Excerpts from Fred Hoyle's October the First is Too Late
This is an interesting little science-fiction novel I was surprised to find on the bookshelf
of a holiday
cottage in North Wales. It was first published by William Heinemann, Ltd. in 1966. It's no great
work of literature, but Hoyle (an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher of some repute)
uses it as a vehicle for some of his further-out ideas on the underlying nature of reality.
Reading this book was the first time I'd seen some of my own stranger thoughts on these
matters expressed in print. The fact that it was Fred
Hoyle who'd written them made this particularly satisfying.
[From the preface:]
"To the Reader
The 'science' in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious..."
Fred Hoyle, 14 July 1965"
These excerpts take the form of a dialogue between the narrator (a musician/composer) and
his friend John Sinclair, a physicist. The first takes place in Hawaii, the second (which
refers back to the first) in England:
"After a short pause, John went off on a new tack. 'In physics, we accept a lot of
'Such as what?'
'Well, it's very mysterious that our consciousness enables us to take decisions which
turn out to improve our description of the world - in circumstances, mark you, when
improvement ought to be impossible according to our basic physics.'
'Sounds the sort of thing our religious friends would be glad to hear.'
'They can read it in any textbook they like. Let me give an example. You take a
number of radioactive nuclei of a particular kind, the number being chosen so that there's
an even chance of one of them going off in a certain period of time, say ten seconds.
Then for ten seconds you surround them with counters, or any other detecting device you
might like to use. At the end of the time the question is, has one of them decayed or not.
To decide this you take a look at your counters. The conventional notion is that the state
of the counters decides whether a nucleus has gone off or not.'
'What you're saying is that if you did this experiment a lot of times your calculations
require that in a half of the cases a nucleus will have decayed and in the other half there
will have been no decay?'
'Right. But my problem now concerns an individual case. Has there been a decay or
hasn't there? How do you decide?'
'I would suppose by looking , which is what you said a moment ago.'
'Of course. But here comes the rub. It is perfectly possible to put your counters, or
your bubble chamber, your camera, all your gobbledegook in fact, into your calculations -
and we know quite definitely that any attempt to get a definite answer out of calculation
will prove completely fruitless. The thing that gives the answer isn't the camera or the
counter, it's the actual operation of looking yourself at your equipment. It seems that
only we ourselves take a subjective decision can we improve our description of the world,
over and above the uncertainty of our theories. I'm talking about quantum theories now.'
'So you've got a real contradiction?'
I waited as John paused again. He lifted his hand in a gesture. 'There's one possible
loophole. We could be wrong in comparing ourselves as physical systems with a camera or a
counter or anything like that. The essential thing about a camera is that it's local. Its
operation can be described by a strictly finite number of variables, its activities are
restricted to a limited volume of space-time. It could be that
when we make subjective judgements we're using connexions ranging all over the universe.'"
"'Because, like all of us in our daily lives, you're stuck with a grotesque and absurd
'The idea of time as an ever-rolling stream. The thing which is supposed to bear all
its sons away. There's one thing quite certain in this business: the idea of time as a
steady progression from past to future is wrong. I know very well we feel this way about
it subjectively. But we're the vicitms of a confidence trick. If there's one thing we can
be sure about in physics it is that all times exist with equal reality. If you consider
the motion of the Earth around the Sun, it is a spiral in four dimensional space-time.
There's absolutely no question of singling out a special point on the spiral and saying
that particular point is the present position of the Earth. Not so far as physics is
'But there certainly is such a thing as the present. Without the ideas of the
past, the present, and the future we could make no sense at all out of life. If you were
aware of your whole life at once it would be like playing a sonata simply by pushing down
all the notes on the keyboard. The essential thing about a sonata is the notes are played
in turn, not all at once.'
'I'm not really trying to say the present is without validity. Rather that it can't
have any validity in physics.'
'Then physics isn't everything? A bit admission for a physicist, isn't it?'
