On a rumpled wintry Saturday morning
in Milwaukee, in early 1973, I was sleeping late and dreaming.
That was one of the quarters during my graduate school years at
Marquette when I was trying to pay the rent by itinerant teaching
of Philosophy courses around the city. This quarter I was teaching
at Alverno College, a small, Catholic liberal arts college for
women in one of the suburbs of Milwaukee. I was also cramming
for a German language proficiency exam, I was finishing the writing
of a doctoral dissertation on the nature of consciousness and
I was preparing for a two hour public oral defense of that dissertation
before a panel of my graduate Philosophy profs.
But this Saturday morning I was letting myself catch up on some
much needed sleep. And I was dreaming:
I dreamed that I was walking up
the front steps of Alverno College on a bright sunny winter morning,
with blue sky overhead and fields of white snow all around. It
was beautiful, invigorating, bracing. I felt invigorated and
cheerful. I was dressed in a modest brown suit and tie, carrying
my Samsonite briefcase as I did every morning. I was walking
up the steps to the large front doors of the main building of
the college where my morning class was. I opened the door and
entered the large foyer that gave onto hallways leading off to
classrooms and offices.
In the foyer was a large L-shaped arrangement of tables spread
richly with cakes and cookies and pies and suchlike. Behind the
tables were ten or twelve students, a few of whom I knew from
classes; they were having a bake sale. I stopped and was making
pleasant small-talk with them, was admiring the baked goods,
and was beginning to fuss with my wallet to probably buy something.
This was when it slowly became clear to me that this whole scene
was a dream, that I was in the dream, that I was talking and
behaving along with everyone else, but I was also aware that
the whole thing was a dream. (This isn't particularly unusual,
I don't think. When I tell this story in my classes today, I
ask how many people have had dreams in which they realized they
were dreaming, and over half raise their hands.) So I realized
that it was a dream. It was an interesting and pleasant dream,
and I just kept on enjoying it, continuing the small-talk, and
continuing my purchase.
But after a time I began to feel a little guilty toward these
friendly students, because I knew it was all a dream and I wasn't
telling them. I felt almost like I was hiding something from
them. I even began to feel a little inauthentic toward them,
as if I should probably let them in on the secret. That feeling
got a bit stronger, so I decided finally to just tell them.
"By the way," I said to them, "I don't mean to
offend anyone, but this is a dream we're in. It isn't really
Oh, they thought that was funny. Professor Kerns doing his philosophy
thing even out here in the hallways. "You don't have to
talk philosophy out here too," they laughed. "We learn
enough in the classroom, you know." They were amused.
I was too. It was a pleasant happy morning, and we all felt cheery
and good. "You're right," I chuckled back to them.
"But it is still a dream, you know," and continued
to finish buying the cookies.
"Oh come on," one of them responded. "Why don't
you pinch yourself. That'll show whether it's a dream or not.
Go ahead, pinch yourself."
So I pinched myself.
"Well? Did you feel it?"
"Well then! That proves it. This is real, see?"
And that little demonstration seemed to carry some weight with
the others too. They were cheerfully convinced that this did
prove the situation was real.
"Yes, yes," I said; "but don't you see, I just dreamed that I pinched myself, and I just dreamed that I felt it. That's all part of the dream, don't you see?"
They weren't convinced at all. In fact they looked for other
ways to prove to me that it was all real. And thus began a sequence
of little tests they tried to devise to prove to me that it was
"I'll bet if one of us dropped a boulder on your foot and
it broke your foot, then you'd know it was real."
"Yeah!" another one chimed in. "Or if somebody
stabbed you in the chest and you bled all over the floor and
died, that'd prove that it was real! Then you'd know."
A chorus of "Yeah!s", and some friendly chuckles. This
all was rather fun, after all.
But I had to add, of course, that all that blood and dying was
just part of the dream too, if they chose to do it to me. It
didn't prove that anything was real.
Someone else proposed: "So if this is all a dream, and none
of this stuff is real, then this table is just made up of 'thought-stuff',
and your body is too. So let's see you walk your dream-body right
through this dream-table, if it's not really real."
A chorus of "yeah's." Everyone definitely thought that
was a good argument. I couldn't walk through the table, of course.
I made a play at trying, but just bumped into it. I explained
that of course I couldn't walk through the table because a big
part of the whole dream was that everything seemed perfectly
real. Most dreams in fact have you believing that everything
in them is perfectly real, otherwise nothing in the dream would
mean much to you; you'd just shrug it all off. You don't shrug
it off, though, because it all feels very real to you.
Another student did have a pretty good question, though. She
asked if I remembered what I had had for breakfast. Yes, I did.
And did I remember what I'd had for dinner the night before (I
did), and what we had done in class a week before that (I did),
and in fact did I remember anything from ten or twenty years
ago, like one of my birthdays, or my first fishing trip, or when
JFK was shot. Of course I did. "Well then," she asked
rhetorically, "are you saying that this dream has been going
on for twenty years?"
