Book Challenge

A while back, I wrote a post about a challenge given to me by a Christian proselytizer on my campus. If I read a book of their choice, they would read one of mine. Unfortunately, they never replied back to me after I emailed them, so it never happened. I don’t know what happened there. Maybe they changed their mind. Maybe the email got lost. No way to tell. But I was pretty disappointed about it, after having put a significant amount of effort into selecting a book.Read More »

Radical Skepticism

I’ve done a lot of philosophical thinking, especially during the time when I was actively trying to figure out if there is a god (and, if so, which one?), but I haven’t really done that much reading of philosophy, aside from taking Philosophy 101 last year (which introduced me to the problem of evil and changed the question from “is there a god?” to “if god(s) exist, why would I want to worship/obey them?”). So, every so often, I run into a name of some philosophy or other and think “Oh, hey, there is a name for my position/a position I used to hold!” This is just what happened when I was reading Jesus and Mo the other day.

Radical Skepticism is at the heart of my own philosophical thinking. In trying to figure out how I could know that god is real, somewhere along the way I started thinking about how I could know that anything is real. My conclusion was that I could not know anything, even including the position that I could not know anything. I certainly can’t trust my senses, since I regularly hallucinate (we usually call it dreaming, though). I can’t trust my memory either; I forget things on a regular basis. How else can I find out anything without the use of my senses and memory? My knowledge of everything is ultimately obtained through use of my senses (even my knowledge of objective research comes to me through my senses, using my eyes to read the research paper). The only thing I can “know” is the state of my own mind (which might or might not be housed in some sort of physical meatsuit).

This position actually kind of comes in handy when trying to have lucid dreams. In order to realize that you are dreaming, you must first be willing to consider that you might be dreaming. Whether awake or dreaming, the implicit assumption is that you are awake. It might seem incredibly obvious, once you wake up, that you were dreaming, but it’s not at all obvious when you are still dreaming. However, already having the idea in my mind that things might not be real makes it much easier for me to seriously consider, while appearing to be awake, whether I might be dreaming.

This is, however, just about the only practical use I’ve ever found for radical skepticism. That’s the problem with radical skepticism. It’s just not very useful. The desk I’m writing at might or might not be “real”, but it’s still going to hurt if I stub my toe on it (unless I’m dreaming, in which case it might still hurt, or my foot might go through it, or it might turn into a pumpkin, or whatever). However, I do think it makes a good cornerstone to my thinking on philosophy and ethics and stuff.

I did eventually decide on a nice practical rule (which I had already been living by, anyway): if it seems real, treat it like it’s real, just in case it is. So yea, small puppies? They might be real. Killing small puppies in a video game might be ok, but killing small puppies in waking life would be bad, because maybe they are real. Even if they aren’t real, I believe they are real (one cannot easily control one’s beliefs, and I find that I am generally inclined to believe in things I experience through sense data), and killing them would still have a bad effect on me, so it’s still bad.

This rule also applies to dreams. Even if I’m dreaming, and I know it’s a dream, this is no excuse to go around shooting people. Really, the only reason that I’m inclined to believe that waking life is real and dreams are not is that I’m inclined to forget dreams (something I have to struggle against on a daily basis just to remember a few scenes or fragments), and dreams tend to make less sense and be less consistent and persistent than waking life (as far as my fallible memory tells me while I am awake, anyway). This does not necessarily mean that I have correctly identified which of the two general states of being that I experience (waking and dreaming) is real, assuming that one, and only one, of these two states is real (and also assuming that these are the only two general states of being that I experience, and also assuming that I have correctly identified which state I am in, and also assuming that waking and dreaming are two different, distinct states, and so on).

