Wednesday 5 January 2022

Explaining everyday short-term precognition (fore-knowledge as a metaphysical fact)

It is my impression that - 'precognition' - i.e. knowing the future - is not only normal, but absolutely essential to human functioning. 

But this precognition seems to extend only about a couple of seconds into the future. 

I am not talking about elaborate and specific predictions (that, in principle, may or may not come-true), I am instead talking about fore-knowledge - knowledge of what we know-will-happen.  

Indeed, it is characteristic of everyday precognition that we only know something will happen in connection to its actual happening - the knowledge and its fulfillment are not separable - and indeed they could not be separable, if that knowledge really was to be certain. 

I will give a couple of example - one common, one unusual. 

The common one is the experience of being in a room full of conversing people - a café for example - and hearing the talk only as a background buzz. When somebody says some-thing of relevance and interest (e.g.. mentions your own name or somebody familiar); and suddenly you attend to that conversation. 

But the way that this happens is that you are first suddenly aware of somebody speaking a sentence that then, after a second or two, he mentions the known-name; so that you hear the context of their remark leading-up to the name, rather than the name and what is spoken afterwards. 

The experience is of knowing, a couple of seconds ahead; what is going on in the conversations - and when something relevant is predicted, tuning-in to be able to hear it. 

An unusual example was when I narrowly avoided a serious road accident - which might have become a multiple-pile-up. I was driving, alone, on a motorway which swept over the crest of a hill and to the left, so that I had zero visibility of the road ahead. 

As I came over the crest and around the corner - at about 60 mph - I suddenly saw directly in front of me a stationary line of cars; but found that I was already - automatically, and without thought or will - taking appropriate evasive action by braking hard and steering around the stationary line (into an outer lane that was still clear). 

The experience was that I knew, again a couple of seconds ahead, what was happening on the road and within my field of attention - that I had precognition of what I would soon know. Consequently, I had sufficient time to take evasive action. 

I think this kind of thing is normal and essential, because without this predictive precognition our lives would be spent trying to react to changes that had already happened; and therefore we would often find ourselves unable to respond to our environment sufficiently quickly. 

It is a (sort of) power of 'prediction' - and would usually be explained in terms of us having predictive mechanisms that extrapolate from past observations into the future; but I am suggesting such prediction would itself be too slow, and too unreliable to account for observations - and, in fact, we simply know what is going to happen in the near future. We have fore-knowledge. 

To link back to yesterday's post about Time; I am not positing anything at all about Time as an abstract concept - because I do not believe Time has this nature. Instead I am describing a property of living, conscious beings

I am saying that precognition ought to be an assumption

Beings have different degrees of precognitive knowledge - but all beings have it; and must have it - if beings are to interact with other beings. 

Thus, precognition is simply an attribute of being - of life, and consciousness

Precognition is therefore a metaphysical fact concerning the nature of ultimate reality; a fact that can be confirmed by specific observations, but is not derived from, nor dependent-upon, observations. 

In different words: we must take account of the near future if we are to be functional beings; and I am suggesting that this predictive functionality is based upon knowledge, not upon inference. 


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Well, I agree, but isn’t “explaining” a bit misleading in the headline? Your point seems to be that we shouldn’t try to explain it but just accept it as a brute fact.

John Goes said...

I don’t think I am disagreeing with you here, but I think of precognition as real but uncertain. As the future is unfolding many “roads” may open up before us. We must continually choose which road to take/forge. The road ultimately taken is decided by the combined decisions of many people and their resolution in reality.

It is not possible to know the future with certainty, because this would contradict free will. Not even God can know, with certainty and precision, what anyone one of us will do next. However in certain circumstances one can see a clear vision of a road that seems almost certain to be taken. This may be sure knowledge, if you like, of a *potential* future reality that shines brightly to those with precognitive sensitivity. Such people may see the almost-decided road appearing before them. This surety of this knowledge relies on the orientation and direction of certain beings remaining broadly set. However beings may change their mind before this potential reality is actualized. On the timescale of seconds — for instance as someone begins unfolding a sentence they have decided to speak — it may be very rare that people do change their minds.

John Douglas said...

Your 'unusual' precognitive experience is not all that unusual. It has happened to me several times. On one occasion I braked and momentarily wondered why I had hit the brakes and then I saw a car coming out of a side turning. So is this not just the unconscious reacting to something before the conscious mind refisters the event?
The faster you are travelling the more likely it is to happen. I recall Jackie Stewart some years ago trying to explain something similar by saying that, at high speed, everything seems to happen in slow motion.

Sean Goes said...

The precognition you refer to is actually a tuning in to something that is already happening. The person speaking your name in a crowded cafe already had the name in their mind and intent to speak it. The cars were there before you saw them. It’s more of a spiritual connection to the living world than any peering into the future.

I don’t see time as separate from free will in action. If no one did anything there would be no time. Once the first action occurred “time” was created. “Outside of time” would therefore mean outside of creation. Obliterated. Time is an abstraction that has little to do with reality as I understand it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I would say that (on the contrary) metaphysical accounts are actually the only *real* explanations that satisfy the desire to understand 'why?'.

