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Teaching Philosophy

The Dream Hypothesis, Transitions, and the Very Idea of Humanity

James F. Perry
Hillsborough Community College

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ABSTRACT: Why should we believe in such a thing as humanity? Should we accept appearances or take authority as our guide? Should we point to some pragmatic advantage to be gained by believing it, or is there proof? Philosophy offers such proof, contained in the dream hypothesis of the Buddha and Plato (and, more famously, Descartes). The dream hypothesis reveals our common ground. It refers to a familiar experience in terms of which young people of every time and place can understand why routine, authority, definition and first principle, category, criterion, perception and paradigm might fail. But the dream hypothesis is about the transition from sleeping to waking. As familiar, this transition is an excellent device for teaching that similar transitions can happen to one who is already awake. The dream hypothesis is about the soul, and the capacity to choose not only one's actions but also one's contexts. On the eve of the new millennium, we face responsibility for the results of our routines. The dream hypothesis promises to awaken a taste for foresight and negotiation. When we all understand the dream hypothesis, we will no longer worship our routines, but will be better judges of their utility. We will stand together when we transcend our cultures and recognize the capacity of all citizens of every nation, tribe, and culture to grow, that is, when we awaken to the possibility of waking up.

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This is a plea for the dream hypothesis-a sales pitch, if you will. We are here under the banner, "Philosophy Educating Humanity." If philosophy is to educate humanity, the dream hypothesis will help prove to people of all tribes that there is such a thing as humanity. The dream hypothesis will introduce every child to its own humanity, but it will also introduce every child to the humanity of others. The dream hypothesis will increase the number of fully-functioning souls, that is to say, beings with the capacity to decide rationally what game to play, what interpretation to accept, what routine to follow.

According to some philosophers, the dream hypothesis is at best useless. Russell said as much in Problems of Philosophy:

There is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that it is true; and it is, in fact, a less simple hypothesis, viewed as a means of accounting for the facts of our own life, than the common-sense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations.

This seems typical. On Russell's view the dream hypothesis isn't really all that much of an intellectual outrage, but it simply doesn't amount to a hill of beans in solving any important human problems. Note, however, Russell's acknowledgment that "accounting for the facts of our own life" is a legitimate function of an hypothesis such as this. His remark will prove prophetic.

There is, as Russell claims, no reason to suppose that "life is but a dream"; but there is a great deal of reason to suppose that life might be a dream, and that makes all the difference. Russell's attention was misdirected. The dream hypothesis isn't about the senses at all. The dream hypothesis isn't about dreams. It isn't even about sleeping. The dream hypothesis, as Schopenhauer noted, (1) is about the transition between dreaming and waking. It's about changes of purpose, context, interpretation. The dream hypothesis might prove to be true-we might wake up to find that we have misunderstood everything. Anyone might wake up, and this is true forever.

The dream hypothesis appears in western literature for the first time in Plato's Theaetetus (158b). (2) Socrates asks, "How can you determine whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?" Theaetetus answers: "Indeed, Socrates, I do not know how it could be determined, for in both cases the facts precisely correspond; and there is no difficulty in supposing that during all this discussion we have been talking to one another in a dream . . . ." Socrates then remarks that "a doubt about the reality of sense is easily raised, since there may even be a doubt whether we are awake or in a dream."

I think this reference to the senses narrows the interpretation of the dream hypothesis unreasonably. The significance of the phenomenon of awakening was brought to Greece from India (where the least abstract meaning of the Sanskrit "buddha" was "awakened") before Socrates was born. Socrates shared with Buddhism the figurative meaning, applying it to definitions and first principles. Socrates's self-concept as midwife maps perfectly onto the modern concept of "a wake-up call." It also maps exactly onto Plato's allegory of the cave. All three narratives focus on transition-birth, awakening, escape-between two different states and not on any one (routine) state alone.

As Schopenhauer explained, only after we wake up can we be certain that we were asleep; he might have gone on to say that even when we awaken there is no certainty but that we might in the future awaken again, and perhaps yet again. We who are awake can choose to wonder about this, and I think we had better. To be human is to recognize the possibility that all of us, great and small, high and low, rich and poor, foreign and domestic, might undergo transitions as fundamental as awakening from a dream. This possibility of "awakening" is the ultimate opportunity for humans, the ultimate justification for science, for learning, and for universal democracy. If it is forever possible for us to wake up, then we had better spend our lives developing the skills and vision to cope with awakening in case we do.

