Dreaming and Philosophy



Dreaming and Philosophy


I have an empirical hypothesis: dreaming caused philosophy. That is, it was dreaming that tipped our ancestors off to philosophical questions, and it still does. Dreaming embodies so much of what stimulates philosophical thought; it’s the cradle of philosophy. Not all of it, to be sure, philosophy being a wide-ranging subject, but a good deal of what is most characteristic of philosophy. Dreaming triggers the philosophical mood or mindset, its inner thrust. Without dreaming we would not be the philosophers we are (though we might be a different kind of philosopher). The most obvious manifestation of this is skepticism: dreams irresistibly prompt skepticism about the external world (the primary kind of skepticism). The question “How do I know I am not dreaming?” is the quintessential philosophical question; and it can’t be asked if you are not a dreamer. You wake up in the morning, your dreams fresh in your mind, you recall that you were just now convinced of the reality of what you dreamt, and you wonder whether the same could be true of your present waking (you think) experience. You reflect that there was nothing internal to your dream experience that alerted you to its fantastic nature, so what justifies your belief that your present experience isn’t the same? This basic question brings with it a host of subsidiary questions concerning experience, the senses, justification, knowledge, truth, error, and the relation between mind and reality. Now you are off to the philosophical races. All these questions introduce concepts that need examination, though you normally take them for granted. You realize that you don’t really understand these concepts: what is experience, justification, knowledge, truth, etc.? You are forced to confront the basic questions of epistemology and metaphysics. Clearly experience of a world can take place in the absence of the world experienced, as dreams vividly show, so the question of the relation between experience and world becomes problematic—how can experience justify belief in a real world? But what is the “real world”—what belongs to it and what doesn’t? What is existence anyway? Reflection on dreams prompts these distinctively philosophical questions. And dreams are natural to us, a human universal, shared with other animals, a feature of normal childhood: so philosophy is also natural to us, being coeval with dreaming. The concept of a dream is itself a philosophical concept, especially when coupled with the word “mere”: for the concept of a dream brings with it the concept of the mind as something distinct from external reality, and that concept is the entry point into philosophy. Now we have the distinction between appearance and reality in play, a foundational philosophical distinction.

            Consider Plato’s cave, itself a foundational philosophical image. Isn’t it an apt metaphor for dreaming? The cave dwellers experience only shadows that they mistake for reality, as dreamers experience only phantasms of the mind, which they mistake for reality. To leave the cave and achieve real knowledge is like waking up and smelling the coffee—a transition from a state of deception to a state of truth. Now reality floods in, where before it was all fantasy and error. Did Plato think of the cave parable because he already knew about dreaming? Dreamers are like part-time cave dwellers: every night we enter a world of illusion that we take to be real, as the cave people might alternate between cave life and life outside the cave. They might start to wonder whether they ever really leave the cave: is what they call “the outside world” really just another kind of cave? They thus have their “cave skeptics”, those who insist that there is no justification for declaring one world real and the other unreal—perhaps, indeed, the cave world is the real one! Our dream life acts as a pointer towards radical doubts about common sense, reason, truth, and all the reassuring apparatus of waking life. That’s why I say it’s the prime impetus towards philosophy, because it raises these questions in a particularly pressing and vivid form. Without dreams we might just acquiesce in the natural standpoint (Husserl’s phrase) and not question the relation between mind and world: for nothing in waking experience, except the odd visual illusion, really forces the question of the relation between knowledge of reality and subjective experience. Philosophy arises when we start to think reflectively about the distinction between experience and reality, and dreams force this distinction upon us. It is true that animals and small children dream and yet don’t philosophize, so dreaming is not sufficient for philosophy; but all that is required is the ability to remember and think about our dreams—to conceptualize them. We could formulate, and fret over, the appearance-reality distinction without knowledge of dreams, by standing back from our normal waking experience; but that would be an intellectual feat not natural to ordinary people, unlike simple awareness of our dreams. I am not talking about what is logically possible here; I am talking about what is natural to human beings constituted as we are—about evolutionary anthropology. My empirical hypothesis is that dreams, and our awareness of them, and our talk about them, are the de facto root of philosophical thinking—how we actually came to be philosophers at some point in evolutionary history (perhaps around the time we made those famous cave (!) paintings).

            There is another point about dreams that feeds into their philosophical fecundity: they are mysterious. Dreams confront the questing mind with a problem of a peculiarly recalcitrant kind. We can see how our senses might have led naturally to the existence of natural science, and these questions were by no means easy, but in the case of dreams we are faced with an enigma of another order. We don’t know why we dream, what function dreams serve, what they mean (if anything), what they tell us about human nature. We can imagine our ancestors puzzling over their dreams, concocting many a fanciful theory, admitting total bafflement, not getting anywhere; this could be their first experience of complete incomprehension and futility. And it isn’t as if we have now solved a problem that baffled them; we still don’t understand dreams. This is characteristic of philosophy: extreme recalcitrance, irresoluble disagreement, not knowing even where to begin, lack of a reliable method, bemused wonderment. Dreams presented our ancestors with a shocking demonstration of the limits of the human intellect, or (what is the same) the opaqueness of the objective world. So dreams created (we are hypothesizing) our early exposure to the joys of philosophical perplexity. The epistemic optimist in us is brought up short by the existence of dreams. We have now solved some of the major problems of science—the nature of the perceived heavens, the existence of animal species, the mechanism of inheritance—but we are still struggling with the problem of dreams. This problem prefigures, and produces, many of the problems of philosophy; and it exemplifies the normal state of the philosophical mind—which is a kind of tormented not knowing. Dreams are a conundrum in their own right as well as a source of further conundrums.

