With thanks to Marilyn McCord Adams (Rutgers), John Pittard (Yale), Stephen R Ogden (Johns Hopkins), and Gabriel Citron (Toronto) for participating in this symposium.
Gabriel’s original paper can be found here. The paper was the recipient of the APJ’s Annual Essay Prize:
Dreams, Nightmares, and a Defense Against Arguments from Evil
Responses from our symposiasts, and Gabriel’s response to them, can be found here:
Comments on ‘Dreams, Nightmares’ – Adams, Pittard, Ogden, & Citron
Please feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below.
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This has been a fascinating discussion so far – with a wonderful paper and then really probing comments and responses from our invited symposiasts.
If I may, I’d like to kick off these comments on the blog with some questions for Gabriel:
1. Is God responsible for giving us nightmares, if the dream hypothesis turns out to be true? And isn’t that an evil, even if a lesser evil than inflicting real pain?
2. I’m of the opinion that religious faith doesn’t require belief, but that it does require something like hope – so I’m on bored with some of what you say here. But in the discussion you basically say that certainty that God exists isn’t okay, because it would demand certainty that this world is just a dream, which would in turn have an antinomian consequence. Do you really think that that’s true? It’s at least a possibility that a perfectly good God is giving us this dream in order to achieve some end, and that even in the dream, he wants us to behave ourselves!
3. How far does your reductivisim about God-talk really go? If all God-talk is talk about the cosmsos, then when we say that talking about God is talking about the cosmos, we end up saying that talking about the cosmos is talking about the cosmos. That would be trivial! Of course, you could make some Fregean moves here about sense and reference, but I think that that would miss the point. Let me, therefore, put it another way: on one view that you tout, God is dreaming the world into existence. Do you really take that to mean that the world is dreaming itself into existence?
4. Just a comment. I love the idea that in the end of days our religion will have to be different to how it is now, since, for example, it will turn out there never was slavery in Egypt (it was just a dream). Tyron Goldshmidt and I are currently working on a paper about the possibility that God will one day change the past – removing certain evils. That position shares this idea in common with your own. Numerous Jewish sources imply that in the eschaton all of the festivals commemorating historical events (other than Purim) will be annulled. Perhaps this supports your contention.
Thanks for these questions and comments, Sam! I’ll post a reply to each of the questions separately, trying not to make my comments too long…
Response to Sam’s question 1:
Yes, in the defence I do take God to be responsible for instilling the dreams/nightmares in us, so I do take God to be causing the minimal kind of suffering that is involved in having nightmares. I try to deal with this suffering in section 4 of the original paper. In short, I say there that the kind of calculi that I reject when it comes to weighing great benefits against horrific suffering, are much less objectionable when it comes to weighing great benefits against very minimal suffering. So I embrace a kind of soul-making defence to justify God’s inflicting on us the very minimal suffering involved in having a life-like nightmare. The great advantage that we get from these dream-lives – and that we couldn’t get as effectively in any other way – is a far deeper appreciation of the goods of our actual life (the lives into which we will re-awake): appreciation of our lack of suffering, our flourishing, our freedom from guilt. We gain this deeper appreciation of these goods by means of the dream-experience which viscerally shows us how very easily our lives could have been so much worse in all those respects. The idea is that this is a very great good, gained by means of very minimal suffering (the minimalness is essential here), that could only be gained that way – so it is the kind of suffering that God is justified in inflicting (like any good parent might)…
Response to Sam’s question 2:
This raises a lot of complicated issues, but here are a few thoughts… In my reply to Stephen’s comments I said that if someone believed that my defence is the only one that could successfully defuse arguments from evil, then, if they were sure that there is a God, they could conclude that any life like this (that includes so much suffering) is certainly a dream. As you say, I then worried that this might have antinomian consequences.
Firstly, it occurs to me now, that there is a much better way out of the conclusion that life is certainly a dream, than needing to be an agnostic about God’s existence (one that I did not mention in my reply, but which I wish I had). Namely, one could be an agnostic about whether my suggested dream-sceptical defence is the only available way to rebut arguments from evil (and this is, I think, a very plausible agnosticism indeed)! I think that this would be just as good at halting the move from my argument and God’s existence to the conclusion that this life is definitely a dream…
But ignoring that, for now, what about your question: might God want us to behave morally even in our dreams? I will convert this into the slightly simpler question of: could it be that we have actual moral obligations in our dreams? In section 6.ii of the original paper I try to present some considerations against the thought that we bear moral responsibility for what we do in a dream. Namely, that (a) it’s not clear that it’s me in the relevant sense who acts in a dream, and (b) it’s not clear that the dream protagonist who does act is free in the morally relevant sense, and (c) in any case, since dream-consequences are of no great actual significance, they cannot be of great moral significance… Together, these considerations make me doubt that it would make sense to say that protagonists in dreams have moral obligations, or that God obligates them to behave one way rather than another.
On this general topic it’s interesting to think about the case of Embury Brown’s dream which I quoted in my response to Stephen. Do we think that he did wrong in trying mightily to kill two people in his dream? In that case it was a lucid dream, so we may even think that my considerations (a) and (b) against our dream-selves being morally accountable do not apply… But even so, I do not think that he behaved wrongly in killing people in his dream, because, as he reasoned in his dream: “it is certainly a dream, and can do no real harm”. If we judge him negatively, it might be because we take this dream-behaviour to reflect something sinister in his actual moral character. But even this does not seem right to me. It might merely mean that he was more curious than he was squeamish, and that he was absolutely sure that dream-actions have no moral significance because they do no harm.
I appreciate all your responses, Gabriel, but I thought I’d respond to this second one:
Why not say that our lives are importantly like a dream, from which we will awake into real life. One of the similarities with a dream, is that upon awaking, with relief, the evils we experienced will all but vanish.
But why not say, that in other ways, it’s not exactly like a dream.
Perhaps it’s a little like the Matrix. Or at least, something more like a lucid dream, in which, though in this case, we’re not sure we’re dreaming, we do exercise real control over our actions.
God might be putting us through the experience for a number of reasons, including the ones you give, but also in order to refine our character. If that’s the case, then he won’t want us doing bad things in these dreams.
The other parts of your response, like agnosticism not about God but about one’s theodicy, do seem to work.
Rabbi Naftali Brawer recently wrote a piece in which he suggested that doubt was necessary for faith (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/licence-to-doubt/).
I don’t think I agree with him. since I don’t think it should be part of the analysis of ‘faith’, but I do think that doubt (or periods of it) might play an essential role in the religious life. So I was interested by your appeal to agnosticism, even if I did implicitly criticise it in my questions.
Hi Sam! – I can definitely see why you’d want to push for dream-actions to have genuine moral value, but I think that for my defence to work I need to push against that tendency. This is because the ‘evils’ that make up the problem of evil can be seen as dividing into two equal categories: (i) the evils of undergoing and (ii) the evils of perpetration – and a good theodicy or defence must be able to deal well with both these kinds of thing. For this reason I was particularly attracted by dreams, which have the characteristic that when we wake from them we often entirely discount *both* the suffering that we seemed to undergo *and* also the bad things that we seemed to do. If – as you are suggesting – we try to get the defence going using a state similar to dreams but in which doing good and bad nonetheless genuinely apply, then I fear that the defence will be considerably weakened in dealing with evils of category (ii): because to the degree that I have a genuine moral obligation in a dream (or to the degree that God genuinely wants certain things of us in the dream), then I will also rightly feel genuinely guilty/distraught, after waking, about my moral failings in the dream. But it is just the suffering of that guilt/distraughtness at one’s own serious failings that is half of the motivation towards constructing a defence in the first place…
That was useful. I now see your point. The dream hypothesis has to undo, somehow, even the evil of perpetration.
But can’t we say this – while the dream is being dreamt, in the story of the dream, so to speak, the evils are real evils – both those suffered and those perpetrated. What really does the work, is the idea of waking up.
Waking up will somehow transform things.
I find that easier to get on board with. Otherwise, we’d have to deny all talk of doing wrong in a dream. But surely I can reasonably say, ‘I dreamt that I did something terrible the other day.’ And that means, that it was true, relative to the dream, that I did something terrible. And yet, thankfully, I woke up. Waking up meant that I have no reason to feel guilty.
