One of the things I’ve noticed while on holidays is how much I depend on other people’s work for having philosophical ideas. Without being attached at the eye to an internet terminal, preferably with open links to many of the sites highlighted on the philosophy papers blog, I struggle to come up with new ideas to talk about. So instead I’ll recycle an old idea.
Inspired a little by this post on the 617 blog, I was discussing at a party the other night whether Neo should have taken seriously the possibility that he’s in a second-level matrix. There was some consensus that this would be a reasonable worry for him to have, when next he gets the chance to think about it.
Later that night I was having some odd but not too remarkable dream, somehow not at all about The Matrix. The only noteworthy features were some outbreaks of prettier than expected singing, and for no apparent reason a shower of purple tinsel/confetti, that provided some fairly spectacular eye candy. Metaphorically speaking. When I woke up I was trying to explain this dream to some friends, but they didn’t seem too interested, largely because my explanations seemed so incoherent. They were much more interested in getting me to see the blue glow reflected off the edge of a flower, that you could only see if you looked just the right way. Of course I couldn’t get the angle right, and it looked like a pretty ordinary flower to me, which led to some frustration. And at that point I woke up again.
And here I started to have real philosophical worries. If I can be in a state that feels for all world like waking from a dream (or almost feels this way – see below) and it still be another dream, do I have a special reason for having sceptical worries at just that moment? It certainly seemed at the time that scepticism then would have been much more defensible than a general philosophical scepticism.
As it turns out, I was awake, so my rather insistent involuntary belief that I was awake was true. (Or if it wasn’t it’s been a very complicated dream since.) But was it knowledge? Or, if you think if it’s a different question, if I’d said at the time “I know I’m awake” would I have spoken truly? For a very different question, try running through a few popular accounts of knowledge to see whether on those theories my belief that I’m awake constitutes knowledge. I suspect there’s a few ways of reading the safety requirement on knowledge such that it doesn’t.
What really convinced me that I was awake was that I was having tactile sensations. I think, though I don’t really know how to confirm this, that I don’t have tactile sensations in dreams. I’m not even sure that I have auditory sensations in dreams. Certainly my memory of dreams doesn’t contain vivid audial representation in the way it contains vivid visual representation. I end up knowing that the auditory surroundings are one way rather than another, but it often seems as if this is by an unmediated, unaccompanied, direct awareness of someone speaking or singing or whatever. In the real world such awareness is constituted by, or at least accompanied by, sensations. I think this isn’t the case in my dreams, so I think I now have a good way of testing whether I’m awake or not – hitting myself in the head and seeing whether I hear or feel it. Scepticism refuted using folk science!
Maybe I shouldn’t need other philosophers to provide philosophical ideas. Maybe I should be able to get ideas from my environment. But it’s not that easy to do that, I’ve found. Ideally I’d get more philosophical inspiration from other creative works. But that hasn’t been working. I’ve seen two bands since I got here – Machine Translations and Architects in Helsinki – and while both were very good, neither exactly encouraged distinctively philosophical ideas. (Aesthetics question: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that both of these bands sounded exactly the same on stage as on their recordings? I was a little bit disappointed by this, but only a little since their recordings sound very good. But maybe I was being unreasonable, and it’s perfectly acceptable to reproduce the recording studio on a pub stage.) I saw an excellent performance of Hamlet, but while that does raise philosophical questions I think I’ve considered most of them previously at some time or other previously. (Economics question: how well would a book on philosophical issues in Shakespeare sell? It could be used as a textbook for particularly precocious, not to mention precious, young philosophy students. And it could be fun to write.) And I saw some recent Aboriginal paintings, and was again convinced that Australian Aboriginal art is the best art of the past thirty years. When I’m feeling particularly ungenerous I can almost be convinced it’s the only worthwhile art of the past thirty years, but that’s probably a slight exaggeration. Still, that doesn’t raise distinctively philosophical issues either, so I’m still a little lacking in inspiration. Maybe it’s just a side-effect of too much holidaying and too little work!