Is it possible for a transition as fundamental as waking up from a dream to occur to someone who is already, in the physiological sense at least, awake? This is the issue. Is it possible for the entire realm of meaning within which an individual is functioning-commitments, expectations, feelings, and all-to disappear almost instantly and be replaced by a different realm of meaning? Major transitions, such as the sudden death of a spouse, are reported by the individuals going through them to be much like waking up. Retirement, divorce, immigration, graduation, invasion . . . these and many other processes seem to the people involved to amount to moving from one realm of meaning to another, a qualitative difference. Science's history provides more examples of this phenomenon. Thomas Kuhn introduced us to the concept of the paradigm-shift: the creative choice of a fundamental transition. (3) An awakening.

How is this important to "philosophy educating humanity"? The use of the term "humanity" in the title of this conference raises a vital question, namely, why should anyone believe there is such a thing as humanity? After all, every culture in the world teaches its children that there is no humanity but "us." The term "humanity" is simply another name for one's own tribe, and as long as people take that as true there's little chance for philosophy to educate anyone in the way that philosophy is uniquely and essentially qualified to do. So long as "human" is taken to mean "member of the right tribe" it is self-defeating, for anything that is a member is literally not a person at all. A member may mimic human behavior, but it is not the sort of thing that can play the role of a person. It cannot even choose to try. It is a utensil at best, not a person. And if we think of ourselves as mere members, then for us there is no humanity at all, no hope, no end to alienation, and no reason to respect or educate anyone.

Why should anyone believe there is such a thing as humanity? Stipulation won't work, because every tribe on earth has already stipulated otherwise. Appearances deceive, and authorities contradict and deny. What we need is proof that such a thing as humanity exists. I think the dream hypothesis is such a proof, and I think it is directly accessible to everyone in all times and places. The dream hypothesis is a universal wake-up call to every individual.

According to Goethe, what the dream hypothesis applies to is beings with the capacity to choose their purposes and routines. Recall the offer of the supremely bored Dr. Faust: his soul in return for a fascinating life. Mephistopheles's response was to offer an endless series of fascinating episodes in return for Faust's abandoning the right to say "Verweile doch! Du bist so schön," i.e., the right to stop, to object to a change of context when an episode ended. This was exactly the trade Faust had sought, for the soul is precisely the capacity to object, reflectively, to context, to interpretation, to culture, to routine.

Truth represents a threat to all traditional forms of established order, as Plato explained ironically when he argued that the kind of deceit represented by the so-called "myth of the metals" (Republic 414a-415c) must be employed to maintain the sort of (clearly unjust) society proposed in the Republic. (4) That is why it is customary for positivist and behaviorist routines to be used to suppress the disruptive potential of reflection: it is for the benefit of the community (especially, as Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom, its leaders, who insist they must be trusted blindly). Against the dream hypothesis, therefore, stand the following familiar lines of argument. We cannot question culture: heredity and environment are definitive in the social sciences (though not in the humanities). We have a right not to question culture, since it's our identity, our home. We have a moral duty not to question culture. Most people don't want to question culture and moreover couldn't handle the stress and responsibility. It takes too long to question culture and costs too much: the level of self-control required for reflective function takes many years of training and practice to develop and powerful sanctions to enforce.

The dream hypothesis is thus widely and rightly viewed as a threat to any traditional established order; for the sake of order, it must be fought and censored. Russell was saying as much when he claimed that "ultimate values are not matters as to which argument is possible . . . . As to ultimate values, men may agree or disagree, they may fight with guns or with ballot-papers, but they cannot reason logically." (5) Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., provides technical terms: "the abyss that separates any conflicting philosophical systems precludes any use of argumentum ad rem; for to appeal to evidence in attacking a position that claims to include all the evidence is to beg the question. Thus every valid philosophical argument is ad hominem." (6) This may be why every beginning philosophy student is told what happened to Socrates, judged to deserve destruction. The poison hemlock he was given to drink was literally an ad hominem attack, the same as the instruments of torture shown to Galileo, the same as Auschwitz. These are to many people appropriate responses to the dream hypothesis and to any other threat to the established order.

But so is science a threat to any particular established order. So is the U.S. Patent Office. So is Article V of the United States Constitution (which authorizes amendments). So is every creative act. So above all is the second law of thermodynamics: time is the ultimate threat to established order.

To the contrary of all this hostility to reflection, we can reflect, we can question culture, and we have a right and duty to do so, and it doesn't take too long and cost too much, and rather than representing a threat to the modern democratic order it represents its foundation and essence. Moreover, it is definitive for the human condition. To deny children access to this level of functioning is to make them utensils rather than persons. It denies them functioning souls: this is, in theological terms, damnation. To fail to teach children the dream hypothesis is to make children mere organic robots, functioning at a subhuman level, trying to identify with their routines and to believe everyone else does so as well and cannot do otherwise. This way lies confusion and self-loathing, justified and hopeless.