I don’t think it’s right to say that it is the waking up that transforms things in dreams from bad into benign or from significant into insignificant – though it is often the waking up that transforms how we see things. In fact, waking up is not even necessary for that transformation of evaluation, as I show with the examples of lucid dreamers who changed their evaluation of what was happening to them as soon as they realized they were dreaming – from within the dream (see the two examples I quoted in my comment of May 9th at 5:50pm: Part II). Rather, simply by virtue of being ‘merely’ a dream, things done in it and things that happen to one are or radically diminished significance.
This doesn’t mean that we need to jettison all talk of doing right or wrong in dreams. It will just turn out that ‘I dreamt I did something morally terrible’ means something like: ‘I dreamt I did something that was morally terrible by the canons of the dream narrative’, or ‘I dreamt I did something which would have counted as morally terrible if I had done it while awake’. Sentences whose meaning are a little more complicated than they at first appear are very common, so neither of these interpretations strike me as implausible.
Response to Sam’s question 3:
I won’t say too much about ‘my reductivism’, as I haven’t yet fully worked out the position… But, as I mentioned in fn. 8 of my responses, I’m certainly not suggesting that God be reduced to the world (or that every mention of the word ‘God’ be replaced with the word ‘world’). Rather, the position that attracts me is one in which something like the following ‘translation’ rule is followed: ‘God is Φ’ = ‘The world is Ψ’, where Φ is the quality that we would usually attribute to a regular agent if that agent were responsible for something being Ψ. Note that Φ and Ψ will sometimes be the same quality, but sometimes will not. Consider these two rough examples: (i) ‘God is good’ would mean ‘The world is good’, because if a regular agent were to be responsible for something being good, we would tend to attribute the quality of goodness to them; and (ii) ‘God is intelligent’ would mean ‘The world is complex and intricate’, because if a regular agent were to be responsible for something being complex and intricate, we would tend to attribute the quality of intelligence to them. As I mentioned, this is very close to the kind of reductive translation that Maimonides recommends when he discusses God’s ‘attributes of action’ (and actually, I think that he sometimes endorses exactly this naturalistic reduction – but that claim is more controversial). If a certain God-sentence couldn’t be coherently reduced following this translation formula (or a tweaked version of it), I would be inclined to simply rule it out. This reductionism, after all, is not meant to be a description of what all God-talk always actually means, but rather, a suggestion for how God-talk has been and might be used by some naturalists (to the degree that it can be). I’ll need to give some thought to whether a sentence like ‘God is dreaming the world into existence’ can be coherently reduced in this way…
I thought, from footnote 8, that this would be what you say. Good!
I don’t mind the translation scheme as some sort of rule of thumb, but it won’t always work.
I think it’s really important for your theodicy (rather than your cosmodicy) that you’re able to say that God is the one making us have these dreams. That shouldn’t be translated away, and I’m not convinced that it could be.
I’m pretty sure that ‘God is bringing it about that our current lives are dream-lives’ could simply be reduced to ‘It is the case that our current lives are dream-lives’.
But I might need to do a bit more thinking to figure out how the reduction of quality-attributions (with their translation rule I expressed above) relate to the reduction of action-attributions (including causal statements like the one you mention).
However sympathetic I am to certain mild forms of apophaticism, or at least to apophatic figures of speech, I think that a theist at some point has to end up referring to God. I personally don’t think you should resist that, for fear that you rip all of the content away from theism.
That’s what pleased me about footnote 8.
For instance, if ‘God causes us to be dreaming’ just means ‘we are dreaming’, then I don’t see how your theodicy isn’t just a cosmodicy in disguise.
POSTED ON BEHALF OF MARILYN MCCORD ADAMS:
Gabriel quotes someone who says that the world as we know it is the object of God’s dream. This is surely a comment on the ontological status of the world as we know it. One might have thought the world as we know it is real, that it has a reality over and above whatever ontological status it has as an object of Divine thought. But the author suggests that this is not the case, that for things other than God to be is for them to be intentional objects that God has dreamed up. (Perhaps there are many kinds of intentional objects in God’s mind, and the world is a special subset of these that the panentheistic theory would somehow partition.) God is real, the real dreaming subject, but God’s intentional objects other than Godself are dream-objects and the world is a dreamt world.
My read of this hypothesis is that it leaves the world as we know it, pretty much as we know it. Or, more precisely, the objects and their properties and–where conscious beings are concerned–their thoughts and experiences, are just the same as they would be if they were real. It’s just that their ontological status is that of being God’s dream objects.
In that case, even if my ontological status is dreamt existence instead of real existence, I still have all of the same properties, including experiential properties. Indexical statements such as ‘My pain is unbearable’ would be as true of myself in dreamt existence (as the object of God’s dream) as it would be of myself in real existence, had I (and the rest of the world other than God) real existence instead. The same for others in dreamt existence.
If God is dreaming the world as we know it, we are each and all objects of God’s dream, and have all of our properties and experiences that we thought we each and all had. So I don’t see how the mere shift in ontological status–saying that the world as we know it is dreamt rather than real–would change anything about our moral obligations to help other (what turn out to be) dream-selves who are experiencing suffering etc. Wanting other (what turn out to be) dream-selves to flourish and/or to be related to us in this or that way would have all of the same points that it appears to have now. Because the hypothesis just imbeds the world as it is now in God’s dream as opposed to giving it some ontological status other than being God’s intentional object. Nor would the shift in ontological status have any bearing on the evaluation of whether the world is good, because all of its good-making and bad-making features would be imbedded in the dream.
To be sure, some who say that reality is God’s dream do so because they think the world is not good, at least that it does not cater to human well-being. They use the word ‘dream’ to make us take it less seriously, and also to take our selves (and for that matter other selves) less seriously. But I don’t think this in any way follows from the ontology. If we take the world as we know it and ask philosophically what its ontological status is, we might be panentheists, or we might be Aristotelian realists. What I am suggesting is that this leaves the objects, their properties, and their intra-mundane relations all the same, and so should leave our motivations and commitments much the same as before.
If I might be so bold, I thought I’d try to suggest a response to Marilyn, on Gabriel’s behalf – but perhaps this isn’t different from what he was trying to say in his responses.
Gabriel is not claiming that we’re people in God’s dream. That is, admittedly, one of the options he offers us in his responses document, but he’s also open to the possibility that we’re the ones doing the dreaming. On that second option, we’re not characters in God’s dream at all. Instead, we’re the dreamers ourselves.
Even on the first option, where we are characters in God’s dream, it’s essential to Gabriel’s view that we’re currently in a dream in a dream. That’s to say, God is dreaming us up, and then dreams of us that, in that dream, we’re dreaming this life of ours. On this option, one day we will wake up, from our dream in the dream, into the dream, realising that the dream in the dream was just a dream in a dream after all!
On the second option, it’s essential to Gabriel’s view that we eventually wake up, too, realising it was all just a dream.
I have written at some length about the possibility that we’re all just figments of God’s imagination (Gabriel generously cites my paper in hie responses). In what I’ve written, I completely agree with Marilyn, that in the dream, our pain is real, and, to the extend that God is a character in the dream, inflicting pain on us, God qua character in the dream owes us an explanation of this evil. That is to say, in the dream, we need a theodicy.
But Gabriel’s view is that we will one day wake up (either from a dream in a dream, into the dream proper, or simply from a dream to reality). The idea is that waking up doesn’t just shift our ontological status regarding God – in fact it doesn’t do that at all – either we were always real, and dreaming, or we were always figments, dreaming in a dream. Rather, the waking up shines a completely new light on what we had thought, while we were dreaming, was real gratuitous evil.
Gabriel, is that right?
