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Tallis in Wonderland

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Zhuangzi And That Bloody Butterfly

Raymond Tallis dreams up a flight of philosophical fancy.

The story of Zhuangzi and the butterfly must be one of the best known anecdotes in the philosophical literature. It is also, for me at any rate, one of the most annoying: the kind of philosophical whimsy that irritates rather than illuminates. But as is so often the case, it is when we are walking away from philosophical problems that we realise that they point, however unsteadily, to something we cannot entirely dismiss.

According to the Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi, the great Daoist thinker of that name fell asleep one day and dreamed that he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he did not know whether he really was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. The story is intended as more than a charming episode in the life of a sage: it is meant to make a philosophical point about what we take to be real. Our dreams are utterly compelling, and so long as we are dreaming, we think they are real: there are, as Descartes said in his Meditations “no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep.” If last night I dreamed that I was giving a lecture wearing no trousers and was so convinced of this that I woke up sweating, how do I now know for sure that I was dreaming then? Is it not possible that I am dreaming now: dreaming that the trouserless nightmare was a dream? The general question – do I wake or sleep? – seems both valid and ultimately unanswerable. There appears to be no a priori proof that I am now awake and that last night I was asleep; and any empirical data to which I might appeal are compromised. Their apparent authority could simply be testimony to the persuasiveness of my dream.

Let us go back to Zhuangzi. You will notice when you think about the story that it is written from the point of view of the philosopher, not the butterfly. It is the philosopher who wonders whether he might be a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. If the question raised by Zhuangzi were being asked sincerely, we would expect to have heard a parallel story of a butterfly who fell asleep, dreamed that it was a philosopher, and then woke up wondering whether it is a butterfly who had dreamed of being a philosopher or a philosopher who dreams of being a butterfly. The radical uncertainty the tale invites us to entertain seems to be incomplete.

The lack of even-handedness in the treatment of Zhuangzi and the butterfly is replicated in the historical record. When we look the story up in encyclopaedias, we find it attributed to the philosopher, and that he lived about 400 BC – and not to the insect. History, in other words, is confident about which was reality and which a dream. We learn, what is more, that it was Zhuangzi and not some butterfly who had disciples who recorded his profound observation. If however there really was a question about the comparative ontological standing of, on the one hand, Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, and on the other, a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi, then there would be two separate audit trails linking the anecdote with the present: one the historical record we take for granted, and the other passed from butterfly to butterfly, perhaps communicated through a script made of pollen. (By the way, it’s no use arguing that the nervous system of a butterfly is not sufficiently developed to be able to generate the illusion of being a philosopher. If we do not know whether we are waking or dreaming, we cannot appeal to a body of knowledge belonging to the world of the waking.)

The fact that we don’t even entertain the second alternative says that there is something factitious about the radical uncertainty expressed by Zhuangzi. The viewpoint is decisively his, and there is an undeclared assumption that the story is being told from outside of the dream, and indeed outside both the sage’s waking and dream states so that they can be compared and the pretence of equivalence teasingly advanced. What’s more, there is another, larger outside-of-a-dream, which situates the dream of being a butterfly as a dream – namely, the public to whom the story was addressed, and those later publics to whom it has been passed on over all those hundreds of years. At any rate, the difference between dreaming and waking is upheld, and whatever Zhuangzi’s professed doubts about his own nature, we do not doubt that he was a philosopher who lived at a certain time, and that he told an anecdote intended to justify doubting his own nature. Irrespective of whether the philosopher could or could not adjudicate between the two views on his nature, we don’t hesitate to do so. We are confidently outside his dream and, in the space of shared history, outside of our own dreams too.

Nevertheless this story is important as well as a bit irritating, because it exemplifies what happens when philosophers put our most fundamental assumptions into question. They can do so publicly only by keeping those very assumptions in play, even as they question them. In his final notebooks, collected in the volume On Certainty, Wittgenstein returned for the last time to a theme that had preoccupied him since his earliest years as a philosopher. He pointed out that

“The argument ‘I may be dreaming’ is senseless for this reason: if I am dreaming, this remark is being dreamed as well – and it is also being dreamed that these words have any meaning.”

Whether or not this is true, it is certainly the case that I must doubt that there is any audience for the words. Dreams are by definition solitary: they permit only the illusion of ‘we’. As Heraclitus said, “Only the waking share a common cosmos; each sleeps alone.” If there is no way out of the notion that the world is entirely my dream, there cannot be any way into it either, if only because there is an implicit ‘we’ in all language use, and even more so in conversation. I cannot truly share a sincere suspicion that I am at present dreaming. Similarly, philosophy conferences devoted to Cartesian scepticism are implicitly sceptical about that scepticism.

In an earlier article, ‘George Moore’s Hands: Scepticism About Philosophy’ (Philosophy Now Issue 69), I criticised the 20th century British philosopher G.E. Moore for adopting an attitude of ‘robust’ (the adjective most frequently used) common sense towards questions about the reality of objects external to the mind. He mocked those who lamented the lack of a philosophically satisfactory proof of an external world by offering one of his own: he raised his hands, saying “Here is one hand” and “Here is another.” My own attitude towards Zhuangzi and other epistemological sceptics may seem to echo Moore’s dismissive ‘Come off it… you can’t be serious’ stance. I could therefore be accused of being inconsistent. I don’t, however, think I am. There seem to me fruitful and valid scepticisms, and less fruitful and less valid ones. The uncertainty about the status of external objects in an external world seems to fall into the former category, and the Zhuangzi anecdote to fall into the latter. As Moore himself discovered to his dismay, it is very difficult to determine the nature of objects; for example to what extent they are independent of our minds, given that our access to them is mediated through our experiences. The Zhuangzi story, however, is undermined by the very fact of our ascribing it to a particular philosopher and then discussing it.

Even so, it is not entirely without merit. It reminds us that when we engage in philosophical inquiries fuelled by radical doubt, we often overlook the very context that is necessary for the inquiry to take place, which has to be untouched by doubt. In the case of the Daoist story, the historical record is also left intact, in addition to the community of discourse to which we, the waking, assume we belong. And this shows that the doubt that is being raised – that we never know whether we are or are not dreaming – is not really being entertained. We only imagine that we are entertaining it; or, to put it another way, our language takes us to a place we cannot actually inhabit. This is in addition to the fact that we don’t give much house room to radical doubts when we are hungry or worried over a child with a temperature or feeling a chump or even just running for a bus.

Wittgenstein was aware that it was difficult to “distinguish between the cases in which I cannot and those in which I can hardly be mistaken.” Trying to find general criteria for making the distinction proves harder than one might expect. But it is important. After all, it is possible that we have got some things fundamentally wrong. History has continually demonstrated the fallibility of the most robust common sense. What is more, we do not have a clear idea of the kinds of creatures we are. Naturalistic – which ultimately means materialistic – explanations leave consciousness, self-consciousness, the self, free will, the community of minds and the most human features of the human world unexplained. Supernatural explanations simply parcel up our uncertainties in the notion of an entity – God – that is not only unexplained but usually contradictory. The foundations of knowledge elude us. So some kind of scepticism, justifying an inquiry that enables us to question the all-too-obvious, the glass wall of our everyday thinking about everyday life, seems entirely in order.

As the German poet Novalis said, we may be “close to waking when we dream that we are dreaming.” Or closer anyway. The problem then arises as to how we should pursue this intuition that we might be globally deceived as to the nature of things and of ourselves: how to pursue the sceptical agenda without unsceptically taking for granted the community of minds, the human and material world, that enables us to talk and discuss these things. The problem is to find an expressible level of scepticism that can be shared and debated without thereby being undermined.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.


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