This rule does not apply to video games. I have no more reason to think that characters in video games have feelings and can experience pain than I have to think that rocks have feelings and can experience pain. Video games do not seem real. They are a part of waking life, simulated through computers. As a computer science major, I understand even more than most about how video games work. Furthermore, the graphics just aren’t good enough to ever be mistaken for real. If holodecks end up being on the list of nifty Star Trek tech that actually gets invented, though, I might have to reconsider. If a video game is actually realistic enough that it cannot easily be distinguished from reality, I would still have to treat it as though it is real (at least to the point where running around killing people becomes not ok), because it might be possible to be in the real world while thinking I am in the holodeck, which would obviously be very bad if I thought I were playing a first person shooter.

This is about the same reason that it’s a bad idea to point an unloaded gun at a friend and an even worse idea to pull the trigger of an unloaded gun while pointing it at a friend; if you are wrong (and the gun is loaded), someone could die. Which leads right in to another idea which I highly esteem that ties right in with radical skepticism. I could be wrong about stuff.

Ah, but if I am a radical skeptic, if I can’t know anything, isn’t the idea of being right or wrong about things meaningless? In a way, perhaps, but there is a difference between knowing something absolutely for certain, and knowing something with high probability. I maintain that nothing can be known with absolute certainty (or if it can, I can’t see how). But even if I can’t know anything and even if everything I experience might be a lie or an illusion or a dream… well, I haven’t really got anything else to go on, have I? So I might as well just go on what I have and then just remember that I could be wrong, too.

So yea. I could be wrong about stuff. I could, in fact, be wrong about anything or everything that I think I know. I should not disregard a position in opposition to mine just because I don’t want to be (or admit being) wrong. People are wrong about stuff all the time. It’s ok to be wrong about stuff. It’s not ok to cling to an idea and insist that it is right in spite of all evidence to the contrary, without ever fairly considering the possibility that it might be wrong. It’s not ok to hold an idea as being above question. I should also not be afraid to admit when I don’t know something. I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know anything with absolute certainty. Lots of people don’t know lots of things. When you don’t know stuff, isn’t it better to just say “I don’t know” than to make stuff up or pretend that you know stuff?

Since ideas–any and all ideas–could be wrong, it’s also important to think about what assumptions those ideas are based on. For instance, the idea that the sun rises every morning is (for many people) based on observation and the idea that if something has always been observed to happen in certain circumstances in the past (with no contradictions), it will continue to do so in the future. The idea that observation is good evidence for something is based the assumptions that sense data reflects on some objective reality and that memory (or whatever medium the observation was recorded in) is reliable. If you can’t figure out for certain whether something is true or not (which is true (ha!) of every single thing if you are a radical skeptic), knowing what ideas it is based on and what ideas are based on it will give you a much better idea of how likely it is to be true and what would be different if it were not true. To me, knowing how something is known is as, or more, important than knowing the thing itself. (Besides, the how is often a useful shorthand to remember the thing, like how I never memorized the quadratic formula because whenever I need to use it I can just derive it using the completing the squares method, and then I don’t have to worry if I remembered it right, and I know why it works)

I don’t really bring up the whole radical skepticism position very often (though when I do, it tends to lead to some very fun debates) and, truthfully, I don’t even really think about it very often. Most of the time I just wear my “I’m going to assume that sense data reflects on an objective reality because that makes things easier” hat and go about my business. The thing is, I still know it’s a hat.

Morality in Dreams

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been really depressed or something lately (apparently I have recurrent major depressive episodes, but even though I’ve been diagnosed multiple times with depression, I still wonder if that’s actually what it is), so I’ve mostly just been concentrating on trying not to fail (all of) my classes and maybe, if I’m feeling particularly motivated, returning overdue books to the library or paying the bills 5 minutes before they’re due. So, yea, blogging hasn’t really been that high on my todo list, but I just felt like writing today. Oh, and if you don’t know the difference between “being a bit down” and having major depressive episode (a lot of well meaning people seem to conflate the two without realizing it), please go read this blog post. In fact, go read it even if you do know the difference between those two things. It is humorous and illustrated while at the same time being a really good description of one person’s experience of being depressed.

