Friday, February 11, 2011

Philosophical Views on Dreams

Views of Prominent Philosophers on Dreams
School of  Socrates and Plato at Athens

When we talk about philosophy, the first names to always appear are of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle of course. As ancient as they are, but their view on dreams are still accepted today by many - which is one sign of how little we have progressed in the field of Dreams and Sleep. In fact, if you ask us, dreams clearly have been the subject of philosophy more than any other field of knowledge and thats fairly because of the mysterious nature of dreams and their apparent inaccessibility to study them in the earlier times. Thus, leaving only the intellect to ponder over its intricacies.

Socrates and Plato
Plato's portrait
Statue of Socrates

We'll start with the earliest philosophers and have a brief discussion about the thoughts and opinions of these historic figures about dreams. Beginning from the ancient era we have Socrates(470-399 BC) and Plato(427-347 BC) who were of the opinion that dreams were partially made up of streams of vision that we acquired during our waking state, which is pretty obvious, but they also believed that it was possible to see 'prophetic truths' in our dreams, in fact Socrates believed in the possibility of divine communication and often referred to a daemonion or a mystical inner voice that guided his actions, however, it is generally accepted that daimonion represents the intuition in human beings rather than divine communication. So it can be said that in the view of Socrates, some dreams may well have assured truth in them as a result of human intuition that goes beyond common sensory perception. Thus, the belief of Socrates in daimonion or intuitional/sixth-sensical power is also applicable to his theory of dreams. Aristotle, however was skeptical of such claims because of the fact that most of the times the truth hood of such prophetic dreams cannot be proven therefore he was of the opinion that only people who are intelligent enough to correctly interpret their dreams are capable to understand these prophetic truths. Hence presenting the popular thought that one must possess some extraordinary qualities of the character and soul in order to understand the hidden messages in dreams, where Avicenna believes that one requires powerful imagination and strong soul to understand these messages; Aristotle thinks that intellect is a necessary trait to decode the messages in prophetic dreams.

Aristotle's statue
Aristotle(384-322 BC) determined that dreams came from within the Self. This was a revolutionary idea because until that time it was widely believed that dreams came from outside of Self rather than welling up from within. Aristotle’s work spanned the nature of consciousness beyond the physical and for his incredible insight historical accounts have remembered him as the father of metaphysics. Plato, a contemporary and student of Aristotle, took these ideas a bit farther. Plato identified dreams as a communication from the soul of man.

Aristotle remarked that the mental pictures in our dreams came from movement of our senses during our sleep. Our sense played a role in dream images by distorting them based upon the mood and health of the dreamer. The more stressed and anxious the dreamer was, the more distorted the images in our dreams became. Thus Aristotle was of the opinion that the dream was a possible indicator of a person's character. Socrates has also investigated upon the same thought.

Avicenna, also known as Ibne Sina
Under Avicennian philosophy, however, dreams are considered to be the result of the separation of the 'self' from the body. This self then comes in contact with the Supernal World known as the 'Aalam-e-Barzakh' among Muslims; a divine place where all souls reside, thus explaining the foreknowledge sometimes given away in dreams.
According to Avicenna(980-1037 AD), dreams are one of several different forms in which information received by human rational soul from the souls and intellects of the celestial spheres [Aalam-e-Barzakh] is manifested by being processed by the internal senses of imagination, memory, etc.
He believes that those with a strong soul and powerful imagination can process the information recieved in a much better way. Explaining prophetic dreams he says:

"However, it happens to some people that this imaginative faculty is born in them very strong and dominant, to such a degree that the senses do not control it nor the formal [faculty] resist it, and, because their spirit is very strong, it is such that its access to the senses is not blocked on account of that which the intellect and what is above the intellect understand."

In the midieval period scholars were more interested in prophetic dreams and the moral nature of dreams.
Portrait of St. Augustine
St. Augustine(354-430 AD), a Roman philosopher and theologian, regarded dream images as real and ruminated about getting seduced by his immoral dreams. But he was able to stop himself from getting seduced by wicked acts in waking life. Augustine believed that God had the power to stop such dreams from happening and wondered if the moral responsibility regarding unethical acts in dreams lied with God.

