A Very Short History of the Dream Argument

Unknown.jpegDreaming is an integral part of our lives, occurring every night when we are asleep. While the body relaxes, the brain stays active, creating a stream of thought, a stream that comes from the unconscious. Recent research into a method called “lucid dreaming” allows people to control their dreams, to place themselves within their illusory world, letting them make their dreams a reality; however, lucid dreaming, as cool as it is, presents a troubling problem, one that has intrigued humans for millennia: How do we know for certain we are not lucid dreaming right now? How do we distinguish our consciousness, our awareness, from the unconscious, the unaware? Are we actually asleep at this moment, life but a mere string of thoughts and sensations?


Defining dreaming and consciousness will help, as both concepts, simple though they may seem, are highly complex, each with their own requirements, psychologically and philosophically. Consciousness refers to “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”; in other words, consciousness refers to the realization or Unknown-1.jpegacknowledgement of the mind and its inner workings.[1] If you acknowledge that you are reading right now, you are conscious of yourself as reading, so consciousness is always consciousness of something, be it an activity or a mental state. American psychologist William James thought consciousness was not an existent thing, relating it to a stream, a series of experiences, one after the other, every one distinct from the other. Neurological studies later linked consciousness, the awareness of the brain, as a process within the brain itself, located in the thalamus. Dreams, on the other hand, are defined as “a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep.”[2] Dreams are specific from person to person, which makes it difficult, then, to “remember” a dream, considering it cannot be proven true or false. Therefore, it is difficult to differentiate the waking state from the dream state, so far as both are collections of experiences.


Apps-Lucid-Dreaming-Header.jpgMany philosophers, dating from the 5th century B.C. to the modern day, have attempted to tackle the “Dream Argument,” trying to prove that we are in fact living consciously. For example, Plato mentions it in a dialogue: “How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in waking state?”[3] Socrates was interested in finding out if our senses were reliable, if what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell is real or a figment of our active minds. Perhaps when we fall asleep, when our brains switch to R.E.M., when we dream, there is a dreamer dreaming this dream. Another philosopher, René Descartes of the 17th century, in refuting the Dream Argument, famously proposed, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes thought that his whole life was an illusion, a trick played on him by a divine being, that he was misled into believing reality. He started to doubt everything, including his senses; but one thing he could not possibly doubt was his existence, his self, because in order for him to doubt, there had to be a him to doubt in the first place!


Even though some of the greatest thinkers could not deny the Dream Argument irrefutably, at least we know from science that we exist, that dreams are just processes happening in the brain, and that reality is as real as it gets, dreams being a product of our imagination… unless we actually are dreaming, just waiting to be woken.

 

 


[1] “Consciousness.” Merriam-Webster.com. (January 19th, 2017)
[2] “Dreaming.” Merriam-Webster.com. (January 19th, 2017)
[3] Plato, Theætetus, 158d

 

If you have a lot of free time:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dreams-dreaming/
http://www.iep.utm.edu/dreaming/

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4 thoughts on “A Very Short History of the Dream Argument

  1. Pingback: What is Dreaming, What Do Dreams Mean, and Why Do We Dream? | Neologikon

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