The exact relationship between knowledge and reality is often the subject of philosophical thought and speculation. In particular, several philosophers question how it may be that we are able to understand the world in which we exist as being “real” or as existing in anyway outside of our perception and understanding of it. The example of dreaming is one of the most common ways in which this argument is made. In order to investigate the importance of this argument, one can first consider how it is presented in the work of Descartes and then go on to investigate how this might be presented in contemporary life.
Descartes notes that there have been time in his life in which he has dreamt in such a vivid way that it was not possible for him to distinguish between reality and the dream. Indeed, he argues that if, at the moment that he was dreaming, someone had informed him that he was dreaming, he would not have believed them and would have insisted that they were lying (1996, p. 32). Because of this experience, Descartes argues that there is no possible way in which can know whether or not one is dreaming at one particular moment. The argument in this case suggests that there is no necessary priority between dreams and reality, in the sense that there is no reason to assign an ultra-realistic dream less reality than actual reality. Indeed, one can only based on perception, and if perception is the same in the dream as it is in reality then there is no way of knowing the difference between the two.

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The same can be said for a situation in which at the end of every dream one went to bed and appeared to dream one’s “normal” life. Assuming that dreams and reality were not obviously different to each other, then it is clearly the case that there would be no real way of making a distinction between these two realities. However, if such a situation was to be the case, then it would be necessary to change our understanding of both what we mean by dreaming and what we mean by reality. Dreams, as such, are defined in their opposition to reality. They are, generally speaking, an experience in which the logic of the world breaks down and in which past experiences and fantasy events mix. The fantastic nature of dreams, as well as their capacity to fulfil particular wishes or desires, can only be understood if they are not taken to represent reality, but are instead taken to be separate from it. The same can be said for reality, or for a state of “not dreaming.” Such a state only makes sense when it is seen in opposition to a state of dreaming or to the potential for a state of non, or virtual reality. If one was to collapse the distinction between dreaming and reality than neither one of these two words could continue to make sense. Rather, it would necessary to see both dreams and reality as being raised upon into a new understanding of “reality” that incorporated both of them.

In conclusion, therefore, it is certainly true that were one to have ultra-realistic dreams that ended with one going to bed and falling asleep then it would be impossible to distinguish these dreams from reality. However, in such a case, the distinction between dreaming and reality itself would become effectively meaningless. Indeed, instead of talking about dreaming at all, it would be necessary to consider a new, supplemented version of reality which would include what was previously understood to be a state of dreaming.

  • Descartes, Renee. Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies.  Translated by John Cottingham. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 1996.