Saturday, May 18, 2013

Meaning of dreams in philosophy - is reality a dream?

For many centuries the phenomenon of dreams has been used as an evidence for great limitations of the human mind. Dream argument is one of the oldest arguments concerning philosophy of mind; numerous thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Zhuangzi and Descartes noticed that it might be difficult to distinguish between “real reality” and “dream reality”. Is reality a dream? If not, how can you know it is not?

I like the story written by Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher. Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly. He was conscious only of this wonderful feeling while he was fluttering hither and thither. I am sure you too can think of a dream when you felt very good and at the time of dreaming were absolutely sure it was not a dream at all. When Zhuangzi awaked, he started to analyse what he had just experienced. “Am I a man dreaming that I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”. Zhuangzi was unable to answer the question. Are we unable too?

(ca. 369 BC - ca. 286 BC)
Zhuangzi used a philosophical method, applied centuries later by Descartes, which is known as scepticism. It is a method of obtaining knowledge through continuous doubt, testing and questioning the nature of even the most “obvious” aspects of human life (such as “Have I ever been born?”, “Do people really die?” etc.). There are several approaches which might be undertaken to solve the problem. When you wake up, you know (or think you know) that what you have just experienced was a dream. Why? There is a clear difference in the level of conscience between dreaming and wakefulness. I will not go into scientific details concerning brain activity this time but let’s try to analyse the differences between “real reality” and “dream reality” from a philosophical point of view.

Was Zhuangzi aware of him ever being a human? No. Was Zhuangzi aware of him ever being a butterfly? Yes. Probably the butterfly dream was not the last dream of Zhuangzi. Suppose that in the next dream he was a rabbit. Then he probably was not aware of him ever being either a man or a butterfly. It clearly shows us that the mind in a not dreaming state shows awareness of the dreaming past but during dreaming state it cannot even recall the previous (not dreaming) state. Human mind does not cease to prove to be more acute and more aware while not sleeping.


However, not all dreams are unconscious. Maybe you sometimes experience a dream during which you are perfectly aware that you are only dreaming – such dreams are called lucid dreams. Already Aristotle noticed the difference between conscious and unconscious dreaming and I am pretty sure that he was not the first person to do so. Do lucid dreams support the hypothesis that reality is a dream or that it is impossible to distinguish dreams from the reality?

Not really. During lucid dreams you are aware of being a human, yet you do not experience the similar feeling while being awake. Zhuangzi’s dream was not lucid but while he was awake he certainly was not aware of him being in fact a butterfly; he merely expressed his incertitude. Lucid dreams actually reveal superiority of wakefulness to dreaming state.

And the last argument in this post, just in case you still are not sure whether tomorrow morning you’ll have to pollinate some daisies – your mind cannot create a mind which surpasses mental capacities of your brain. Due to physiological limitations, butterflies are unable of mental processes as complex and abstract as those of humans. Therefore they are unable to recreate in their dreams complexity of the human brain. (If you want to know more about conscience and reality of outer world read the post about solipsism.)

Sleep well and when you do become a butterfly, don’t waste your chance to flutter hither and thither!


  1. Very informative stuff. In addition to that, here's an infographic that explains the meaning of your dreams.

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