A while ago, I wrote two back to back articles on the nature of perception and memory, and how we interact with the physical world. Some believe that the world is entirely beholden to our perceptions, other believe the world is static and independent of our presence or input, and (shockingly) some believe true reality to consist of various degrees of both concepts mixed together to form a unifying theory. One aspect I neglected to take into account in those initial articles is the dream state, and how what it represents may alter or impress itself on the argument as a whole.
The dream state is interesting from the perspective of how we as humans interact with it. In basically every situation, the analysis comes after the fact, when the actions and events of the dream exist solely in our memory. Nothing is actually experienced in the normal sense of our understanding of the word. We’re beholden to whether the dream is even remembered in the first place; it’s been established that humans dream basically constantly while in REM sleeper, but your average person doesn’t remember every dream he or she has every night. Some may claim that they don’t dream, which is inaccurate. Their dreams simply aren’t remembered, and while these perceptions still happen, they become irrelevant ghosts if they don’t cross the threshold into active memory. You can’t extricate the two, which also needs to be taken into account when discussing what dreams can mean from a philosophical perspective. For all intents and purposes, dreams always exist in the past. We can’t comment on them as they happen in the way we can with events in the waking world. At the same time, though, dreams are different in their own way. When you do remember a dream, you will have that sense of not just knowing what happened, but feeling the events. You may have a vivid recollection of the sensations you experienced in the dream state, or it could be a fuzzy jumble of half memories, a dirty window to a bygone era. But either way, it most certainly happened in a way that is different from simply having third party knowledge of an event.
With memory being what it is, there is still a lot to consider about how dreams can mechanically interact with how we approach the problem of perception. I wrote before in my “Memory” article about how fascinating it is that so much of what we do and are is tied to this imperfect and oft unreliable mental construct. With dreams existing almost entirely in the realm of the memory, what can we actually gain from analyzing them? The answer is simple. It lies in the power of the unconscious mind’s ability to create a world, create sense data for the subject, essentially from scratch with little to no input from the actual physical world itself.
Case in point: Sunday morning I remembered a dream from Saturday night that was about spending time at a hotel in a different city with someone who was clearly a celebrity of some note (for me anyway) and clearly my girlfriend within the scope of the dream. This was not a sexual dream, and the actual events that happened were quite mundane. She was wearing a non-descript one of those fluffy white hotel terrycloth bathrobes (it was a nice room). We had breakfast, she drank coffee, I had orange juice (apparently I don’t even drink caffeine in dreams). We talked. She was excited she didn’t have any commitments tying her up, and we would be able to spend the whole day exploring the city going to little shops and such. I was glad just to have the time to spend with her away from the world. As we were having this conversation, I woke up. Just like that, I was back in the world of the living, the real world. And it was seriously disorienting, lying there in my bed. It felt so real; everything that happened in that dream was not only possible within the physics of the natural world, but it was also plausible. The setting was within reason, and nothing crazy happened over the course of my recollection of the dream world. These dreams always seem to be the most difficult for me to handle psychologically, mostly because it isn’t the sort of dream that is easily and outright dismissed as something separate from reality. This easily could have happened. It was convincing. It wasn’t one of those dreams where you’re flying or being chased by a werewolf or some other supernatural being. Sure, the celebrity aspect of it is on the tenuous side of things, but the woman was more of a placeholder than anything. Nothing about the dream called to mind anything specific about her. It was just about companionship.
I was once told that these hyper-realistic dreams were referred to as The Philosopher’s Nightmare, which for a while I thought was an actual term specifically related to the dream phenomenon, but it’s more of a statement about a concept that can be difficult for a philosopher to explain within his or her established system (a philosopher’s nightmare instead of The Philosopher’s Nightmare). I guess these mundane dreams would be more accurately described as an empirical philosopher’s nightmare. Anyone who subscribes to the more detached understanding of truth, knowledge, perception, and reality viz. the physical world, that the world is constant, unchanging (on a large scale at least) and not at all beholden to a perceiving agent, would have no difficulty justifying the realistic dream conundrum within his or her current schema. Now, for the most part, the truly radical empirical philosophers, those who subscribe to the belief that nothing exists that cannot be perceived, basically aren’t taken seriously these days. Something akin to Berkeley’s Immaterialist theory, which is itself similar to the more modern ‘brain in a jar’ type of perceptive thought experiment, would lead to some potential problems, in that there wouldn’t be anything that could differentiate the dream stat from the waking state if both experiences include what the mind perceives to be genuine sense data. But perhaps that’s the point.
The truly thorny problem comes from those empiricists that understand the physical world is something separate from our perceptions, but still shaped by them. Sort of a ‘the world is what we make of it’ type of approach that would never deny its existence (and we have proof of it every waking moment of every day!), but understands that our reality is itself a mélange of sense data. This type of ‘sensible empiricist’ (and yes, I am aware of the pun) could definitely be affected by the dream state’s intrusion into reality. If our one concrete access point to the world around us is the act of perception in its various and sundry forms, and the mundane dream can trick our minds so completely that for the duration of the dream we are convinced this is a true and authentic reality we are experiencing, that these things are damn sure happening, how does that impact our overall understanding of perception when we wake up and realize that our perceptive agency has been bamboozled? If our supposition is that sense data can only come from perceiving real ‘objects’ (object has a pretty wide understanding here, an can include something like sounds and music), then how does this grok with our current view? Within the sensible system, it would mean that there would have to be actual sense objects present to be perceived while dreaming, which is preposterous. The question then becomes whether we’re still being too narrow with our understanding, even for the sensible empiricist. After all, the empiricist finds no general conflict with the faculty of memory and its ability to summon up past sense experiences independent of their source. A sensible empiricist can, of course, remember the face of his mother, lover, child, neighbor, etc., which would be impossible if not for the memory’s ability to hold onto this sense data in some (albeit not perfectly reliable) fashion. Can’t the same explanation be applied to our troublesome dream state?
