Books by MacKenzie, Andrew

MacKenzie, Andrew. Adventures in Time. London: Athlone Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-485-82001-0.
You are taking a pleasant walk when suddenly and without apparent reason an oppressive feeling of depression grips you. Everything seems unnaturally silent, and even the vegetation seems to have taken on different colours. You observe a house you've never noticed before when walking in the area and, a few minutes later, as you proceed, the depression lifts and everything seems as before. Later you mention what you've seen to a friend, who says she is absolutely certain nothing like the building you saw exists in the vicinity. Later, you retrace your path, and although you're sure you came the same way as before, you can find no trace of the house you so vividly remember having seen. Initially you just put it down as “just one of those things”, and not wishing to be deemed one of those people who “sees things”, make no mention of it. But still, it itches in the back of your mind, and one day, at the library, you look up historical records (which you've never consulted before) and discover that two hundred years ago on the site stood a house matching the one you saw, of which no trace remains today.

What's going on here? Well, nobody really has any idea, but experiences like that just described (loosely based upon the case described on pp. 35–38), although among the rarest of those phenomena we throw into the grab-bag called “paranormal”, have been reported sufficiently frequently to have been given a name: “retrocognition”. This small (143 page) book collects a number of accounts of apparent retrocognition from the obscure to the celebrated “adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain at Versailles in 1901 (to which all of chapter 4 is devoted), and reports on detailed investigations of several cases, some of which were found to be simple misperception. All of these cases are based solely upon the reports of those who experienced them (in some cases with multiple observers confirming one another's perceptions) so, as with much of anecdotal psychical research, there is no way to rule out fraud, malice, mental illness, or false memories (the latter a concern because many of these reports concern events which occurred many years earlier). Still, the credentials, reputation, and social position of the people making these reports, and the straightforward and articulate way they describe what they experienced inclines one to take them seriously, at least as to what those making the reports perceived.

The author, at the time a Vice President of the Society for Psychical Research, considers several possible explanations, normal and paranormal, for these extraordinary experiences. He quotes a number of physicists on the enigma of time and causation in physics, but never really crosses the threshold from the usual domain of ESP, hauntings, and “psychic ether” (p. 126) to consider the even weirder possibility that these observers were accurately describing (within the well-known limits of eyewitness testimony) what they actually saw. My incompletely baked general theory of paranormal phenomena (GTPP) provides (once you accept its outlandish [to some] premises) a perfectly straightforward mechanism for retrocognition. Recall that in GTPP consciousness is thought of as a “browser” which perceives spacetime as unfolding through one path in the multiverse which embodies all possibilities. GTPP posits that consciousness has a very small (probably linked to Planck's constant in some way) ability to navigate along its path in spacetime: we call people who are good at this “lucky”. But let's look at the past half-space of what I call the “life cone”. The quantum potentialities of the future, branching in all their myriad ways, are frozen in the crystalline classical block universe as they are squeezed through the throat of the light cone—as Dyson said, the future is quantum mechanical; the past is classical. But this isn't “eternalism” in the sense that the future is forever fixed and that we have an illusion of free will; it's that the future contains all possibilities, and that we have a small ability to navigate into the future branch we wish to explore. Our past is, however, fixed once it's moved into our past light and life cones.

But who's to say that consciousness, this magnificent instrument of perception we use to browse spacetime events in our immediate vicinity and at the moment of the present of our life cone, cannot also, on rare occasions, triggered by who knows what, also browse events in our past, or even on other branches of the multiverse which our own individual past did not traverse? (The latter, perhaps, explaining vivid reports of observations which subsequent investigation conclusively determined never existed in the past—on our timeline. Friar Ockham would probably put this down to hallucination or, in the argot, “seein' things”, and I don't disagree with this interpretation; it's the historically confirmed cases that make you wonder.)

This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I got around to reading it from cover to cover. It is now out of print, and used copies are absurdly expensive; if you're interested in such matters, the present volume is interesting, but I cannot recommend it at the price at which it's currently selling unless you've experienced such a singular event yourself and seek validation that you're not the only one who “sees things” where your consciousness seems to browse the crystalline past or paths not taken by you in the multiverse.

July 2009 Permalink