Book Review Time Loops. Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious, by Eric Wargo
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
Eric Wargo has a PhD in anthropology from Emory university, Georgia, works as a science writer in Washington, DC. and runs The Nightshirt blog covering a wide range of paranormal phenomena. His first book, fully referenced by chapter notes, plus an extensive bibliography and good index, comes with enthusiastic endorsements from Jeffrey Kripal ‘the most significant intellectual work on a paranormal topic in fifty years. He gives us scientific, psychological and interpretive tools to think about this phenomenon in strikingly original ways’, Mitch Horowitz ‘epic breadth, keen observation, deep rigor and great integrity…Writes with epic breadth and succeeds gloriously’, Dean Radin ‘Well written, well balanced overview of the latest scientific interpretations of these mind-bending phenomena. Based upon an increasing body of scientific evidence, precognition is real’ and Nick Herbert ‘Time Loops is the definitive inquiry into cases of people who remember their future. Eric Wargo is the Sherlock Holmes of retrocausation’. He certainly does write extremely well and demonstrates a wide knowledge of the anecdotal and laboratory literature on extrasensory perception (ESP) while concentrating on premonitions, precognitions and their relationship with time. The problem for this reviewer is how to summarise the sheer scope and detail of the material covered in over 400 pages.
In his Introduction: Beyond Folk Causality (or One Damn Thing Before Another) Wargo says that our post Newtonian Western society is the only society in history which believes that the only true definition of causality is the one that says ‘cause always precedes effect.’ This belief, which is so obviously correct in everyday practicality and is central to mainstream scientific thought, denies the possibility that cause could act backwards ‘through time’ to create an effect in the present. A future to-be-experienced, just doesn’t exist except in imagination, so what does not exist cannot possibly act back on the present. No matter how vivid and compelling an apparent precognitive experience might be, and no matter how closely the details of a later experience appears to mirror those in the apparent precognition, it was just an unusual subjective experience, nothing more. It so happens that by sheer chance coincidence a remembered dream or waking vision happens to closely mirror what happens later, and because of the chance association between the two experiences we mistakenly attribute a causal relationship between them that does not exist.
Wargo rejects this mainstream definition of forward causality being the only possible form of causality by saying (my paraphrase of an extensive debate) that time is a continuum comprised of past, present and future in which the future can, and does, directly influence the present to provide awareness of a future-experience-to-come by reversed causality or retrocausation. He has chosen the term ‘time loop’ as shorthand for what is known in physics as a ‘closed timelike curve’. The usual interpretation of a precognition is that it is a glimpse from the present into the future as if looking forward through a time window at an event-to-be-experienced. In the time loop hypothesis, the event-to-be-experienced is causally acting back upon the now, whether in the form of a vivid precognitive dream or a sudden waking vision. The personal future of each of us acts back upon the present in an endlessly cycling loop of retrocausal experiencing along a retrocausal spectrum of effect from subliminal influencing of one future scenario over other scenarios before making an apparent free will decision to full blown premonition. He emphasises that we do not precognise an external physical event such as a car crash - what is precognised is our eventual knowledge of it. Wargo suggests that this retrocausal faculty is an evolutionary strategy, quoting James Carpenter (2012) who argues that psi acts as the ‘leading edge’ of subliminal perception throughout life. As Wargo says ‘This is an important corrective to the common presumption that if ESP exists it must be a rare occurrence. We should not confuse how difficult it is to imagine a thing with how difficult nature finds in accomplishing it’ (p.85). When biologists tell us that when early planetary conditions are right life appears, yet despite thousands of laboratory simulations of those conditions no one has yet created a living cell, and when the explanatory gulf between brain processes and mental processes remains as wide as ever Wargo has a point.
