The remark on the uncooperativeness of dream characters – as mentioned in Part 1 – follows an account of a lucid dream that Daniel Love believes to be one of the oldest written accounts in existence, recorded by Augustine in 415 AD.
In a letter to a priest, Augustine reports a dream that was told to him by the dreamer, a Christian man experiencing doubts as to whether an afterlife exists. One night, this man dreamed that a beautiful youth was guiding him through a city where beautiful music was being sung—“the hymn of the blessed and holy.” But upon awakening, he dismissed it as nothing but a dream. On the following night, he once again found himself in the company of the youth. But this time, the youth engaged the dreamer in a philosophical discussion, convincing him that he was dreaming and that there was indeed an afterlife, which he could experience without a physical body just as he could this dream.
Daniel Love is skeptical of this account, even suggesting that it is more likely to be a philosophical parable than an actual dream. But I find this reasoning a little odd. Does it really make sense to dismiss a dream as implausible? A dream? You know, those things that happen to our minds when we’re asleep, in which time, space and the laws of physics apply selectively, if at all?
After everything I’ve experienced in working with dreams, I wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand. This has a lot to do with my own dreams, which is full of things respectable theorists say we only dream about rarely, including some that are apparently used as markers for identifying made-up dream reports among those submitted to studies. But dreams being what they are, all I can say to that is yes, I did make them up— but I was asleep at the time.
The question I would be asking in this case is, how plausible would such a dream be for someone who spends significant portions of their waking lives engaged in philosophical enquiry? (Daniel Love doesn’t actually say whether this is the case for the dreamer, but given the content of the dream, and who’s reporting it, there’s a pretty good chance.) And this, too, has everything to do with my own experience. For me, a discussion such as the one between the dreamer and the youth would be completely plausible.
Plausible, but still out of the ordinary—they probably happen less than half a dozen times a year, if I include dreams which aren’t incontestably lucid ones. But they’re extraordinary experiences, and they all have features in common with each other and in common with the account passed on by Augustine.
In all of them, it’s the other person—almost always someone unknown to me— who leads the discussion. This person seems to have incredible analytical abilities as well as a comprehensive understanding of me, and to know exactly what’s going on.
In those dreams, the discussion is more focused and intense than would be possible in a waking-life discussion of that length. This intense focus – and being in the company of someone who seems to know exactly what’s going on – makes it difficult to say with certainty whether they’re lucid dreams or not. It’s not like normal waking consciousness, but it is rather like a flow state. Self-consciousness is simply not a part of it.
And—something characteristic of my experience, but which the account doesn’t mention—I myself seem to have mental clarity far superior to anything my waking self has experienced. This, as you might imagine, effectively takes the wind out of your sails, should you want to reconsider your conclusions once awake.
(I’ve had other experiences that have some features in common with these – such as intense intellectual focus and examining important questions – though without the dialectical context. There’s no reason to go into them here – I’d just like to point out that these dreams, even if they are a distinct type of experience, exist on a spectrum.)
But as for the experience in the account: I find it very plausible that someone who would dismiss the first dream after waking up might just be convinced by seeing proofs worked out in the second. Simply having choirs of celestial beings sweep away your doubts is a much more common scenario, if the literature is indicative, and it’s actually rather humorous that it struck this dreamer as a little too convenient.
I won’t comment on the interpretations of the dream or the substance of the argument. I’m not a Christian, and while my own mysterious interlocutors hold positive attitudes towards religion, they don’t seem to be affiliated with one. But none of that is relevant to the plausibility of the experience, and I don’t find it difficult to believe that those dreams happened as they were reported.
Which, again, is why I’d like to see large numbers of lucid dreamers get together and compare notes. I’m sure I’m not the only dreamer who’s experienced conversations like this, but I hadn’t actually heard of any other cases until I encountered this one.
If nothing else, it would bring it home to all of us that plausibility is relative. If you overhear people having conversations in which somebody is speculating about the objects in various hypothetical worlds, or on the likelihood of all ravens being black, or whether their gloves exist, you may feel it’s safe to conclude that you’re dreaming. I’d probably just conclude I was walking through the Humanities Department.
To be continued…