Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Philosophy of Dreaming

Poster's Notes:
So sorry about not posting this yesterday, the NAC Agent that we are forced to download in order to use the school's Wi-Fi told me that I couldn't use the Wi-Fi until I updated my OS, but I couldn't update my OS without using the Wi-Fi. Don't ya just love vicious cycles? Anyway, here is my 1000 word essay on the philosophy of dreaming. 

The human brain, or in fact any organism’s brain, is indeed a fascinating thing. Our bodies operate because our brain tells it to. When we become injured, that body part sends messages to the brain, telling it that it has been wounded (which is what happens when we feel pain). Even after 100s of years, the brain continues to baffle scientists when it comes to how it works and is still a bit of a grey area in the world of science today. We know what it does and what parts of the brain do certain things, but the aspect of “why?” has been scientifically unanswered for decades. The funny part about this is since scientists can’t even figure out how the brain works, it practically leaves the door wide open for philosophers to come in and raise thoughts about reality, our consciousness, ethics, morality, and even our dreams. So what is a dream? A dream is defined as “a series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep” or “an experience of waking life while asleep” and I believe that answers the question of “what is a dream” quite nicely. Contrary to this, we don’t exactly know much about dreaming, similar to the brain from which it occurs, and this again leaves philosophers to make their attempt at getting the job done. 

According to OwenFlanagan, the James B. Duke professor of Philosophy at Duke University, there are four major philosophical questions about dreaming:

1. How can I be sure I am not always dreaming?
2. Can I be immoral in dreams?
3. Are dreams conscious experiences that occur during sleep?
4. Does dreaming have an evolutionary function?

These questions hit on topics of metacognitive thinking, existentialism, metaphysics and even natural selection, all of which are extremely varied subject-wise. By all means, questions like these require deep inward thought and it takes a challenging mind in order to even bring up these questions (to which I greatly thank Dr. Flanagan for doing so). As there is no clear, nice-and-neat, here-you-go, kind of answer to these questions, my purpose behind this will be to delve a bit deeper in thought about these questions to make minds ponder a little more about what it means exactly to dream.  One of the best known anecdotes in philosophical literature is the story of “Zhuangzi and That Bloody Butterfly.” In the story, the Chinese philosopher dreamed he was a butterfly, and after he woke up, he contemplated how he could determine whether or not he was a human dreaming that he was a butterfly, or was he actually a carefree butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi.

First on the list is the question, “How can I be sure I am not always dreaming?” asks the same question as well as builds on Rene Descartes’ “Dream argument”. This brings up the inquiry: which is the reality and which is the dream? And in an honest answer, there is no real way to tell (at least not yet). It is a classic debate of what is known as phenomenology – the study of the nature of being, consciousness, reality, etc. Through this question, we are asked to define what is “real,” and to define that would have to be in a relative sense, which is something philosophers seem to hate to do. One solution some suggest to finding an answer to whether or not one is in the dream or in the reality is to determine which “world” allows you to experience pain, hence the cliché “pinch me” trick in order to wake up when one believes they are dreaming. But this allows us to delve a bit deeper and ask if we can even feel pain while we are dreaming, as that subject is something one would hardly think about during the experience.

The next question, “Can I be immoral in my dreams?” takes a look at the viewpoint of ethics and responsibility. It brings up the conflict about if and how we are bound by our real-life morals and responsibilities even in the dream world. Simplifying the question a little more, we ask ourselves if we can even control our actions in our dreams, and if we can, what does that make lucid dreaming (the concept of being aware that he or she is dreaming)?

Moving on to the third question, we ask ourselves whether or not dreaming is a conscious state. More fun facts about the brain, roughly fifty percent of a dream is forgotten five minutes after waking up. After ten minutes, ninety percent is forgotten. This is not to say that all dreams are forgotten in that way, as there are many instances where some can vividly recall some of their dreams, as well as some inventors crediting their creations to what they have seen in their dreams (for instance, the tune for “Yesterday” by The Beatles came to Paul McCartney in a dream; Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was made because of a dream he had in his younger years). Therefore, it becomes difficult to call dreaming a conscious state.

The final question brings up the topic of natural selection. “Does dreaming have an evolutionary function?” When evaluating the concept of dreaming, we must ask ourselves if natural selection has influenced how we dream. Natural selection and evolution take place throughout the world in all living things, enhancing survival skills in order for longer endurance on this planet. Taking this into account, dreams have existed throughout history. Is there a reason behind it? Are we better survivors because of our dreams? Thus, segueing into the notion of déjà vu – which is having the feeling that a present occurrence has happened previously. Very frequently have people felt that they have seen something in real life similar to something that happened to them in their dreams. We must ask ourselves things like this because if dreams did not have a place in the theory of evolution, then why do we still dream?

As these topics are discussed, we must be reminded that questions like these require deep inward thought and it takes a challenging mind in order to even bring up these questions. They require thoughts of metacognitive thinking, existentialism, metaphysics and even natural selection. How can we be sure which is the dream and which is the reality? Are we really in control of ourselves during dreams or are we just along for the ride? Can we even call ourselves conscious during our dreams? And finally, why do we still dream? Is there some sort of larger reasoning for why we still retain the ability to dream? I suppose it could all be relative, or perhaps the answers involve something bigger than us all…


  1. Anonymous11:57 PM CST

    Rachel Galliano
    Dr. Oliver

    In the scope of current events, equality is a topic of conversation in several contexts. Sparing you the agony of a social manifesto we will instead look at the difficult task of nailing down what equality is and how it applies to our lives. Defining equality cannot be easily done because as mentioned in Philosophy the Basics the application of philosophy is different in every situation. The application of equality in society often times seems to be the best theory of giving everyone equal opportunity. If money, and other necessities were distributed equally amongst the population, there would be no partial treatment of any citizen, and in some philosopher’s eyes that would be the closest we could get to true equality. However the implementation of total equality shifts from a fair idea to an impossible chore because it cannot be easily defined and implemented.

