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Dream argument

dream argument descartes, dream argument
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


  • 1 Synopsis
  • 2 Simulated reality
  • 3 Critical discussion
  • 4 Popular culture
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Notes
  • 7 References


While people dream, they usually do not realize they are dreaming if they do, it is called a lucid dream This has led philosophers to wonder whether one could actually be dreaming constantly, instead of being in waking reality or at least that one cannot be certain, at any given point in time, that one is not dreaming

In the West, this philosophical puzzle was referred to by Plato Theaetetus 158b-d and Aristotle Metaphysics 1011a6 Having received serious attention in René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, the dream argument has become one of the most prominent skeptical hypotheses which clearly has an archetype in elements of Plato's Allegory of the Cave alsocitation needed

This type of argument is well known as "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly" 莊周夢蝶 Zhuāng Zhōu mèng dié: One night, Zhuangzi 369 BC dreamed that he was a carefree butterfly, flying happily After he woke up, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Zhuangzi who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming he was Zhuangzi This was a metaphor for what he referred to as a "great dream":

He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman ‑ how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle Yet, after ten thousand generations, a great sage may appear who will know their meaning, and it will still be as though he appeared with astonishing speed1

One of the first philosophers to posit the dream argument formally was the Yogachara Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu fl 4th to 5th century CE in his 'Twenty verses on appearance only' The dream argument features widely in Mahayana Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist thought

Some schools of thought in Buddhism eg, Dzogchen, consider perceived reality 'literally' unreal As a prominent contemporary teacher, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, puts it: "In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream "2 In this context, the term 'visions' denotes not only visual perceptions, but appearances perceived through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations, and operations on received mental objects

Simulated realityedit

See also: Simulated reality and Simulation hypothesis

Dreaming provides a springboard for those who question whether our own reality may be an illusion The ability of the mind to be tricked into believing a mentally generated world is the "real world" means at least one variety of simulated reality is a common, even nightly event3

Those who argue that the world is not simulated must concede that the mind—at least the sleeping mind—is not itself an entirely reliable mechanism for attempting to differentiate reality from illusion4

Critical discussionedit

In the past, philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes have separately attempted to refute Descartes's account of the dream argument Locke claimed that you cannot experience pain in dreams Various scientific studies conducted within the last few decades provided evidence against Locke's claim by concluding that pain in dreams can occur but the pain isn't as severe Philosopher Ben Springett has said that Locke might respond to this by stating that the agonising pain of stepping in to a fire is non-comparable to stepping in to a fire in a dream Hobbes claimed that dreams are susceptible to absurdity while the waking life is not6

Many contemporary philosophers have attempted to refute dream skepticism in detail see, eg, Stone 19847 Ernest Sosa 2007 devoted a chapter of a monograph to the topic, in which he presented a new theory of dreaming and argued that his theory raises a new argument for skepticism, which he attempted to refute In A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, he states: "in dreaming we do not really believe; we only make-believe"8 Jonathan Ichikawa 2008 and Nathan Ballantyne & Ian Evans 2010 have offered critiques of Sosa's proposed solution Ichikawa argued that as we cannot tell whether our beliefs in waking life are truly beliefs and not imaginings, like in a dream, we are still not able to tell whether we are awake or dreaming

Popular cultureedit

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Alice finds the Red King asleep in the grass; Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell her that the Red King is dreaming about her, and that if he were to wake up she would "go out—bang!—just like a candle" A similar theme is explored in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, told from the perspective of the dreamer in his own realm of dreams

In the 1999 movie The Matrix, machines imprison the human race and plug them into "the Matrix", an enormous machine system that uses human bioelectricity and body heat as a biological battery to power the machines Connected to the Matrix, the humans are kept in a dream-like state, in which they dream of being in the world as it is today; they have no reason to suspect that it is anything other than the real world Certain people sense the innate artificiality of the illusion and, through various means, "wake up", breaking free of the Matrix The overall theme of the series is the "waking dream" scenario, and speculations on which reality is preferable This concept is further explored during the second Matrix film where one of the main characters appears to be able to utilize abilities usually used in the "dream" in what the character currently believes is "reality", leaving the viewer to question if the character is in fact in reality, or if they are still inside the dream

In the original television series The Twilight Zone, the episode Shadow Play written by Charles Beaumont, originally aired May 5, 1961, Season 2, Episode 26 concerns a man trapped in a recurring nightmare in which he dreams he is a prison inmate sentenced to death and to be executed; he tries to convince the characters in his dream that they are only figments of his imagination and that they will cease to exist if the execution is carried out

In the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode Far Beyond the Stars, after losing a close colleague in the Dominion War, Captain Sisko confides in his father about leaving Starfleet Sisko suddenly experiences visions that he is an African-American named Benny Russell who lives in 1950's America and writes stories for a science-fiction pulp magazine Inspired by a drawing of a space station, Benny writes a story about a Captain Sisko set on Deep Space Nine in a future where the racial prejudices of the period no longer exist Benny then faces backlash from the publishers who refuse to run a story about a black Captain resulting in Benny suffering a nervous breakdown The episode left it ambiguous whether Sisko's life in the 24th century is real or the result of imagination combined with mental illness

