty. What shall we make of this problem?

Christians have not10) 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 would 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 shouldn’t cling to it here, either. This is not to say we have any good answer to the question concerning the survival of memories after our brains die, or that we can even explain consciousness adequately. The Scriptures affirm that our essential selves (our souls) do survive death, but do not explain how this works. Science also seems increasingly reluctant to affirm that consciousness is anything as simple as can be explained by classical materialism, including classical physics. One of the greatest thinkers in modern physics is Sir Roger Penrose. In a recent interview for Discover Magazine, Penrose commented: 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.11)

I realize these sorts of anecdotes fall far short of the kind of proof 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 they only provide suggestions and not scientific proof. It is all too easy to pass these accounts off as dreams that, by a wild coincidence, bore uncanny similarities to real events about which the patient could not have known. We must recognize, though, that many out-of-body experiences have been reported, and 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 sure NDE reports of travelling to heaven or hell or seeing Jesus are useful for verifying or denying spiritual truths, since there is nothing about them that is verifiable. On the other hand, out-of-body experiences often 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 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 read: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.”12) 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 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 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, personalities and memories without physical bodies. Upon reflection, it seems angels exist in time and space in much the same way that we do. Whether a created spirit is composed of matter or energy or has some entirely other form of existence is not clear. Since spiritual beings have personalities, consciousness and memories without needing bodies like ours, perhaps the fact that humans also have spirits 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 local memory within the computer, but all this data might also be backed up somewhere else. That would mean that even if the computer were destroyed, the “soul” of the computer would still exist somewhere else. A new computer could be loaded with the stored memory, which would effectively restore the old computer to new life.

This approach allows us to return to the problem of a person who experiences precognition by a chronological slippage of their consciousness in the direction of the future, and then returns to normal. How would they have a memory of the event? Simply because that memory was saved in the form of data in their spirit. When their consciousness returned to normal, their spiritual memory was then was impressed on their physical brain to form the memory of a future event. This idea seems at least a reasonable possibility.


Paranormal

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.
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) See Wikipedia article, “Anterograde Amnesia.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anterograde_amnesia>
9) Carey, Benedict (2004-09-14). “Déjà Vu: If It All Seems Familiar, There May Be a Reason.” New York Times.
10) It must be admitted that some Christians favor a doctrine called “soul sleep,” but this is a minority view.
11) 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=>
12) KJV

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