I’ve been thinking about morality and ethics a fair amount, lately, and the dream I had this morning really gave me something to think about. Now, I’m always disappointed when I’m reading someone’s blog and they talk about a dream they had and all they have to write is, like, two whole sentences. That might just be me, but hey, this is a blog that’s partly about lucid dreaming, so I’m going to put the whole dream here. I usually write dreams in present tense in my dream journal because I read somewhere once that that helps with dream recall. No idea if it actually does, but it seems at least plausible, and it’s become a habit by this point. So, right, dream.

I’m in a group, and we’re walking along sidewalks and along/across train tracks (and taking the trains part of the way). My friend Lauren (name changed to protect anonymity- she’s not acting like she does in real life, anyway) gets really mad at a young black girl. I’m really uncomfortable with this situation. Lauren is really pissed off. I’m afraid she’ll hurt her. The kid’s down in a wide shallow pit with railing at the top, at the edge of which the crowd is watching. Lauren is up there, too, frustrated that her prey is not easily reachable. I jump down into the pit. The girl is on the ground. I ask her if she is ok, and she says yes. Then I focus on making sure Lauren won’t get to her, staying between them.

The ‘fight’ is over now. Both Lauren and I had ditched our backpacks during the whole mess. Lauren yells “Hey! They’re stealing our backpacks!” at two guys as they run away. They did steal two backpacks, but I’m not sure they’re ours. There’s no time to think, though. I join Lauren in the chase. I hate races like this. I’m not that good at running. I worry about losing my laptop and graphing calculator, which I normally keep in my backpack. They won’t be cheap to replace, and if I lose data that will impossible to replace.

We’re chasing the two guys through a mall. They split up. I chase one, Lauren the other. Lauren is harsh when she catches up to her target, forcibly pushing him down and taking the backpack. When I catch up to my target… he’s a guy in a motorized wheelchair and he hasn’t got my backpack. He has a backpack, probably his own. I apologize for chasing him, explaining that we thought they took our backpacks (we had good reason to be suspicious). Then he winks at me and pulls a smaller backpack out of his own and gives it to me. So he did steal one. I take it and put it on, being uncomfortably aware of wearing the wrong one, afraid I’ll get called on it.

I rejoin Lauren and we walk back to where we left our backpacks. I’m busy worrying about losing my laptop and about whether the pack I’m wearing (and haven’t had time to look in) might contain something dangerous and/or illegal. We arrive at a spot that is different than the one we left. A blond woman (possibly a teacher) had been watching our bags for us. I’m relieved, taking mine back and checking the contents. It’s all there- lots of books, my notebook, my computer. The woman takes us to a place to turn the other bags in (a customer service section of the store they were bought from). I’m glad Lauren has to return hers. She probably knew they weren’t ours to begin with. I look inside mine while we’re in the line. Nothing but a Rolling Stones magazine and a few pieces of candy (the backpack itself is one of those small ones that you pull shut at the top with the ties, like a dice bag). I turn it in to these people. I’m thinking it’s probably not even going to get back to its owner. I’m thinking I should have kept it. I tell this to my dad as we’re walking. We go down in an odd elevator with no walls. He disagrees.

Immediately upon waking, I continued thinking about whether I should have kept the bag or not. I felt slightly guilty, and I probably rationalized a bit. Is it wrong to keep something you’ve come across if you don’t know how to return it to its owner? It wasn’t like I just picked it up off the ground. I was chasing that guy to get back something that belonged to me, and I ended up with someone else’s stuff instead. Turning it in to a place where it would probably not find its way back to its owner felt like it made the whole effort a waste. It felt like a special reward when I got it from the guy in the wheelchair by not being an asshole (in contrast to Lauren).

And why should I feel even slightly guilty about this? Firstly, I didn’t even keep the bag, I just decided that I should have, after the fact. Did I just feel guilty because I told my dad I wished I’d kept it, and he said that would be wrong? Statements about morality do seem to carry extra weight (at least emotionally) when they come from a parent or other respected authority figure. Secondly, it was a dream. Why should I feel guilty about something I did in a dream, even if I did something really bad, like murdering people?

