Contact with the Future: The Nature of Extrasensory Perception, by Jon Taylor
Throughout the years many attempts have been made to explain psi, yet, if Jon Taylor is to be believed “until now, no one has come forward with a really satisfactory theory” (p. 95). Taylor has pondered on psychic experiences and possible explanations for them since the 1980s. Precognitive experiences in particular have long fascinated him. He has previously shared his thoughts in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Taylor, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000) and elsewhere (e.g., Taylor, 2007, 2014). In this book, Taylor sets out to not only explain his theory, he is more ambitious, he also considers animal psi, dowsing, remote viewing, and even the use of I Ching in light of his theory.
The reader is likely to think about precognitive visions of accidents, deaths, and disasters, precognitive dreams about 9/11 and such. However, as Priestley noted, precognitive experiences often “are concerned not with matters of life-and-deaths but with trivialities” (Priestley, 1964/1989, p. 218). I have had a few precognitive experiences myself. Once just before I flicked a light switch I felt that the light bulb would burn out and it did. Two explanations immediately come to mind. First, it could just have been a coincidence, second my experience might have created a self-fulfilling prophecy, that is, by not applying enough force when I flicked the switch I caused the light bulb to burn out. The latter explanation however suggests a troublesome causation loop – “the future event causing the precognition and the precognition causing the future event” (p. 42).¹ Taylor would reject this. Another possibility is that psychokinesis was involved, but it seems more likely that it was just a coincidence.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that it was truly precognition. According to Taylor this was possible because my brain activity when I was about to flick the switch, and thought that the light bulb would burn out, was similar to my brain activity when I really saw the light bulb burn out. According to his theory there needs to be a correlation between the brain activity during the precognitive experience and the brain activity when the precognized event is observed. You are more likely to have a precognitive vision of an earthquake if you happen to see a table shake. To Taylor this is not due to some kind of acausal synchronicity. The future really does influence the present somehow, but the backward influence is “non-local (i.e. it is produced outside of space-time)” (p. 137).
The phenomenon of precognition presupposes that the future events already exist and that they can be accommodated within a block universe model. Bohm’s causal interpretation of quantum mechanics, along with the pilot wave theory, suggest a way in which a non-local connection can be set up between structures manifested at different locations in space and time, in such a way that information is transferred between them (p. 138).
Taylor acknowledges that it might be a little difficult to follow his reasoning and I must admit that I struggled. Unfortunately, to me, it was never entirely clear what Taylor meant when he wrote that information is transferred, and sometimes he seemed to contradict himself. It was however evident that whatever kind of transfer he has in mind is not something that allows any intervention paradoxes to occur. An intervention paradox comes about if a precognitive experience makes the percipient avoid the precognized event. In my earlier example, this would occur if my hunch had led me to get a candle rather than to turn on the light. Possibilities of intervention paradoxes have long troubled theoreticians. Taylor does not ignore cases which “suggest quite strongly that the percipients are able to intervene and prevent the events they precognize” (p. 49; e.g., see Rhine, 1955), but he assumes that the future is predetermined.
If the future is predetermined you are like a character in a book that has already been written (the movie Stranger than Fiction illustrates this idea). Free will would hence be an illusion and Taylor, rather successfully, argues that it really is. (For psychological reasons, however, I believe it is a good idea to maintain belief in free will). As Taylor shows there is much research that suggests that the brain reacts to future events and prepares for actions before we are aware of what we are about to do. He accepts this and does not ponder too much about how this can be.
At this point it seems fair to point out that there has been more controversy and debate than Taylor acknowledges. Meta-analyses (e.g., Mossbridge, Tressoldi, & Utts, 2012) whose results Taylor accept without question have, so far, never really been controversy killers: “Many sceptics reject whatever evidence is presented to them, and in some cases they refuse even to look at the evidence” (p. 108). Naturally, he cites the curious paper by Reber and Alcock (2019). They argued that currently the data is irrelevant. It should however be noted that Alcock did not start out with this perspective. He used to read the research (e.g., see Alcock, 1981, 1995).
… many proponents of ESP assume that it cannot be explained in materialist terms, they insist that it must require an influence from consciousness. But the majority of sceptics are materialists and, as already noted, materialists reject anything that would have to be explained in dualist terms. They are forced to reject ESP … (p. 108).
Taylor’s theory is consistent with materialism and he points out that those who believe that the results of Bem (2011) support a dualist view are mistaken. In fact, Bem wrote: “The major theoretical challenge for psi researchers is to provide an explanatory theory for the alleged phenomena that is compatible with physical and biological principles” (Bem, 2011, p. 408). Nevertheless, the very idea that future events affect the present was too much for many scientists. It should however be noted that among the emotional outbursts that followed the publication of his results there were also legitimate criticism and concerns about the statistical methods he used.