Just to briefly tag on to Marilyn’s first and second sets of comments. I had originally wondered about something like this (as a potential response to the skeptical costs of the defense that I mentioned in my comments). I could be wrong, but it seems very close to David Chalmers’s view in his “The Matrix as Metaphysics.” On his view, the Matrix and dream scenario (and various other traditional ‘skeptical’ situations) are actually not skeptical scenarios at all, merely alternative ontologies. Of course, each of these ontologies implies that reality is (quite) different from what we normally take it to be, but Chalmers thinks we’re already committed to something like this given the discoveries of modern physics and quantum physics. The thing to conclude in these alternative ontologies is not that chairs, people, etc. do not exist, just that the underlying structure of these realities is somewhat different than we had supposed. Now clearly this would be a way of limiting skeptical damage, but I think Marilyn is correct that it totally undermines the theodical/cosmodical defense, since there really is actual suffering still (it’s underlying base structure, it turns out, might just be God’s intentional states). On this view, it’s not that God now has to overcome dream-within-a-dream evils (or that we have to care equally about them). It’s just that on the first dream level, it turns out that I’m a REAL dream person confronted with REAL suffering (because all REALITY is, at base, God’s dream).
I think that that’s right – Stephen and Marilyn. As I said, in my own work I’ve said that if we’re just figments of God’s imagination, then, what it means to be real, for us, is to be figments of God’s imagination, and therefore our pain is real for us, and therefore theodicy or cosmodicy doesn’t get any traction here.
But I take it that Gabriel’s point is that one day we wake up! That’s supposed to make all the difference.
It’s possible to live in a Matrix without every waking up.
But if we do wake up, perhaps, in our new perspective, the past pain and suffering will seem much less evil than it used to do, just as when we wake up from a nightmare. The pain was real, within the story of the nightmare. But once you wake up, you reassess — or at least you do according to Gabriel.
Thanks Marilyn, Sam, and Stephen! – I went to bed last night with a response to Marilyn all written out, and the intention of posting it this-morning. But now I find that the discussion has moved on quite a lot, so I’ll need to start again! Here are some thoughts in three parts…
First of all, as Sam says, there are two different dream-hypotheses in play at the moment, and I think it’s important to distinguish between them. Firstly, there is the hypothesis that this current life is *my* dream: that I will wake up and discover that I had dreamed this life in the midst of my own actual life (and so too for you and for everyone else, who have dreamed their own current lives). This is the only dream-hypothesis that my defense really rests on. Distinct from that, there is the hypothesis that perhaps that actual life into which we will awake is one of God’s dreams. This was just an idea I experimented with in my response to John (and then jettisoned) – so I suggest that we completely ignore it for the purposes of simplifying this discussion.
So, what follows from the possibility that this life might be my dream, from which I will awake into an idyllic world which has the kind of ontology which we normally assume the actual world to have? Is it reasonable to say that the suffering undergone by people (or dream-people) in dreams is not significant, even though it certain seems significant to them in the dream? Put slightly differently: horrific suffering in a dream seems as significant to its dream-sufferers, as actual horrific suffering does to its waking-sufferers – why, then, do I say that in actual fact the former is insignificant and the latter is not? Well, I don’t actually know *why* I make this judgement – but nonetheless: it seems to me that almost everyone agrees with it when it comes to the regular dreams we have in this life of ours (whether or not this life is a dream too). I know this because no-one in this life ever actually treats their dream-suffering (or the suffering of their dream-selves) as having a significance that even partially approaches the significance of the suffering of actual people. Thus, we tend to judge that it is our waking judgements about the significance of dream-events which are the true and accurate judgements. And we don’t hold there to be a stale-mate between my current judgement of the insignificance of my (or my dream-self’s) dream-suffering and the judgement that I (or my dream-self) had of its great significance during the dream.
It occurs to me now that perhaps the strongest evidence for my claim is the fact that people (or dream-people) often actually make judgements about the insignificance of dream-suffering from within their dreams (i.e. they don’t even need to wait till they wake up to make a retrospective judgement). For example, it is often the case that when a dreamer realises in the middle of a nightmare that they are only dreaming (i.e. when they become lucid in the middle of a nightmare) that they immediately judge those dream-horrors to no longer be horrific, even though they are still in the dream-world! As one lucid dreamer reports of their nightmares: “All I remember of such dreams… is being threatened with violence by overwhelming forces, and telling myself not to be afraid, since ‘it is only a dream’ ” (quoted in CE Green, Lucid Dreams, p. 46). I think that this strongly cuts against Marilyn and Stephen’s considerations…
The following is a rather more complicated – but wonderfully illustrative – dream-report of a lucid dreamer who had trained herself to realise that she was dreaming when certain nightmare-scenarios began, and to therefore give herself the option of waking herself up from the nightmare so as to ‘escape’ it to the safety of real life. She reports as follows: “During the course of a long dream I had succeeded in tracing the existence of a complicated and dangerous plot against our country. The conspirators had turned upon me on discovering how much I knew. I was so closely followed, and my personal danger became so great, that the formula for breaking off a dream flashed into my mind and automatically gave me back confidence; I remembered that I could make myself safe; but with the feeling of safety I also realized that if I were to wake my valuable knowledge of the dangerous conspiracy would be lost, for I realized that this was ‘dream knowledge’. It was a dreadful dilemma – safety called me one way, but the conviction that my duty was to stay and frustrate the traitors was very strong. I feared that I should give way, and I knelt and prayed that I might have courage not to seek safety by awakening, but to go on until I had done what was needed. I therefore did not wake; the dream continued. The arch-conspirator, a white-faced man in a bowler hat, had tracked me down to the building where I was concealed, and which by this time was surrounded; but all fear had departed, the comfortable feeling of great heroism, only fully enjoyed by those who feel themselves to be safe, was mine. It became a delightful dream of adventure, since the element of fear had gone from it!” (quoted in ibid, pp. 47-8). There are quite a few different things going on in this case (some of which point in somewhat contrasting directions). But I do think that the overall moral of the story is that even dream-people within dream-worlds – once they realise that this is what they are – judge their own misfortunes (or potential misfortunes) to be of minimal significance compared to the events of the actual world into which they will awake. So much so that they can enjoy as adventures situations that would otherwise be simply terrifying.
Does this go any of the way towards responding to your worries, Marilyn and Stephen? I have the sneaking suspicion that maybe we’re talking past one another, and I’m not really appreciating the nub of your concerns!
There is a problem, however, with my appeal to the community’s judgement of the relative insignificance of their own and others’ dream-suffering (or that of their dream-selves), and to these kinds of dream-report of other people’s lucid dreaming. Namely, the problem that Stephen raised about the way that the possibility that this life is my dream seems to undermine my appeal to all this apparently ‘external’ evidence! Having thought about this more, I don’t think that I did justice to this worry in my earlier response. I’ll try and write a comment dedicated to this a bit later…
Posted on behalf of Marilyn McCord Adams:
Thanks for the Chalmers references. I think we are talking about dream-
or imagination-panentheisms. Those are different from what Gabriel wanted his argument to turn on, as he says. He wants to rest his case on the contrast between a real subject’s relation to and reaction to her/his waking-life experience and her/his dream-life experience. However horrific the dream, it doesn’t ruin
my waking-life self the way waking-life horror experiences do, and so the dream
suffering doesn’t deserve to be taken as seriously.
I see that contrast. That contrast remains even if dream-panentheism is true. But for it to help with theodicy, it has to be that for all I know, what I now take to be the waking-life experience of my self is really a dream. Somehow, when I put on my sceptical cap, I find it easier to say, for all I know, dream-panentheism is true, than to say dream-panentheism is false but my present experience might still be a dream. So I guess I’m not getting any problem-of-evil relief from the maneuver. Not limber the right way!
This is a helpful update from Marilyn. Couple of quick points in reply:
1) Just to be clear, I believe that on Chalmers’s view, the ordinary dream skeptical scenario (the kind Gabriel does want his argument to turn on) is properly understood as an ontology. On that score, it doesn’t much matter to him that we wake up (or that we could unplug from the Matrix, take off our VR headset, etc.). So although I’m sure he would say dream suffering is real, I’m not exactly sure what he would say regarding Gabriel’s argument that it’s far less significant upon waking. But we can leave that to the side for now (unless others have interesting thoughts about Chalmers here); just to say it seems like his view may pose a direct challenge to Gabriel’s thesis, depending on whether one finds his arguments for that view successful.
2) Surely on Gabriel’s view we can’t know that dream-panentheism is false. Indeed, it too should be an epistemic possibility (maybe a pure one). However, all he needs for a defense (as opposed to a theodicy) is the possibility that the more mundane version of the dream skeptical scenario is true. For a defense, he can always opt for the happier epistemic possibility.
