In our discussion of “Where is Everybody” we considered the possibility that the world is radically different from the way it appears to be. “Shadow Play” raises a different kind of skeptical problem, a problem generated by what philosophers call the dream argument. The most famous formulation of the dream argument occurs in Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). In that work, Descartes writes:
At the same time I must remember that I am a man, and that consequently I am in the habit of sleeping, and in my dreams representing to myself the same things or sometimes even less probable things, than do those who are insane in their waking moments. How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in reality I was lying undressed in bed! At this moment it does indeed seem to me that it is with eyes awake that I am looking at this paper; that this head which I move is not asleep, that it is deliberately and of set purpose that I extend my hand and perceive it; what happens in sleep does not appear so clear nor so distinct as does all this. But in thinking over this I remind myself that on many occasions I have in sleep been deceived by similar illusions, and in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream. (Meditations)
As Descartes presents the argument, one can easily imagine that the experiences had while awake could have occurred in a dream, since in dreams one has while dreaming can be indistinguishable from those one has when awake. In “Shadow Play” Adam Grant dreams that he has just been convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. In his dream he tries to convince those around him that it is a dream. But the dream is so realistic, that the other characters dismiss his claim that it is a dream. Adam Grant, then, presents the dream argument, and the other characters attempt to refute the argument.
If we look closely at Descartes’ argument, we’ll see that Descartes isn’t claiming that we are dreaming, just that it’s possible that we are. And if it’s possible, then we don’t know that the ordinary beliefs we have when we think we’re awake are true. If it’s possible that I’m really in bed right now, rather than sitting in front of my computer, then I don’t know that I’m sitting in front of my computer, even if I’m strongly inclined to think that I am. By the same token, Adam Grant tries to convince the others in his dream that they are characters in his dream rather than real people, by arguing that it’s possible. Still, he has limited success until almost the end of the episode.
You might think that if Grant was in fact dreaming, it should have been possible for him either to wake up and in so doing escape the dream, or to act differently than he did, by running to the door when being sentenced. Instead, his behavior seems too constrained for a dream. Notice that the concern is that Grant’s behavior is too much like what it would be in real life. If he realizes it’s a dream, he should be unconstrained, and perhaps fly around the courtroom. Wouldn’t that convince others that it was a dream? But notice that Descartes pointed out that many of our dreams are just like our waking experiences, and so this dream of Grant’s is in fact one of those. It can be a dream and not involve wierd events and experiences. Further, if there were wierd events, such as Grant flying around the room, would that prove that it was a dream? Perhaps reality is like that. We think such things happen only in dreams, but if we can’t tell the difference then we don’t know whether our waking experience is more coherent and less wierd than our dreaming experience.