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(This is a final addition to the draft essay on empiricism which I posted yesterday. Again, very rough)

Descartes raised the question about being fundamentally deceived by our senses, well-before the computer simulation theory.  In his First Meditation raised the possibility that all our understanding is no different than dreaming:

Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.

Descartes then questions the argument as follows:

6. Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that all these particulars–namely, the opening of the eyes, the motion of the head, the forth-putting of the hands–are merely illusions; and even that we really possess neither an entire body nor hands such as we see. Nevertheless, it must be admitted at least that the objects which appear to us in sleep are, as it were, painted representations which could not have been formed unless in the likeness of realities; and, therefore, that those general objects, at all events, namely, eyes, a head, hands, and an entire body, are not simply imaginary, but really existent.

But I would like to press the argument in a different direction, based upon we know about our sensory perception being a matter of construction.  Descartes questions the dreaming argument by pointing to its relationship to our waking perceptions[1].  Yet, in light of what we have come to know about perception, we cannot so neatly distinguish between dreams and waking perception.

Our consciousness has access to the imagery, the perception manufactured by our brain. Our consciousness does not have unmitigated access to the world without the initial processing of senses and brain. In what way does the conscious access of imagery built while sleeping differ from access to imagery built while waking. We could say, that waking imagery at least has a genesis in senses while dreams are independent of current sensation. But that is not exactly true, for at least on some occasions sounds from the “outside” become incorporated into our dreams[2].

There are some psychologists and physicists who argue in a strong sense that dreams and waking are the same sort of constructive reality:

As we go about our lives, we take for granted the way our minds put everything together because the process is effortless, and its underlying mechanisms are baked-in, hidden, and automatic. But you might not have suspected that this same process of fashioning a seemingly external 3-D reality is the one underlying dreams. Since the realms of dreams and wakeful perception are usually classified separately—with only one of them regarded as “real”—they’re rarely part of the same discussion. But there are interesting commonalities that give us clues as to how our consciousness operates. Whether awake or dreaming, we are experiencing the same process even if it produces qualitatively different realities. During both dreams and waking hours, our minds collapse probability waves to generate a physical reality that comes complete with a functioning body. The result of this magnificent orchestration is our never-ending ability to experience sensations in a four-dimensional world.[3]

I am not contending that we take Dr. Lanza’s “biocentrism” in full. Dr. Lanza is arguing that our perception of reality in a very real sense is just a passive internal construction of reality, but that reality itself (at least what we could possibly know of it) is constructed by our perception of it. I know this sounds outlandish, but I want you to consider the particle/wave experiment in physics.

It is a well-known experimental result that light will “behave” like a particle or a wave, depending upon whether you give light the option of proceeding through one opening or two. If you give it one opening, it goes through as a particle, a photon. If you offer it two openings, it goes through both and behaves as a wave.[4]

And finally a quotation from the famous Dr. Feynman:

The question now is, how does it really work? What machinery is actually producing this thing? Nobody knows any machinery. Nobody can give you a deeper explanation of this phenomenon that I have given: that is, a de- scription of it. They can give you a wider explanation, in the sense that they can do more examples to show how it is impossible to tell which hole the electron goes through and not at the same time destroy the interference pattern. They can give a wider class of experiments than just the two slit interference experiment. But that is just repeating the same thing to drive it in. It is not any deeper; it is only wider. The mathematics can be made more precise; you can mention that they are complex numbers instead of real numbers, and a couple of other minor points which have nothing to do with the main idea. But the deep mystery is what I have described, and no one can go any deeper today.[5]

The weirdness of physics when it approaches the very small and the very large, the very slow and the very fast, will detain us further.  All you need to know is that we cannot simply dismiss the contention that our perception of reality has no effect upon the reality, itself.

To return to the question of dreams, I need merely assert the lesser contention a sharp distinction between waking and sleeping consciousness is not as easy as one may have thought. How do you contend, on the basis of what we know of sensory perception, that dreams are a wholly different from waking consciousness?

Another way to get at this same problem comes the position of Bishop Berkeley:

The starting point of Berkeley’s attack on the materialism of his contemporaries is a very short argument presented in Principles 4:

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?

Berkeley presents here the following argument (see Winkler 1989, 138):

(1) We perceive ordinary objects (houses, mountains, etc.).

(2) We perceive only ideas.


(3) Ordinary objects are ideas.[6]

Berkeley turns the empiricist’s argument on its head and works outward from ideas and tries to find some “real world” of tangible objects.  When look back to Descartes dismissal of we are always dreaming, he points to our perception objects while awake as a proof that dreams are not reality. To this, Berkeley has a response:

Berkeley is aware that the materialist has one important card left to play: Don’t we need material objects in order to explain our ideas? And indeed, this seems intuitively gripping: Surely the best explanation of the fact that I have a chair idea every time I enter my office and that my colleague has a chair idea when she enters my office is that a single enduring material object causes all these various ideas. Again, however, Berkeley replies by effectively exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents’ theories:

…though we give the materialists their external bodies, they by their own confession are never the nearer knowing how our ideas are produced: since they own themselves unable to comprehend in what manner body can act upon spirit, or how it is possible it should imprint any idea in the mind. Hence it is evident the production of ideas or sensations in our minds, can be no reason why we should suppose matter or corporeal substances, since that is acknowledged to remain equally inexplicable with, or without this supposition. (PHK 19)

Firstly, Berkeley contends, a representationalist must admit that we could have our ideas without there being any external objects causing them (PHK 18). (This is one way in which Berkeley sees materialism as leading to skepticism.) More devastatingly, however, he must admit that the existence of matter does not help to explain the occurrence of our ideas.

The project of naïvely assuming a real world to which we have direct, self-authenticating access is not as easy it may seem.  While Berkeley’s argument when made in the 18th century may have sounded like a philosopher having fun with words and ideas, we see a greater cogency in the force of his argument when we realize how much of sensory perception actually is construction.

In short, the relationship between what we consciously perceive and the thing we are perceiving raises some exceptionally difficult questions.

[1] For a thorough analysis of the dreaming argument see, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/sberker/files/phil159-2018-lec2-descartes.pdf

[2] http://eddiejackson.net/web_documents/Descartes’%20Meditations%20on%20First%20Philosophy.pdf

Robert Lanza M.D.


Dreams Are More Real Than Anyone Thought

Waking reality and dreams are different versions of the same thing.

Posted August 11, 2021


[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bring-science-home-light-wave-particle/

Double-Slit Science: How Light Can Be Both a Particle and a Wave

Learn how light can be two things at once with this illuminating experiment

By Education.com, Mack Levine on December 12, 2013

[5] (R.P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, p. 145). Quoted at Lecture 17: Wave-Particle Duality & the Two-Slit Experiment 1 Wave-Particle Duality & the Two-Slit Experiment: Analysis https://courses.physics.illinois.edu/phys419/fa2017/Lecture17_WaveParticleDualityAndTwoSlitExperiment_Analysis.pdf

[6] George Berkeley

First published Fri Sep 10, 2004; substantive revision Wed Jan 19, 2011