3) In fact, for all we know, things may be far WORSE than they seem. Maybe we’re in a dream caused by an extremely malevolent demon who will rouse us into a waking reality of suffering many times greater than what we currently experience, making us long for the relatively minor suffering of this dream (as another means of making the waking suffering worse). This pure epistemic possibility may not do damage to Gabriel’s argument, but it certainly seems to underscore how the skepticism must ultimately cut against God’s existence, too.
Hi all. Very interesting paper and discussion.
I have a question mostly for clarification purposes for Gabriel: You note that the suffering we (seem to) experience in this world could be “for all we know” just a nightmare. You make a strong case for dream skepticism, but I worry too good of a case. How can we know that when we die we have truly woken up? What will enable us to have epistemic access to what is real and what is merely dream at any point of our existence? If we cannot determine this, then it seems the argument from dream skepticism works against the logical problem of evil but at too great a cost–it is a Pyrrhic victory because we have no means for establishing that we have actually lived a good life with authentic relationships, accomplishments, or anything positive that we would not wish to forgo even if we could thereby preclude having nightmares. We cannot arbitrarily attribute evil to nightmares, but maintain our ownership over the good we actually accomplish.
Thanks for your question Chris!
You’re bringing up a cost that I’ve worried about, and about which I was perhaps not as upfront as I should have been… However, at the end of your comment, I think you somewhat overstate the cost in question. That is, I think you’re right that given my epistemic premises it follows that even when we wake up into the real world, we would still not be in a position to *know* that we have done so, and therefore not in a position to know that we were living a good life and doing good things. This is a real cost (and I assume that Stephen had it in mind as one of the less tolerable ones). But our inability to *know* that we are living a good life should not be confused with an inability to *live* that good life and to enjoy and appreciate the living of it! Thus when you say that we will not be able to “maintain our ownership over the good we actually accomplish” that’s true only in the epistemic sense, but not in any stronger sense than that: I really have those good relationships and really will have achieved those good accomplishments, just as it will unavoidably seem to me that I do.
I will also add that the strong dream-sceptical conclusion actually seems quite strong to me, independently of my defence – especially when one keeps in mind phenomena such as multiple awakenings in dreams, after each of which the dreamer thinks he has finally awoken into his/her actual life, only to wake (or seem to wake) yet again…
(This does, of course, mean, that even in the idyllic world, it will be an epistemic possibility that we will wake up into an actual reality which is horrific full of suffering… But, again, I think that people have reason to acknowledge this possibility regardless of my defence…)
One other comment, Gabriel, in response to your excellent replies to me. I appreciate the back story and the longer (though still understandably incomplete) justification of your eschewing defenses which target A3. But it seems to me my original question might be put more directly. How does your dream skepticism not simply entail something like skeptical theism? If you have no knowledge of (and no good reasons to believe) that you’re not dreaming and, consequently, all sorts of other ordinary ‘truths’ (including moral ‘truths’) and surely many extraordinary truths about the divine, then why think you have knowledge of (or any reason to believe) your current (rather confident) assessment of God’s omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and all the possible moral reasons which might or might not justify suffering? In other words, the wide-scope skepticism (which I mentioned in my comments) seems like it would clearly and logically encompass the narrow-scope skepticism of at least many varieties of skeptical theism.
I agree, Stephen. I view Gabriel’s proposal as a new variant of skeptical theism. I wonder if he’ll mind that characterisation.
I think that the key claim here is that dream-scepticism includes scepticism about moral truths within its scope. If it did, then countenancing dream-scepticism would indeed probably entail some kind of sceptical theism. For if we were not confident in our knowledge of moral truths, then we could not confidently say that God could not have morally justifying reasons for allowing horrific suffering – and this latter position could certainly be described as a member of the ‘sceptical theism’ family.
However, it is not at all clear to me that dream-scepticism includes scepticism about moral truths, because it’s not clear that dream-scepticism affects a priori knowledge, and moral truths (or at least the relevant moral truths) are knowable a priori. The moral truth that rules out sceptical theisms – and indeed all attempts to undermine premise A3 – is that it is absolutely forbidden to be complicit in the infliction of truly horrific sufferings (whatever the predicted gain that those sufferings might be necessary to achieve). It seems to me that I can know this truth without needing to know that I am awake. And given this, I can rule out any attack on A3 even granting dream-scepticism. For this reason I don’t think that a commitment to dream-scepticism entails a commitment to sceptical theism.
(I will note that it being absolutely forbidden to do something probably doesn’t rule out there being a moral duty to do it. Michael Walzer’s writing on ‘supreme moral emergencies’ is very relevant here [he discusses, for example, the Allies’ intentional bombing of civilian targets in German cities in 1940-2]. But anyone who does what is absolutely morally forbidden – even if they do it for purely altruistic and moral reasons – becomes tragically morally compromised. And this does not seem to be the moral status that people want for God).
Congratulations Gabriel on a superb paper and thank you to the APJ for hosting this wonderful discussion. One simple thought I have is that I’m not sure Gabriel has satisfactorily dealt with the problems for morality he discusses at the end of the paper. It may be true that I ought to continue to behave morally given that life may be real and may not just be a dream. But what about at the level of motivation? If I’m tempted to embark on a morally dubious course of action, might I not then add the doubt that since life is not certainly real and may only be a dream, I have a moral “sfek sfeka”, and so I’ll allow myself to do something morally dubious that I would not have done if I did not take as live the possibility that life is just a dream? So I will allow myself to sell something tomorrow at a slightly inflated price – it might just be worth that price anyway, and even if it isn’t, maybe this is all in any case only a dream? Whereas without the live epistemic possibility of it all being just a dream, I would never allow myself to deliberately overcharge.
Thanks so much for this, Michael – you raise a troubling problem! Here’s my best attempt at a response:
It certainly seems true that – as a matter of fact – my dream-sceptical defence could be used by someone to excuse their moral laxity to themselves. But this is merely a psychological fact, and is not, in its own right, an objection to my defence. Rather, it will only be a problem if my defence could *rightly* and *in good faith* be used to justify moral laxity – and I don’t think that it can be.
Consider that when a person decides not to perform a certain action Φ, due to a doubt as to whether it really is morally obligated, this will usually be because the introduction of the doubt allows a pre-existing opposed interest to outweigh the now weakened interest in performing Φ. Take the following very simplified example. I am about to go into Starbucks to spend a spare $5 on a coffee, but I am confronted by someone just outside the café who is collecting money for apparently worthy charity X. I decide to forgo the coffee that I want, so as to give the $5 to the charity. But just as I am reaching into my pocket, someone steps in, and says: ‘You should know that though charity X is very well intentioned, it is far from clear that it actually achieves any of the good ends which it tries to achieve. Research shows that there’s only a 50% chance that the money given to it even gets to the place that it is meant to get to’. This stranger then quickly shows me the research, and I am persuaded that it is indeed entirely possible that money given to this charity does not good at all. I may decide to give my $5 to the charity despite this doubt. Or I may conclude that my interest in having a pleasant cup of coffee outweighs the now weakened demand that I give the money to this charity, whose good works are in doubt. This latter option may be made more plausible by taking into account that the good that charity X tries to do, may, in any case, only have been of relatively minimal importance – so it might have only just won out over the coffee before the doubt was introduced, and the doubt is enough to tip the scales in favour of the coffee. (For the sake of simplicity I’m ignoring the fact that there are presumably other charities out there doing more important work, and with a better record of effectiveness. I’m also ignoring the role of ‘sfeik sfeika’ in Michael’s question – i.e. the role played by the nesting of a doubt within a doubt – because I don’t think that it’s essential to the issue).
Now, what if the stranger had not presented me with strong evidence that there was only a 50% chance that the charity’s money would reach the intended places, but rather, presented me with powerful dream-sceptical arguments, convincing me that it is a pure epistemic possibility that this life is a dream, and that therefore there are no moral obligations? Should this dream-doubt have the same effect as the first kind of doubt? I don’t think it should. Because if this life is a dream then it is not only my (putatively) moral behaviour that comes to be of no significance, but also my degree of pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness. Everything about a dream-life is insignificant in itself, in actuality. So while the weight of moral obligation on one side of the scale is diluted, so too will any interest that is on the other side of the scale, pushing back against the moral action: all interests, moral and non-moral, altruistic and selfish, will be equally ‘diluted’ by the pure epistemic possibility that life is a dream. As a result of this, all the weakenings will cancel each other out, leaving the relative weights unchanged, and both sides of the scale balanced exactly as they were before the dream-doubt was raised.
