Rene Descartes, a Frenchman and a Philosopher, spent a great many years of his life striving to discover the human capability of knowing anything of substance. He sought to formulate a method for attaining the truth and his process of systematic doubt had great influence on the subsequent developments in Philosophy.
Descartes studied his past and his former beliefs only to determine that certain “knowledge” he had held to be true had been based on the assumption that we can trust our senses. His conclusion led him to accept that “it is never prudent to trust completely those who have deceived us even just once”. He questioned whether our senses are accurate signs of what they signify. By examining our belief in the reality of dreams, he concludes that our senses are prone to fault and thereby cannot consistently distinguish between certainty and falsity.
This presents a rather ominous concept: if I cannot entirely trust my senses, how can I truly know I am sitting here writing this essay? The unfortunate reality is that I can’t know.
Descartes’ Dreaming Hypothesis highlights this idea. It is indeed a radical notion but plausible none-the-less. How can anyone, in complete certainty, be sure they are entirely awake and are experiencing their surrounding environment? At this point, it seems logical to explain what knowing anything of the external world means. We describe it in such statements as “there is a table in front of me” or “I am looking at a computer” and so the thesis I am discussing is that we don’t know any such claim or proposition. We may protest this premise by plainly stating ‘I can tell that I’m not dreaming’ but this is very much an invalid response – after all, could we not just be dreaming that we are awake?
There are two common arguments against the Dreaming Hypothesis. First of all, many argue that one is surely capable of distinguishing between a dream and reality as dreams are often incoherent whereas “real life” is organised however, many of the dreams I have experienced have seemed totally normal to me at the time. Secondly, the “pinching” theory – you can determine whether or not you’re dreaming by pinching yourself. This argument holds very little weight as you could just have dreamt that you performed the experiment, which applies to any other test.
G.E Moore argues, in “Four Forms of Scepticism”, that the principle of a sceptical hypothesis is less certain than the belief that the sceptic is challenging. In terms of the Dreaming Hypothesis, G.E Moore would argue that we should not adopt a sceptical perspective on the matter but should more readily accept the fact that we are not dreaming. Moore supported his argument on the belief that our bodies exist in a definite external world, which needs no validation.
To this, I would most strongly disagree. Many of us, at one time or another, have experienced a dream so vivid and intense that everything we see and hear could for all we know be real (or rather what we assume to be reality). The fact that we are lacking ability in making this distinction between a “real” world and a mere dream, effectively confirms that we have no genuine knowledge of the external world.
This leads me to yet another uncertainty. When I go to bed at night and eventually close my eyes, do I fall asleep and enter an unusual, vast world better known as the dream world? Or am I essentially waking up? To most people the dream world has always been a place we go in our sleep in which our utmost extreme fears or desires have the ability to become corporeal but is it not reasonable to suggest that that world could be the “real” world and that when we wake up in the morning, we start dreaming?
The popular film, “The Matrix” successfully conveys Descartes’ hypothesis. In the film, Morpheus himself declares, “I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream”. – Descartes could very well have spoken these words as it powerfully stresses his claim.
Another argument I would like to bring to light is that there is no dream world but two realities. Plutarch, a Greek author (c.46-125AD) once said, – “all men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, while he is asleep, is in a world of his own”. – We know already that while we are alive our mind never rests; it is ongoing (some would say that even when we die it carries on). So consider the fact that when we “sleep” our minds are actually just being astral projected onto another plane of existence and living out another life, which is less restrictive than the society we live in, a release from repression almost. Significantly, the Astral Plane can be associated with “Akasha” (one of the five elements in Hindu philosophy) and is namely the place where all the thoughts, fantasies and dreams of everyone in the world exist.
However, some might disregard this theory on the bases that we cannot remember much if anything of this alternate reality. When we wake up we may recollect a dream or two but when we think about it they usually only amount to about five minutes in length even though we know we were asleep for eight hours. There is all of that time when we don’t remember what we were thinking (but are sure that we were thinking). The only reason for this that I can produce is that it may be damaging for us to remember, as we would never be able to differentiate between events that occurred in that world and this one.
Descartes’ theory is incredibly convincing but even he ultimately rejected his sceptical doubts. He thought he could confirm that his life was not just a long dream. His course of action was to verify the existence of God and concluded that God is not a deceiver, to suggest such would be going against everything we associate him with and so he would not allow us to live under the assumption that we’re awake when in effect we are asleep. So Descartes made God the assurance of his being awake, and of the reliability of his cognitive processes. However this, obviously, depends on the existence of God which has not yet been proven.
The conclusion I have reached is that, if I am incapable of recognising the dream world from the real world, which I am not, then that would suggest to me that I couldn’t have any perpetual knowledge of the world.