'Remember the night we were out walking, back in Hawaii? I said then there were parts
of our experience which simply defied physical law. I can develop those ideas a lot
further. In a way I'd sooner get it off my chest now, rather than later. It sounds too
crazy to put before a lot of people. Yet I'm sure something along these lines must be
right. I'm going to put it in terms of a parable. Suppose you have a lot of pigeon holes,
numbered in sequence, one, two, and so on...up to thousands and millions, and millions of
millions if you like. In fact the sequence can be infinite both ways if you prefer.'
I said that I didn't mind. John went on, 'All right, let's come now to the contents of
the pigeon holes. Suppose you choose one of them, say the 137th. You find in it a story,
as you might find one of those little slips of paper in a Christmas cracker. But you also
find statments about the stories you'll find in other pigeon holes. You decide to check up
on whether these statements about the stories in the other pigeon holes are right or not.
To your surprise you find the statments made about earlier pigeon holes, the 136th, the
135th, and so on, are substantially correct. But when you compare with the pigeon holes
on the other side, the 138th, the 139th,...you find things aren't so good. You find a lot
of contradictions and discrepancies. This turns out to be the same wherever you happen to
look, in every pigeon hole. The statements made about pigeon holes on the other side are
at best diffuse and at the worst just plain wrong. Now let's translate this parable into
the time problem. We'll call the particular pigeon hole, the one you happen to be
examining, the present. The earlier pigeon holes, the ones for which you find
substantially correct statements, we call the past. The later pigeon holes, the ones for
which there isn't too much in the way of correct statments, we'll call the future. Let me
go on a bit further. What I want to suggest is that the actual world is very much like
this. Instead of pigeon holes we talk about states.'
'I understand what you're saying. You have a division into a number of states. Choice
of any one of them constitutes the present. My problem is, who decides which pigeon hole
to look in, the one that constitutes the present?'
'If I could answer that question I'd be a good half-way towards solving everything.
Before I say anything about it let me ask you a question. Suppose that in each of
these states your own consciousness is included. As soon as a particular state is chosen,
as soon as an imaginary office worker takes a look at the contents of a particular pigeon
hole, you have the subjective consciousness of a particular moment, of what you call the
present. Think of the clerk in an office taking a look, first at the contents of one
pigeon hole, then at the contents of another. Suppose he does this, not in sequence, but
in any old order. What is the effect on your subjective consciousness? So far as the
clerk himself is concerned, he's jumping about all over the place among the pigeon holes.
So your consciousness jumps all over the place. But the strange thing is that your
subjective impression is quite different. You have the impression of time as an
We walked on for a while. I saw that if the contents of a pigeon hole could never be
modified then John was right. It would be possible for his clerk to look into a particular
pigeon hole a dozen times or more and you'd never know about it. All you could be aware of,
on his idea, was the contents of a pigeon hole, not when or how it was sampled. But there
was one thing that bothered me:
'Doesn't the idea of a sequence of choices on the part of your clerk imply the flow of
time? If it does, the argument gets you nowhere.'
'I'm sure it does not. A sequence is a logical concept in which time doesn't really
enter at all.'
I saw in a general sort of way what he meant. Yet I was troubled. 'But if you have a
rule that requires you to pass from one pigeon hole to the next, like passing from one
number to the next, isn't it really exactly the same as a smooth flow of time?'
'If the rule were the one you say, yes certainly. But you could have rules that didn't
require the next number to be the succeeding pigeon hole. Look, suppose we do it this way.
We could choose number 1, then number 100, then number 2, then number 99, and so on until
we've had every pigeon hole from 1 to 100. Then we could do the same thing from 101 to
200. That would be different kind of rule. In fact there are infinitely many ways in
which you can lay down rules, if the sequence itself is infinite. Any particular rule
establishes what we call a correspondence between the pigeon holes and the choices. If
every pigeon hole is chosen exactly once we have what mathematicians call a one-one
correspondence. If every pigeon hole is chosen many times we have a one-many
correspondence. The crux of my argument is that you get exactly the same subjective
experience whatever the correspondence you choose. It doesn't matter what order you take
the pigeon holes, it doesn't matter if you choose some or all of them a million times,
you'd never know anything different from the simple sequential order. All you can know is
the original contents of the pigeon holes themselves.'