Thus, as I stand hesitating in front of Starbucks and in front of the worker from charity X – having just been convinced that it is a pure epistemic possibility that I am dreaming – it would be capricious for me to reason as follows: ‘Giving to charity X was only just winning out over getting a coffee, so with the introduction of this doubt, my reason to give to charity X has been sufficiently weakened so that the coffee wins out’. For to reason that way would be to apply the epistemic doubt to the possibility that my moral actions are significant but not to apply it equally to the possibility that my enjoyment of the coffee is insignificant. And to apply the interest-diluting power of the doubt selectively in this way is to fail to reason honestly and in good faith.
I think this works as a response to your challenge, Michael – but I’m a little concerned that I’ve done something tricky in the middle. I’d be interested to know what you think!
Gabriel’s marvelous paper draws into focus a constellation of loosely associated questions, quite aside from the theological issue it purports to treat. This-worldly suffering could all just be a dream, so how does evil matter? Why live for the good? Reading this piece, I find myself quivering with the same kind of bewilderment as is inspired by what seems vaguely to me to be a related problem: how we could be commanded (as we are in Judaism), to celebrate all that God introduces into this world, including the evil. What does this mean about the nature of evil itself?
It’s therefore of secondary importance to me that, after this very worthy read, I remain unconvinced of Gabriel’s argument. My principal difficulty with it is that it seems me to rest on some unclarity regarding the notion of suffering. Suffering is, after all, being in a mental state. It is moreover a highly plausible way of understanding suffering, that it resolves into two components. Suffering, it makes sense to suppose, involves (1) a subject S in some way coming to believe that some event is occurring or has occurred or that some condition obtains, and (2) S having some severely negative attitude towards that event or condition. The suffering caused by (e.g.) the death of someone dear to a person is produced in her as she comes to believe this death has occurred; and the suffering is then in some way a function of, or possibly consists at least partly in, her having an intensely negative regard for this situation. No doubt a fuller characterization of suffering will narrow down the kind of negative attitude involved, perhaps as specifically connected with the subject’s own life plans. Thus here, perhaps, the deceased was integral to the life she had wanted to continue living, so that a central life scheme now goes unfulfilled; or perhaps death per se is, for her, something generally abhorrent to behold. A fuller understanding might additionally posit a more purely emotive component, such as some autonomic nervous arousal. But what’s important here is that what is involved is a condition perceived as objective, and the attitude of severe dismay in the face of that condition.
This suggests to me that Gabriel’s assumption B4 is false. It states:
It is possible for a dream of suffering—even of the very worst sufferings—to entail no actual horrific suffering for the dreamer (or even very little actual suffering at all)
But on the understanding of suffering I’ve outlined, it’s difficult to see why there would be any essential difference between suffering in a dream, and suffering in the face of reality. If S dreams of the death of someone dear to her — and if indeed (as Gabriel also argues), this dream-experience of the death could be internally or phenomenally indistinguishable from the experience if this were S’s real perception of that person’s death in reality — then so would the attitude she comes then to have be an attitude of severe dismay, as full and as intense as if the death were real and really perceived. If S is as convinced in her dream about the occurrence of the death as if she really perceived it, then surely so will her suffering be as real and as powerful.
Here, I’m assuming that when Gabriel speaks of “a dream of suffering,” he is talking about a dream in which the *dreaming subject is suffering*. (I should note here that there’s some parallel between my counter here and Marilyn McCord Adams’. She says that the ontological status of the subject is irrelevant to the reality of the suffering — though Gabriel does not seem to have assumed that the subject is unreal; whereas I’m talking about the irrelevance of the ontological status of the *object* towards which one has the negative attitude.) I could admittedly dream of someone else suffering. But for one thing, Gabriel is (I think) quite consistent in his ensuing discussion in talking about the dreamer’s own suffering, as for example when he elaborates “that having a nightmare needn’t be, and often isn’t, a significant suffering for the dreamer—even though the nightmare may involve dreaming that one is undergoing truly terrible sufferings”. Interestingly, Gabriel might in fact have gained some ground for his argument by speaking (also) of the sufferings of other people I dream about — this, too, being part of the evil which in this world militates against the plausibility of God’s existence. The suffering of others in my dream would, I suppose, indeed evaporate away when I awaken, and would turn out to have been unreal. But we’d still be left with the problem of the dreamer’s own suffering. And this, I’m suggesting, will turn out to have been real; so that an inference to our own sufferings in our this-wordly lives when we “awaken” into the afterlife will, likewise, leave it as evil intact, in itself challenging the possibility of a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent Being.
Gabriel will, as things stand, doubtless contest what I’m saying, on the basis of what he states in his paper, that dream suffering, while possibly having some sort of reality, is at most, in some way, merely a vestige of real suffering, of its nature feebler than real suffering, and therefore insignificant enough to be dealt with effectively by traditional treatments of the problem of evil. He offers three arguments for his claim.
1. He states, firstly, “…I hope that everyone will agree at the very least that the actual suffering involved in dreaming that one is undergoing certain sufferings — even in the most lifelike way — will be orders of magnitude less severe than actually undergoing those same sufferings in real life.” But I fail to see any basis for assuming that this supposed consensus opinion is true — even if it does turn out to be consensus opinion. It may admittedly be true that, upon waking after dreaming, e.g., that I was being chased by a gunman into a dark alley, my suffering will seem to me quite negligible in comparison to how I’d suffer in any possible real situation of being so chased. But this is surely because that seemingly objective situation I’d dreamed about turns out to have been unreal, of no consequence to my real life narrative. So for one thing, in my current, wakeful, comparative evaluation of the dreamed vs. real events or conditions, such as the dreamed vs. real chase, the dreamed object, being patently inconsequential, pales into insignificance. Moreover, I’m very possibly also comparing not my dream-state attitude, but my *current attitude* towards that episode I now grasp as unreal, to the attitude I now imagine I’d have if this episode were real and now going on. The intensely negative attitude I may really have had *during the dream* to the chase experience thus gets forgotten, as it becomes eclipsed and perhaps replaced in my memory by my *current*, quite mild attitude to that chase experience I now grasp as dreamed; and it’s this latter, mild attitude I’m comparing to an attitude I imagine would have if I was now being really chased — it, too, paling into insignificance.
2. He then suggests, “…one criterion of horrific suffering is precisely that — if it is remembered — it entails at least some consequent suffering…” And since we can easily shake off a nightmare we remember after waking, the suffering it involved could not have been so horrific. I can begin to understand Gabriel’s suggested criterion if we take it refer to the objective condition over which one suffers. Remembering the death the day before of someone dear to her, S will find it hard to shake it off — but because it is the death itself she remembers, which is lastingly and really horrendous, in that the death itself continues to be devastating for her. In contrast, remembering the death she had merely dreamed last night, S can much more easily, or even effortlessly, shake it off, since she now recognizes that no real and continuing disruption of her life narrative ensues from the apparent death.
3. Gabriel then proposed an exchange-deal measure of dream-induced suffering, namely, how severe a real suffering one would be prepared to endure in order not to have to undergo that dream-induced suffering. Plausibly, I’d opt to dream of my beheading by Isis — knowing I’ll awaken from it — rather than really lose the nail of my baby finger (actually, I’m not sure I would); this supposedly showing that the dream-suffering I’d undergo in the Isis encounter is more minor than the real suffering I’d undergo from losing the nail. And generally, we’d take much worse situations in dreams over much lighter situations in wakefulness. Gabriel takes this to imply what he takes to be it’s only plausible explanation, namely, that dream-induced suffering is as a rule mere fluff in comparison to reality-induced suffering.