Richard Linklater's Waking Life deals mostly with this subject, revolving around a man becoming aware of having been trapped inside his own dream

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again, Buffy is poisoned by a demon, causing her to flash between her life as usually portrayed on the series and another reality, where she has been in a mental institution for 6 years for believing the original reality The viewer and Buffy herself are presented with uncertainty as to which reality is the hallucination; Buffy even mentions that she was institutionalized after she saw her first vampire and wonders whether she might have been hallucinating a life with exciting, supernatural elements since then Her psychologist discusses how Buffy had snapped back to "reality" for a few months, corresponding to the period when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was dead in the show's usual narrative The non-supernatural world has both her parents alive and together Both realities appear completely plausible, in a paradox of sorts She opts for the world with no vampires or other supernatural beings, as her life as a Slayer is full of pain and grief However, when her mother tells her she is strong and capable, she returns to her "Slayer" reality The last scene shows her sitting in the mental institution, in a vegetative state and hallucinating her life as a Slayer

In Perchance to Dream, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Wayne is trapped within an idealized dream world by the Mad Hatter In this dream world, Bruce Wayne was never Batman, his parents are still alive and he is engaged to be married to Selina Kyle Bruce Wayne is nearly convinced of this world's authenticity when Leslie Thompkins rationalizes that Bruce has concocted the Batman persona to compensate for having been entitled to everything in life Wayne eventually figures out that he's dreaming when he realizes that any text he tries to read in the dream is garbled

Christopher Nolan's movie Inception deals with the fictional science of shared dreaming The characters enter others' minds, to steal ideas, or in the rare case of inception itself, plant them while the target is unaware they are dreaming Once in a dream, the characters can enter other layers or dreams within dreams In the movie, characters can distinguish a dream by using totems, unique items whose properties and behavior are different in a dream than in the waking world In the end, the film leaves open the question of whether the protagonist is himself dreaming

Films such as Total Recall and Blade Runner, which are both based on stories by Philip K Dick, also hinge upon the idea that what you remember and perceive is not always real

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty greatly explores the protagonist Raiden's and by extension, the player's diminished sense of reality, and that what you perceive may not be what is truly reality

Ted Dekker's Circle Series protagonist wakes up in an alternate reality every time he goes to sleep

Doctor Who explores the idea of the dream argument many times In the ninth episode of series four "Forest of the Dead", the Doctor's companion Donna is "saved" into the Library's hardrive and begins to live out an imaginary and fake reality; unaware that the reality she is living is an illusion until a disfigured woman who had been killed in the "real" world and respectively submitted into the hard drive convinces her that her life is not real In the seventh episode of series five Amy's Choice the two companions of the Doctor, Amy and Rory Pond, have to decide between two realities; one where they are happily married and the other where they are still travelling with the Doctor, and the only way to escape is to kill yourself in the fake reality Since they are not sure which one is fake and which is real, they are hesitant to choose In the Christmas special of 2014 Last Christmas, this concept is once again used where an alien species latches onto your brain to devour it, but makes you dream so you are unaware while they digest Similar to Inception, it explores the ideas of shared dreaming and the main characters question whether they're awake or still in a dream The Doctor points out there are multiple ways to determine the answer, such as asking questions that you should know the answer to but don't, having different people read the same book and discover that the text is different, or even the appearance of fictional characters, such as Santa Claus

In the Futurama episode The Sting the character Leela goes through many cycles of dreams in which her fellow crew mate Fry is speaking to her, she herself is unable to comprehend what is reality and what is a dream, eventually revealing the entire world itself to be merely an illusion

See alsoedit

  • Cartesian doubt
  • Consensus reality
  • Evil demon
  • False awakening
  • Maya illusion
  • Multiverse
  • Reality in Buddhism
  • Social simulation
  • Solipsism


  1. ^ 莊子, 齊物論, 12 Zhuàngzi, "Discussion on making all things equal," 12 from Zhuàngzi, Burton Watson trans, Chuang Tzu New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 43 ISBN 978-0-231-10595-8 1
  2. ^ Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Dream Yoga And The Practice Of Natural Light Edited and introduced by Michael Katz, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, ISBN 1-55939-007-7, pp 42, 46, 48, 96, 105
  3. ^ Joseph Barbera, Henry Moller, Dreaming, Virtual Reality, and Presence
  4. ^ Giuliana A L Mazzoni and Elizabeth F Loftus, When Dreams Become Reality
  5. ^ René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
  6. ^ "Dreaming, Philosophy of – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" utmedu 
  7. ^ Stone, Jim 1984 "Dreaming and Certainty" PDF Philosophical Studies 45 3: 353–368 doi:101007/BF00355443 
  8. ^ Sosa, Ernest 2007 A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-929702-3


  • Ballantyne, Nathan; Evans, Ian 2010 "Sosa's Dream" PDF Philosophical Studies 148 2: 249–252 doi:101007/s11098-008-9309-y 
  • Ichikawa, Jonathan 2008 "Skepticism and the Imagination Model of Dreaming" The Philosophical Quarterly 58 232: 519–527 doi:101111/j1467-92132007546x 
  • Sosa, Ernest 2007 A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-929702-3 
  • Stone, Jim 1984 "Dreaming and Certainty" Philosophical Studies 45 3: 353–368 doi:101007/BF00355443 

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