Although Taylor has no need for dualism, I suspect that sceptics, nevertheless, will find parts a bit hard to swallow. The reason will become clear. Taylor became interested in precognition thanks to having heard his friend Maria utter three predications that came true. She had no vivid visions of disasters. According to Taylor her first prediction, in 1984, was simple: “Be careful! Someone is going to steal our things from the car” (p. 11). Maria could not elaborate or explain why she had said that. They dismissed the incident and later during the evening someone broke into the car and took everything. Taylor relates some personal experiences too.
Naturally, Taylor also gives space to the classic work by Dunne (1927), to whom he attributes the insight that what a percipient precognizes is his or her own future experience. Parenthetically, a case came to light when one of Backman’s (1891) somnambulists appeared to have precognized a newspaper notice that was not consist with the actual facts. Flippant advice to someone who suffers from precognitive experiences of disasters is hence to stop watching the news. Dunne came to his insight when he realized that he had misread a newspaper article and that his mistake was consistent with his precognitive dream. There is no need here to relate his precognitive dreams or (try to) explain his theory.
I believe that Dunne was on the right track when he suggested that the connection is made with the percipient’s experience rather than with the event itself. However, I suggest that the connection doesn’t take place within consciousness, as Dunne proposed, but between neuronal patterns of activation that give rise to consciousness. In other words, the information transfer is a physical one, from the brain in the future (when it knows that the event has occurred) to the brain in the present … (p. 35).
Taylor leaves the reader with the impression that psychical researchers basically ignored Dunne and his work, but this is not strictly true. For example, Broad (1935) considered his theory and Besterman (1932) carried out studies and collaborated with Dunne. In fact, Dunne himself participated as a subject in the final study. Taylor explains how a reader willing to follow Dunne can go about to find out if he or she has precognitive dreams too. However, he does not relate how common precognitive dreams are, what they are often about or what characterize them.
Sondow (1988) was inspired by Dunne and recorded her dreams for about four years. As Taylor notes her most important finding was “... a steep and non-linear fall-off in the number of events precognized during the period up to 14 days after the dream” (p. 32). She noted that more than half of the precognized events had occurred within a day of the dream. Needless to say, this is very interesting for a theoretician and I wonder why Taylor does not acknowledge that the finding is consistent with Dalton (1974), Orme (1974), and Hearne (1989).
All we get from the future is a “yes/no” indication as to whether the event will occur. Because details about the nature of the event are not transmitted through time, there is no fall-off in detail as the temporal distance to the event is increased (p. 33).
But how come so many precognitive dreams concern events close in time? The brain is constantly undergoing change and, if I have understood Taylor correctly, this makes correlations between brain activity in the present and during events far in the future unlikely. According to Taylor there needs to be a correlation for precognition to occur. However, to explain some predictions Taylor invokes precognitive telepathy. I believe that this in particular is hard for sceptics to accept and from my perspective it seems as if all bets are off – anything is possible, in theory, if one accepts precognitive telepathy.
When Taylor writes about Nostradamus he invokes precognitive telepathy since many predictions (allegedly) concern events that occurred long after Nostradamus was dead. He suggests that he “... used precognitive telepathy to obtain the information from the future generations of people who possessed such information” (p. 58). Orme (1979) once published some brief commentary about Nostradamus, but many psychical researchers would not mention him except in passing. Taylor’s treatment is not totally uncritical, and he acknowledges that the predications are ambiguous. Nevertheless, my understanding is that the French Nostradamus used was considered archaic even during his lifetime and to me it seems impossible to now establish whether translations of his predications are entirely correct.
What about the instances in which people seem to have avoided accidents thanks to precognition or intuitive hunches? My understanding is that Taylor argues that it is the absence of an accident in the future that is relevant. If a man dates a woman, gets carried and considers marriage way too early, and suddenly loses interest the reason might be some awareness of the fact that there is no future in which they are together. A man who considers two paths and, thanks to an intuitive hunch, avoids a snake by taking the left path never detects the snake. This may be hard to understand, so it helps to remember that Taylor considers the future to be determined.
Despite the title, Contact with the Future, Taylor considers far more than just evidence of precognition. He also covers animal psi, dowsing, the use of the I Ching, and remote viewing. I must take exception to his treatment of remote viewing which I found too uncritical. However, this is primarily a book that should be read for Taylor’s theory and thoughts about precognition. Now and then the reader might find it a bit hard to follow Taylor’s reasoning, but this is an interesting and thought-provoking book.
1. Wargo refers to such situations as time loops: “baffling, causally circular situations in which a precognitive experience partly contributes to the fulfillment of the precognized event” (Wargo, 2018, p. 11).
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