But there are other ways of explaining the choice. For one thing, I might be fooled by the seeming unlikelihood of the nightmare happening. Trying now to imagine myself in the situation of being offered the deal by some scientist with a machine provenly able to induce and predict such nightmares — and let’s assume here that some such machine is conceivable — I find it hard now to imagine myself also *believing*, in that situation, that the machine will really induce the nightmare. Hence if I imagine myself agreeing to submit myself to the dream machine on its beheading setting, it might just be because I don’t really imagine I’d end up having the dream. Or another explanation, which I prefer, is much like the explanation of why S can easily shake off her nightmare: What I see, when I consider the deal, is that I won’t really have been beheaded by Isis; I’ll wake up, and my life will continue undisrupted. For sure, if I had such a dream, I’d probably suffer during it, possibly very severely, possibly even with some lasting trauma; while if I nevertheless opt (possibly wrongly) to have the dream, it would be because, when deliberating, I’d be focusing not on the suffering, but on the *non-reality* of my dreamed demise — on my dreaming of it therefore being, in itself, a matter of no lasting consequence.
In short, I don’t think Gabriel has given us a basis to suppose that one’s suffering in one’s dreams is in any less real, or even inherently less powerful, than one’s suffering in waking life.
Thanks, Michael, for this very thorough and thoughtful response! Your comments on the nature of suffering raise some issues that I’m quite conflicted about; but in the end, I don’t think that those issues are sufficient to undermine the defence… Some responses in three parts:
I’d reconstruct you main argument as follows:
(D1) Suffering is a certain kind of phenomenal state (perhaps involving a belief, definitely involving an adverse attitude);
(D2) any phenomenal state we can be in while awake, we can also be in while asleep;
(D3) it follows from D1 and D2 that the nature of a person’s suffering in dreams is identical to that of a person’s suffering in waking life;
(DC) it follows from D3 that the significance of a person’s suffering in dream is identical to that of a person’s suffering in waking life.
This strikes me as a very strong argument. Unfortunately, it is plain to me that the conclusion is false. Moreover, I am almost certain that those who have argued for this conclusion in these comments – Michael, Marilyn, and maybe Stephen – don’t live their lives in accordance with belief in the truth of this conclusion (which indicates to me that they do not believe it)! To do so would involve a radical shift in normal evaluative judgements. For example: if we take a particular kind of horrific suffering (say, that of being tortured), you would need to be equally concerned with occasions of dream-torture as with occasions of waking torture. This evaluation would manifest itself in practical ways: putting just as much effort into finding a cure for nightmares as into banning and eradicating torture etc. Prospects of success in the former project may even be better than in the latter project, so perhaps we should shift all our resources from the latter to the former? No-one thinks that. As far as I know, no-one even considers that. And if someone did seriously suggest this, wouldn’t we consider them to be mad?
I’ve been making variants on this point a few times now, but no-one has yet responded directly to them (i.e. the points I made most fully in my original response to Marilyn). I’d therefore be very interested to hear a response from those of you who have been suggesting that dream-suffering is as significant as waking suffering. Do you think that I am wrong that believing in DC ought to have these practical ramifications? Or do you think I’m wrong that you and others don’t embrace these practical ramifications? Or has something else gone wrong in my reasoning?
(The explanation for our difference of practical reaction to dream- and actual suffering cannot be merely that dream-people are distinct from ourselves, or that their suffering is not real *to us* now that we awake – for we often taken very seriously the suffering of people other than ourselves, suffering that we do not feel. Why, then, do we take so very seriously the suffering of other waking people, but not at all seriously the suffering of the many dream-protagonists who get tortured every night?)
Until I hear otherwise, then, I am pretty confident that there is complete consensus in the rejection of DC (whatever people have been saying in this thread!). What should we do with your argument, then? I think we’ll need to flip it: and reason from the falsity of the conclusion to the invalidity of the argument and/or to the falsity of one of its premises. I’m not entirely sure which route we should take. Perhaps we should deny the truth of D1? In this case we would say that even though dream-suffering and waking-suffering are phenomenally indistinguishable, only the latter is real suffering. Dream-suffering would fail to be suffering, analogously to a divorced-husband failing to be a husband or a fake-diamond failing to be a diamond. The problem with this route is that D1 seems quite plausible.
Alternatively, we can object to the transition from D3 to DC. That is, we can grant that dream-suffering and waking-suffering are both genuine sufferings, but claim that genuine suffering divides into two kinds: the significant kind and the insignificant. If this were so, however, the distinction between the two kinds of phenomenally indistinguishable suffering would seem quite mysterious. Why would one be significant while the other is not? The problem with this route, then, is that the transition from D3 to DC also seems quite plausible.
But in a Moorean move, I insist that however plausible the elements of the above argument seem, my commitment to the falsity of its conclusion – and, I believe, your commitment to its falsity too! – is far stronger then the persuasiveness of the argument as a whole.
Thank you so much, Gabriel, for your very considered response to the thoughts I stated here, as well as, again, for the quite marvelous paper that inspired them.
Can I take seriously the idea that dreamed suffering could be something we should give of ourselves to stamping out, as devotedly as we try stamping out real-world suffering? Before I try answering the question you’ve phrased here, let me remark that you seem to have shifted your focus. You’re speaking now of comparative value — the extent of the evil attaching to each. In your original discussion, particularly in (B4) on p. 250 (at least as I understood you), you made a factual claim. You maintained there that dreamed suffering was either unreal or of insignificant force. (It wasn’t so clear to me if you saw this as a matter of psychological fact, or as something essential about dreamed suffering; more about this in a moment.) But actually, it seems to me that the shift serves your larger argument better. It is after all the evil involved in suffering that could pose a problem for the existence of a perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient Being; whereas it’s at least unclear that all suffering is evil.
I admit that I have no clear answer to this question. But I do think the dual-component analysis of suffering (as belief about x and attitude to x), takes us part of the way to an answer that says that, yes (mad as this may sound), we should really work to stamp out dreamed suffering. Suppose S dreams of the death of a still-young person she loves. The dreamed death itself (which S fully believes has occurred), has no impact on S’s life, and is of no lasting consequence generally, and therefore should not concern us. But the suffering consists of her psychological relation to this (unreal) death, particularly her severely negative attitude towards it. And this could be as real and as intense as if the death were real. I just see no reason for us to be indifferent towards this suffering; or even any more accepting of it, than if it were over a real death.
So why are we nevertheless relatively indifferent to dreamed suffering? For the sorts of reasons I mentioned in my initial comment: Firstly, our concern in the face of suffering is principally with the suffered events themselves (a premature death, the loss of a limb), less with the suffering of those events. What is the lasting impact of this event upon the suffering person’s life? If the event occurs in a dream, then this impact is zero or negligible. Secondly, we can explain our relative indifference as due to our confusion of attitudes. As third-party observers, we look at the dreamed, inconsequential death and regard it just as such, and I suspect we posit this regard in the role of the attitude of the dreamer — instead of identifying with the severely negative attitude which the dreamer had at the time of the dream. We thereby tend to disparage the real terror itself, which the dreamer may have experienced at that time.
I’d add, further, that we don’t devote ourselves to trying to stamp out night-terror, because we don’t individually have the means; and we don’t have the means because world health resources are not directed at dealing with such things. Imagine (say) a Holocaust victim living every night of her life through an unspeakable terror as she relived, in her dreams, the events of her earlier life. If we, individually, had the means to ensure that her sleep would from now on become easier, we’d surely resort to them, and probably devote significant resources to doing so. But we don’t have access to any such means, so we accept this as unchangeable decree. Or suppose I knew that a certain child now falling asleep was soon going to dream that he is being chased (though not caught), by a vicious lion; and compare this to the child really being chased (but not caught), by a vicious lion (and let’s assume I know with absolute certainty that the child will be rescued and come out of this totally okay; I say in each case not caught, because, for the comparison, we need the real life scenario to leave him as unharmed bodily as in the sleep scenario). Would I be any less concerned to prevent the dream than the real life event? I’m not so sure. (Again: as long as I could be absolutely certain that the child comes out unscathed.) If we don’t actually act to prevent such dreams, then I think this is because, for one thing, we cannot really predict they’re going to happen; and secondly, as things are, we don’t have the means to prevent them, short of keeping the kid sleep-starved.