Wargo proposes that retrocausation is not only the best explanation for claims of a verified precognitive experience but probably the best explanation for telepathy and clairvoyance (ESP) as well in that their occurrence is confirmed by later knowledge. He also suggests that retrocausality is the best explanation for the findings of many quantum experiments where the outcome challenges our everyday assumption of forward causality. In sum, what he is proposing that retrocausation is the agent of psi-acquired information. Psi cannot present information about what you will never know.
Wargo makes the important point that while our everyday experience, including the unexpected, can usually be absorbed into a familiar cause and effect context a premonition is, in this general sense, contextless so is often explained away as an unusually vivid dream, or forgotten amongst other preoccupations until what was precognised occurs and hindsight realisation dawns. Often the precognition concerns fairly trivial events such as an unexpected letter, or a meeting, that is only recognised as a precognition in surprised retrospect, but in some cases the premonition is so vivid and comes with such an emotional charge that it cannot be ignored.
The book is divided into three parts. PART ONE: WELCOME TO THE NOT YET presenting dozens of experiences claimed to demonstrate the factual reality of precognition from the wealth of stories surrounding the sinking of the Titanic, to the Aberfan disaster, aircraft crashes, 9/11 and many personal situations. Two chapter titles – Postcards from Your Future Self: Scientific Evidence for Precognition and The Psi Reflex: Presentiment and the Future-Influencing-Present Effect summarise his argument. He quotes Joseph McMoneagle, one of the most successful remote viewers in the Star Gate program, as saying that when asked what he ‘sees’ during a remote viewing of a given set of coordinates he is not somehow there at the site, although that is how it feels, but “I think I am sending myself information from the future. In other words, at some point in the future I will come to know the answer to whatever question has been put to me in the past. Therefore, whenever the information is passed to me in its accurate form, that is when I send it back to myself.” The aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne’s record of precognitive dreams as recounted in his seminal book An Experiment with Time (1927) are quoted extensively. Also noted is the huge influence Dunne’s concept of Serialism had on the thinking of many prominent writers of the day, including H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley as in his fourTime plays and explored in his book Man and Time (1964). Dunne’s influence on T.S. Eliot is particularly noticeable in his Four Quartets in which the first quartet Burnt Norton opens with the lines:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
Although Wargo does not quote these opening lines that so clearly convey the temporal circularity inherent in his concept of time loops, he does close his book by quoting the following quatrain in Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(Eliot,1963, p.189 and p.222 respectively).
As for the many ‘classic’ cases of precognition, Mark Twain’s precognitive dream of seeing Henry, his younger brother, lying in a chair mounted metal coffin, wearing one of Twain’s suits with a bouquet of white roses and a single red rose in the centre is discussed in some detail as a confirmed precognition of what he would see some six weeks later as his family knew the dream details before Henry died. Prominence is also given to Air Marshal Victor Goddard’s claim that when, in 1935, he flew over a dilapidated WW1 Scottish airfield, known as Gullane airfield, he experienced a sunlit precognitive vision of how it would look as a 1939 rebuilt, re-equipped RAF airfield renamed as RAF Drem with biplanes in yellow, when all 1935 RAF aircraft were silver, two yellow single wing aircraft he did not recognise because the RAF did not possess any monoplanes, and mechanics dressed in blue overalls instead of 1935 brown overalls. Contrary to many inaccurate accounts, Goddard did not see RAF Drem from the air for himself in 1939 but knew it had been rebuilt and that as the RAF now had these new yellow monoplanes in widespread use as pilot trainers he assumed that RAF Drem possessed them as well. Goddard’s apparent precognitive vision is widely quoted in the literature as factually confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt. However, as will be shown in a forthcoming paper (Charman, in press) the most likely explanation is that it was an honest misinterpretation of his sunlit experience when he flew over Gullane airfield. This finding does not mean that all other cases of claimed precognition such as Mark Twain’s did not occur as quoted.
