version of:   June 20, 2004

Chapter 5: Life as a Dream

All evidence we have about the reality of our realm is part of that realm, and hence inconclusive in establishing anything about its reality apart from what appears. We label what appears variably as material objects, thoughts, feelings, memories, and the like; and if we are careful, we can make a distinction between our experiences of material objects and the inferred independent existence of those objects. The internal consistency and great complexity of our realm leaves us completely convinced of its reality. But on what basis, other than habit, do we draw this conclusion, and how certain are we of its truth?


These questions may seem only academic, or just irrelevant, amusing perhaps when you first think about them and realize that the logic is ironclad, but no more than that. Yet, when we ask ourselves what it would mean to extend the scientific method beyond an exclusive concern with objects, we cannot avoid asking these questions, even at the risk of sounding silly.

Imagine how silly it must have seemed to Copernicus' contemporaries, this notion that the Earth is rotating, while the stars don't move. We, rocks and trees and everything around us, are moving around the surface of the Earth with a speed comparable to the speed of sound, what a preposterous idea! And beside, the Earth is whirling through space in its journey around the Sun at a speed of twenty miles a second.

And yet we now have gotten used to the idea. We can even watch our planet from afar, from the Moon, or from passing interplanetary space craft when they swing by the Earth on their way to the outer planets. What is more, we have come across many more surprises. For example, we have learned to view even a piece of rock or lead as largely empty: more than 99.9 percent of the mass of an atom is concentrated in its nucleus, tiny with respect to the atom itself, like a flea in a cathedral. This notion, too, took a while to get used to.

There is an anecdote about a popular talk given by Lord Rutherford about his discovery of the almost empty nature of atom. When he described his model of the atom, a man in the audience objected saying that this theoretical idea was clearly refuted by the fact that walking into an iron beam was far from an experience of emptiness. Rutherford's answer was short and simple, something along the lines of ``the reason, dear Sir, of your discomfort in walking into an iron beam stems from the fact that your head is even more empty than the iron beam!''

Psychology and Philosophy

It is only to be expected that a study of the subject would come up with similar surprises, and even closer to home, so to speak. Starting with Freud and Jung, Psychologists have posited the existence of vast amounts of unconscious processing, but there is much controversy about whether their assumptions have a basis in fact, or are largely speculation. What cannot be doubted, though, is that many of our seemingly free conscious choices are driven by motives that we are largely unconscious of.

Philosophers have speculated about the role of the subject, in various ways. Bishop Berkeley indeed considered life to be like a dream, or as we would say nowadays, as a virtual reality; in his case the superuser guiding the simulation was God. Kant spoke about the subject as having a priori knowledge, putting the subject rather than objects in the center, in a shift that he compared with the Copernican shift of putting the Sun rather than the Earth in the center.

More recently, cognitive psychologists have designed ingenious experiments to study the way a subject reacts in a controlled environment under various conditions. However, these experiments have been designed largely as an extension of the natural science attitude toward studying objects. The behaviorist school went furthest in that direction, by treating any experimental subject as a black box, whether human or animal.

There is this joke about two behaviorists making love, followed by one asking the other: ``it was good for you, how was it for me?'' The last few decades have see a turn back to giving subjects a voice, but by and large reports of first-person experience are considered suspect and labeled as introspection, something that falls outside objective forms of control. Only reports in third-person style are valued, written by the experimenter watching the person involved in the experiment.


I foresee a more direct and balanced approach toward the study of a world in terms of subjects and objects. Rather than treating the subject with suspicion, as a cumbersome and recalcitrant type of object that needs to be tamed, a new approach would start with experience directly, rather than with a world of objects.

To see what this could mean, exactly, will need some careful investigation. We will do that in Part 2, but we can start by setting the stage. The main problem is that already in daily life we view ourselves as being defined by inhabiting a body, as an object among other objects in this world, while our thoughts are produced in our brains, a complex object that is part of our body.

The question is not whether these assumptions are correct or not. They are clearly correct within the object-centered picture of the world, which is an extremely useful picture to work with. There is a good reason for children to acquire a working knowledge of this picture of the world, early on; they would not be able to function very well without.

Rather the question is: are these the only assumptions that can be considered to be correct? Are there alternative ways of viewing the world, from a completely different starting point?

As in a Dream

It is here that the example of a dream is useful. In a dream, too, we are convinced that there is a realm of objects surrounding us, and normally we appear in this realm with a human body that we consider to be ours, just like in daily life. There are of course differences: the situation is often much more fluid, and strange transformations and inconsistencies may appear that would never happen in daily life, but by and large, the overall set-up is rather similar to that of waking life.

Now if we want to analyze a dream, we will not start from an assumption that the objects in a dream are real. It is obvious to us that both the objects and the subject in a dream are product of the conscious experience of the person sleeping. This person plays the role of a meta-subject. The body of the sleeping person may be quite different from the body experienced in the dream, but after waking up, the person will ascribe the experiences in the dream as having been experienced by the meta-subject, who mistakenly was convinced to be an autonomous subject within the landscape of the dream.

How about using the same approach to waking life, as an experiment? With the example of dreams in hand, we can look around us, and consider all objects around us, as well as ourselves and other people and plants and animals as all given with our conscious experience. Of course, the question arises of who the `I' is behind `my' conscious experience. Like in the case of a dream, we can consider a meta-I, behind the scenes, as it were.

