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Speculations on the reality of metaphysicians’ dreams

Millais’ Ophelia (1850): “To sleep, perchance to dream”

My New Oxford American dictionary says this about metaphysics:

Metaphysics has two main strands: that which holds that what exists lies beyond experience (as argued by Plato), and that which holds that objects of experience constitute the only reality (as argued by Kant, the logical positivists, and Hume). Metaphysics has also concerned itself with a discussion of whether what exists is made of one substance or many, and whether what exists is inevitable or driven by chance.

This does seem to be the fundamental conflict, doesn’t it, this question of what is knowable and how we can know it, and whether what happens is inevitable or ‘driven by chance’? It is the question that underlies everything to do with the occult (and I include astrology in my definition of the occult, since the word ‘occult’ means, amongst other things, ‘beyond the range of ordinary beliefs or experience,’ which is a category into which I think we can agree astrology fits).

So, the question for today is nothing less than “how do you know something is real?” But the real question (pun only sort-of intended), I would argue is, “what do you mean by ‘real’ in the first place?”

If you accept the Platonic view of reality, you’re okay with not knowing what you purport to know, and what you purport to know you can’t know through your senses. For those of you who believe that your senses can deceive you, you will like this approach. For those of you who have been, perhaps cruelly and casually branded as skeptics, however, “I know it because I have direct experience with it” seems more true, more ‘real.’ Then there are probably millions upon millions of people who straddle some invisible line somewhere on the philosophical continuum, and believe some version of both of these positions.

Philosophers (in their guise as skeptics) came up with a kind of test to determine whether or not you can reliably know something (since they’re, presumably, a nervous bunch, upon whom the cloak of ambiguity rests uneasily). This is called the dream argument, which states:

The dream argument is the postulation that the act of dreaming provides preliminary evidence that the senses we trust to distinguish reality from illusion should not be fully trusted, and therefore any state that is dependent on our senses should at the very least be carefully examined and rigorously tested to determine whether it is in fact “reality”.

Now, the problem I have with this argument is that it was inspired in part by Descartes’ original postulation/assertion in his Meditations, that since his senses have deceived him before, they can do so again. Plato, who asked this question before Descartes did, was typically Greek, in that he believed dreams play a large part of one’s metaphysical life. Although Plato had many doubts, he never doubted the ability of his dreams to divine the truth.

How can you be certain you’re not dreaming even while we’re speaking to one another? asked Socrates of Theaetetus in Plato’s dialogue of the same name. Distilling the essence of Descartes’ (or Plato’s) assertion is highly reprehensible on my part, but I can’t go on all day about this, and so I will say that Descartes, being human, and therefore fallible, had three dreams when he was young that he relied on to determine his future, and yet he later came up with his hypothesis of self-doubt:

On the night of 10–11 November 1619, while stationed in Neuburg (near Ulm), Germany, Descartes experienced a series of three powerful dreams or visions that he later claimed profoundly influenced his life. In the first of these dreams, Descartes found himself buffeted and thrown down by a powerful whirlwind while walking near a college. In the second, he was awoken by an inexplicable thunder or explosion-like sound in his head to see sparks coming from the stove in his room. In the third dream, he finds a great dictionary and an anthology of ancient Latin poets on his bedside table. In the latter book, he reads a verse that begins, “What path shall I follow in life?” Descartes concluded from these visions that the pursuit of science would prove to be, for him, the pursuit of true wisdom and a central part of his life’s work.

The question I’m left with is, did Descartes’ dreams determine the outcome of his life, or did he allow himself to be lead by his dreams? He was young, and so can perhaps be forgiven for listening to his dreams, but even now, it seems a little cavalier to be such a romantic that you would allow your dreams to tell you what to do.

Or we could ask, with Shakespeare, if the ‘sleep’ of death is real:

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…

One thing metaphysicians and skeptics agree on, I suspect, is the reality of death, the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn/No traveller returns,” although lack of direct experiential and empirical knowledge about what really happens after death leaves us all rather speculative on this subject, I have found.

Or, you can try watching this, and see which side of reality it leaves you on:

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