In his review of the experimental literature offering strong support for presentiment the findings of Dean Radin, Julia Mossbridge and many other investigators are presented. In some of these experiments a computer randomly selects an image from a bank of images to appear on a monitor screen a split second before it appears. These images are a mixture of emotionally neutral scenes, violent scenes, shocking scenes or erotic scenes that are likely to provoke a strong response. The subject is wired up to record any changes in physiological processes such as heart rate, respiration, sweating etc and often shows a small anticipatory increase in these variables several seconds in advance of the random computer choice that will result in seeing an emotionally disturbing scene as compared to a neutral scene.
Daryl Bem’s well known series of experiments and findings to test precognition by inverting the normal positive reinforcement by reward in the present procedures by post choice positive reinforcement in the future receives extended discussion as further evidence strongly supporting the retrocausal hypothesis. Many critics claim to have exposed errors both in Bem’s methodology and choice of statistical analysis, but a major meta-analysis of ninety such experiments (Bem et al., 2016) indicate that objections will need to be made on other than statistical grounds. This meta-analysis is not referenced in Wikipedia’s dismissal of Bem’s claim that the future can affect the present, which leaves the possibly tongue-in-cheek quote from Bem in Slate Magazine (Engber, 2017) on his Feeling the Future experiments that “I’m all for rigor, but I prefer other people do it. I see its importance—it’s fun for some people—but I don’t have the patience for it. If you looked at all my past experiments, they were always rhetorical devices. I gathered data to show how my point would be made. I used data as a point of persuasion, and I never really worried about, ‘Will this replicate or will this not?’” somewhat unbalanced as he and his colleagues obviously respond to their critics by undertaking a very rigorous statistical analysis of their experimental findings.
PART TWO: HOW CAN THIS BE? discusses the findings of a wide range of double slit quantum experiments using delayed choice designs in which a choice made as to what to measure, or not measure, after a photon, electron, proton or even atom has been fired and has passed through the double slit determines whether it will be recorded on the screen as a particle or self-interfering wave. Wargo feels that this supports the argument for the existence of retrocausality in that as the delayed choice had influenced the preceding particle or wave outcome it had acted retrocausally upon the now of the photon, or whatever particle, as it passed through one or both slits. Physicists strongly disagree with each other over this interpretation and I advise readers to read the excellent Wikipedia accounts of these experiments. Also discussed in some depth, as Wargo thinks that these double slit experiments can be interpreted as supporting retrocausality at quantum level, is whether the brain ‘collapses the quantum wavefunction’ into consciousness as proposed by Penrose and Hameroff in their hotly disputed ‘Orchestrated objective-reduction’ (Orch-OR) hypothesis in which the microtubules that forms the cellular network within neurones interact with the quantum world to ‘collapse’ it into consciousness.
What is certain is that the brain acts as a highly efficient prediction machine in anticipation as to what is most likely to happen next. In fast sports from batting in cricket, receiving a serve in tennis or table tennis or returning play in squash the best players are those whose brain controlled anticipatory reactions are so fast that they exceed conscious awareness of what is occurring. This neural predictive function drives our endless imaging of possible futures and Wargo suggests that this may naturally extend beyond the immediate future into awareness of a what-will-be-experienced future.
PART THREE: TIME’s TABOOS is devoted to discussing many of Freud’s psychoanalytical cases of his patient’s dreams as retrocausal in nature rather than being rooted in their sexual past. This interpretation includes Freud’s own dream of seeing white patches in his patient ‘Irma’s’ mouth as precognitive of his later fatal mouth cancer caused through smoking. The Greek story of Oedipus killing his father, marrying his mother and blinding himself in realisation is also discussed in retrocausal terms.