If we approach dreams as an amalgamation of memories from prior sense data and objects combined and formed into a (sometimes) cohesive scene by the subconscious, then the sensible empiricist would be able to codify the dream world within the structure of his or her current thesis without even needing to change things around. This would probably be a lot more difficult without a pre-established understandable position on the phenomenon of sense memory. That is all well and good. The problem that still rises, however, is how authentic the dream perceptions can be. Sense memory as we know it among the conscious can never reach the point of tricking the mind into believing something is actually happening when it isn’t unless high grade hallucinogens are involved. If the subject is entirely convinced that the dream state is actually happening while embroiled in it, how can it be so easily differentiated from actual sense data in the physical world? This could actually push some of those philosophers that can’t justify the disconnect toward Berkeley’s Immaterialism, as that system doesn’t even try to differentiate sense data from its source. If we cannot credibly compartmentalize the physical world from imagination, the physical world itself becomes problematic and arguably nonessential.
But really, so many of these radical opinions can be chalked up as thought experiments more than actively believed perceptive constructs. While we can easily create arguments to justify these approaches, it is difficult to truly stick to our guns when it comes down to it. Sure, someone can make the claim that when we think we’re awake we’re actually dreaming and visa versa, but it’s actually an arbitrary distinction. If we’re actually dreaming right now, it doesn’t actually change anything significantly about how we go about our daily lives in more than a superficial way. And yes, I’m aware that if Laurence Fishburne stops by and talking about pills, things might be different, but that would involve the premise that The Matrix had some intellectual heft to it, which is laughable in its own right. We’ve determined that this is the real world, and that should be enough to categorize it as such sufficiently. Perhaps we’re taking things for granted, but what does that actually accomplish? Would anymore really change the way he lived in a significant way over a significant period of time if he believed he were dreaming and couldn’t wake himself up? Doesn’t he just reach a point where he goes with it?
What I actually find more intriguing about realistic dreams is what it says about the mind that is creating them. Since dreams are completely constructed by what is essentially banked or leftover sense data from our memories, presumably designed to keep ourselves busy while in this state of vulnerability and recovery, I think the nature of the dreams says quite a lot about the thought patterns of the dreamer. Is an artist with a wild imagination more likely to break the laws of physics in his or her dreams than a physicist or mathematician? Would those selfsame scientists be more susceptible to branching out in the dream state as a reaction to their daily lives? What is it about me and my outlook that makes it so unlikely for me to remember the dreams that aren’t plausible reflections of reality? Why is it that all the dreams I remember involve such thrilling concepts as sipping some orange juice, having a quiet dinner at home, or taking with a friend? Humorously enough, the few dreams I’ve had where something out of the realm of possibility was happening usually ended with my dream self recognizing the impossibility of the situation and calling the dream world on its bullshit in a ‘Wait! That can’t actually happen!’ sort of way, only to become confused and wake up shortly after the fact. Perhaps this is the beginning of how lucid dreams work, but I’m not very familiar with or interested in the subject. Should the overwhelmingly mundane nature of my dreams be viewed in a negative fashion as a shortcoming? Is this an indication of a lack of creativity on my part? A slavish dedication to the way things are? A refusal to acknowledge the impossible?
We can’t be completely positive about the mechanical and evolutionary imperative for why we dream. It’s difficult to create a credible theory for why dreaming is necessary for the survival of our or any other species. Perhaps this is an example of the stability of the human race allowing for mutations without survival as the number one motivator. Perhaps the psychological benefits/detriments are an end in themselves, allowing us to have a sense of what our brains really want us to think about. The human race has already in many ways bucked the standard evolutionary trends of history by evolving on a mental track instead of a physical one. The use of tools, the act of making animal skins and furs into coats when our own lack of fur was insufficient, the continued sophistication of shelters, the ability to use technology to our benefit, all of these improvements have removed the sense of danger from the human race. Life is not an absolute struggle for survival at all times anymore. It may be a financial struggle or an emotional struggle, but not a physical one. As such, we actually have a concept of leisure. We have the freedom to do things that aren’t specifically designed to further our development as a race. Once you reach this threshold of subsistence, it basically changes the evolutionary path of the species. We further our wants instead of furthering our needs, allowing for the eventual onset of things like computers and video games that have little to no active survivalist purpose, but sure are a hell of a lot of fun. We do things purely for the pleasure of it. We have sex simply for the pleasure of it. We have psychological problems simply for…the…pleasure…of it? I guess that isn’t the best way to explain what I mean here, but the fact that we have therapists and psychologists who even feel the need to analyze our dreams is itself a product of our culture of leisure.
Dreaming is one of the most bizarre bi-products of the developed brain. We know that we do dream, and we know that these dreams have the ability to replicate a functional world in our minds’ eye to the point that it can fool or confuse us, but we still have no sense of why we actually dream, and what purpose it serves. Studies have shown that other animals do in fact dream, so it isn’t automatically solely the product of a heavily developed brain with a capacity for leisure. Maybe one day we’ll discover what the point of dreaming actually is. Maybe once we know more, we’ll have a sense of why dreaming is so important, and why it causes so much havoc on the empiricist position. We can see from the success of a film like Inception, as well as countless other films, books, music, and other forms of art and entertainment that we as a species are fixated on dreams and what they represent to us. One thing is for sure; we will continue to dream, and those dreams will continue to mess with our sometimes fragile grip on reality. I wouldn’t have it any other way.