If I consider my thoughts and feelings that seem to be so clearly centered on my body, I have to give them a status that is on a par with that of objects and other life forms surrounding my body. In contrast, the meta-I with whom I then identify by definition cannot be located within the realm that I perceive. It is `elsewhere'.

An Easy Start

Entering this experiment is remarkably easy. If we spend even five minutes looking around, or walking around in this world of ours while pretending it to have the quality of a dream, we may quickly notice how many aspects of ordinary life quickly take on different characteristics. As was the case with the subject-object reversal experiment, for starters things may become more vivid, the world may seem to become more alive.

In addition, we may get more of a sense of freedom. Remembering the fluidity of a typical dreamscape, we can learn to tap some of that fluidity in daily life as well. As a side effect, we can learn to become a bit more playful, perhaps seeing new and fresh angles in situations where we thought we had been stuck.

This shift of considering life as a dream goes in the opposite direction of the shift of Freud and Jung, who viewed dreams as being inherently more real and telling us more about real life than we had thought. In a similar way, such an attitude can help us to loosen up, and to get in touch with aspects of ourselves we normally neglect. And we can do this right here and now, without any need for a background theory or technique.

Nice and useful as these side effects can be, my motivation for suggesting this type of experimentation is different. I view the life-as-a-dream experiment as a next step, following the subject-object reversal, toward the establishment of a science that can describe the world in a way that equally respects the subject and object structures inherent in our life, as we experience it.

The Hard Work

We can start without any theory, observing what it is like to view life as a dream, or a virtual reality, something in which subjects and objects are equally fundamental and equally unreal, in the sense of receiving their reality only in a relative way, with respect to a context. But of course the challenge is to then reflect on the initial observations, to formulate more theoretical ideas about what we can learn from them, and subsequently to put these ideas to the test.

This is how the scientific method was applied to the world of objects: Galileo and Tycho Brahe and others made detailed observations. Kepler and others noted subtle regularities. And it was Newton who first put forward a comprehensive theory of mechanics that formed a masterful interpretive framework that could explain and predict many phenomena and their regularities.

Similarly, we can try to bootstrap our way up from the initial observations of using our waking life as a lab to study what happens when we shift from considering-ourselves-as-waking to considering-ourselves-as-dreaming. And we can't expect to quickly stumble upon the type of comprehensive insights of a Newton. It will require a lot of hard work to proceed even partly in that direction.


In any budding science, after making some field observations and taking notes about them, the next step is to design some more controlled experiments. Here is one suggestion. Instead of consciously viewing our waking life as a dream, we could try to consciously view our dream as a dream, while we are dreaming.

Now this is not as difficult as it may sound. Some people spontaneously have dreams in which they realize that they are dreaming. But even those who have never had such a dream, can learn to switch to that type of dreaming with a moderate amount of training. It typically involves frequently checking during the day whether or not you are dreaming, even if you're totally convinced that you're not. Having formed such a habit, chances are that you will start testing yourself in your dreams as well.

There is a technical term for such a dream in the psychology literature: it is called a `lucid dream', because of its side effects. In many cases, as soon as you realize within the dream that you are dreaming, the dream itself seems to become more lucid. In part 2 we will discuss in more detail this type of experiment as well as others.


In which direction we can begin to develop a theory for a science of subjects and objects is still largely an open question. We are literally at the very beginning of such a science, an exciting place to be, full of possibilities -- both for fruitful explorations and for what may turn out to look like dead ends. Any type of scientific research is like groping in the dark, hit-and-miss with much more miss than hit.

One place to look for inspiration is in the work of the German philosopher Husserl, who has made similar explorations. He did not talk so much about dreams as more abstractly about the shift from our normal orientation of considering the world to be real and out there, to an orientation of seeing everything as given in consciousness. He even coined a technical term for that shift, calling in the epoche, a Greek word for `suspense of judgment'.

Instead of buying into the reality of the world, we suspend our judgment, and deal with all our conscious experiences on the level of experiences, nothing more and nothing less. There is a lot we can learn from Husserl, as we will see later on. He founded the philosophical school of phenomenology, and among his students, directly and indirectly, were Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and many others.

Husserl himself started off in mathematics, and he had a high regard for science in general, viewing his program of phenomenology as an extension of science. In contrast, most of his students had a rather different slant. For example, Heidegger started off in theology, and Sartre in literature. Only recently have there been some attempts to conduct Husserl's original program along more science oriented lines.

A Fresh Beginning

Another example of a move from the world as seen in terms of objects to a world as given in experience can be found in the work of the American cognitive psychologist Gibson. And in cognitive science in general, such moves are sometimes made out of necessity: in robotics, in particular, it pays to focus on what an autonomous machine should do, rather than what type of map the machine could make of the world.

A breakthrough in robotics was made by Brooks in the eighties, making exactly such a shift. Instead of deducing the customary mathematical descriptions of the world around a robot from the information gleaned by its cameras, Brooks first programmed a robot not to run into a wall, using only a proximity sensor. On top of that, he built more and more layers of increasing complexity, allowing more interesting patterns of behavior, without ever projecting the robot's experienced world into a landscape of frozen entities called objects.

We can draw inspiration for these and other approaches, yet it is equally important to start with a fresh beginning. Let us look for ourselves what our observations tell us, and what we can learn by reflecting on them. We will begin to do this in part 2.

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