PART FOUR: LIVES OF THE PRECOGS discusses many of Jung’s psychoanalytic cases such as the famous scarab case where his client, Maggy Quarles van Ufford, was telling him that she had dreamed that she had been given jewellery in the form of a golden Egyptian scarab at the same moment that a green-gold, iridescent European relative of the Egyptian scarab beetle butted the window. Jung caught the beetle and handed it to her and that moment became an emotional breakthrough in her analysis. Her dream had been occasioned retrocausally by that experience-to-come. Wargo then explores the lives and apparent precognitive experiences and writings of two other ‘precogs’ – the unhappy, drug fuelled and often mentally ill science fiction writer Philip. K. Dick (who coined the term ‘precog’) whose sci-fi stories have been turned into films and television, and the now almost forgotten Morgan Robertson who, in his 1898 novel Futility, told the story of the Titan, similar in size and passenger capacity to the Titanic, that seemed to presage the same fate as the Titanic when it hit the iceberg on the 14th, April, 1912.
What, then, of his argument for retrocausality as the mechanism for precognition and maybe telepathy and clairvoyance? I agree with his enthusiastic endorsers that this may well be the definitive presentation of the case for retrocausation as the agent uniting the experience-to-come with the precognition. Personally, I don’t think that the delayed choice double slit experiments, fascinating though they are concerning quantum reality, are relevant to the argument, as what takes place in billionths of a second in the unknowable quantum world occurs in a physical reality whose properties are different not in degree but in kind from the mental reality of consciousness. Assuming that precognition is a fact of experiencing, the answer as to how it occurs lies not in quantum reality but in the qualial nature of consciousness.
Carlo Rovelli (2014) has pointed out that time as a self existent entity within which events unfold does not exist in the physical world. Time is not a fundamental. The fundamental of physical reality is event change of itself, not a separate time within which change occurs. The equations of quantum physics measure the variables of event change in relationship to each other. To say that whatever aspect of change being measured occurs ‘in time’ happens to be a useful concept as Newton recognised, so in the equations of classical physics time (t) is included as a variable, thus providing a conceptual framework in which to measure change, be it of rate or duration. In his extended discussion as to the nature of time Rovelli (2018) came to the conclusion that time as a temporal entity exists solely within “the mystery of consciousness”. In other words, time is a fundamental in mental reality, not physical reality, in which our personal experience of event change is absorbed into a mental continuum of past-present-future. The expression of mental time may vary according to our state of consciousness. In our practical, everyday state of consciousness which is dependent upon streams of incoming sense data to get things done time ‘flows’ as an apparent continuum of cause-and-effect change, and the same appears to apply to the world around us. But when we enter into what I will term as a psi-state of consciousness we enter into different mental reality in which psi-time, whether in dream or in waking vision, supervenes on our everyday forward causality that does not extend beyond the immediate now. This is why a psi experience is so confusing as a mental reality dependent upon cause and effect sensory feedback for information can offer no explanation for a non-linear causal, non sensory communicated experience.
Whatever you call it, whether prophecy, foretelling, premonition, presentiment or precognition, the experience is central to the claim that psi-acquired information is a genuine phenomenon in its own right. Whether a premonition of what-will-be-experienced is initiated from the present as a glimpse into a to-be-experienced future, or whether it is initiated by a to-be-experienced future acting as retrocausally upon the present is probably as unresolvable as the nature of consciousness itself. What Wargo has done is to present a closely argued case for the reality of precognition as such, whatever explanation you may prefer, and I strongly recommend this well written and very interesting book to psi-sceptic and psi-believer alike as essential reading on this subject.
Bem, D., Tressoldi, P., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2016). Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of
90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events. F1000Research.
Carpenter, J. C. (2012). First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Charman, R. A. (in press). Research Note: Was Wing Commander Victor Goddard’s unexpected
observation when flying over Gullane airfield in 1935 a precognitive glimpse of that airfield in
1939. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Dunne, J.W. (1927). An Experiment with Time. London: Faber & Faber.
Engber, D. (2017, May 17). Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real: Which means science is broken.
Elliot, T.S. (1963). Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber.
Priestley, J.B. (1964). Man and Time. London: Bloomsbury Books.
Rovelli, C. (2014). Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. London:
Rovelli, C. (2018). The Order of Time. London: Allen Lane.
Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org