What is now Proved

I am a practitioner of the ancient art of coffee-roasting. In order to get the best possible cup of coffee, I need to consider many factors while I roast: the temperature of the beans, the length of time it takes them to get up to roasting temperature, the kind of roast my re-purposed pop-corn popper does best, the degree to which the beans are roasted. Every type of bean is a little different, and so trial and error is usually required before I get good results.

I am also a practitioner of the ancient art of dream-interpretation, and in some ways, it’s not that different. Every dream requires its own approach; sometimes the results are great, and sometimes not so much; and my own strengths are one factor that determines the approach I use.

And there’s yet another way in which they’re similar. If someone came up to me while I was roasting and, through the smoke and the din of rattling beans, said “There’s no point in going to all that trouble. Coffee is just coffee, it’s nothing special,” then I wouldn’t be able to refute them. If someone can’t taste the difference, how could I ever convince them there is one? Grinding my freshly-roasted beans and running them through a gas chromatograph? I like a good experiment as much as anyone, but I can think of better things to do with coffee.

The good news—at least regarding dreams—is that most people haven’t actually got as far as the taste-test yet. The problem is not actually proving that dreams are meaningful, but getting people to consider the possibility that they are.

The bad news is that, in the grand scheme of things, this may actually be much harder than proving it. Even in my early days of dream studies this was something that concerned me. I saw that the people around me could not even imagine the possibilities I was entertaining, and that put a gulf between us. As a thorough skeptic, I was unwilling to reject any possibility without strong reasons—but they were already certain such things were impossible, and also called it skepticism.

A while back, I wrote that in lucid dreams you can dream anything you can imagine. I did not write “In lucid dreams you can dream anything,” and that was intentional.

For a person to become convinced that something they consider impossible is real in a single leap is no small matter. It can happen, but when it does it’s called an epiphany—or perhaps a bombshell, depending. It is not an everyday occurrence, and it is seldom— if ever— triggered by line graphs or syllogisms. Even in philosophical debates, whose participants ought to be susceptible to abstract reasoning if anyone is, it is rare to catch someone changing their mind. The biggest victory you can expect in a debate is “I’ll have to think about that some more.” In other words, it is possible that you might be right.

And it’s no wonder. Proof is violent. It’s like hitching a ride on a stranger’s motorbike at midnight and doing your best to hang on. And the road leading from skepticism to certainty must be the bumpiest one in the world—certainly no less so than the one leading the other way.

It doesn’t help that, of all people, the scientifically inclined seem to find it hardest to recognize the fact that changing your mind involves changing yourself— and hardest to forgive others for repelling what is often – unconsciously – an attack. It is insulting to have a proposition forced on you by someone who got their own reasoning second-hand and may not have seriously considered its full implications. And if your truths don’t go down to your bones, then you yourself are the biggest argument against them. And in any case, it’s bad taste for scientific folks to play the Herald of Truth, since they could easily be doing the same for another truth tomorrow.

But it’s not the best taste under any circumstances, and so I’ll end this train of thought here. (Didn’t it start out being about coffee?)

In the grand scheme of things, I think art can do more real work towards changing minds than science can, just by virtue of getting people to suspend disbelief for long enough to know what it feels like instead of immediately putting them on the defensive. I haven’t seen “Inception”, I haven’t seen any of the movies or other media centered around dreams and cannot vouch for their factual accuracy or artistic merit, but I’m still glad that they’re out there, getting people to imagine things they’ve never imagined before.

“What is now prov’d was once, only imagined” –William Blake

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