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Dreams, Reality, and the True North of Consciousness

In the perpetual feud between materialists and idealists, there is one issue which seems to be under-represented in the debate but is at its very core: Dreams.

For the materialist, dreams are nonsense. While the body rests, the brain performs housekeeping tasks which have the side effect of giving us hallucinations, and that’s it. If we want to know about consciousness, the materialist will say, we should study biology and evolution, not dreams.matter_v_ideal

The materialist’s view of consciousness is that is a marvelously complex way for an animal’s body to adapt its behavior and control its environment. Consciousness is about what we do to the world and what it does to us. Things like optical illusions and the placebo effect tell us that the brain’s mental products are flawed since they fail to render reality as it is, but often wished or feared to be. To understand anything about nature as it really is, we can only use empirical, formal, consensus-building methods to tease out golden flecks of truth from the raw ore of our personal guesses and opinions.

For the idealist* consciousness need not inhere to a context of physical survival. Consciousness is not only about what we’re trying to do in the world, but is instead the very fabric of all possible worlds. I personally suspect that this means that consciousness of all sorts is not only pervasive in the universe, but that the universe is actually nothing but the collection of all conscious experiences. If there is anything beyond all forms of conscious experience, it is by definition, indistinguishable from nothing at all (since awareness of some kind is required to make and appreciate distinctions).

In this view, consciousness is not only about the survival of certain special animals, but is the necessary feature of nature to present itself and to participate in that presentation. Just as we do not expect a dead body to have experiences, neither should we expect physics to be able to define itself or function in the absence of all experience.

In idealism, dreams present at least the possibility of a purer sample of human awareness than waking consciousness. Because the psyche is free from contamination of the outside world, dreams would be a kind of control for our thought experiments about consciousness. For the idealist, dreaming should be the true North of consciousness. As Freud and then Jung found, dreams are overflowing with deep symbols and information which transcend personal experience.

In practice, dreams may have contamination of their own, and materialists may be appalled at the idea of treating consciousness most useless and bizarre extremities as the foundation for understanding, but the idealist understands that facts are facts, and the fact is that when we close our eyes and relax, consciousness reveals itself as a spontaneous world-maker, and that is an important fact to begin with. When we withdraw from the physical world, the psyche does not just disappear, it also creates new worlds, and it seems to create them on the fly, instantaneously, without optical illusions or placebo effects.

From here, in the dreamworld, we can see that color need not be wavelengths, and images need not be representations of something physical in the world. In the context of the dream, idealism is the physical reality. Qualia is matter. Any argument about this is a misunderstanding about what the word qualia means (which is common for materialists who may not be able to conceive of images and sounds independently of neurology and physics). If you never wake up from the dream, you will never encounter any part of your own brain or body as it exists in physical reality.

Once we accept that, as Bernardo Kastrup has said, “Materialism is baloney.”, we can move on to the deeper questions of what the universe of qualia is really all about, and whether our own place in it as humans is central or not. This is actually the more interesting level of metaphysics than the perennial argument at the gate between materialists and idealists. I’m using the terms subjective idealist and transcendental idealist here, but there may already be philosophical terms that are used academically.


As a transcendental idealist (aka multisense realist), I’m pretty much on my own. The materialists hate my view because they see it as vile woo, and the traditional idealists think I’m confused because I don’t accept the primacy of subjectivity in generating qualia as a necessary truth (although it may be an empirical fact). The picture that I’m looking at is a scientific one, but larger than science. It is a quasi-theistic or ambi-theistic one, but larger than theism. I do not see this as strictly philosophy, but a potentially actionable view of nature, complete with applications for the future of technology and for the rehabilitation of (what remains of) society.

*and here I’m presenting my own view as the example, not necessarily the most common views…likewise, the materialism column applies to non-material reductionism like computational mind theories.

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