People seem to have different ideas about the morality of acts done in a dream (this is my vague impression from hanging around lucid dreaming forums). Some would say that, since a dream is no more real than a video game, you can do anything you want in a dream (especially if you know it’s a dream), and it won’t be wrong. Others, especially those who believe that dreams are more than just random hallucinations you have while sleeping, would argue that there are certain things that it is wrong to do, even in a dream. Another view is that if you do something wrong, even if you find out later that it didn’t hurt anyone (e.g. it was a dream, or you were a participant in the Milgram Obedience Experiment), that will still affect you in much the same way as if you actually did do something wrong and someone was hurt.

My particular view on this actually tends to the side which tends to believe that dreams are more than just random hallucinations, and here is why. A while ago, while pondering various questions, such as “Does god exist?” and “How do I tell what is really real?”, I basically decided that I had no way of knowing for certain if what I am currently experiencing through my subjective senses reflects on some objective reality. It’s like that film, The Matrix. How do you really know if what you are experiencing isn’t some high tech virtual reality machine? On a more personal level, how do I tell that I am experiencing an objective reality as opposed to, say, dreaming? I have had so many dreams that seemed completely real while I was having then. I mean, I do have some great reality checks that I use to check if I am dreaming, in the hope of randomly finding out that I am and then having a lucid dream (the best of these, for me, is the nose plug check- if I plug my nose and I can still breathe, it’s a dream), but reality checks can fail. Honestly, the most compelling reason to decide that waking life is real and dreaming is not, is that waking life is more consistent, more coherent, more stable, and easier to remember. After a while of this line of thinking, wondering how to tell what, if anything, is ‘real’, I basically decided that, if something seems real, I should treat as if it is real because hey, maybe it is, and if it isn’t, well, I don’t really have anything else to go on. So, I think, if you hurt someone you think is real at the time, even if it turns out to be a dream later, that that is still wrong (because you didn’t know they weren’t real at the time, and because even if they aren’t real, your actions still affect you, and because you can’t KNOW absolutely for certain that they’re not real, even if it seems that way later). Dreams might be more than random hallucinations (it’s also possible that waking life is more than slightly-less-random-than-when-dreaming hallucinations, after all). I don’t really think there’s any way to tell for certain (but I could be wrong). On a slightly related note, I am an agnostic atheist (using the definitions where agnosticism (without knowledge) refers only to lack of knowledge about the existence or non-existence of a deity, and atheism refers only to lack of belief in a deity), but I usually leave off the agnostic bit when describing myself, because it is redundant. I am agnostic about literally everything.

Another thing to consider is whether the actions you take in a dream reflect on the way you would actually act in a similar situation in real life. Not all of the things I do in dreams seem to reflect on me in this way, in my experience. Sometimes, for example, I have done things in dreams that I was afraid that I might do in real life (the sort of things I would never do in real life, but occasionally had random, disturbing thoughts about anyway). In other cases, the dream settingĀ  is sufficiently different from reality that I don’t see how my actions really reflect on any way I might act in real life (e.g. exploring a dungeon and killing evil dragons with a sword). Other things are also incongruent between my actions in dreams and real life. Sometimes I dream I am someone else and act more like that person than myself. Or, for instance, I have an easier time talking to people in dreams than in real life. In real life, I often find it annoying or awkward when I have to talk to other people that I don’t know, but when I am dreaming it seems natural and easy and I lack the reluctance I often have in real life. But some things I do in dreams do seem particularly characteristic of me. But how to tell the difference? This particular dream was more realistic than most I have, and I was definitely myself in the dream, and I definitely thought it was real while it was happening (even to the point of worrying that I would lose my laptop, which I really do often carry in backpack, and worrying about whether or not I was doing the right thing). My actions in the dream probably do reflect either on me, or on how I would like to be. I can deal with that. After all, I did protect that girl, even though it meant standing up to my friend, and I did return the bag, even though I was tempted not to.