Thursday, December 05, 2013

Dream Skepticism and the Phenomenal Shadow of Belief

Ernest Sosa has argued that we do not form beliefs when we dream. If I dream that a tiger is chasing me, I do not really believe that a tiger is chasing me. If I dream that I am saying to myself "I'm awake!" I do not really believe that I'm awake. Real beliefs are more deeply integrated than are these dream-mirages with my standing attitudes and my waking behavior. If so, it follows that if I genuinely believe that I'm awake, necessarily I am correct; and conversely if I believe I'm dreaming, necessarily I'm wrong. The first belief is self-verifying; the second self-defeating. Deliberating between them, I should not choose the self-defeating one, nor should I decline to choose, as though these two options were of equal epistemic merit. Rather, I should settle upon the self-verifying belief that I am awake. Thus, dream skepticism is vanquished!

One nice thing about Sosa's argument is that it does not require that dream experience differ from waking experience in any of the ways that dreams and waking life are sometimes thought to differ (e.g., dream experience needn't be gappier, or less coherent, or more like imagery experience than like perceptual experience). The argument would still work even if dream experience were, as Sosa says, "internally indistinguishable" from waking experience.

This seeming strength of the argument, though, seems to me to signal a flaw. Suppose that dreaming life is in fact in every respect phenomenally indistinguishable from waking life -- indistinguishable from the inside, as it were -- and accordingly that I could easily experience exactly *this* while sleeping; and furthermore suppose that I dream extensively every night and that most of my dreams have mundane everyday content just like that of my waking life. None of this should affect Sosa's argument. And suppose further that I am in fact now awake (and thus capable of forming beliefs about whether I am dreaming, per Sosa), and that I know that due to a horrible disease I acquired at age 35, I spend almost all of my life in dreaming sleep so that 90% of the time when I have experiences of this sort (as if in my office, thinking about philosophy, working on a blog post...) I am sleeping. Unless there's something I'm aware of that points toward this not being a dream, shouldn't I hesitate before jumping to the conclusion that this time, unlike all those others, I really am awake? Probabilities, frequencies, and degrees of resemblance seem to matter, but there is no room for them in Sosa's argument.

Maybe we don't form beliefs when we dream -- Sosa, and also Jonathan Ichikawa, have presented some interesting arguments along those lines. But if there is no difference from the inside between dreams and waking, then my dreaming self, when he was dreaming about considering dream skepticism (e.g., here) did something that was phenomenally indistinguishable from forming the belief that he was thinking about philosophy, something that was phenomenally indistinguishable from forming the belief that was affirming or denying or suspending belief about the question of whether he was dreaming -- and then the question becomes: How do I know that I'm not doing that very same thing right now?

Call it dream-shadow believing: It's like believing, except that it happens only in dreams. If dream-shadow believing is possible, then if I dream-shadow believe that I am dreaming, necessarily I am correct; if I dream-shadow believe that I am awake, necessarily I am wrong. The first is self-verifying, the second self-defeating. The skeptic can now ask: Should I try to form the belief that I am awake or instead the dream-shadow belief that I am dreaming? -- and to this question, Sosa's argument gives no answer.

Update, 3:28 pm:

Jonathan Ichikawa has kindly reminded me that he presented similar arguments against Sosa back in 2007 -- which I knew (in fact, Jonathan thanks me in the article for my comments) but somehow forgot. Jonathan runs the reply a bit differently, in terms of quasi-affirming (which is neutral between genuine affirming and something phenomenally indistinguishable from affirming, but which one can do in a dream) rather than in terms of dream-shadow believing. Perhaps my dream-shadow belief formulation enables a parity-of-argument objection, if (given the phenomenal indistinguishability of dreams and waking) the argument that one should settle on self-verifying dream-shadow belief is as strong an argument as is Sosa's original argument.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I suppose Sosa-style reasoning supports these conditionals: If you are awake, you ought to believe that you are awake; and if you are asleep, you ought to dream-shadow believe that you are dreaming. As you say, neither of these conditionals, considered alone, provides much in the way of usable guidance. But at least the first conditional can reassure us that the person who is awake and believes she's awake is believing just what she ought to believe. And that's something we might not have been able to say without Sosa-style reasoning.

Jeremy said...

But presumably there is something you're "aware of that point toward this not being a dream". Look in the mirror. You will see that your eyes are open. The fact that your eyes are open is excellent evidence that you're not dreaming.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Interesting thought! One point that Jonathan Ichikawa emphasizes in his article, however, is that the fact that a belief is self-verifying in this way does not establish that one ought to believe it. For example, you could *try* to believe it but risk failure (because you might only be dreaming), and you might be epistemically irrational in taking that risk.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jeremy: Might I be having an experience that is phenomenally indistinguishable from the experience of seeing myself in the mirror with my eyes open? It seems like the issues recur here.

I think that as soon as one allows that we frequently have dreams that are phenomenally indistinguishable from waking life, we get into dream-skepticism trouble. Better not to concede phenomenal indistinguishability.

Unfortunately, though, I don't think that entirely solves the problem, since I think we can only have moderately high credence, not 100% or 99.9% credence, that dreams are commonly phenomenally indistinguishable from waking life. (I explore that topic a bit in an earlier post.)

Jeremy said...

