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Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.
Theology is a game whose object is to bring rules into the subjective.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dreams and skepticism


Let us now explore what follows for philosophy from the view of dreaming as imagining. If that is the right model,then traditional formulations of radical skepticism, Descartes’ included, are not radical enough. The possibility that we dream now threatens not only our supposed perceptual knowledge but even our supposed introspective knowledge, our supposed takings of the given. It is now in doubt not only whether we see a fire, but even whether we think we see a fire, or experience as if we see it. How so? With my hand in view, I may ask: do I now think I see a hand? Well, might it not be just a dream? Might I not be only dreaming that I think I see a hand? If I am only dreaming, then I do not really think I see a hand, after all. If I do ask whether I think I see a hand, however, I cannot thereby be dreaming that I think I see a hand. If in my dream I ask myself a question, and answer it with a choice or an affirmation, the asking would seem to belong with the choice or the affirmation. If the latter belongs only in the dream, not in reality, the asking would also have its place in that same dream. So, again, if I really ask whether I think I see a hand, I cannot thereby be only dreaming that I think I see a hand. Is this not privileged access after all, protection from the possibility that it be just a dream?
Fair enough. But compare my question whether I see a hand. If I really ask whether I see a hand, I cannot thereby be dreaming about the hand and my seeing it. So, we seem to have similarly privileged access to the fact that we see a hand, at least similarly privileged in respect of protection from the dream argument. What might possibly make the cogito especially privileged? What could give it a status not shared by perception of the hand? One advantage at least it turns out not to enjoy: it enjoys no special protection from the possibility that one is only dreaming. The cogito has got to be different nonetheless from our knowledge of a hand we see. We might try to defend the cogito by retreating to a thinner, less committing, concept of thinking, where even dreaming and imagining are themselves forms of ‘‘thinking.’’ On the thicker notion of thinking, if I imagine that p, hypothesize that p, or dream that p, I do not thereby think that p; I may not even think that p at all. On the thinner notion of thinking, by contrast, in imagining that p one does thereby think that p.And the same is now true of dreaming.On the thinner notion, in dreaming that p, one does thereby think that p. More idiomatically, let’s say rather this: in dreaming or imagining that p, one has the thought that p. So, ‘‘thinking that p’’ in the thinner sense would amount to ‘‘having the thought that p,’’ a thought one can have even by just asking oneself whether p. compare (a) one’s affirming that one affirms something, with (b) one’s having (the thought) that one has a thought.The latter is also a self-verifying (thin) thought. But it has in addition something missing from the former: namely, being dream-proof. If one were now dreaming, one would affirm nothing. But one would still have the thought that one was having a thought.
So, my present thought that I am having a thought is not only guaranteed to be right; in addition, I would not so much as seem to have it without having it, not even if I were dreaming. Compare my affirming that I am affirming something. This too is guaranteed to be right. But, unlike the thinner thought, it could be mere appearance. I might right now be dreaming that I was affirming something, while in fact affirming nothing. So, things might in a way seem subjectively just as they do now, although I would just be dreaming: thoughts would be crossing my mind, without my really affirming anything. However, the more defensible thinner thought falls short crucially in the dialectic against the skeptic. It is not the sort of thought that suffices to constitute knowledge. Knowledge requires something thicker than merely having a thought. Accordingly, the move from thick thought to thin thought is not a way to save the cogito, after all. Consciously and affirmatively thinking that I think does have a special status: one could not go wrong in so thinking. It can thus attain high reliability and epistemic status. It attains this status through its being a conscious state of thinking that one thinks. Moreover, this status is not removed, or even much diminished, by the threat of an impostor state, one subjectively very much like it. A vivid and realistic dream is, of course, subjectively very much like its corresponding reality. Perhaps it is only in my dream that I now affirmatively think that I think. Despite being subjectively much like the state of thinking that one thinks, in dreaming one does not think; one does not so much as think that one thinks. That is to say, even if in one’s dream one affirmatively thinks that one thinks, this does not entail that in reality one so thinks that one thinks, while dreaming. Two states can thus be hard to distinguish subjectively, though in only one is the subject justified in thinking such and such. Of course the two states are constitutively different. One is an apparent state of thinking one thinks, doing so (thinking one thinks) only in a dream, so that it is really only a state of dreaming that one thinks one thinks. By contrast, the other is a state of thinking one thinks, doing so (thinking one thinks) in actuality. Only the latter yields justification for one’s thought that one thinks. The former not only yields no such justification: in it there is no such thought—this despite the fact that, by hypothesis, the two states are indistinguishable, as indistinguishable as is reality from a realistic enough dream. Have we here found a way to defend our perceptual knowledge from the skeptic’s dream argument? Even if we might just as easily be dreaming that we see a hand, this does not entail that we might now be astray in our perceptual beliefs. For, even if we might be dreaming, it does not follow that we might be thinking we see a hand on this same experiential basis, without seeing any hand. After all, in dreaming there is no real thinking and perhaps not even any real experiencing. So, even if I had now been dreaming, which might easily enough have happened, I would not thereby have been thinking that I see a hand, based on a corresponding phenomenal experience. That disposes of the threat posed by dreams for the safety of our beliefs. Does it dispose of the problem of dream skepticism? It does so if dreams create such a problem only by threatening the safety of our perceptual beliefs. Is that the only threat posed by dreams? We next take up this question.

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