"Yeah!" everyone agreed.
That appeared to be a very good objection to my claim that it
was a dream. But I had to still remind them that a person's memories
occur in present time; i.e., I am right now, in this moment
having a memory experience. And in that memory experience, it
seems to me that I recall something that happened in past time.
Of course memory experiences could be accurate or mistaken or
even totally fictional. In any event, this dream had, as a part
of it, that I was "remembering" a breakfast I had eaten,
a dinner the night before, and so on. Most dreams do entail "remembering"
things, even if only remembering things that happened a few minutes
before in the dream. Some entail "recognizing" other
characters in the dream, "knowing" who they are and
what their personalities are like, etc. Most dreams entail remembering
something about how the situation came about that you are presently
in, and so on. But the memories are just as fictional as the
dream itself is. You are dreaming up the memories just as much
as you are dreaming up the characters and the situations and
feelings that you are living through.
They reluctantly agreed with that, but still didn't think it
was a dream.
"You know, if you really think this is a dream," said
another young man, "and that you're home in bed sleeping
and dreaming, why don't we all just get in the van, drive over
to your house and see if you're there in bed. If you are, then
we'll know you're dreaming and that this isn't real; if you aren't
in bed, then we'll know this is real."
Certainly an intriguing idea, but if we had gone to my house
I'm sure we would have found the bed all made, dirty breakfast
dishes in the sink, etc., because the whole thesis of the dream
was that I was out of bed and awake.
Again, though reluctantly, they agreed.
There were some other interesting suggestions about how we might
test whether this was a dream or reality, but none of them were
tests that would give any results other than the obvious and
expected ones; they wouldn't really test or prove anything.
But one student did ask, because she couldn't imagine what the
answer could possibly be: "If this is a dream, as you seem
to really believe it is, then whose dream is it? Who is the one
doing the dreaming?"
I immediately knew the obvious answer to that question, of course.
It was my dream; I was the one doing the dreaming. But
as soon as that thought came to me, it also became clear how
absurd it would be to say it. After all, I was standing there,
wide awake, all dressed and talking and alert and not any more
sleepy-looking than anyone else. I was as unlikely a candidate
to be the dreamer as anyone else. Yet I knew I was really
asleep somewhere and dreaming this whole experience.
I knew that it wasn't the real me that was standing there all
dressed up and wide awake. It was just the dream-me. The real
me was the one that was back in bed. If we drove over to the
house, of course I wouldn't be in bed; I would be standing there
awake and looking at the bed. But in the real reality,
the real me was asleep somewhere and dreaming.
But then I realized what an odd thing this was to say. I would
be saying that there was a real me that was different
than the me they saw standing there. I would be telling them
that the me that was standing there in everyone's sight, talking
to them, wide awake, obviously not dreaming, was not really
What an odd thing to tell anyone. Doesn't that sound like simple
The students would probably not accept that it was the same distinction
Kant made between the empirical ego and the transcendental ego,
or between the phenomenal self and the noumenal self. Or that
it was Jung's distinction between the self and the Self.
Or that it might be analogous to
Hinduism's distinction between atman and Brahman, where Brahman
is the real self, the Creator of worlds. Certainly this
"Brahman" of mine was creating a world, and it was
a world inhabited by people who refused to see that it was just
[I guess, in the end, that is exactly what Hinduism says about
this world and its people. They just cannot see that it is maya
As soon as I realized the complexity and oddness of the answer,
as well as the truth of the answer, to the question about
who was the dreamer, I didn't know where to start to answer it.
I just stood there, dumb.
Seeing that there wasn't likely to be an answer to their question,
another student finally asked, "Oh come on! How many of
us really believe this is a dream. Raise your hands." No
one did. Except me, timidly, but with certitude. One vote for
it being a dream. The only one who really knew. The student continued:
"And how many of us believe this is real and not a dream?" Everybody raised their hands. The matter was decided.
[Perhaps that is how people make their decisions about reality
all the time. They take a vote. They accept the consensus. If
psychologists talk about consensual reality, this is definitely
We all smiled, laughed a bit, wished each other a good day, and
the students went happily back to their business of the bake
sale. I went off down the hall to my classroom, smiling, puzzled,
anticipating the day ahead.
- How would you have felt if this
had been your dream?
- What conclusions might you have
drawn, if this had been your dream?
- Can you imagine any tests that
the students might have done to prove to me (in the dream) that
the situation was real?
- Can you imagine any test that
you might do, right now, right where you are, to test and prove
for sure whether what you are experiencing is real or a dream?
- What conclusions might you draw
from this story and your responses to the questions?
- What questions come to your mind
as a result of this story and your responses to the questions?