@JG - What you are describing is - I think - something quite different; the functioning of free agency of the divine self.

@JD (&SG) - " is this not just the unconscious reacting to something before the conscious mind refisters the event?"

You mistake the nature of my metaphysical explanation. All phenomena can be accounted-for by several (perhaps a unlimited number) of alternative 'explanations' based on different assumptions. The point is Not that precognition is the 'only possible explanation' for these observations - Of course not! I am aware (as an ex-psychologist/ neuroscientist) of the ways that such things are currently explained; based on different assumptions of what is real and possible.

My point is that the reality of Time is something 'partly subjective'/ participative - in the sense that it needs to include consciousness. This invalidates scientific explanations which are based on assumptions that treat Time as objective.

And the way of thinking about these phenomena that I describe is something like a common sense understanding - in which we apparently know what is just about to happen- and only realize we know this after it has-happened.

Bruce Charlton said...

Is Sean Goes the Irish cousin of John? It's not a common surname.

Sean Goes said...

We are brothers. Our mother loved the name John so much she gave me the Irish version!

John Goes said...

Sean and I are brothers. "Sean", as you may know, is the Irish name for "John". Our mother did not know this, she just liked both names. We joke that if we had another brother she would have probably named him "Ian".

Goes is from our Brazilian father. We believe that Goes comes from "Goess", or similar; a Dutch name coming from a Dutch migration to Brazil.

John Goes said...


I wrote my original comment because I thought you were missing something essential in your explanation of precognition. This essential thing is to account for free will. Your explanation, like any other, is ultimately metaphysical. That's fine. But if you care about free will, it seems to me that any understanding of precognition ought to account for it. But a *naive* reading of your explanation seems to not allow for free will, since if the future can be perfectly known - even on a timescale of seconds - then beings cannot choose otherwise.

Perhaps I am missing some subtlety in your thinking on this? Perhaps you are distinguishing between the free agency of the divine self and "free will" in the ordinary sense of the term?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - If you word search this blog for 'free will' or 'agency' you will see scores of posts in which I have addressed this most vital of subjects for a Christian.

But precognition of a couple of seconds is actually a sort-of expansion of the definition of 'the present moment'. The present includes (as it were) a couple of seconds into 'the future' - but it is not really 'the future' because the knowledge of it happens only when that future has occurred. So there is no place for free will in this.

Free will needs to be envisaged in terms of an un-caused cause which is expressive of the self - in other words it is a divine attribute. Agency happens when that which of us is real and eternal, generates thought from-itself.

John Goes said...

@BC, apologies for the extended comments...just so as I am not misunderstood, I did not mean to imply that there was any doubt that you were concerned with accounting for free will generally. I have read many of your posts on this very subject which have influenced me greatly. "If you care about free will" was meant rhetorically. I didn't think I had any significant misunderstanding of what you had written about this, but in light of your comment I wondered whether perhaps I had. In the quantitative sense of "free will", some people have very little and choose to act like robots. No doubt such people are much more "predictable", and I thought perhaps you were making some point about people's predictability over the short term. In any case, I see now that you are not and I thank you for the clarification.

It helps to know that you mean precognition in a different sense than I'm used to. I think of it in the "Minority report" sense as knowledge of an event before it occurs, whereas you seem to be conceiving of it as knowledge of the time before an event, "simultaneous" with knowledge of the event itself; i.e. knowledge-occurring-before vs knowledge-of-the-before.

agraves said...

An example of foreknowiwng: a while back my family was involved in selling items from the house as part of an estate sale. A couple came in and were interested in the large expensive bed and asked many questions. We stood around discussing price and it then hit me in the stomach, like a punch in the gut, that they would not buy the bed no matter what they said. Everyone was convinced that the couple would buy the bed due to their intense interest, I stood there not saying anything but knew they would not buy it. We never heard from them again after they left. All couldn't understand why with the positive attitudes going around. I could not explain how I knew they would not buy it but it was a physical reaction, solar plexus area, no doubt.

Todd said...

Dr. C:
I believe you are correct!
My son and I were skiing down the trail this past week. We came to a snowmobile crossing. All was quiet in the woods. Perhaps modern snowmobiles are much quieter (I've since learned this is true), because I didn't hear anything. The snowmobile people also have warning signs and are supposed to go slow at these crossings, but I sensed danger and came to a hard stop.
A second later, a snowmobile sped by, a foot from my ski tips.
I had just "known" that there was dangerous about.
Humorously, I still felt danger after it passed, and sure enough, another one whizzed by.
I felt the danger had passed, but of course gingerly craned my neck out, and all was clear.
I remember thinking - odd, how did I just do that and avoid injury?
You endlessly fascinate with your metaphysical speculations and ideas.

Andrew said...

Fascinating topic. I think I prefer the explanation of guardian angels "taking the wheel" in certain moments so that your earthly journey is not derailed too soon.

-Andrew E.

Brick Hardslab said...

My uncle had just died. His body had not been found. My grandfather was driving late at night coming up on a no visibility corner. He heard my uncle say, 'slow down Dad, look out.' He slowed down turned the corner and the road was filled with deer. Not at all common in our neck of the woods. Deer are pretty solitary out there.