Episode 9 – “Perchance to Dream”

In “Shadow Play” Adam Grant dreams and can’t wake up. In this episode, Edward Hall is awake and is afraid to go to sleep, afraid because his dreams threaten his very existence. Though only 35 years old, Hall has a weak heart stressed by nightmares, nightmares that are not inert plays of the imagination, but imaginings whether awake or asleep that are so scary, that they are as if the horrible events he imagines were really happening. “The mind is everything” Hall asserts.

Like “Shadow Play”, “Perchance to Dream” explores the issue of whether we can distinguish illusion from reality, dream from waking experience. While Hall acknowledges that his dreams are in fact different in character from his waking experiences, his problem is that his dreams and hallucinations causally affect his waking behavior. While we tend to think that our dreams are, at least to some extent, inert and controllable, while our conscious experience involves choice and decision, in Hall’s case the tables are turned.

Some philosophers have offered an account of knowledge in terms of the causal relation between our beliefs and the world. On their view, called the causal theory of knowledge, knowledge is belief  caused in the right way. I believe that grass is green, and that belief is due to, or caused by, actual experience of green grass. Suppose I believe that my horse, Iggie, will come in first in tomorrow’s race. I believe this because the Tarot Card reader on Eagle Rock Boulevard told me so. If Iggie comes in first, however, I don’t know that, because I didn’t acquire the belief by a reliable process. I’m just lucky that my belief is true.  Edward Hall has true beliefs in his dreams – even that he is dreaming (Note that Maya, a character in Hall’s dream, claims to know that she is a character in his dream.) and many of those beliefs are caused in the right way – by the advice of his doctor for example, when he cites his doctor’s advice in the dream.  But do we want to claim that he has knowledge?  So this episode may cast some doubt on the causal account of knowledge. On that account, many of the beliefs Edward has in his dream would count as knowledge. If you think that one can know while dreaming, then you might not find this to be a telling objection to a causal theory of knowledge.

Further Reading:

BonJour, Lawrence, Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses, 2nd Edition, 2010, Rowman & Littlefield. Chaper 10, 203-220.

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