Self-Knowledge and Dreams

In philosophy, specifically Epistemology, dreams can be used as a thought experiment for philosophical skepticism against our knowledge of the external world. In fact, Descartes uses it as a method of radical doubt to distinguish what we know with absolute certainty from what we know with a degree of certainty. Descartes seems to think that our self-knowledge is secured in a dream scenario, but I think I want to challenge that view. I personally think that even in dreams self-knowledge has its limits.

I want to begin with what inspired this blog post. It starts from Peter Carruther’s lecture where he talks about Dretske’s view on self-knowledge. According to Dretske, self-knowledge is essentially about the way the world is presented to me. In other words, when I see a red apple, I know that I seem to see a red apple. Notice, it is important to see that Dretske is not arguing that we know something about reality from perception. Instead, Dretske is talking about self-knowledge about our perceptual mental states. During class, I brought up an objection that Carruther thought was a nice one. In my dream, I have an experience of seeming to see a red apple. This “dream” mental content of seeming to see a red apple seems indistinguishable from seeming to see a red apple in my wakeful state. So, how do I tell a difference between a mental content in a dream state from that of my wakeful state? Carruther’s reply was the following: a “dream” mental content is in fact distinguishable from a “real life” mental content. Mental contents from dreams are less vivid and detailed than those of real life.

I’m not completely convinced by Carruther’s reply, but I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps its because dreams can be very convincing and vivid to us during our dream state, but when we wake up from our dream we see it as less vivid in hindsight. I also wondered if there are any dreams that are just as vivid as our waking state. I think I want to push my objection a bit further in this blog in order to show that even self-knowledge in dreams isn’t as reliable as Descartes and his successors thought. One caveat to consider is that not many philosophers today accept Descartes’ view of self-knowledge. But many of them still accept an idea that self-knowledge of at least some of our mental states (usually conscious mental states) comes as close to infallibility. This is the popular view that I want to challenge in this blog.

Here is the argument in the form of premises and a conclusion:

  1. Self-knowledge is knowledge about our conscious mental states
  2. We have a special epistemic privilege with regards to our conscious mental state.
  3. A waking state is a conscious mental state
  4. Therefore, we have a special epistemic privilege with regards to our waking state.
  5. If we have a special epistemic privilege with regards to our waking state, then we should be able to discriminate it from our dream state.
  6. But we often confuse our dream state with our waking state
  7. Therefore, we do not have a special epistemic privilege with regards to our waking state.

I suspect many philosophers about self-knowledge are committed to (1), (2), and (3). My argument tries to show that if they are committed to (1), (2), and (3) then they are committed to (4) as the conclusion. However, I  argue that (4) is implausible given that we often confuse our dream state with our waking state. When we are in a dream state, we do not seem to have a discriminatory capacity to discriminate it from our waking state. In an interesting case of false awakening, we sometimes dream about waking up from our dream. We have a dream within a dream. When we seem to wake up from our dream, we often believe that we are in a waking state. Can we seriously think that we have some kind of epistemic privilege with regards to our waking state in that kind of scenario?  I think not. After all, the belief that I’m in a waking state is false in a dream scenario.

There are several ways to object to my argument. First is that I never defined what I mean by a “waking state”. Obviously, its difficult to define a waking state. One of the main reasons why its difficult to define a waking state is that we have to define it in such a way that excludes dream states. After all, both waking and dreaming states are conscious mental states. Perhaps one could argue that the term “waking state” is misleading, since there really isn’t a specific mental state called a “waking state”. Instead, a “waking state” is just another way of saying that there are mental states that take place when one is awake. In other words, one’s wakeful mental states are due to external inputs from the environment through one’s perceptual systems (i.e. visual, auditory, olfactory, etc).

I doubt that a waking state defined above is adequate, since there are often cases when one is still in a dream even if one’s mental state is due to some external input of one’s perceptual system. I remembered one time when my friend use to have a dream of the tickle monster. The tickle monster would tickler her in her dream. Ironically, it turns out that as she was dreaming it was her sister who ticked her. The external input (i.e. tickling) still had an impact on my friend’s mental state, but she was still dreaming. There are many dreams like that when one’s dream is effected by one’s environment.

Second is that I never clarify what I mean by “special epistemic privilege”. Consequently, it is unclear if having a special epistemic privilege implies being able to discriminate a waking state from a dream state (vice versa). I think a “special epistemic privelege” can have at least two interpretations. The first interpretation is that one has an infallible authority with regards to our conscious mental states. I think this interpretation is too strong, since there are cases when one initially confuses one’s hallucinatory state with a veridical perceptual state. The second interpretation is that we have a highly reliable authority with regards to our conscious mental state. This epistemic authority is not infallible, but it is extremely reliable. I think this interpretation is more plausible than the first one. But do we have an epistemic privilege of this kind with regards to our waking state? If we did, then we should be able to tell our dream state from our waking state, but in many cases we don’t. 

Perhaps one can argue that we have an epistemic privilege with regards to any conscious state whether they occur in a dream or not. I think this is a natural response to my argument. However, I think this response gives rise to another problem. Do we have the same kind of epistemic warrant with regards to our wakeful mental state about X as we do with our dream mental state about X? I won’t go into this problem, since it leads to another philosophical debate between internalism and externalism about epistemic warrant.

One could make a distinction between judging one’s mental state to be a waking state and other phenomenal qualities about one’s mental state. For example, my friend who dreamed about the tickle monster misjudged her mental state of tickling to be a waking state, but she did not misjudge her phenomenal experience of feeling tickled. However, I argue that anyone who is committed to (1), (2) and (3) is also committed to (4). I don’t deny that my friend is epistemically entitled to believe in her phenomenal experience of feeling tickled. What I do argue is that if someone is committed to (1), (2), and (3) then one is also committed to an idea that my friend is epistemically entitled to believe in both the phenomenal experience of tickling and her belief that she is in a waking state. After all, both the phenomenal experience of feeling tickled and a waking state are conscious mental states.

I have to admit that I must do more reading about the philosophical literature about self-knowledge. Perhaps I also need to do some reading about dreams from a scientific point of view. I don’t think my arguments here are that strong and rigorous. Quite frankly, I don’t think I gave enough arguments. Most of them seem to be based on my intuitions, but I thought the blog post was at least interesting enough to post.

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