Contents to the Sixth Edition are given:
II. The Puzzle
III. The Experiment
IV. Temporal Endurance and Temporal Flow
V. Serial Time
VI. Replies to Critics
Appendix to the third edition:I. A Note by Sir Arthur Eddington, F.R.S.
II. The Age Factor
III. The New Experiment
An Experiment with Time divides into two main topics.
The first half of the book describes a number of precognitive dreams, most of which Dunne himself had experienced. His key conclusion was that such precognitive visions foresee future personal experiences by the dreamer and not more general events.
The second half develops a theory to try and explain them. Dunne's starting point is the observation that the moment of "now" is not described by science. Contemporary science described physical time as a fourth dimension and Dunne's argument led to an endless sequence of higher dimensions of time to measure our passage through the dimension below. Accompanying each level was a higher level of consciousness. At the end of the chain was a supreme ultimate observer.
According to Dunne, our wakeful attention prevents us from seeing beyond the present moment, whilst when dreaming that attention fades and we gain the ability to recall more of our timeline. This allows fragments of our future to appear in pre-cognitive dreams, mixed in with fragments or memories of our past. Other consequences include the phenomenon known as deja vu and the existence of life after death.
Following a discussion of brain function in which Dunne expounds mind-brain parallelism and highlights the problem of subjective experience, he gives anecdotal accounts of precognitive dreams which, for the most part, he himself had experienced.
The first he records occurred in 1898, in which he dreamed of his watch stopping at an exact time before waking up and finding that it had in fact done so. Later dreams appeared to foretell several major disasters; a volcanic eruption in Martinique, a factory fire in Paris, and the derailing of the Flying Scotsman express train from the embankment approaching the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland.
Dunne tells how he sought to make sense of these dreams, coming slowly to the conclusion that they foresaw events from his own future, such as reading a newspaper account of a disaster rather than foreseeing the disaster itself. In order to try and prove this to his satisfaction, he developed the experiment which gives the book its title. He wrote down details of his dreams on waking and then later went back and compared them to subsequent events. He also persuaded some friends to try the same experiment, as well as experimenting on himself with waking reveries approaching a hypnagogic state.
Based on the results, he claimed that they demonstrated that such precognitive fragments were common in dreams, even that they were mixed up in equal occurrence with past memories, and therefore they were difficult to identify until after the event they foresaw. He believed that the dreaming mind was not drawn to the present, as it was during wakefulness, and was able to perceive events in the past and future with equal facility.
Having presented Dunne's evidence for precognition, the book moves on to a possible theory in explanation which he called Serialism.
The theory harks back to an experience with his nurse when he was nine years old. Already thinking about the problem, the boy asked her if Time was the moments like yesterday, today and tomorrow, or was it the travelling between them that we experience as the present moment? Any answer was beyond her, but the observation formed the basis of Serialism.
Within the fixed spacetime landscape described by the recently-published theory of general relativity, an observer travels along a timeline running in the direction of physical time, t1. Quantum mechanics was also a newly-emerging science, though in a less-developed state. Nether relativity nor quantum mechanics offered any explanation of the observer's place in spacetime, but both required it in order to develop the physical theory around it. The philosophical problems raised by this lack of rigorous foundation were already beginning to be recognised.
The theory resolves the issue by proposing a higher dimension of Time, t2, in which our consciousness experiences its travelling along the timeline in t1. The physical brain itself inhabits only t1, requiring a second level of mind to inhabit t2 and it is at this level that the observer experiences consciousness.
But Dunne found that his logic led to a similar difficulty with t2 in that the passage between successive events in t2 was not included in the model. This led to an even higher t3 in which a third-level observer could experience not just the mass of events in t2 but the passage of those experiences in t2, and so on in the infinite regress of time dimensions and observers which gives the theory its name.
Dunne suggested that when we die, it is only our physical selves in t1 who die and that our higher selves are outside of mundane time. Our conscious selves therefore have no mechanism to die in the same kind of way and are effectively immortal. At the end of the chain he proposed a "superlative general observer, the fount of all ... consciousness".
Philosophers who criticised An Experiment with Time included Hyman Levy in Nature, J. A. Gunn, C. D. Broad and M. F. Cleugh. Opinions differed over the existence of dream precognition, while his infinite regress was universally judged to be logically flawed and incorrect.
Physicist and parapsychologist G. N. M. Tyrrell explained:
Mr. J. W. Dunne, in his book, An Experiment with Time, introduces a multidimensional scheme in an attempt to explain precognition and he has further developed this scheme in later publications. But, as Professor Broad has shown, these unlimited dimensions are unnecessary, ... and the true problem of time—the problem of becoming, or the passage of events from future through present to past, is not explained by them but is still left on the author's hands at the end.
Later editions continued to receive academic attention. In 1981 a new impression of the 1934 (third) edition was published with an introduction by the writer and broadcaster Brian Inglis. A review of it in the New Scientist described it as a "definitive classic".
Mainstream scientific opinion remains that, while Dunne was an entertaining writer, there is no scientific evidence for more than one time dimension and his arguments do not convince.
Critical essays on Serialism, both positive and negative, also appeared in more popular works. Wells included "New Light on mental Life" in his collection of articles Way The World is Going. Priestley gave an accessible account in his study, Man and Time. and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short essay "Time and J. W. Dunne", which was later included in his anthology Other Inquisitions.
Besides issuing new editions of An Experiment with Time, Dunne also published several sequels exploring different aspects of Serialism.
The Serial Universe (1934) examined its relation to current physics in relativity and quantum mechanics.
The New Immortality (1938) and Nothing Dies (1940) explored the metaphysical aspect of Serialism, especially in relation to immortality.
Intrusions? (1955) contained autobiographical accounts of the angelic visions and voices which had accompanied many of his precognitive dreams. It was incomplete at the time of his death in 1949, being completed with the help of his family and finally published some years later. It also revealed that he believed himself to be a spiritual medium. He had deliberately chosen to leave this material out of An Experiment with Time as he judged that it would have affected the scientific reception of his theory.
Dunne's theory became well known and many authors have referenced him and his ideas in numerous literary works of fiction. He "undoubtedly helped to form something of the imaginative climate of those [interwar] years".
One of the first and most significant writers was J. B. Priestley, who based three of his "Time plays" around them: Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.
The ideas of Dunne also form the basis for the uncompleted novels The Notion Club Papers by J. R. R. Tolkien and The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis. Both writers were members of the Inklings literary circle, and Tolkien also used Dunne's ideas about parallel time dimensions in developing the relationship between time in Middle Earth and "Lórien time".
Other important contemporary writers who used his ideas included John Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton (Random Harvest), his old friend H. G. Wells (The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper and The Shape of Things to Come), Graham Greene (The Bear Fell Free) and Rumer Godden (A Fugue in Time).
Following Dunne's death in 1949, the popularity of his themes continued. Philippa Pearce's 1958 childhood fantasy Tom's Midnight Garden won the British literary Carnegie Medal.