The question of whether or not one can know whether one is dreaming has become a staple of philosophical discussion since Descartes wrote The Meditations in the 1600s. Engaging in philosophy for the first time, this can seem a bizarre question. However, Descartes’ reasoning for doubting the certainty that one is not dreaming is compelling.
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For Descartes, our ability to perceive reality cannot be guaranteed, since our senses can deceive us (Descartes, 1986). Thus, over the course of the first two Meditations, Descartes concludes that the only thing he is certain of is that there is some being that is “I”. He concludes that this “I”, however, may only be a mind (Descartes, 1986). Descartes reasons that even our perception of our bodies is a product of intellect. Therefore, the only thing he feels certain of is that there is a mind doing the thinking. There are two separate questions that arise from this. Firstly, can I know that I am awake? Secondly, can I know that my belief that I am not locked “inside a dream” is not itself a dream? This second question evokes the plot to a sci-fi film, and elicits imagery of being “a brain in a vat”, where everything that one perceives is illusory. The “brain in a vat” is a modern re-imagining of the demon argument, produced by Descartes. The “brain in a vat” idea originates with Putnam; and, according to Brueckner, is inspired The Matrix films (Brueckner). It is this second idea which will be the main focus of this essay â€“ Descartes’ “demon argument”, or the “mind in a vat” argument. This extreme form of scepticism, where one is merely a “brain in a vat” is surprisingly difficult to rule out with absolute certainty. However, the implications of this may be less profound than they initially appear. The notion that we do not have a true perception of the external world, because our sensory perceptions are being manipulated by a demon or we are a “mind in a vat”, may not actually have practical implications for how we live in the world. However, the discussion about whether we can know for certainty that we are not dreaming is not purely abstract and esoteric. There is an element of this that does pertain to a wider issue than merely dreaming. For instance, as Skirry explains, Descartes supposes that an evil demon may be deceiving him, and so as long as this supposition remains in place, there is no hope of gaining any absolutely certain knowledge (Skirry). If one cannot be sure that one is not being deceived by a demon, then one can have no absolutely certain knowledge about anything. However, as I will argue in this essay,
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