Does it make it right to accept dreamed suffering, that we’re collectively actually indifferent to dreamed suffering? No! No more than, say, the West’s allowing catastrophic rates of child deaths in the Third World, which could be largely prevented by a reallocation of resources, makes it right that we (mostly at least) do nothing to change any of this. Would our relative indifference to dreamed suffering imply that it on its own — abstracting it from the dreamed events themselves that evoke the suffering — is less of an evil than wakeful suffering? Surely not.
It’s also occurred to me now that there may have been a certain thought, which I’d failed to make explicit, but which had prompted me in the first place to mention the dual component analysis of suffering. I’ll try explicating this now. Assuming this dual structure account (belief that x exists and negative attitude to x) is correct, it becomes difficult to see how dream suffering could *essentially* be minor relative to waking-life suffering. I have a belief that X exists or is happening — and it makes no necessary difference to the internal psychological character of my having this belief, that X is not real but only dreamed; and I also have some severely negative attitude to X — again, no room here for the unreality of X to make an essential difference to the internal psychological character of my having this attitude. What this means is that, if any of your several (putative) bases are correct for supposing that dream suffering is nevertheless of relatively minor force, then this must be just a matter of *psychological fact*, not something essential about dream suffering. It might just be, for instance, something about the brain, that when we’re asleep, a sleep-related part of it affects a suffering-related part of it in a way that reduces the intensity of any suffering that might be going on to insignificant levels. This, however, means that you do not seem to have any basis for extrapolating to the insignificance of our this-worldly suffering relative to our world-to-come lives when we wake up from what turns out to have been all a dream. Whatever the psychological or brain mechanisms may be that keep our dreamed suffering to minor levels, we can’t suppose that any parallel mechanisms are similarly limiting the suffering in our this-worldly lives generally to levels that will seem insignificant in the world to come. Hence the suffering we know in this life could still turn out, in our next-world perspectives, to be every bit as appalling as it now seems to us.
But what happens when we shift to speaking of the *value* of dreamed suffering? When you say, specifically, that dreamed suffering is not something we should rightly be as concerned about eliminating as wakeful suffering, reasons of two different kinds might justify this. It might have been thought right to be less concerned about dreamed suffering because it’s somehow less substantial — less real, or very minor in force. But we seem to have come to agree that this claim is difficult to uphold. Alternatively, it might just be something about suffering — however real and intense it may be — that when it is occurring in a dream, and not during the waking life narrative of the person, it just doesn’t matter, for it is *less of an evil*. If I read you rightly, this is the position you (now, at least), espouse.
Here, though, I must ask, in similar fashion: even assuming this comparative value judgement is right, how can we possibly extrapolate to the value comparison between this-worldly suffering and next-worldly suffering? If we say: this is implied by the move from dream to this-world reality — then can we assume that the move from the dream we’re living through in this life to the world-to-come reality we’ll wake up to is relevantly analogous? Do the relevant metaphysical properties of these two phases of our existence differ and compare in some analogous way, such as justifies the conclusion that this-worldly suffering is less of an evil than if it occurred in the more real world-to-come? I’m lost to see any reason to assume so.
I hope to reply to your further comments presently.
TI grant that this is certainly not a satisfying state of affairs. I am rather confused by the distinction between (a) ‘I underwent suffering in a dream’, (b) ‘I dreamed that I underwent suffering’, and (c) ‘I underwent dream-suffering’. Do they always/sometimes mean the same thing? Do they always/sometimes mean something quite different? If the latter, which is the more accurate thing to say? Of these options I tentatively prefer (b) – but I think that they could all be used acceptably in the right context.
Now, what about the issue of dream-selves? Consider this further option: (d) ‘My dream-self underwent suffering’? Is this equivalent to one of the preceding options, or is it a genuinely distinct fourth option? If it is a fourth option, is it better than the previous three? And what about (e) ‘My dream-self underwent dream-suffering’? Is this equivalent to any of the other three? Does it involve a redundancy? Or does it actually mean that my dream-self had a nightmare within the dream?
What is at issue in choosing, say, between (b) and (d)? I might sometimes say, (i) ‘In my dream I was being chased’. So far, so straightforward. But I might say, (ii) ‘In my dream I was King Charles I, and I was being chased’, or (iiI) ‘In my dream I was a cross between me and King Charles I, and I was being chased’, or (iv) ‘In my dream I was King Charles I, but I was also Jane Austin, and I was being chased’. Interestingly, in all of these options I still say ‘I was…’. Is talk of ‘dream-selves’ more fitting to cases (ii) – (iv) than to case (i)? If so, dream-self talk seems to be mainly to do with the qualitative nature (and therefore identity) of the protagonist of the dream, rather than being a matter of differentiating their ontological status from that of an actual person. Perhaps it can play both those roles – and perhaps this contributes to the complicatedness of the matter.
I am very unsure about all the above: unsure of which is the most correct way of describing things, and unsure what exactly hangs the debate. It does, however seem relevant to the question of what must be wrong with your argument. One way or another, though, I’m still pretty sure that DC is false – and before I feel the need to take DC seriously I feel justified in asking whether there is even one person who lives in accordance with belief in its truth.
If anyone has some insights into all this, I would be very grateful!
Finally, I will make some very brief remarks about Michael’s comments on my second and third arguments that dream-suffering can be insignificant. (I take my remarks in Parts I and II above to be responses to his comments on my first argument).
In my second argument I claim that a criterion of horrific suffering is that – if it is remembered – it entails at least some consequent untoward effects. Michael suggests that if I dream the death of a loved one, the reason this will not necessarily have any consequent untoward effects after I awake, is because I realise that the loved-one didn’t actually die. But I think that this is beside the point. All this accounts for is why I do not continue to suffer with the primary suffering as a result of the dream-bereavement: namely, because I realise that the bereavement is not actual. But my argument was that if the dream had involve genuine horrific suffering then after I wake up I would suffer from secondary suffering: negative after-effects of that primary horrific suffering which I underwent in the having of the dream (which may, itself, have ended).
. Take two people, A and B. A was tortured last night with electric shocks, and then freed. The electric shocks leave no permanent physical damage or pain. Nonetheless it is easy to imagine that he will never be the same again: the horrific suffering has scarred him psychologically, and this damagedness remains with him for a very long time despite the end of the primary suffering of the torture. In contrast, B had a one-off dream last night that he was tortured with electric shocks, and then he woke up. If B claimed that his dream of being tortured was having the same kinds of after-effects as A’s actually being tortured, we would likely tell B to simply pull him/herself together, stop exaggerating, stop this absurd hypochondria, forget about it, stop belittling A’s actual trauma, etc… This indicates that the dream-torture is of far lesser significance that actual torture.
In my third argument I claim that most people would not be willing to undergo significant actual suffering to avoid a one-off nightmare of whatever severity. Michael responds that a possible explanation for this – other than our taking dream-suffering to be far less significant than actual suffering – is that the possibility of someone being able to induce certain kinds of nightmare in us is so remote, that it’s hard to fully imagine ourselves into the thought-experiment, and to take the threat of the nightmare fully seriously.
. This strikes me as an implausible suggestion, even if we grant the remoteness of the possibility of inducing nightmares in people – after all, we can vividly imagine all kinds of things, including many things which are very remote and tenuous indeed. But in truth, the scenario of this thought experiment is not at all remote or far-fetched: it has always been possible to induce awful nightmares, without any hi-tech equipment at all. Simply giving certain external stimuli (especially slightly painful ones) to sleeping people will regularly prompt nightmares with incorporate these sensations in horribly exaggerated forms. Consider the following reports of fairly causal experiments conducted by Alfred Maury in France in the mid-1800’s (the first experiment is the most striking in this connection):
. “As showing how readily dreams can be excited by impressions made upon the senses, M. Maury caused a series of experiments to be performed upon himself when asleep, which afforded very satisfactory results… / First Experiment.– He caused himself to be tickled with a feather on the lips and inside of the nostrils. He dreamed that he was subjected to a horrible punishment. A mask of pitch was applied to his face, and then torn roughly off, taking with it the skin of his lips, nose, and face. /… Fifth Experiment.– He was slightly pinched on the nape of the neck. He dreamed that a blister was applied… / Sixth Experiment.– A piece of red-hot iron was held close enough to him to communicate a slight sensation of heat. He dreamed that robbers had got into the house, and were forcing the inmates, by putting their feet to the fire, to reveal where their money was.” (William A Hammond, *A Treatise on Insanity in its Medical Relations*, New York, Appleton and Company, 1883, pp. 231-2)
. Of course, external stimuli like these do not *guarantee* awful nightmares. But all I meant to indicate with the above was that the idea of prompting nightmares in people is really not very remote and certainly not hard to imagine!
