Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS
Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought
Chapter 18. The status of dreams and daydreams
Do we logically need to have some absolute frame of reference to compare all others to, in order to claim that some frame of reference is relative? If that were the case, Einstein’s theory on the relativity of space-time would be unthinkable. He could not claim all frameworks are relative. But he is not making such a claim by deduction from some privileged vantage point of his. What he is saying, rather, is that (because of the same measurement of the velocity of light in all directions) we cannot establish an absolute framework, and so we are condemned to viewing every framework we use as relative. This is an inductive argument, involving generalization from existing empirical knowledge.
It remains conceivable that, at some future time, scientists discover some other physical means to establish an absolute frame of reference. The same reasoning can be applied to Heisenberg’s principle concerning the impossibility of identifying precisely and simultaneously the position and momentum of an elementary particle. This too is a theoretical principle built on practical considerations. It is based on a generalization of negation from “is not found” to “cannot be found” – but it remains conceivable, however remotely, that such a rule be abrogated in the future, if we find some other way to make the measurements required.
These examples within physical science can help us to inform an issue within metaphysics. Can we logically assert as do some philosophers that “everything is illusory” (or “awake experience is only a dream” or other similar skeptical statements). At first sight, a statement like “everything is illusory” is self-contradictory, and therefore definitively false, since “everything” formally must include the statement itself, which is thereby declared illusory. However, let us try and approach the issue in less deductive terms, and view the statement as a product of induction.
We can call an experience a dream because we have some other experience to refer to, which we consider non-dreamy. Usually, we realize after we wake up: “Oh, I was only dreaming”. Exceptionally, it happens that we become aware during a dream that we are dreaming, and we can even force ourselves to awaken from within the dream (I have certainly experienced this several times). In either case, we characterize our asleep experience as “dream” only because we have memory of an alternative, awake experience. The very concept of a dream would seem to rely on such comparison.
Or does it? In comparing awake and asleep experience, we postulate that the former is more real than the latter, and thereby classify the former as “real” and the latter as “illusory”. But what is the basis of such discrimination? Approaching the issue without prejudice, we might argue that (to begin with, at least) the two sets of experience are on equal footing (in terms of the reality vs. illusion distinction), i.e. that there is no reason to give precedence to the one over the other. Phenomenologically, they are of equal value, or status. We cannot tell which is more real or more illusory than the other, and therefore must conclude that both are equally unsure.
A good argument in favor of this view is the observation that most dreams seem credible enough to us while we are having them. This just goes to show our native credulity, how easily we tend to believe experiences. Seeing how foolishly credulous we are while asleep, we may well wonder whether our credulity while awake is just as silly, and get to think that our apparent life is perhaps a dream too.
This is perhaps the intended meaning of statements like “all is illusion” – they suggest our incapacity to find some absolute frame of reference we can label “reality”. But the reply to such objection would be the following. Contrary to what some philosophers claim, we do not in fact, in practice, label some parts of experience “reality” and relegate others to the status of “illusion” with certainty and finality. Such judgments are not absolute, but open to change using inductive reasoning.
The basic principle of induction is that every appearance is to be regarded as ‘reality’ until and unless, i.e. until if ever, conflicts between certain appearances, or between certain appearances and logical considerations, force us to relegate the appearance concerned to the status of ‘illusion’.
We have no way to tell the difference between reality and illusion at first sight. We do not dish out the labels of reality or illusion from some privileged, neutral standpoint, but start with the assumption that everything we (seem to) experience is real, and only refer to some such experiences as illusory in the way of a last resort. And even then, later evidence or reasoning may make us change our minds, and decide that what seemed illusory was real and what seemed real was illusory.
The distinction between these two characterizations of appearance is thus essentially a holistic, hypothetical conclusion, rather than a point-blank premise. The more data we take into consideration in forming such judgments, the more certain they become. The initial assumption is that an appearance is real. But the initial credibility is still conditional, in that it has to be confirmed and never infirmed thenceforth.
This is obvious, because all we have to build our knowledge on are our experiences (physical, mental or non-phenomenal) and our rational faculty (for sorting out the experiences). We have givens and a method, but we still have to work our way to certainty, through a long, largely inductive process.
At first (naïvely), appearance, existence and reality are all one and the same to us. Gradually (with increased subtlety), we distinguish appearances as existents that have been cognized, and realities as appearances that have stood the test of time with regard to consistency with other experiences and with logical issues. Illusions are appearances that have failed in some test or other.
Comparison and contrast are involved in distinguishing awake and dream experiences. Because the former seem more solid and regular than the latter, we label the former “real life” and the latter “dream”. Both sets of experience have to be considered before we can make this classification, and it is such perceived characteristics apparent within them that lead us to this rational judgment. Thus, the way remains open for further evaluation at some future time – for example, if we encounter some third corpus of experience that seems still more real than the previous two.
This is the claim of mysticism – that there exists yet a higher reality, relative to which (when we reach it through prophesy, meditation or other means) ordinary experience seems but like a mere dream (note the language of analogy). It is in that context that it becomes perfectly legitimate to say: “all is illusion”, meaning more precisely “all that is in ordinary experience is illusory”, i.e. in comparison to all that is in extraordinary experience. The proposition is logically self-consistent, because it is not as general in intent as it seems to be in its brief verbal formulation.
Of course, according to inductive logic, if someone had only the experience we call dreaming, he would have to regard that experience as reality. Likewise, someone who has never had a mystical experience is duty-bound to assume that his ordinary awake experience is reality.
It follows that only someone who has personally experienced some third, radically different, experiential content may legitimately claim that our ordinary experience is akin to a dream. Someone who thereafter repeats the same claim without having himself had the corresponding extraordinary experience is just expressing his (religious) faith. The epistemological status of such faith is not nil, but it is not equivalent to that involved in personal experience. It is a tentative belief, an act of hope (or fear), based indirectly on someone else’s reported experience – but not a belief based directly on one’s own experience.
Note that even without referring to any mystical experience, it is not inaccurate to say that most of our awake experience is tantamount to dreaming. For what is dreaming while asleep? A series of mental projections; the invention of fanciful scenarios. And in truth, this is just what most of us pass most of our time doing while awake: we project mental images or sounds, viewing data either directly drawn from our memory banks or indirectly derived by reshuffling such memories. So we can rightly be said to be dreaming, even if we call it daydreaming.
In the last analysis, the only times we are not dreaming are those rare moments when we are actually fully absorbed in the here and now of direct experience!
However, according to those who claim to have had mystical experience of some transcendental reality, even this ‘here and now’ (made up of material and/or mental phenomena) ought to be regarded as dreaming. The latter statement is as radically metaphysical or transcendental as it can be, postulating all phenomenal experience to be dreamlike. In this view, dreams asleep are phantasms within a larger dream, and awake experience is also part of that larger dream.
People naïvely point to their apparently physical body in support of their claim to material reality, but so doing they fail to consider that when they dream while asleep they are usually represented in their dream by a mental image of a body. If this imaginary body seems credible to them while dreaming asleep, why might the apparently physical body experienced while awake not likewise wrongly seem credible?
Materiality, and its distinction from mentality, must ultimately be understood as a conceptual hypothesis, which we may philosophically adopt because it orders our world of experience (whatever its nature or status) in an intelligent and consistent manner. It is not an axiom, an ontological primary, but an organizing principle open to doubt, which we commonly favor because of its ongoing intellectual and practical utility and success.