During the first season of the US version of X Factor last fall, I went a little embarrassingly crazy over Drew Ryniewicz. I love the sound of yodeling in a pop song, and the young singer astounded me by using it with great control and beautiful effect on “It Must Have Been Love,” which I’ve listened to many, many times since. Her cover of Nelly’s “Just a Dream” has less yodeling, but its number of plays on my iPod is still high. I laugh at the silly redundancy in the lyrics every time I sing along: “I realize it was only just a dream.” But today I’m thinking about that line in response to Descartes.
I just read this morning in his (Descartes, not Nelly) Meditations that we must mistrust our senses because, as hard as it is to doubt the existence of the chair I am sitting in now, I know that during a dream I am just as convinced of the reality of a chair I dream I am sitting on. Descartes goes on to say, as many philosophers of his time did, that since we think we are awake when we dream, we can’t ever be sure we aren’t dreaming. But I don’t agree. I know I’m awake now, and I can tell you several reasons for my certainty.
(1) When I’m awake, I can think about other times I’ve been awake. I recognize the periods of sleep between them, yet I draw connections between the wakeful times and trace continuous plans and events and trains of thought over the course of the days and years. I remember yesterday, for instance, and I remember thinking about my blog and admitting to myself that I wouldn’t get around to writing a post. Today, I’m writing a post partly because I know it’s been a couple of days since the last one. When I’m dreaming, on the other hand, I usually can’t think of earlier dreams. On the rare occasions that I do seem to remember past dream times in a dream, the memories are simple, usually nothing more than a recognition that I’ve been in the location before. And I can’t trace stories from one dream time to the next; there’s never a thought, for instance, that I should do something this time that I wanted to do last time.
(2) In general, my memories in wakeful times are much more detailed than they are in my dreams. I can recall many people and events from junior high school, for instance, but when I’m dreaming, I don’t have conscious memories about things in either dreamworld or reality. Obviously I remember how to speak English, and I remember that monsters are scary and that standing in public in my underwear is embarrassing. But these are the ingrained memories that automate our normal actions and responses. In my dreams, I don’t explicitly remember anything like where I was the last time a monster chased me or what the monster looked like.
(3) I clearly remember dreams during my waking moments, but I don’t remember waking moments during my dreams. In other words, while I may assume that I’m awake when I’m really dreaming, I never think that my actual waking moments are the dreams within my dream existence.
(4) I can wonder whether I’m dreaming while I’m awake, but if I ever wonder within my dream whether I’m awake, I almost always start to see that I’m dreaming (usually with great relief), and I sometimes actually wake up because of the thought. And this is where Nelly comes in: I can realize, both as I wake up from a dream and sometimes while I’m still dreaming, that it’s only just a dream.
Are my experiences unusual? Were Descartes’ dreams different from mine? I have no trouble wondering with Descartes whether some spirit is deceiving me with everything that reaches my senses; in fact, I remember wondering that very thing when I was seven years old, long before I’d ever heard of Descartes. (Yeah, it’s no wonder public school disappointed me.) But the clear memory of my philosophical conundrum forty-five years ago shows me that, deceived or not, I’m definitely awake.