. A number of experiments have been done more recently on the incorporation of external stimuli into dreams – sometimes resulting in awful nightmares (see, for example, ‘Dream 5’ in Tore A Nielsen et al, ‘Pain in Dreams’, *Sleep*, 16:5, 1993, p. 493). The fact that people happily volunteer to take part in these studies, despite knowing that they may have dreams of terrible suffering – and the fact that university ethics committees allow them to go ahead – seems to be yet more evidence for our collective judgement of the relative insignificance of dream-suffering…
Hi Gabriel —
Firstly, just a very brief comment on your Part II, where you write:
I am rather confused by the distinction between (a) ‘I underwent suffering in a dream’, (b) ‘I dreamed that I underwent suffering’, and (c) ‘I underwent dream-suffering’.
I’m not able to see any difference between (a) and (c) — i.e., I take “dream-suffering” and “suffering in a dream” to be synonymous in this context. But (b) seems to mean something different. (a) and (c) describe myself as a subject who believes that (say) a vicious lion is coming towards me, and who has a severely negative attitude to that situation. But (b) describes me as a subject who experiences myself as object (or as intentional content), and who, as this object, is suffering. I can dream of myself suffering, as I may of a third person, without myself suffering or getting in the slightest sweaty over it. I might just see myself in the dream appearing to be suffering, as I might see myself in a video appearing to be suffering, in either case not feeling the suffering “from the inside”.
A few words now on your Part III.
I can’t deny that a person who’s been horrifically tortured with electric shocks will probably, even if left physically unharmed, come out of it with lasting psychological scars, whereas someone having a dream that is phenomenally identical to that experience would probably, upon awakening, quickly shake the whole thing off and adjust back to life as if nothing happened. But does this show us, as you suggest it does, that “that the dream-torture is of far lesser significance than actual torture”?
Let me firstly mention that you seem to have gone back here to speaking of the comparative extent or psychological force of the suffering in each case — at any rate, something that is supposedly indicated by the lasting trauma — as opposed to the extent of the evil inhering in each.
But I still don’t agree that either claim is supported by this comparison. It’s true that we’re forced to explain this lasting consequence in some way. But must the explanation lie in something internal to the torture experience itself, that would be absent from the dream experience? It’s hard to see how it could be, given that we’re assuming that the experiences are phenomenally identical. But more importantly, it’s possible to offer a quite plausible explanation founded on conditions extraneous to the experience. Here, for example, is my candidate 2-bit theory: the dream torture victim wakes up to discover that this was all a dream, that nothing lasting has happened to her, moreover that her having dreamed that such events happened implies nothing about reality itself — the place where things really count — and she is thereby able to assimilate the experience as something innocuous. In contrast, the real torture victim has learned something terrible about reality — that a real abuse has been perpetrated against her person, moreover that reality is such as enables such things to happen, and could enable her to be taken in and be tortured over again. (And if you say that the dream torture victim can’t really assimilate the experience, as she knows she could have the same dream the next night — then actually you’d be describing a situation of lasting trauma produced by the dream.) Whatever the true explanation, I simply see no reason to assume it must require us to posit any difference between the two sufferings in themselves.
I take this to mean that, even though the dreamed and real trauma (probably) differ in that only the latter leaves us scarred, this does not give us cause to assume that they differ intrinsically. But still, the question of their possible difference remains. And this question might be understood in at least three different ways: (a) Might there nevertheless be something psychologically worse about real suffering in itself? (b) Might real suffering in itself be more evil than dream suffering? (c) Might we just have more reason to want to prevent real suffering in itself than dream suffering, perhaps just because it occurs in reality and not in a dream? Towards answering these, we’d need to somehow compare them, each in isolation from possible lasting consequences, which (I think I’ve argued) we can’t assume would indicate an intrinsic difference.
Our dispute, as I understand it, now whittles down to the question: Is the suffering, in itself, of a situation K occurring in reality worse (psychologically greater and/or more evil and/or just offering some reason to prefer to prevent) than the suffering, in itself, of K occurring in a dream? And I’ve suggested that what makes the reality case *seem* inherently worse is that reality-K invariably has untoward ramifications extending beyond its occurrence; which make us suppose not just (truly), that reality-K would be worse than dream-K; but also (possibly falsely), that the *suffering* of reality-K would be worse than the suffering of dream-K. So it might help better to resolve the dispute if we compare cases in which the situation suffered has (counterfactually if need be), no consequences impinging out beyond its occurrence. Unfortunately, the torture example doesn’t help us here, as it does have consequences impinging out, namely, the lasting trauma. Putting that example aside might seem an unfair move on my part, as you wish to use precisely that consequence impinging out as evidence of an internal difference. But I think I’ve eliminated the need to regard the lasting trauma as evidence that the real life suffering is worse, by suggesting an alternative explanation based on other elements extraneous to the experience itself.
So let’s imagine that the real-life torturers also have a machine which, at the end of the torture session, makes it seem in the victim’s memory as if it had all been a dream, and also puts him to sleep long enough for them to return him to the safety of his own bed. He wakes up in the morning in his own bed, remembers the torture experience, but believes it was a dream, and finds no physical evidence on his person or anywhere to suggest otherwise. I’m guessing he’ll then assimilate the memory into innocuousness and continue with his day, just as if it had been a dream. Of course I can’t say for sure that this is what would happen — this is an empirical question, and perhaps there would nonetheless be some “undercurrent” lasting consequence; or perhaps the scenario I’ve described assumes falsehoods about real trauma experiences, whereas this outcome is psychologically or necessarily impossible. But I see no reason to assume that this could not happen. Comparing, therefore, the suffering episode here in itself, to the suffering that would be had if the torture experienced were real, it seems quite plausible to me that the reality case suffering is intrinsically no worse than the dream case suffering. It’s plausible that it’s psychologically no worse; also that it’s no more evil; and that we have no reason generally to be more concerned to prevent it than the dream case suffering.
Again I must emphasize that the relevant comparison is, I think, between the attitude of suffering of torture, not the torture itself. I most definitely agree that there is something altogether more evil about the applying of electric shocks to a person’s body — this real abuse to his person — than this happening in a dream. But we’re comparing not the object of the suffering, but the suffering itself. And I see no reason to assume that the suffering itself is in some way worse.
I still owe a number of people responses to various points made above, and I hope to post them over the next few days. I also hope that people will feel free to continue posting comments and responses if any further ideas occur to them – I’ll make sure to check back periodically. But since the symposium is officially ending today, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated in what has, I think, turned out to be a very interesting and fruitful discussion!
In my initial replies to the three respondents, and in my contributions to the above thread, I did my best to try to defend my dream-sceptical defence from the many powerful challenges that were raised against it. This was certainly not because I am or was convinced that my proposed defence definitely works, but rather because I thought that the discussion would be best served if someone were trying their utmost to argue for the defendant, so to speak. And since everyone else – quite naturally – took up arguing for the prosecution, the role of defence fell to me… There are many risks to the adoption of an adversarial system in philosophy, but as long as it’s engaged-in in a cooperative spirit it seems to be a very effective way of investigating a given position. I certainly feel that I now have a much better understanding of the various commitments involved in my proposed position, than I did before the start of this symposium – and I hope that I’m not alone in this! Thanks again for making this discussion possible.
The “adversarial system” was institutionalized in the latin west: questioning and disputing
where the standard classroom procedures. Detailed rules for dispute were developed
under the rubric of ars obligatoria. They saw questioning and disputing as an analytical
tool that exposes core disagreements. It was useful then, and it has proved helpful
here because everyone is using it to learn and to get closer to the truth.
Thanks again. Much to ponder.
I had expected I wasn’t the only one to think of the symposium as mirroring the medieval disputatio and its attendant merits. Well done, Gabriel, in taking up the analogous position of a “master” and defending against many tough questions. It’s been a very interesting discussion. Thank you.