Premonitions and materialism

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.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Premonitions and materialism

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Your musing about the significance (or lack thereof) of some premonitions set me to wondering if the spiritual world, like our physical world is populated with many trivial events. It bothers us little that most phenomena of our visible world pass unmarked and unremarkable. Couldn’t the spiritual world also be expansive enough with events that not all of them need be significant — or at least not significant in our perspective?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv, the context of my musing is probably my latest post on Arthur Eddington’s book.

      I’d agree that “most phenomena of our visible world pass unmarked and unremarkable.” But in Eddington’s thinking, it’s not just because ordinary things are unnoticed unnoticed, but because our reality is just a fraction of all that is.

      In my mind, at least, that doesn’t necessarily imply the spiritual world as such, in the sense of what angels get up to on their weekends off, etc, but more like (analogically) our experience of the “physical” world being like what appears to us in Windows or MacOS, with all the machine code churning way in the background. Perhaps our premonitions are occasional glimpses of deeper levels.

      On the other hand, it might be that the only deeper level is the spiritual level, in which case you may well be right. Either way (a) they’re clues to, rather than distractions from, reality (b) they probably can’t be harnessed to our “use” and (c) they still come under God’s providence, and so may be intended for our good even as the trivial phenomena of our experience may still bless us if, for example, we simply direct our attention to them (eg, “Isn’t that dental drill a wonderful piece of kit…”).

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    …speaking of coincident… I don’t recall ever having heard the name “Rupert Sheldrake” before today — twice! First in your post above, which I skimmed over, his name not meaning much to me. Then minutes later a teacher colleague mails me a link to a banned Ted Talk he thought might pick my interest. And there was Mr. Sheldrake delightfully sharing his doubts about dogmas of materialism and then moving on to defending his “morphic resonance”. I agree with you that the ideas he is positively advancing don’t seem to have been well-supported. But his critique of materialistic science seemed mostly spot on. It is ironic that he wants his ideas to be seen to have merit within current empirical scientific methodologies. I.e. his propositions are presented as eminently falsifiable, and according to most, have already been falsified. Lou would approve.

    One of Sheldrake’s dogmas that piqued my interest was his charge that so-called constants may not be constant. In the context of a short Ted talk he couldn’t delve too deeply into mathematical detail. But it sounds like his grievances (or questions, rather) about the alleged shifts of value lie out at the edge of the available precision for measurements in their various eras. Even now there is some mystery about apparent mass gain/loss between international kilogram standards leading many to suspect that the one official kilogram in France may itself be changing. Hence the quest to try to define mass by some other measurable constant instead of a physical artifact. But when they do that, they fall further afoul Mr. Sheldrake’s criticisms that the constants themselves could be shifting sand. And that is an interesting query to pursue, though, just how one could investigate when your own bedrock tools of investigation are themselves the suspects to be scrutinized is beyond me. It reminds me of an old Star Trek line where a Klingon muses “if the universe was shrinking, and all our measuring sticks were shrinking along with it, how would anybody know?” The answer back then (and perhaps still now) was easy … the speed of light will reveal all! But if that (and other constants) are the “shrinking sticks”, then … well …

    It’s time for me to give my lawn its last mowing. Whatever the universe may be doing, my grass is getting taller.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv

      How do you know the grass isn’t staying the same and everything else shrinking…

      One of the helpful explanations in Eddington’s treatment of relativity is his account of the fact that there is little or no way of having a reliable measure in a relativistic universe. Our common experience is an interpretation of a very different “foundational truth”. None the less useful for that, I’d say, but the further one gets away from common experience, the less hold one has on what’s actually going on.

      As to constants, it’s interesting to ask why we should assume they’re constant everywhere and for all time in the first place. The empiricist would argue that “science has always found it so” (which of course is itself philosophically suspect: we might have had an abnormal run over the last century or two and there’s no reason to suppose the future will match the past), but it begs the question should it turn out that something is changing.

      The real reason would seem to be the presupposition that things ought to be predictable, which ultimately goes back to the early scientific belief in the constancy of God’s laws. But assumptions about God have been wrong before.

      I’ve not read any quantity of Sheldrake’s stuff, but I guess the reason he’s worthy of interest is that he came from a background of serious theoretical physics.

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