Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Discussion Question

My Dream
How Not To Tell What's Really Real 

Please respond to the questions at the end of this true story 

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 real."

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 all real:
"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 me.

What an odd thing to tell anyone. Doesn't that sound like simple madness?

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 a dream.

[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 it.]

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.

Study Questions:

    1. How would you have felt if this had been your dream?
    2. What conclusions might you have drawn, if this had been your dream?
    3. Can you imagine any tests that the students might have done to prove to me (in the dream) that the situation was real?
    4. 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?
    5. What conclusions might you draw from this story and your responses to the questions?
    6. What questions come to your mind as a result of this story and your responses to the questions?

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