"Is all that we see or seem,
But a dream within a dream?"
-Edgar Allen Poe
When deeper levels of dreaming have been experienced, one philosophical question tends to be asked – “how do I know I'm not dreaming while I'm awake?” This may sound like an absurd question at face value, but in reality this is a topic philosophers have contemplated seriously. In fact, the question of dreaming vs. reality has contributed greatly to the way we interpret reality today. John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Aristotle, and many other notable thinkers have dealt with this concept heavily.
The area of philosophy we call empiricism argues that knowledge can only be achieved through the senses. This system of thought has greatly contributed to the way you and I orient ourselves to truth as well as the way we have come to validate our beliefs. The scientific method itself is rooted in this system of interpretation.
It's important to realize though that this is only a single interpretation of truth and reality. Believe it or not, but people continue to contend with this interpretation of reality just like any other belief or theory. And it makes sense why such a theory might be the target of some ridicule though if you really think about it, especially while taking into consideration some of the deeper implications of the dreaming experience.
If you look at the idea of reality through the lens of dreaming, it can be difficult to reconcile the fact that our dreams access our senses in the same manner as when we are awake. This complicates the idea that truth needs to be validated through our sensory experience, as the empiricist philosophy argues.
Interestingly, Buddhist ideology interprets what we refer to as reality to be nothing more than a dream itself. During the warring states period (roughly 4th century BCE) a Chinese philosopher named Zhuangzi observed, "Only after we wake do we know it was a dream." He was concerned with the question – if waking up is required to realize I am dreaming, how do I know I'm not dreaming while I'm awake?
He goes on to say, "While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream." What Zhuangzi is arguing here is that our interpretation of reality is simply a dreamlike interpretation of a dream. Still with me?
One of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance - Michel De Montaigne said, "We need to interpret interpretations more than things.” This too may apply to the logic system we use to interpret reality. After all, it would be incredibly difficult to prove that this life experience isn’t somewhat of a dream itself. I mean the way in which we interpret reality is in fact entirely contingent on our senses, just like our dreams are.
Considering reality as an illusion is not necessarily a new thought though. It did not come from the Matrix either. It has actually been considered by some of the greatest minds. Albert Einstein once said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."Sigmund Freud once said, "The unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs."
Since we use our eyes and our ears to hear and see what we typically believe, we have to realize that these images and sounds are always being translated through our neurological system, just like Freud is pointing out here. If you think about it, we really don't ever experience anything directly. In fact, our sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are only representations of reality.
If you're still wondering, "how do I know I'm not dreaming while I'm awake" welcome to the club. The only answer anyone can confidently give is that truly, we don’t know and probably won't until and if we wake up.
Here’s where Rene Descartes arrived while thinking on this same topic and this is where I'll leave you.
"Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once."