Questioning culture-reflecting-offers the prospect of valuable benefits:

A. Enabling us to distinguish between routine and reflective functioning

B. Disabling existential angst: the proper fear that any convention will fail

C. Ending manipulation, stratification, tyranny, and alienation: choices fail, but choice endures

D. Facilitating translation, transaction, transition, transformation, transfer

E. Facilitating participation in the universal dialog, both on and off the Internet

F. Enabling recognition of and respect for human potential: the capacity to grow

G. Enabling universal science, democracy, humor, transcendent religion.

The dream hypothesis appeals to a familiar human experience, and supports by analogy the principle that such transitions are possible even when we are awake. Anyone can understand the possibility of waking. "Neglect of context," said John Dewey, "is the greatest single disaster which philosophical thinking can incur." (7) To neglect, or ignore, the concept of context is to deny responsibility for choosing context. Not to teach the concept of context, by use of the dream hypothesis for example, is to disable children and risk that they will die without ever having known that they had a choice as to the context within which they interpret experience and select purposes. This is worse than tragic; this is evil.

The dream hypothesis can be illuminated by locating it in a three level model of human thought and action (see Appendix A). Three levels of human action are possible. The first level of action is random. Random action is unpredictable, unproductive, and usually self-destructive, albeit exciting, and though it sometimes leads to new knowledge and cherished experiences it is more stressful than satisfying and more dangerous than rewarding, not only to the agent but also to the agent's neighbors-partner, family, tribe, community, nation, culture. Random deviance from the status quo will be viewed, accurately, as a threat to traditional order and shared purposes; it will be shunned or attacked.

The second level is called routine or conventional. Action is predictable and productive at this level, even if the constraints of routine are painful to learn and irritating to abide by. Shared routine is the essence of all our communities of whatever size. Custom (the mores, the ethos) is the stuff of ordinary life, and no individual nor any community can survive without it. Routines are of undeniable and enormous value as foundations for predictability, productivity, and growing. Routine deviance may be inconsistent with the status quo, but it will also be an alternative to it.

Yet every routine has an iatrogenic dimension. This is the point of the dream hypothesis (and of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, applied to human systems). Every routine must fail in time to account for experience, because of internal contradictions and gaps or novelty in the environment. To discover the limitations of one's routine will be, and feel, exactly like waking up from a dream.

To consider this possibility is to begin to function at the reflective level and confront the ultimate human responsibility: to prepare one's mind to cope with the failure of one's entire view of the human situation, and to share life with others who stand in need of the same preparation for the same reason. To do so is to beget the soul, the defining fact of humanity, the capacity to take responsibility not only for following a routine but also for choosing it. Reflective deviance takes responsibility for the routine it deviates from, and especially for the purposes the routine serves.

The third level of action, reflection, is not a level of functioning that cultures introduce to most children. It is a level that some children, even at their best, may only be able to understand but not perform. It renders citizens less predictable and malleable. Cultures invariably make strenuous effort to prevent reflective thinking, teaching instead that definitions are reality, that the categories of ordinary language "cut reality at the joints," and that supernatural forces will punish doubters. How societies strengthen the will to believe the orthodox interpretive narrative is familiar to any student of sociology.

And this suits most people passionately well. Routine is predictable and comfortable. Routine is of great value in many ways. In time it comes to feel like home, like love itself. If we reflect on our routines, we spend scarce resources such as time and energy (physical, emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual), and to do what? To risk discovering that we are wrong. As important as such a discovery may be, its cost overwhelms and confuses us, obscuring the prospective benefit.

Any society that expects to survive beyond the present generation must do more than merely transmit its routine to the next generation; it must also transmit the capacity to transmit its routine. Routine does not maintain itself, nor does the capacity to maintain it: ritual mimicry degenerates with time. The dream hypothesis helps explain this process. Thus the dream hypothesis encourages creative responsibility for the contingency of categories and interpretations, of commitment and context and purpose, of feelings and expectations, indeed, about the contingency of every durable element of experience, thought and action.

The world over, it is a mistake to claim, as Woodrow Wilson did, (8) that all cultures are equally valid at all times in all places for all purposes. Such a claim ignores results and the possibility of vindication. (9) It ignores the human level of responsibility. It dehumanizes persons by deifying their artifacts. In the language of our day, it Balkanizes us. This must stop if we are ever to have a universe-wide human community. We must teach all our children about the possibility of everyone's waking up.