'So really the choices could be an incredible hotch-potch. You could have youth and
old ages interlaced with each other and you'd never know?'
'Not only that, but you could experience your youth a million times over and you'd never
know. If the clerk were to put a note in a pigeon hole whenever he used it, then of course
you could know you'd had a certain experience before. But as long as he leaves no note you
can never know.'
'I suppose so. Where have we got to now?'
'Quite a way. We've got our sequence of pigeon holes, that's the physical world. We
don't think of one pigeon hole as having any more significance than another, which agress
with what I said before. We don't think of one particular state of the Earth as having any
more significance than any other state of the Earth. We've completely eliminated the bogus
idea of a steady flow of time. Our consciousness corresponds to just where the light falls,
as it dances about among the pigeon holes. It lights up first once, then another, in some
sequence that is quite irrelevant.
'Now let's come to the hard part. What is this light? I'm no longer talking in terms
of a clerk in an office, because I don't want to get bogged down in human images. All our
pigeon holes are in darkness except where the spot of light falls. What that light
consists of, where it comes from, we know nothing. It lies outside our present-day
'You remember I told you that it's possible to defy our own present-day physical laws
and still to make a clear gain in our assessment of the world. You remember the
radioactive nuclei with the counters surrounding them? We wanted to know whether or now in
a certain period of time a nucleus had undergone decay. I said there was only one way to
find out. By looking. In other words by using the spot of light in our pigeon hole. My
strong hunch is that it's the spot of light that permits decisions which lie outside the
laws of physics. This is why I'm so sure something else must be involved. It doesn't
need to be anything mystical. It may be subject to precise description, to law and
order, the same as in our ordinary physics. It may only be mysterious because we don't
'There's certainly a lot of things I don't understand. This light of yours, or whatever
you like to call it, how does it decide that you are you and I am me?'
'That could be another illusion. Look, along one wall of our office we have one
complete set of pigeon holes, all in their nice tidy sequence. Along another wall we have
another set of pigeon holes. Two completely different sets. But there is only one light. It dances about in both sets of pigeon holes. Wherever it happens to be, there is the phenomenon of consciousness. One set of pigeon holes is what you call you, the other is what I call me. It would be possible to experience both and never know it. It would be possible to follow the little patch of light wherever it went. There could be only one consciousness, although there must certainly be more than one set of pigeon holes.'
I found this a staggering idea. 'If you're right it would be possible to be a million
people and never know it.'
'It would be possible to be much more than that. It would be possible to be every
creature on every system of planets throughout the universe. My point is that for every
so-called different creature, for every different person, you need a separate set of
pigeon holes. But the consciousness could be the same. There could even be completely
different universes. Go back to my decaying nucleus. Hook up a bomb which explodes
according to whether you have decay of a nucleus or not. Make the bomb so big that it
becomes a doomsday machine. Let it be capable - if exploded - of wiping out all life on
the Earth. Let the whole thing go for a critical few seconds, you remember we were
considering whether a nucleus would decay in a particular ten seconds? Do we all survive
or don't we?
'My guess is that inevitably we appear to survive, because there is a division, the
world divides into two, into two completely disparate stacks of pigeon holes. In one, a
nucleus undergoes decay, explodes the bomb, and wipes us out. But the pigeon holes in that
case never contain anything further about life on the Earth. So although those pigeon
holes might be activated, there could never be any awareness that an explosion had taken
place. In the other block, the Earth would be safe, our lives would continue - to put it
in the usual phrase. Whenever the spotlight of consciousness hit those pigeon holes we
should be aware of the Earth and we should decide the bomb had not exploded.'
We walked on and on. There were weird implications here."
inexplicable secrets of creation