Descartes published Meditations on the First Philosophy in 1641, describing his metaphysical belief system. The publication consists of six sections, each written as a meditation during six separate, consecutive days. His intention was to prove that his knowledge was true and not an illusion. He described himself sitting next to a fire warming his feet, however, the question is, how does he know that the fire is real and not a dream? He could easily be dreaming that he is next to a fire; therefore, the fire is an illusion. In the first meditation, he argues that we should doubt all of our senses because this “reality” could be a lucid dream state more real than in the actual dream while asleep, but entirely dissociated from “true reality.” Descartes did not consider (or perhaps wasn’t aware) that people regularly have lucid dreams. While dreaming, it is not impossible to become aware that you are dreaming; while still entirely within the confines of that dream. I believe that this flaw cannot be overcome in Descartes overall argument of knowledge, but it does provide an alternative proof of knowledge that Descartes did not consider.
First, a description of the non-standard terminology to be used in this paper is essential. A “dreaming reality” is a reality that does not consist of facts, but fiction generated either by our own consciousness or an external force creating a simulated reality. The “true reality” is the reality in which our senses provide feedback of what is truly in existence. The key difference between dreaming and true reality is that true reality is perfect; the laws of nature are complete and succinct. In a dream reality, there is an imperfect consciousness creating the existence which means that the dreaming reality is inherently an imperfect creation.
How do we know that the consciousness creating our dreaming reality, or any level of our dreaming reality, is imperfect? According to quantum mechanics, our existence is defined by the laws of conservation of information. The total amount of information in our universe is limited; therefore, consciousness cannot know accurately the reality in which it exists unless it is all that exists. However, since we know that we exist, any consciousness can only be all of existence excluding the space which our consciousness occupies. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am” and the next logical conclusion is that either “I” am all of existence or there is nothing that is all of existence. Since my consciousness clearly does not span all of reality (that would mean I would be aware of all inherent dream states), there is no consciousness that has perfect knowledge.
In summary to my argument; if one is dreaming one can become aware of the dream while being entirely contained within that dream. Additionally, any dreaming reality is inherently imperfect since it was created by an imperfect consciousness. A perfect consciousness cannot be in existence because I exist; everything that I know is information that an otherwise perfect consciousness does not know (I speak of information in the quantum mechanics sense). Thus, to summarize Descartes dream argument,
Premise 1: I have often perceived sensations while dreaming which are similar to sensations while awake.
Premise 2: I am not aware that I am dreaming until I have awoken.
Intermediate Conclusion: Sensations that seem to be real may be illusions created by our own dreaming.
Final Conclusion: We should be in doubt about whether our experience is a reality or a dream. Hence we must prove that we are not dreaming before accepting our concept of knowledge as knowledge about reality.
I agree with Descartes argument that, “I think; therefore, I am.” However, his next argument that we know nothing except that we exist cannot withstand my objections.
Descartes argument is valid, but not sound. The first premise is true, but the second premise is not. When one dreams, one imperfectly determines the laws of nature that define that dreaming reality. I have frequently become aware of these imperfections while within the dream. The obvious example is when one dreams of flying. While dreaming of flying, our consciousness is not entirely aware that we shouldn’t be flying. However, once we realize that the laws of nature on which our dream is based dictate that humans cannot fly (except in airplanes of course) we realize that we must be dreaming, and our senses are deceiving us.
Now that I believe I have dismantled Descartes argument, the question arises, can it be readjusted to account for this new objection? Not in its current form. If one reads further into the meditations, Descartes uses the existence of a god to prove knowledge. According to my previous argument that a perfect being cannot exist, an omniscient and/or omnipotent god cannot exist. Descartes believed that because a god exists and this god is good, that he/she/it would not deceive us with false knowledge. However, all logical and scientific arguments point away from the existence of god. Additionally, quantum mechanics disproves the existence of a god. If god exists, he/she/it clearly is deceiving us by creating a reality in which his/her/its existence is disproven by all logical and analytical pursuits.
In the introduction, I promised to provide an alternative to Descartes’ argument of knowledge. As a result there are three possible states of existence, true reality, a dreaming reality which is expanding faster than our own knowledge, and a dreaming reality which is expanding slower than our own knowledge. Obviously we cannot prove that our existence is a true reality. A true reality is defined by perfect natural laws; since we can neither have perfect knowledge nor can we ever know perfect laws. Humanity can approach the description of perfect natural laws, but we will inevitably die before describing a perfect universe with certainty. The second situation likewise can never be identified. Humanity cannot distinguish between approximating perfect natural laws and approximating somewhat better approximation of perfect natural laws. As long as the imperfect dreaming reality is always a better approximation of perfection than our approximation of perfection, we will never be able to define it.
However, the third case is the only case in which one can attain true knowledge. The reason that we can identify our own dreams is that once we fall asleep, our knowledge stops growing (for the most part). While dreaming, we explore our own knowledge faster than it is growing and can identify flaws and inconsistencies thereto. If our reality is being simulated by another consciousness, then we can identify our reality as a dream, if and only if, that consciousness is growing slower than we are exploring its simulation. The only knowledge that can be considered true knowledge is if we identify our reality as a dreaming reality. “I think; therefore, I am” provides one piece of true knowledge – we know that we exist. If we identify our reality as a dream, then we have additional knowledge. I will summarize the sum of what we can know as truth beyond doubt,
- “I think; therefore, I am”
- There exists an external consciousness which is imperfect and is also simulating our reality
- Our reality is a simulation; therefore, we must doubt all sensory input as being false.
- There exists a reality which better approximates true reality than our own.
These four pieces of knowledge and their resulting conclusions are the only ideas that humankind can know with definite certainty.
This is currently an active area of research in theoretical physics. Is our reality a simulation? Put differently, is our reality defined by the same parameters that we use in computer simulations, which simulate our own existence? This field of research is of significant interest to philosophers. Thus, in my opinion, no philosopher has been able to justify our trust in knowledge. A god providing knowledge is illogical, and blind trust in our senses is convenient, but it is not justifiable.
In conclusion, Descartes used a grievous premise that we cannot know we are dreaming while dreaming. Human beings are commonly capable of identifying dreams while entirely within their dream. However, my objection to his argument gives rise to a more logical justification of reality. If we can identify that we are within a dream, then we have the true knowledge that we are within a dream. While we hope that our knowledge is genuine, and humankind should continue assuming so, the unfortunate conclusion of this logical exercise is that the only certain thing is that nothing is certain.