A dream within a dream

I just had an experience I want to make note of for its philosophical import. Steve Day and I were driving somewhere in my car discussing philosophy. At one point Steve asked me how I knew that this experience I was having at that moment was not a dream. After contemplating for a moment I replied that I knew it wasn’t a dream for two reasons. One was that nothing wacky was happening as it so often does in dreams. The second reason was a bit deeper.

I presume we have all had that experience, upon waking from a dream, of being somewhat amused, or at least surprised, at our own dream-state gullibility. How could our dream-self have seriously believed the dream was real when, recalling the dream now, it was clearly different in quality from “reality”. Not just because of the presence/absence of wacky components, but just because it seems that dreams are somehow shallower than real experiences.

Thinking about Steve’s question, the second reason I gave for my confidence that this experience was not a dream was that I had considered what I just explained in the paragraph above and I can tell the difference between what a dream feels like and what reality feels like and this experience was clearly a real one and not a dream.

Then I woke up.

The experience had been a dream. And in the dream I had thoughtfully, introspectively, considered the difference between dreams and reality and determined that the experience felt like the latter, not the former. If asked I would make the same assessment now of my experience writing this, just as I am sure you would of your experience of reading it. My dream suggests there is absolutely no justification for placing any confidence in such assessments. In fact …

Upon awaking I also realized that I had had at least one other dream through the night. It was also of the non-wacky variety – swimming at a beach in Florida. I recall that it seemed real enough to my dream-self. So, I now have three experiences to assess: 1) swimming at the beach; 2) the discussion in the car; and 3) writing this note. Yes, of course, the third now feels to me like reality where the others now feel like they were dreams but to put any stock in that fails to learn the lesson of the second experience. How can I be sure that I won’t awake from this dream and feel about #3 precisely the way I do about #1 and #2? I can’t.

In fact, given that I had 3 experiences, during each of which I was utterly convinced of its reality, and given that I now consider 2 of them to have been dreams, why should I not conclude that more of my experiences are dreams than are real? Surely on average we have more than one dream per night.

People often say this kind of thing doesn’t matter. I disagree. No, I don’t think that the conclusion that what I am now experiencing is probably a dream should lead me to act immorally or amorally or not act at all. Whatever this experience is, why not make the best of it? Why not make the best of me, in it? In fact, the conclusion that there is likely a “real” reality above or beyond this one instils a level of confidence, a boldness, to my decisions, since I don’t believe anything bad that happens is permanent. I believe the consequences of bad things can be fixed and that both the fixing of bad things and the doing of good things develops one’s character – it makes me feel better about whatever that thing is that I call “me”. Whatever that is, it seems to be the only think I can be sure about persisting from one experience to another and thus, the thing I ought to care the most about preserving and improving.

That said, I consider those others who seem to persist from one experience to the next to be integral to my self improvement and preservation. Happiness is the prime motivator. Efficacy is the prime source of happiness. If literally all of my decisions were of literally no consequence, it would be as if I did not exist. Efficacy is proof that I exist (self-preservation) and am capable of self improvement. The value of others to oneself is as of mirrors to our characters. When we see a happy person pursuing the same values as our own, our appreciation for the efficacy of our own value-based actions is reinforced and we experience happiness. We love those with who we share values. We are happy when those we love are happy because their happiness reinforces and reassures us of our own efficacy.

Since Einstein we have come to realize that much of the physical world that we thought was absolute is actually relative – they only exists in relation to other existents. Perhaps we are the same – needing others in order to truly exist. I’ll need to think about what I really mean by that later. Certainly our happiness is contingent upon receiving some feedback regarding our efficacy and I don’t know how we could receive that feedback except through our association with others in whom we recognize shared values. (This and the previous paragraph as inserted simply to temper and contextualize the last sentence in paragraph above them.)

All for now. I have to get some work done … for the self preservation and improvement of my character, my sense of efficacy, the happiness of those in which I recognize shared values – in short, for my happiness’ sake.

I am not dismissing other types of experiences, such as when we experience what we consider to be waking from a dream and recalling that, while dreaming, we were aware that we were dreaming. I am not suggesting that we never experience what we usually think of as dreaming. I am only questioning whether we can be sure that what we think we experience as a qualitatively superiour state of wakeful consciousness is really any different. Our recollection of a dream is certainly as of an inferiour experience, but our actual present experience of dreaming may very well be identical to what we experience as wakefulness.