Al-Farabi's portrait

In the 9th-century, Al-Farabi, (known as Alpharabius in the West), wrote 'On the Cause of Dreams' which was the first work to clearly distinguish between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams.

A portrait of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274 AD), an immensely influential philosopher and an Italian priest, believed that God had the power to talk to us through dreams. But he was against accepting ideas that occurred to us in our dreams because there was a possibility that a demon was the source of our dreams and we might yield to demon’s evil ways.

Ibn Khaldun's portrait

Ibn Khaldun
The works of Ibn-e-Khaldun(1332-1406 AD) who was a prominent figure in philosophy and astronomy, are also important with regards to his differentiation between true dreams and the false or confused dreams. He was of the opinion that all dreams are pictures in the imagination, yet if these pictures come from the rational soul then they are true, but if they are derived from images preserved in the dreamer's faculty of memory, where they had been deposited while the person was in the waking state, then they are confused imaginings.

In Ibn Khaldun's view, some signs of a dream being true are that the dreamer will awaken quickly as if trying to hold on to the image and that the vision given in the dream will remain clear and be remembered.

Stamp portraying Al-Ghazzali
For al-Ghazzali(1058-1111 AD), a great philosopher of the Persian origin, also known as Algazel, dreams are a proof of higher reality as they demonstrate both the fallibility of reliance on sense perception and the possibility of the reality of unseen dimensions.
"Do you not see how when you are asleep you believe things and imagine circumstance, holding them to be stable and enduring, and so long as you were in the dream state have no doubts about them? Is it not the case that when you awakened you knew that all had imagined and believed was unfounded and ineffectual? When then are you confident that all your waking beliefs are genuine?"

Such thoughts of al-Ghazzali are close enough in theory to the Cartesian view on dreams and reality:

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes(1596-1650 AD) French writer and a natural philosopher, played a major role in how to think about nature of dreams as he argued that empirically it was impossible to differentiate dreams from reality. Descartes was of the opinion that the waking life is another form of a dreaming state and as such one can not really distinguish between the two worlds; as long as we are in the dream - that is the ultimate reality for us, but it is only when we wake up do we realize the difference between the two states.

This resulted in Descartes adapting a rationalist stance and building his radical philosophical method. Descartes also believed that waking life was more consistent than dream world. Hobbes agreed with Descartes adding that dreams were also more absurd than our waking life.

Emanuel Kant
Emanuel Kant
In the 19th century, philosophers promoted the psychological nature and causes of dreams and thus rejected any possibilies of prophetic dreams and revelations. Emmanuel Kant(1724-1804 AD), a German philosopher and geographer, remarked that there were two types of world in existence. One was the noumenal world, how things actually were independent of our perceptions of them. And the other was the phenomenal world, how we perceive the world around us. For Kant, there was no way to move from the phenomenal to noumenal world. Therefore, anyone who claimed that they have seen prophetic truths from their dreams was delusional since dreams were merely images that we created ourselves and in no way reflected how the world actually was.

William James

William James
William James(1842-1910 AD), a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher, who was a pragmatist, argued that dreams were real when we were sleeping, since that was where our attention was. But dreams were unreal when we were awake since our attention migrated to waking world. James admitted that there were times when dreams remained in our consciousness even when we were awake and had a sort of pseudo existence.

Norman Malcolm
& modern philosophic thoughts on dreams
Norman Malcolm(1911-1990 AD), an eminent philosopher of the modern era, offered a scathing criticism on the topic of dreams as he commented that there was no way to experience dreams. To have an experience meant that we have thoughts, to have thoughts meant that there is language present (be able to say that I am having a particular thought), and language implies that the individual is awake and not dreaming. In other words, if a dreamer is experiencing something, he/she should be able to tell that to someone else. But if a dreamer cannot do that, then it is pointless to study dreams.

Critics of Malcolm’s view have argued that it is possible for a dreamer to experience wide variety of emotions including anger, fear, hatred, or love. Just because it may be hard for the dreamer to report these emotions does not mean that such emotions are somehow less real. Even with criticisms like these that weaken the potency of Malcolm’s argument, his ideas continue to remain dominant and the field of philosophy of dreams remains dormant.


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