            Other subsidiary themes can be seen to flow from dreaming into philosophical thought: the concepts of existence, of possibility, of belief, of imagination, of fiction, of consciousness, of the self, even of morality. What is existence, given that dream objects don’t have it? What distinguishes the real from the unreal? What we dream seems generally to be possible in some sense, but what is this notion of possibility, this creation of alien worlds? Are we spinning possible worlds every night from within our own mind—or magically perceiving such worlds in our dreaming mind’s eye? Dreaming seems to revel in the merely possible, revealing our talent for modal consciousness. In dreams we seem to believe what we dream, just like in waking life, but what is this thing called belief? How does it differ from knowledge? Can dreams generate their own kind of knowledge? Or is it wrong to think that we believe what we dream—do we just dream that we believe? In waking life we exercise the faculty of imagination, which resembles the dreaming faculty in many ways, but is it really the same faculty in both cases? Is dream experience actually just imaginative experience? Or is it perhaps like sensory hallucination—or some third kind of experience specific to dreaming? How are dream stories related to waking fiction? Is dreaming the font of fiction too? Can dreams and fiction express their own kind of truth? Are we conscious when we dream? We are clearly unconscious in one sense, but aren’t we also conscious in another sense? What is this notion of consciousness that is common to sleeping and waking? Are we conscious in the same sense in both cases? Is the self that dreams identical to the self that exists in waking life? Or do we have a second dreaming self? What is this self that can exist in these two forms? The puzzles of personal identity crop up in considering dreaming. And am I morally responsible for what I dream? If I dream of violence and sex, am I to blame myself for indulging in such things? Do dreams reveal my secret moral nature (as Freud supposed)? Are dreams proper objects of shame? Thus a lot of philosophy gets condensed into the dream experience, and dreams frame these questions in a particularly sharp way.[1] One could devise an introduction to philosophy course by focusing on dreams and their philosophical progeny (Dreaming and Philosophy 101). That would anchor the subject firmly in facts about the daily experience of the students, as opposed to arid texts and abstract speculations. I suspect enrollment would go up.

            What else could have caused philosophy? It isn’t easy to say how philosophy arose in the human mind; it can look like an unprecedented leap in the dark, a remarkable saltation (to use a term from evolutionary biology). Did someone just suddenly start thinking about skepticism one day and talk to his neighbors about it? Other subjects have clear roots in everyday experience, but philosophy seems to have no clear basis in our ordinary concerns. What triggered the philosophical brain to spring into action? The advantage of the dream hypothesis is that it identifies a psychological trait of humans that could naturally morph into philosophical thought, perhaps conjoined with other traits such as language. Dreams are subjects of natural concern to their owners (some people can’t stop talking about them) and they readily give rise to the kinds of questions I have listed. So dreams are a likely candidate for acting as the cause of philosophy. It is an interesting empirical question whether there is a causal link between dreaming in children and a dawning awareness of philosophical issues: maybe there is a predictable developmental sequence leading from one to the other, possibly aided by outside stimuli. And if there are cases of dreaming pathology, we might investigate whether this has any impact on philosophical maturation.[2] Philosophy naturalized.


[1] I could also mention the problem of privacy and other minds: no one can tell what you are dreaming just by observing your body as you sleep. Dreams are private mental events par excellence. Of course we can also ask how dream experience relates to the brain, producing one version of the mind-body problem (behaviorism looks distinctly unappealing). 

[2] Are professional philosophers particularly prone to reflect on their dreams? Are there any dreamless philosophers? What kind of philosophy would they produce? I often dream about philosophy, as I suppose other philosophers also do: does this confirm the conjectured link between the two? In my late teens I became fascinated by dreams, which led me to Freud; was my later transition from psychology to philosophy unconsciously powered by the same interest? I do think dreams play a much more pervasive role in waking life than is generally recognized, so they may be close to the surface in conscious philosophizing. Doesn’t the rapt philosopher have a dreamy air about him? I nearly always think about philosophy as soon as I wake up, with my dreams still fresh in my mind. Descartes liked to work on philosophy in bed in the morning. Rodin’s Thinker looks like he might be asleep.  Etc.

4 replies
  1. Mark Lough
    Mark Lough says:

    Plato(’)s cave analogy (and your adaptation of it) puts me in mind of a Tesseract – a 4D shape that we can only visualize by casting its shadow on to our 3D vista. If dreams are the shadows, then they could be the shadows of things beyond our capability of understanding. One can certainly imagine that attempts at deciphering the metaphors – even the realization of dreams containing metaphors – fired the imagination of early humans. A state of deception perhaps, dreams must have been perceived as magical, more special than reality.

    Part of the dream mystery for me is the tantalizing glimpse of purpose, a sense of some other thing attempting to communicate with us –to deliver a message (hopefully not just messages from our kidneys or big toe). They have a numinous quality to them – they force us to ask the question of why? Who is communicating? Is there a God? (A question that seems a bit old hat these days)

    “What is this notion of consciousness that is common to sleeping and waking? Are we conscious in the same sense in both cases?”

    I think the sense of a self remains, but it has limited use of the body and other functions of the brain. We can’t use the eyes or the ears so we turn inward. A sense of time is lost, but essentially the same core of my being that is watching me type this now.

  2. jgkess@cfl.rr.com
    jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    Strange truly are the dreams of the over-fevered, as I’ve recently discovered–just a bit of Covid. So curious to seem to have had experiences of emotion and feeling that one never had in waking life. —Great stuff from Rafa lately.


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