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Dream or Reality?
Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon dream of the not too distant future.
Student: Pinch me.
Professor: What are you talking about?
Student: It’s just that we’ve been testing the Shared Dream Inducer so frequently I can’t remember if I set the Dream Terminator.
Professor: I hope you’re joking.
Student: No, seriously. I know you’ve told me so many times, but I just can’t remember.
Professor: You mean…
Student: Yes – there’s no way of knowing whether we’re currently in a dream or in waking reality. If we’re dreaming, the SDI could keep us here indefinitely!
Professor: How can we remedy this situation?
Student: We could activate the SDI and try to enter a dream. If the interface allows us entry then at least we’ll know whether we’re awake or dreaming.
Professor: That’s way too risky. If we are already dreaming we could get stuck in a nested dream.
Student: Okay, I have another idea. In a dream, everything is the product of the mind, right? Things appear real to the dreamer, yet everything is an illusion.
Professor: Agreed. What’s your point?
Student: So all we have to do is choose some objects around us and work out if they really exist. If they’re real then we’re awake, otherwise we’re dreaming.
Professor: Interesting idea. Here you are, you can start with my fountain pen.
Student: Well, the pen certainly writes when I press it against the paper. Yes, I think it’s real. I think we’re awake.
Professor: So your criteria for something existing is based on the function that it performs?
Student: Of course.
Professor: I see. Now take away all of the components of the pen, so that you’re left with only the nib. Go ahead… Does the nib still write?
Student: Yes, it still works.
Professor: But the nib isn’t the pen?
Student: Ah, good point. It appears my original premise was wrong. Although it performs the function of the pen, the nib is just a single pen component, and not all the parts that comprise the pen. One thing cannot be another thing.
Professor: So is the pen real?
Student: Well, having just taken the pen apart and seen that all of its components are present, I would still conclude that the pen is real. I still think we’re awake.
Professor: So you’re saying that the pen exists as the sum of its component parts?
Student: Yes, that’s right.
Professor: I see. But you’ve already said that something can’t be two things at once. Yet now you seem to be saying that when the nib, cartridge, lid, and other pen components are put together, they stop being those components and become a new single entity?
Student: No, that’s illogical. The component parts still exist in the pen, but the word ‘pen’ is used to designate the collection of individual components that together form that object.
Professor: Right, so you’re saying that ‘pen’ is just a label?
Student: Well I guess so.
Professor: But if ‘pen’ is just a label then the pen doesn’t inherently exist. So are you now saying that we’re currently dreaming?
Student: I’m a bit confused. Irrespective of whether we’re awake or dreaming, although things certainly appear to exist, there now seems to be no logical basis upon which to make that claim.
Professor: Therefore your idea of investigating whether or not things are real doesn’t get us any closer to working out whether we’re currently dreaming or awake. Have you got any better ideas?
Student: If we’re currently shared-dreaming, it means the SDI is keeping our brain patterns in synchrony. We could try to disrupt them and wake ourselves up by inducing an electric shock.
Professor: If you want to stick your finger in the electric socket go right ahead, but I’m certainly not joining you… Any more ideas?
Student: Hmm… Well I don’t remember ever bursting into laughter during a dream. So why don’t I tell you a joke, and if it makes you laugh, that means we’re not dreaming?
Professor: I’m not convinced about that: I don’t think it concurs with findings from oneirology, for a start. But go ahead and tell your joke.
Student: What did the professor who always gave examples say when asked how many eggs he’d like for breakfast?
Professor: I don’t know.
Student: Four eggs ample.
Professor: I thought you were going to try to make me laugh.
Student: Very funny.
Professor: Well if you haven’t got any more ideas, I have a suggestion. Let’s just stop, breathe, and do nothing.
Student: I don’t understand.
Professor: I built a fail-safe into the SDI so that even if the DT isn’t activated, the dream automatically terminates after eight hours.
Student: What?! Couldn’t you have told me that five minutes ago?
Professor: Well, haven’t you learnt something?
Student: You’re right, I’ve actually learnt a lot. A dream occurs within the expanse of the mind, and in a dream, there’s the impression of coming and going, yet nothing really moves. Whilst dreaming, there is also near and far, but there is actually no distance. In a dream, although things appear, they are illusory and cannot be said to truly exist. However, composite objects perceived by the waking mind are also devoid of intrinsic existence. Are you saying that waking reality also unfolds within the expanse of the mind?
Professor: You’ll have to work that out for yourself.
Student: We still haven’t determined whether we’re currently dreaming or awake.
Professor: Does it really matter? Can’t you just relax and enjoy each moment of whichever reality you’re currently in?
Student: Yes, I think I can.
© Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon 2014
Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon work in the Division of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, Nottinghamshire, UK.