    Equality is sometimes mistaken for meaning identical but in reality equality implies similarity rather than sameness. This is an important distinction because the needs of each person may vary due to factors outside of their control. Some people have medical issues that require expensive treatments or bills that they couldn’t pay without substantial means. Other people have self-inflicted addictions to gambling, alcohol, and drugs and because of this they could still fall victim to their weaknesses causing the same issues of a capitalist society. The people who fall victim to their own devices open up the door for people to prey on them, in turn creating an opportunity in which money can be made. Those are two broad examples but those are serious problems that could outweigh the good. It is not hard to understand the differences and unique nature of each person, which immediately bring up circumstantial issues that bring fairness into question. The similarity that gives us equality is common citizenship as an American, or in other words every citizen of this country should be treated equally with no partial treatment at any level. This often times isn’t true but it is something that could actually see improvement.

  2. Anonymous11:58 PM CST

    (second post)

    Equality is often the topic of political discussion in every reach of government. From the smallest of city councils to the United States government every decision made is in some way intended to reflect the will of the people in an unbiased manner. The need for equal representation is crucial in a balanced society, but equality can only practically be extended to certain issues. Politically it can sometimes be used as fluff to help a candidate gain appeal from a group with no plan or ability to act on the call for action.

    The constant problem with the system that is currently in place, is that it is more of a political bargaining-chip than an element of actual change. This however can change if we concentrate our efforts on the issues that have room for improvement. The movement for equal pay among women and men has gotten traction and even moved in the right direction over the past several decades but women continue to make less money even after being on the agenda of many political campaigns. Gender inequality goes as far as to even reach the White House where, The Washington Post reports, female staffers are better compensated than national averages but still only make eighty-eight cents to every dollar a male makes working the same position. And although twelve cents doesn’t seem like much, over a twenty year career it makes a substantial difference. These issues sometimes take a back seat to other political factors but the value of discussing and finding ways to try to level the playing field in the work place is directly connected to equality, but furthermore is something that could be achieved.
    Certain measures have already been put into place to deal with discrimination in the work place. Affirmative action is an idea that can be traced back to reconstruction directly following the Civil War. Although never widely used during reconstruction the idea of government intervention to reduce the possibility of discrimination would soon play a large role in what the government can do to try and regulate the work place. Obviously, government over reach is a fear but when private industry doesn’t seem to be taking steps to correct the issues sometimes legislation is needed. No person should be turned away from work because of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Affirmative action was reintroduced trying to give opportunities to specific class groupings to prevent the misconception previous stereotypes had placed on them. An example of this would be giving a woman a job typically only given to a man, or a college seeking out qualified students from minority groups.

    These measures begin to counter balance the scale but the only lasting variation will be a societal change. Government intervention can begin to open the door but until people look at one another as equals questions of equality will always arise. Along with the actions of the government, citizens need to specify what equality means to them and exactly what needs to be changed. The topic of equality is so broad and encompassing that it could be seen as overwhelming. This is the main reason many individuals don’t want to take action, because they don’t truly know what they are protesting and petitioning for. Numerous organizations have narrowed their sights to certain issues they deem important such as gay rights and women’s rights, to name a few.

    To be equal is to share the liberties and unalienable rights that should be afforded to every man and woman in our country. Citizenship binds us together and the Constitution declares our right to be treated as equals to all other citizens. It is stated in the constitution that as American citizens we have rights, its time we use our rights to make change happen. Inequalities will never completely disappear but with continued dialogue and creative thought for problem solving we can continue to address and alleviate the problems that are presented.

    Works Cited
    • Warburton, Nigel (1999). Philosophy: The Basics. Routledge. Print.

  3. Joel: very interesting essay. the prevalence of Flanagan's first question in the history of philosophy (Descartes et al) strikes me as evidence that others have more vivid and captivating dream lives than I. My dreams pale by comparison, in intensity and clarity, to even the most humdrum waking experience. It's a non-starter of a question, for me.

    Questions 3 & 4 are more engaging, and both seem likely to yield to further empirical research.

    Question 2 may say more about Flanagan and others who ask it, than anything else. "Immoral" slumber behavior may embarrass but it surely does no worldly harm unless we set out to enact our dream lives in the waking world.

    Sweet dreams!

    1. Also: in your presentation you mentioned "Waking Life" - check out the scene with the late Prof. Robert Solomon conversing with a student about existentialism. He also has several outstanding books on that and other subjects including the importance of the emotions.

  4. Rachel: (You couldn't post directly, I take it?)
    "Inequalities will never completely disappear but with continued dialogue and creative thought for problem solving we can continue to address and alleviate the problems that are presented." Inequality before the law can surely be eliminated. Inequality based on prejudice and illegal discrimination, we know, is the harder nut to crack. But I agree, we must "continue to address and alleviate" etc., and despite the frustrations of Ferguson et al we can take some pride in having come far in that direction in relatively short order.