I was just doing the boring Moorean refusal to see why I should accept that I might be dreaming. I haven't read the Sosa, but it seems to me that the special interest of dreaming with respect to skepticism is that it threatens to show that our waking beliefs fail to amount to knowledge because they're not safe. The idea is that knowledge requires belief that is safe from error, in the sense of requiring beliefs that are not 'close' (in the relevant sense) to any false beliefs. Suppose that every night when I dream I falsely believe that I'm awake. Such beliefs would arguably be sufficiently close to my waking beliefs to prevent them from amounting to knowledge. The interest of Sosa's argument, I take it, is that since we don't have such beliefs when we're dreaming, the safety-condition-based argument for dream skepticism fails. Maybe we have false quasi-beliefs when we're asleep, but the safety-condition doesn't say anything about quasi-beliefs, so no need to worry.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

The problem is that it seems reasonable to doubt that I in fact have such a safe belief!

= MJA said...

Hey you guys, wake up, those shadows you see on the cave walls, believe it or not, are real too! Plato and me, =

Matthew Gore said...

“Jonathan runs the reply a bit differently, in terms of quasiaffirming (which is neutral between genuine affirming and something phenomenally indistinguishable from affirming, but which one can do in a dream) rather than in terms of dream-shadow believing.” – add-on to this post.

The level of obscurantism, deliberate or not, and with due respect to the authors for any empirical offerings they may have, I think there is an relative identification of ghostly or shady practicality bound up in the affirmations and dubiousness of the conceptuality, or even mental adaptation, of belief throughout various cultures. The Australian aborigines call the afterlife dream-time, or something like that, and there are Eskimo that think dreams are a valid tool for gaining insight into the waking life – which I refer to as wakefulness. The reason I give it this term is the obscuration of the implicit Realizeability that one can behold in the attentive state.

In Spanish one has little daydreams (calling them ‘suenos’, squiggly line over the ‘n’) which one may have in obscuration (‘oscuro’). If I weren’t paying attention in class and the Spanish teacher calls on me, my dulled consciousness may just imply to her that I don’t know the answer and need a wake-up call. It could be that knowing and having knowledge, expertise in teaching facts or an empirical understanding by way of science and method, are similar in implications to the state of belief and believing in a dream. I don’t interpret dreams, but Freud built an unusual knowledge (or whatever it is???) out of his original interpretations of others dreams (giving them cocaine and heroin to dull their conscious state). Obscurity serves certain purposes in waking life, and knowledge has a lot to do with them.

Asleep, in REM sleep, belief lacks certain basic introspective qualities, and the mind kind of makes a place out of the perceived worlds templates. There exists possibilities, and false awakenings may lead into ‘wormholes of consciousness’ – an infinite regress of awakening which bear eerily similar resemblances to the beliefs of the subject in imprisonment in a dream. The movie “Waking Life” has this insight, and some interesting folk contributing to the plot. Anyway, I’d be a surprise to wake up right now, but this is not so much my point.

The point is that believing one is in a dream is a set of beliefs about how, in one’s own contemplation or speculation of unfulfilling perceptions while dreaming, that she or he could have introspect and not purely psyche. My basis is the Neuroscientific perspective that suffices to point out how dreams can predict unforeseen future possibilities. To add to this empirical evidence is that the Nobel Prize has been won based on a dream its winner had. The best example, I think, is that we know of the periodic table due to a dreamer’s introspect. One’s own beliefs about others and other thinky-things *Let’s leave the “Sinthome” out of it* has a weight of obscuration that solves problems in a way that physicists and chemists now and then get me to understand more than the universes biggest and smallest things are gelatinous blobs. Might I add, I’ve never had a conversation with gelatinous blobs, but my sister is pregnant and that one I talk to.

David Duffy said...

"There is no point trying to catch them out, he thought. I know that I am dreaming them. I must just be grateful for their company."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, David! I had not yet discovered that book.

David Duffy said...

After opening The Arabian Nightmare at random for that quote, I have started rereading it! In the first chapter, our hero reads "Why can we not dream we are two people? This was a great problem for the Ikhwan al-Safa."

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ikhwan-al-safa/

G. Randolph Mayes said...

It seems to me that Sosa would be right if he said that beliefs do not typically occur when dreaming. But I think they sometimes do. We've all had occasions to ask ourselves whether something we believe might have been formed during a dream. These might be those rare occasions when we dream vividly about situations that are very similar to what we already believe, but differ very slightly and one becomes confused or substituted for the other. It doesn't seem helpful to say that these aren't genuine beliefs, since they would have all the causal attributes of genuine beliefs as far as how they affect behavior. We could insist that they have the wrong etiology, but I don't see how that is preferable to speaking of them as beliefs that get formed in this unusual way.

Has the word 'drelief" been coined? We already have alief (from Gendler).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very cool, David! I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

Randy: I think you're probably right that Sosa should allow that beliefs might form in dreams on such occasions. My own view is that the category is vague-boundaried anyhow. I like the idea of "drelief" parallel to Gendler's "alief".

Pilot Guy said...

I like what Wittgenstein suggests in On Certainty - it is actually more clever that it at first appears:
On Certainty #383: The argument "I may be dreaming" is senseless for this reason: if I am dreaming, this remark is being dreamed as well and indeed it is also being dreamed that these words have any meaning.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Pilot Guy: Although I don't think this was Wittgenstein's intention, in a way that makes it worse. My words might not even have any meaning! Wittgenstein's absolutism about "framework" assumptions seems to be me the wrong thing in a mushy, uncertain, tied-together world. I prefer a more Quinean holism.