The charismatic founders of the world's great mainstream religions envisioned a transcendent tribe within which the many virtues of tribal life could be universalized while the contingency of each tribe was appreciated. The result was only a different set of tribes. The time has come for this to stop. As we embark on the Postmodern millennium, the dominant theme of the era now passing into history-shared faith that scientific progress will reach perfection-is being replaced by an awakening to the fact that sharing the process is our only hope. The chance of error is forever, so the vision, skill and courage to seek our errors is the only workable foundation for a global community. The celebrated and maligned dream hypothesis will serve as a practical instrument for awakening all people the world over.

Shimon Peres remarked, on the day of the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, that "negotiation is the art of life; confrontation is the art of death." (10) Unless we can justify everyone's claim to humanity, however, we can't justify negotiating, for who negotiates with a utensil? If what Russell and Johnstone told us were true, we can only confront. As Kant told us, however, there is nothing absolute but good will. The dream hypothesis inspires Kantian good will by proving the humanity of all.

The Postmodern millennium is about to begin. In past millennia we have told our children that they had no choice beyond the established order, and the tragic result has been that most of them lived and died like sheep, in random deviance and robotic routine. In the next millennium, let us tell the truth. Let us explain the dream hypothesis to everyone. Let us inspire more reflective (and less random) deviance.

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(1) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Dover Publications, 1969), Vol. I p. 17

(2) The best-known presentation of the dream hypothesis is undoubtedly that of Descartes, Meditation I. See my earlier analysis of this topic, "Plato's Dream Hypothesis: A Metacommunicative Statement," Man and World, Vol. 8 #2, May, 1975

(3) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (U. Chicago Press, 1962)

(4) Plato stated (Republic 368) that the Republic is only a model writ large of a just individual.

(5) Bertrand Russell, Education and the Social Order (Unwin paperbacks, 1977), p. 136

(6) Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., Philosophy and Argument (Penn State U. Press, 1961), pp. 3f.

(7) John Dewey, "Context and Thought," U. Cal. Publications in Philosophy, Vol 12, #3 (U. Cal. Press, 1931); reprinted in Experience, Nature, and Freedom, ed. Richard Bernstein (Liberal Arts Press, 1960)

(8) See D. P. Moynihan, Pandaemonium (Oxford U. Press, 1993)

(9) See Herbert Feigl, "De Principiis Non Disputandum . . . ?" in Max Black, ed., Philosophical Analysis (Prentice Hall, 1963)

(10) On The Charlie Rose Show, September 16, 1995; Peres is also the author of a book addressing the possibility and utility of lasting peace in the Middle East, The New Middle East (Henry Holt, 1993). Another book of value addressing this issue is Roy Weatherford, World Peace and the Human Family (Routledge, 1993). A significant number of books addressing the prospect of "going meta" relative to our religious, political, and cultural routines, have been published in recent years. I recommend especially the following: D. P. Moynihan, op. cit.; D.P. Moynihan, On the Law of Nations (Harvard, 1990); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (Basic Books, 1991); James Davison Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins (Free Press, 1994); Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education (Harvard, 1996).


Random, Routine, and Reflective: The Three Levels Of Thought And Action

Level #1: Random (Pre-conventional, chaos: unpredictable, unproductive, self-destructive)


"Brownian" motion, caprice, coin-tosses, whimsy, impulse, two (or more) masters, recipes, or other routines


spontaneity, distraction, exploration and discovery, novelty and variety, surprise and excitement, disguise, deception, confusion

Level #2: Routine (Conventional, cosmos: predictable, productive)


institutions, recipes, trades and professions, contracts and games, ideologies, cultures, trails, scripts, "home," jobs, careers, nations, habits, personalities, character, integrity, protocol, stereotypes, prayer as routine (ritual), "status quo," ceremony plan, position, "default setting," study regimen


coherence across space and time; guiding expectations, coordination of diverse purposes; controlling change, avoiding "being your own worst enemy", communication: a shared language, predictability to self and others, identity and recognizability, managing surprise, shock, stress, productivity and long-range planning, defense against persuasion & manipulation, development of skills and judgment, development of useful associations: perceptual, conceptual, affective, motor, recognizing mistakes and other emergencies

Level #3: Reflective (Post-conventional, conscious of & responsible for routines)


legislatures, judges, arbitrators, diplomats, trustees, boards of directors, Constitutional amendments, conscience, consciousness, "mind," "soul," prayer as review


creation of routines and analysis of iatrogenic/nosocomial issues, revision and amendment of routines, comparison of routines in terms of costs and benefits: utility, elegance, learnability, coherence, efficiency, adaptability, fruitfulness, transition between routines: religious conversion, "nest-leaving time," marriage, divorce, promotion, retirement, immigration, learning, correcting routine mistakes and resolving emergencies and analysis of routine negotiation, compromise: resolving conflict between routines coordination and integration of multiple routines.

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