For most of my adult life, I’ve had a pretty handy way, when I’m asleep—and my dream is getting a bit too scary or unpleasant—of figuring out whether or not I’m probably just dreaming: I try to notice anything going on that is strange, highly improbable, or impossible.
I might, for example, notice that:
- I’ve fallen off a cliff and have only scratches
- I can fly
- I continue to be conscious even after undergoing something that should have killed me
- Someone who has already died is hanging out with me
In other words, something odd or highly unlikely—or either physically or logically impossible—is happening—and that cues me that I’m probably dreaming. Perhaps you’ve noticed similar cues in your own dreams that have suggested to you, while sleeping, that yes, in fact, you are likely to be dreaming.
It’s dawned on me recently that my criteria for deciding whether I’m dreaming are only superficially reliable. Indeed, to put it bluntly, they’re deeply flawed. The reason I say this is that, by my very same criteria, what I take to be reality may also be a dream. Here’s some examples:
- Yesterday, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died on the same day. I realize I’m starting off with a lame example, but it’s something most people wouldn’t expect, and it happened, didn’t it?
- A few months back, a commercial airliner crashed into the Hudson River and nobody died. Once again, this is highly improbable, although I also admit that it is not logically impossible. But still, it’s something that, if I were sleeping, and trying to break the spell of a dream, might arouse my suspicions that yes, in fact, I’m dreaming.
Now you might say that both of these examples are spectacularly poor ones and easily explained. Such things, in a dream, might be no more than the beginning hints of something that is not quite right. But let’s take another example that brings us just a bit further along into doubt about whether you and I are dreaming right now:
- I take it as impossible (as I’m sure that you do) that a human standing on a sidewalk should simply begin to float in the air. But I also notice when I step outside that the sun, the moon, and the stars are in the sky, and that they’re not falling. When you think about it, that’s pretty trippy too. Thomas Jefferson famously said, on first hearing of people claiming to have seen rocks that had fallen out of the sky, that they must be lying, for rocks do not fall to earth from the sky. But meteors do fall to earth, don’t they? How odd to be in a system where some rocks fly and others fall.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Any physicist could explain this seeming contradiction in a snap via the basic principles of gravity and the laws of motion. But here’s what’s interesting: Our dreams are predominantly lawful also. We touch things and they mostly move in predictable ways. Only some of the things in dreams seem out of the ordinary. In other words, most things that happen in dreams are physically impossible only in terms of what we deem to be “normal” in our waking states. But many of the things that are normal in our waking states, when you think about it, are as trippy and utterly contingent as our dreams. The universe didn’t have to have floating suns and moons and some rocks that fall from the sky. But it does. It is true that we have explanations for them, but these explanations are, ultimately, forms of rabbit-chasing question begging. In other words, the “explanation” may be in the dream too. The trippy question is why things should be the way that they are at all, or move in accord with laws, or why there should be any laws in the first place. Laws don’t have to be. And floating suns, moons, and stars don’t have to be. But they are. In short, the universe that you imagine yourself to be awake in is as strange as anything in your dreams. You just think of your dreams as stranger than your waking states because they don’t match your waking states. But your waking states are simply a strangeness of a different kind, not of a different order.
Here’s another example: Dinosaurs. Two hundred years ago people started digging in the earth and finding dinosaurs. Prior to that moment, nobody dreamed that there were such creatures buried in the ground. It’s like in a dream, where you’re suddenly being chased by a monster, or you suddenly find yourself floating. Who would have thought it? But what are your criteria for taking the latter as signifying a dream and the former as signifying reality? Aren’t these kinds of trippy and unexpected “real” discoveries a characteristic of dreams? The same applies to the first time it dawned on people that the earth is not only not flat, but it’s a spinning teensy ball zipping through space at the edge of a galaxy that is just one of a gazillion other galaxies in a universe that may itself be part of a gigantic multiverse.
Surely if you had dreamed such a thing six hundred years ago you’d wake up and say, “That was absurd! I knew I was dreaming!”
But you’re not dreaming, are you?
Here’s my ringer (that we might, in fact, all be dreaming something together). It’s one thing to be suspicious about improbable and seemingly physically impossible things, but when something happens that we know is logically impossible, then surely we must be dreaming, right?
Exhibit A: The universe’s existence. There are only three things that might explain the universe’s existence:
- God made it;
- it made itself; or
- it has always been
That’s it. All three “answers” are, at some level, either a form of question begging, or logically impossible. If, for example, God made the universe, who made God? The creator leads to an endless regression. And let’s look at the second “explanation” for the universe. If the universe made itself, then that means that there once was nothing and now there is something. That’s ridiculous. As King Lear says, “Nothing can come of nothing.” This leaves us with only one more option: The universe has always been. But that explanation for the universe sucks too. If the universe has just always been, how could that be? It’s crazy. As the poet A.R. Ammons has said: “The universe has no floor / but we walk the floor.”
That sounds like a dream to me.
So what if we are living in a dream? What does this mean? Well, one thing it means is that the boundary that you have set between you and everything else is flawed, for you are, in fact, the whole shebang. The universe is all in your head! All the cool and unexpected things that you hear or encounter are coming from you. You’re surprising yourself.
You do that in dreams too, don’t you? People say things or things happen that completely blow you away. You think that you couldn’t possibly have thought of that yourself, but you did, because it happened in your head.
You’re very smart, indeed!
But now my question is: Are you dreaming me, am I dreaming you, or is somebody else dreaming both of us?
And how would we know?
Here’s part of a scene I like in the film Magnolia. The sky starts to rain frogs. The part of this scene where a smart little boy watches the frogs fall and says to himself repeatedly—“This is something that happens!”—is not included here, but I hope you get the point. Weird things—like dinosaurs and physicists who claim we might live in a hologram—crop up periodically in our consciousnesses—and we incorporate them into what we call reality. In other words, we seem vested in a thesis that we live in a “real world” when we might just as well be living in a kind of dream (the hint of which being all the weird shit that’s happening, and that we discover has happened, and that we nevertheless get used to somehow and then take for “normal”):