What is Serialism?

A philosophy of Time

From the age of nine John William "Ian" Dunne had been chewing over the nature of Time - was its foundation the waypoints of yesterday, today and tomorrow, or was it the travelling between them, the moment of "now" in which we feel eternally trapped? Presently he (re)discovered the idea that there was a second dimension of time in which the mind travelled over the fixed landscape of a four-dimensional spacetime. But, like others before him, he realised that he needed a third time dimension in which a higher level of the mind travelled over the second one, and so on in an infinite series of time dimensions and levels of consciousness. The whole thing was absurd.

But any other explanation for our experience of Time was even worse. Eventually he came back to the infinite series of times and minds, and called his theory Serialism.

To his delight several things came out of it. One was that the higher levels of consciousness could range through physical time, remembering the future as well as the past, when not distracted by the chattering brain. This neatly explained his precognitive dreams. Next was the idea that when the brain dies your timeline across spacetime ends but your timelines in higher dimensions, where the physical brain never appeared in the first place, do not. Freed at last from the shackles of the brain, you become immortal. Last came a "supreme general observer" at the far end of the series. Dunne was a committed Christian and so this became his scientific proof that God existed. This package of dreams, time, serialism and immortality became the subject of his first and most enduring book, An Experiment with Time.

But really, as a scientific rationalist philosophy, he was jumping the gun. His next book, The Serial Universe, sought to integrate Serial Time with the emerging physics of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. And philosophically, it sought also to embrace his metaphysical aspects within an overal philosophy of existence. Serialism had become a complete philosophy of existence.

Later in life, and much influenced by writer JB Priestley, he came to the concusion that the serial regress was a delusory understanding induced by the limited nature of the human mind to grasp ultimate realities. No more than two or three time dimensions were actually necessary. Yet he still clung to his Serialist interpretation as the only way a human could approach the subject with scientific rationality.

Science and Serialism

Although Dunne's early ponderings predated Einstein, by the time he came to write An Experiment with Time he was able to draw on Relativity to support his treatment of time as a dimension and even to include a rather simplistic idea of the Lawrence-Fitzgerald contraction, commonly known as time dilation, in his arguments. As modern physics developed over the next ten years, he extended his theory to keep up. Although no mathematician, he dived into the growing furore over how to interpret quantum physics. In his next book, The Serial Universe, he declared that both Relativity and quantum mechanics were most naturally understood from a Serialist perspective. Among other embellishments, quantum uncertainty allowed some superposition of possible futures, which in turn allowed for free will.

In the last weeks of his life he came up with a mathematical idea which he believed drew Serialism and God fully into the scientific framework of Einstein's relativity, and would incorporate it into his last book.

Immortality and theology

Dunne saw no reason why an individual mind should cease to exist in its higher levels of time, simply because the brain had died at the physical level. Quite the reverse; once liberated from the attention-grabbing physical brain, such minds would be able to communicate with each other more freely. We would once again meet our nearest and dearest, in Eternity. As we continued to gain in knowledge and wisdom, our attention would span higher and higher dimensions. His seemingly endless regress of consciousness led him to terminate the series, at infinity, with a universal mind, representing the mental fusion of all humanity throughout time. This fusion sat within a Superlative General Observer, the fount of all consciousness (and, of course, of all quantum observation).

Dunne was a committed Christian and the identification of God and Christ within this picture was obvious. Indeed he felt that the message of immortality and God was far the most important aspect of the whole thing. So having explored the physics in detail, he next set to and produced a short, popular account of The New Immortality. It was not as readable as he would have liked and he kept refining his ideas, so presently he supplemented it with Nothing Dies. Plans to integrate them into a single volume never materialised.

By now he was becoming an elderly and increasingly incapacitated invalid. His dreams had sometimes been accompanied by angelic visions and suchlike, which he called intrusions, and which he had left out of his books so they would not distract readers from the science. But he felt compelled at last to write down an autobiographical account of how it had all come about, calling it Intrusions? with a question mark. His Angels were understood as higher minds intruding down to his own level, with the accompanying visual and auditory experiences being conjured up by his brain to help it understand the otherwise incomprehensible. He died while still revising the first draft and it was eventually published posthumously.

A new edition of Nothing Dies was already with the publishers. They prefaced it with a wryly ironic Publisher's Note that, "The revisions for this new edition of Nothing Dies were made by the author in the last months of his life, but the revised proofs were not read by him, for his death intervened."

Dunne dreams

Dunne's dreams of the future are perhaps his most well-known legacy. In An Experiment with Time he presented them first, before offering Serialism as his explanation. This has led many to assume that Serialism depends on his dreams for its justification. However it really worked the other way. He quite independently came to the conclusion that his precognitive dreams were perfectly ordinary dreams except for one thing, they were displaced in time. The problem of Time had been bugging him far longer and its resolution, Serialism, once arrived at also provided a natural explanation for his precognitive dreams; while asleep, his mind was liberated from its awakened focus and could rove to and fro in its higher level of Time. But neither phenomenon, Serial Time or precognitive dreams, needed the other to prove its existence as such. Once you accept each independently as fact, then the one neatly explains the other, that is all. But should we accept such dreams as proven fact? See Dunne Dreams – Science or Pseudoscience?

So – does Serialism stack up?

There is no simple answer, as Dunne incorporated so many ideas, any of which might be true while others are not, and a good many remain highly contentious to this day. For example: