Last Friday night I had a rather vivid dream in which half my back tooth fell out, which was annoying. I should have woken up then, because the dream went on to include the front of my head falling off too – or rather, the painless falling-off of some extraneous bony extensions to my skull, which looked very interesting on the dream X-rays. It’s astonishing how dreams can ignore even the most basic aspects of reality. It was a surprise to look in a mirror and see some stranger’s face staring back at me – you’d have thought that was a fairly core aspect of identity. But that’s dreams for you.
Actually the start of the dream wasn’t completely random – the tooth in question (if not the head) has been causing problems for some months and did, early in the summer, crack across and need root canal work, but one had high hopes that the problem was sorted thereby.
Anyway, as it happens my brother was staying with us, and we’d been discussing premonitory dreams the day before, so over breakfast we engaged in mirthful questions about which specialist to see should ones face fall off. In our previous conversation, we’d been remarking how, probably, every life has one or two instances of strange premonitions. The usual “natural” (meaning “materialist”) explanations involve coincidence, selective attention (we don’t remember all the dreams that don’t come true) and, of course, invention after the event.
Yet they are anomalies in the scheme of things. My own small experience, for example, includes:
- My sister in law dreaming that my wife was pregnant with twin girls, which was confirmed in the event. Assuming she was bound to dream vividly about my wife’s pregnancy, the odds of getting that outcome right are not astronomical, but they are large.
- Not long after that, I had a patient whose distant twin sister felt pregnant but knew she wasn’t, and so believed my patient was. Two pregnancy tests later she was proved right.
- A minor waking premonition: I suddenly remembered an old pop song I haven’t heard in decades as I was driving across town, and hummed it nostalgically. Ten minutes later I switched the radio on to hear it playing.
- I had a disturbing dream as a young teenager of some odd-looking railway wagons which I feared were going to explode, and which then did so catastrophically, plunging me into alarmed wakefulness. It was graphic enough to stay in my memory until a couple of years later, when the TV reported a disaster at a chemical factory, the footage including the identical odd-looking railway wagons.
The common thread in all these (and many others I’ve heard anecdotally) is their triviality or purposelessness, which suggests a weird natural cause rather than a supernatural one. For example, an angel appearing in a dream to tell one not to return to Nazareth but flee with your child to Egypt clearly has a supernatural and prophetic flavour. And there’s also something personally specific about stories one hears of seasoned fliers whose premonitory dream keeps them off a flight that subsequently crashes.
But one can’t imagine even the most menial of angels feeling a need to forewarn me of an old song on the radio. Nothing was gained by the prediction of our twins except an anecdote. And no lives could have been saved by my dream about the explosion. They’re just, like some related phenomena, anomalies like lightning striking the same person twice – only unlike the last, they are inconsistent with any possibilities in physics, even on the usual understanding of the weirdness of quantum mechanics.
Anomalies, when they’re as frequent as they appear to be in general life, do seem to warrant some investigation. But of course pretty much by definition these are incompatible with the materialistic scientifc paradigm, and so will always either be ignored, or chased by a few outliers willing to question the paradigm, and so doomed to being ignored along with the anomalies by the mainstream. I guess the obvious name there is Rupert Sheldrake – I’m pretty sure many of his ideas don’t hold water, but I admire his courage in being interested enough to pay attention to the anomalies he’s trying to explain.
I’ve just finished Arthur Eddington’s wonderful 1927 book The Nature of the Physical World, on which I hope to comment more fully soon. But one of his recurrent themes, speaking as one of the important scientists of the early twentieth century and one of the first to come to grips with both relativity and quantum theory, is the radical incompleteness of scientific explanations of reality. This is not, mind, based on the common separation of “science” from “humanities”, but on the implications of science itself. By its very nature it can only investigate certain, limited, aspects of reality:
Mathematics is the model of exact inference; and in physics we have endeavored to replace all cruder inference by this rigorous type. Where we cannot complete the mathematical chain we confess that we are wandering in the dark and are unable to assert real knowledge. Small wonder then that physical science should have evolved a conception of the world consisting of entities rigorously bound to one another by mathematical equations forming a deterministic scheme. This knowledge has all been inferred and it was bound therefore to conform to the system of inference that was used. The determinism of the physical laws simply reflects the determinism of the method of inference. This soulless nature of the scientific world need not worry those who are persuaded that the main significances of our environment are of a more spiritual character. Any one who studied the method of inference employed by the physicist could predict the general characteristics of the world that he must necessarily find. What he could not have predicted is the great success of the method – the submission of so large a proportion of natural phenomena to be brought into the prejudged scheme. But making all allowance for future progress in developing the scheme, it seems to be flying in the face of obvious facts to pretend that it is all-comprehensive.
That is to say, in rather more words, what Shakespeare said in a couplet:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I’m not too troubled that my philosophy, too, has very little that might explain the phenomenon of premonition. But that’s good, if it reminds me I am always scratching the surface of reality. That the illusion is not (as materialism likes to say) the character of experienced reality, but the arrogant belief that the universe is even in principle fully comprehensible to us. Perhaps that’s what anomalies like premonition are for…
What of my dream on Friday, by the way? On Sunday we went to Seaton and had traditional fish and chips on the sea-front. My tooth cracked in half.