Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Last week I went to the movies and watched Inception, a movie about the boundaries of reality explored in the lucid dreams of the main characters.

The main question posed in this flick is how we can know whether we are dreaming. This is an age old question in philosophy and was most famously explored by French soldier-philosopher René Descartes. In his magnificent philosophical book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes doubts all sources of knowledge and asks himself:

How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of such familiar events — that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed. … As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.

Descartes doubt in his first meditation is total. Descartes is, however, not actually convinced that we can not know anything. He merely engages in a thought experiment to find the one true source of knowledge. Eventually he concludes famously that the only thing he can know is that he is a thinking being — I think therefore I am.

The storyline in Inception refers back to Descartes’ argument. In the movie the main characters experience a collective dream and even dream within a dream, within a dream, within a dream. The main characters know that it can be confusing to distinguish our waking reality from our dreaming one and they use a little trick to determine where they are.

Although Descartes thinks he can not know whether he is dreaming or not, there are clear differences between our waking and dreaming reality.

Most importantly, the waking reality is bounded by causality. If you hit somebody in the face in reality, there will be consequences. If you do the same in a dream, there are no consequences. The other difference is that waking reality is a shared experience. You can hit your best friend in the face in a dream, but she will not show up with a bruise in waking reality. Even if there was no mark, your friend will not have experienced being hit by you in her dream. Dreaming reality is a private experience.

The question remains, however, which reality we should give primacy, the waking world or the dreaming one. The empiricist philosopher might argue that since our experiences in waking reality are shared and can be confirmed by others. This seems an attractive line of reasoning, but the question of reality can not be resolved by democratic means. Just because we all agree on something does not mean that it is the truth.

Are you sure? Cognitive dissonance in magic tricks

Performing magic touches at the core of how we see the world. The fact that magic is possible, the fact that our brains can be deceived so easily proves that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be. Alvo Stockman expressed this fundamental fact on his video blog recently:

Being sure is at the core of being human and it is at the heart of what magic relies on … People need to mentally commit to something before it is destroyed.

Here he eloquently surmises the essence of magic. The magician creates a situation of which the spectator is sure that it is true. Although the fact that the observer knows that he or she is watching a magician will create some suspicion; but, because they don’t know what will happen next it is almost impossible not to believe what they see, as there is no hint available to what is going on. The technique, but more importantly the presentation, of the magician make the spectator’s mind “mentally commit” to the state of affair as presented by the magician.

In this video, you can see me performing the Ninja Rings in the local suq (street bazaar) in Luxor, Egypt. Although the routine keeps repeating the same effect, the technique is so deceptive that there is no way the spectator can think anything else but to assent to the state of affairs as presented by me, i.e., the rings penetrate each other.

The spectators will search for solutions in their mind, and when handing the rings out for inspection, they find out that their perceptions were wrong. One particular spectator in this video gets a bit too enthusiastic, nearly destroying the actual weld that holds the rings together. He is very committed to obtaining certainty rather than believing what I cause him to see. Alvo continues in more general terms:

Every day our brain makes decisions about what we see in probabilistic terms. The more information we have, the more certain we are about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

In magic, we create the opposite situation. The magician presents a reality that does not conform with reality as the spectator is used to see. This difference creates cognitive dissonance in the spectator’s mind—a gap between the state of mind of the spectator and what they see. In good magic, an experience is created in which the spectator becomes more and more or less confident about what they see until a point has been reached where no rational explanation is immediately available and a state of astonishment.

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge

I have recently been introduced to, a great website that features “riveting talks by remarkable people”. One of the talks that I found fascinating is by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV series Lost. One of the most thought-provoking things he says is:

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge.

The absence of knowledge by its very nature characterises a mystery. It is used in all narrative art forms, but none more so than in magic.

We are all educated to strive for knowledge, to remove the mystery from our lives and seek explanations. Having knowledge is rewarded in life, and we are conditioned to favour knowledge over mystery as soon as we go to school. Every problem has an answer, is the adagio of our society.

This striving for knowledge is the reason that magic as a theatre form can be frustrating to people. We are used to possessing knowledge and in contemporary society, knowledge is more democratised than ever before. We no longer tolerate mystery in our lives. Max Weber called this the Entzauberung (disenchantment) of our world.

When people see a magic performance and have absolutely no idea how the trick works, they sometimes just call out whatever solution enters their mind. Magician Tommy Wonder wrote beautifully about this. Finding a solution, no matter how improbable, reduces their cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is a tension created in the spectator’s psyche, caused by the mystery they are confronted with.

I recently performed a magic show for a group of children where this issue was beautifully illustrated. The oldest boy in the group, he was about ten years old, came to me before the show and said:

Are you the magician? … Magic is all fake isn’t it?

I was a bit taken back by his direct approach and replied:

But it is fun isn’t it?

During the show, he was always ready to point out that he knew how the trick was done. He was trying to reduce his cognitive dissonance and also showing the other kids that he was smarter than me.

One of the most difficult aspects of performing magic is not producing the actual effect—anyone with enough stamina can learn the most complicated sleight of hand. The art of magic is in the presentation and contemporary magic also ensuring that the spectator does not leave with a feeling of frustration. I have therefore constructed my magic show for children so that the focus is not on the mystery, but on what happens before and in many cases I act as surprised as they are.

It is the task of the storyteller—and magicians are also storytellers—to let the spectator experience mystery without increasing their cognitive dissonance. This challenge is the key to making magic entertaining.

Know Thyself: Personality Tests are Worthless

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated …

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “self-knowledge is enlightenment”.

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world. It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware. It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave .

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the ‘Forer Effect’. Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.

The Validity of Religious Experiences

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The question of the epistemology of religious experience deals with the issue whether information obtained through religious experiences can be considered valid knowledge. For a brief introduction into different forms of religious experience, see my paper on that subject.

Information obtained through religious experiences, which I shall further refer to as Revelation, is not considered valid knowledge in contemporary society mainly because the information obtained through revelation can not be verified. Religious experience is thus a very personal experience and unique knowledge, only available to the person receiving the revelation. The receiver of the information is the only one who is able to interpret the revelation and communicates it as thus to the wider world.

In pre-industrial society power was vested in the intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent. The Latin word Pontifex (priest) illustrates this beautifully as it also means ‘bridge’. The priest as bridge builder between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Knowledge gained through revelation is unique and invests power into the person receiving that knowledge as they are the only ones capable of interpreting the information. Knowledge in this sense is esoteric, only available to a small group of people.

Empirical philosophy has, in combination with rationalism, revolutionised human knowledge of the material world. This combination has been an important and powerful tool. Where does this leave revelation? Can we simply say that revelation is not relevant and that religious experiences are mere delusions?

Because revelation is always esoteric knowledge, every experience is interpreted different, depending on the cultural and psychological dispositions of the person receiving the revelation. An important question to be asked is why a Hindu does not receive revelations concerning Jesus Christ or any other cross cultural experiences?

Religious experiences are particular and esoteric. In a society where knowledge is available to anyone through empiricism (although this is not completely true as we do not all have a particle accelerator in our backyard) the Pontifex has lost his power over society as the sole interpreter of knowledge.

The consequence of this, however, is that we have thrown the baby with the bathwater by ignoring religious experience as a valid source of knowledge.

I believe that religious experience can be a valid source of information to make decisions about non material things. It can people guidance about their life, which can have a very profound impact on their lives in the ‘real’ world. Religious experiences also have an effect on how we interpret the material world which shapes our world views.