descartes Skeptical Hypotheses: “Dream Argument”


The paper will discuss the skeptical argument on dreaming by Descartes who fronts it through a meditation in a landmark philosophy. It raises a difficulty that seems to be both devastating and of utmost simplicity in its effect on our presuppositions to know things about the world around us. Descartes describes how we can have our confidence shaken through a single paragraph.

As if I were not a man who sleeps at night, and regularly has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events that I am here in my dressing-gown, sitting by the fire when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep” (CSM 13).


 Precise Statement of the View I Defend In the Paper

Firstly, the dreaming argument should be perceived in the context of meditations. This is because the above excerpts are not traditional philosophical text. Strikingly, they have been expressed by a solitary thinker through the first person point of view, yet they are not an autobiography. For starters, Descartes has not passed through the process he describes in this narration. This means that this is just but a piece of fiction for the author is not talking from real life experience. His introduction to the reader is quite sketchy; a mature individual whose concern is progressing in science. However, he retires from a busy life and thus subjects himself to meditation. Beyond this little is portrayed of him and this is no accident. The few characteristic features of the narrator are intended to ensure that the reader shares in his unfolding viewpoint.

Secondly, Descartes is kind of philosophical and at every opportune time he has he dismisses the probability that he is going through delusions characteristic of an insane person whenever this suggestion prompts itself. “Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapors of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself (CSM 13).

Since an author who thinks he is insane will attract very few readers, Descartes thus decides to present his execution of doubt through the probability of dreaming. The dreams serve his objectives perfectly since they in retro respect have a form of double speak. While on one hand they are experiences of a strong and average mind, on the other hand they are analogous in their fallacy and excessiveness, to the insanity delusions considered by the narrator.

Descartes even believes that there is a part of our brains that is not impacted by dreams. His point is that even though dreams may be perceived to be illusions there is one cognitive part that can be trusted in this imagery. “Whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false” (CSM 14).

However, the assumptions made by Descartes about dreams are comparable to what people experience in their dreams. “I know a man who once, when falling asleep, heard the clock strike four, and counted the strokes as ‘one, one, one, and one’. It then seemed to him that there was something absurd about this, and he shouted out: ‘That clock must be going mad; it has struck one o’clock four times!’ Is there really anything so absurd or irrational that it could not come into the mind of someone who is asleep or raving? (CSM 11)”

The Strongest Objection to My View

The fact that no signs exits to differentiate when a person is either asleep or awake could challenge the kind of response I have adopted towards Descartes intentions. However, several scholars have proved that this objection to my view is mistaken. Thomas Hobbes believes that one distinctive nature of dreams is the absence of an absurd nature. He points out that through dreams we absorb all kinds of strange occurrences without winking our eyelids yet it does not resonate with us that what we are experiencing is so bizarre that it can only occur in fantasy.  On the other hand, when we are awake we become aware of any sense of the absurd upon further reflection we are made aware of what we dreamt. Hobbes thus opines that “because waking I often observe the absurdity of Dreams, but never dream of the absurdities of my waking Thoughts; I am well satisfied, that being awake, I know I dream not; though when I dream, I think myself awake” (Leviathan 90). Hobbes perception of dreams thus has a fascinating symmetry even though we may not be aware when dreaming that we are doing so we are always aware of our being awake.

However, John Locke in his perception of human understanding is not comfortable with the fact that he could be dreaming. The reason for his impatience with the subject is found in his invitation of a critic to dream. He draws a parallel line between the pain and pleasure found in reality but absent in dreams. “I believe he [someone like Descartes] will allow a very manifest difference between dreaming of being in the Fire, and being actually in it” (Locke 14). Locke’s point is that of physical pain, particularly extreme pain an experience one might not have while asleep.

John Austin’s distinctive mark is less specific in nature in comparison to Locke and Hobbes. However, it is similarly disparaging of the cynical possibility. “I may have the experience … of dreaming that I am being presented to the Pope. Could it be seriously suggested that having this dream is ‘qualitatively indistinguishable’ from actually being presented to the Pope? Quite obviously not After all, we have the phrase ‘a dream-like quality’; some waking experiences are said to have this dream-like quality, and some artists and writers occasionally try to impart it, usually with scant success to their works… If dreams were not ‘qualitatively’ different from waking experiences, then every waking experience would be like a dream; the dream-like quality would be, not difficult to capture, but impossible to avoid” (Austin 49).

I have three cases of evidence that of how waking experiences and dreams are two worlds far apart. Hobbes deficiency of the sense of absurdity, Locke’s feelings of physical pain; Austin’s detectable but intangible atmosphere that is prevalent in dreams but lacks in the waking experience. However, Descartes response to this evidence would be certain in that he would oppose the fact that dreams can have feelings of pain or absurdity or lack the dream like impression altogether. He is likely to pose that not experiencing in the past cannot be equated to never experiencing in the future.

My strategy in responding to him is to appeal to any dream that could mirror his potential experience. However, this would be an extraordinary presupposition. For it would presume dreams to be limitless in nature and have the potential to reemerge in any physical manifestation. However, this is Descartes notion of dreams: that dreams have the capacity to duplicate any thought, scenario or feelings. With this notion in his mind, Descartes fends of all criticism to his skeptical argument.
















Works Cited

Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, OUP, (2009): 49-50. Print.

CSM  The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, translated by Nottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, 2 (2009): (11-13).Print.

Leviathan, ed. C.B. MacPherson, Penguin, (2010): (90-91).  Print.

Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon, 1975, IV.ii.14.


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