Friday, December 28, 2012


     Consolation Twenty-Three argued that solitude is both a harsh and a consoling fact of human existence.  Further, it speculated that the primordial components of the All, whatever they are, are absolutely material, self-contained, and indistinguishable and that their symmetry probably prevents any exchange among them.  Their primal state of absolute flux or chaos ends when they somehow lose or break their symmetries and randomly produce asymmetrical, disordered kinds of order like that of our cosmic spacetime.
     Do sleeping dreams support a similarly materialistic explanation of the world or not?  Premodern answers have favored the opposite, non-materialistic option.   A famous example is the story of Joseph in the biblical Book of Genesis.  Joseph is introduced in Chapter 37 as a "dreamer" who offends his brothers by telling them two of his dreams in which they bow down to him as their master.  The brothers plot to kill him but end up selling him into slavery in Egypt, where Potiphar's wife has him thrown in jail for spurning her sexually.  There, in Chapter 40, he interprets the dreams of a butler and baker Pharoah has jailed, telling the butler his dream means he'll be saved in three days and the baker he'll be hanged in three days.
     The interpretations come true.  The butler, restored to Pharoah's service recommends Joseph as an interpreter for two of Pharoah's own dreams, one of seven fat cows eaten by seven starving cows,  the other of seven healthy grains eaten by seven blighted grains.  Joseph accepts the challenge but tells Pharoah (Chapter 41), "It is not in me; God will give Pharoah an answer."  His interpretation is that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven of famine, to which Pharoah responds, "Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you" and puts him in charge of Egypt's food supply on the spot.  Seven lean years do in fact follow seven fat years.  Joseph's brothers unwittingly confirm his dreaming prowess by journeying to Egypt for food during the famine and, not recognizing their brother, bowing down to him as their master.
     To the so-called J-writer of Genesis, who called God "Jahweh" rather than "Elohim," dreams were infallible channels of communication between God and humanity, and most pre-modern writers shared his opinion.  But in classical Greece and Rome an opposing, materialistic view also had eloquent backers.  Best known is Lucretius, who shortly before the Christian era began laid out a thoroughly naturalistic explanation of dreaming in The Nature of Things.
     The fourth of the six books comprising Lucretius' great poem lays out his materialistic theory of human psychology.  The general foundations of his argument are set in Book I, expanded in Book II to corollary doctrines like void, motion, swerve, aggregation, and chance, and focussed in Book III on the physics of percipience.  Book III argues that the human soul is material, consisting of atoms small and sensitive enough to respond to the equally small and sensitive atoms constantly peeling off everything in nature and bombarding sensing atoms in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin with images of the outside world.  Book III ends with Lucretius' famous denial of immortality and his insistence that the human personality is annihilated in death.
     Book IV then argues that when we're sleepy the constant bombardment of foreign, stripped-off atoms against our body disorients our soul-atoms, making them lose contact with our sensing atoms.  The ensuing sleep is deepened if we eat just before bedtime because the digesting of food displaces and disturbs our soul-atoms even more.  Likewise, many dreams are prompted by our interests or worries: lawyers dream of court trials, generals dream of war, Lucretius dreams of his poem.  Dreams make people speak or cry out, wake up with pounding hearts, even urinate or have orgasms.  Lucretius believes animals dream too.  Twitching and convulsing in their sleep, horses often seem to be running or dogs to be hunting.
     Aside from some of its quirkier and more primitive psycho-physical notions, Lucretius' assumption that sleeping dreams are natural, self-generated phenomena in sentient organisms has become the norm worldwide since the Renaissance.  Although many people doubtless still believe in the kind of divine intervention propagated by the J-writer of Genesis -- that is, dreams are imprinted on human souls supernaturally -- informed people today agree with Lucretius.
     They follow him and other ancient Greek and Roman poets, playwrights, and philosophers whose ideas came to prominence during the European Renaissance after having been suppressed by Christianity for a millennium.  Chief among these post-Renaissance thinkers were writers like Shakespeare, who never, to my knowledge, created a character with a prophetic, Joseph-like ability to foretell the future on the basis of dreams.  Reverse evidence that Shakespeare's London audiences no longer believed that dreams were supernatural is the fact they still did believe in ghosts, as the famous ghost scene in Hamlet proves.  There, several people see and hear Hamlet's father, proving Hamlet himself does not dream the ghost up.
     In other words, the fact that Shakespeare still used "corroborated" ghosts for dramatic effect but not divinely-inspired dreams strikes me as a fair measure of how far European urbanites had moved away from the J-writer's assumptions.  No longer were dreams considered conduits of divine inspiration.  They were now, as Lucretius had argued, seen as natural products of human animals.  This is apparent in Shakespearean characters like Lady Macbeth, whose guilty conscience makes her try to wash blood from her hands as she sleepwalks, or Richard II, whose victims torment his dreams the night before his final battle.  Shakespeare uses their dreaming to make the orthodox moral point that Lady Macbeth and Richard II deserve to die for their heinous crimes.  But their dreams, and those of the rest of Shakespeare's characters, are always self-generated and self-reflexive.  No deity sends them from heaven.
     Furthermore, the hallucinatory, delusory quality of sleeping dreams began appearing in stories about people whose waking lives were more dream than reality.  Cervantes' Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of a poor old knight whose sanity's been undermined by medieval romances -- too many giants, abducted ladies, and heroic knights.  The Don transforms the real world of Spanish windmills, peasant girls, and itinerant barbers into a constant waking dream of knightly adventure.  Cervantes' satire depends on the reader's seeing Don Quixote's waking life as in effect a sleeping dream.  His assumption is that the sleeping human brain works more or less as Lucretius had argued.
     In tales like The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne is similarly averse to giving dreaming supernatural credence.  Though some of his stories, like these two about puritan New England, create symbolic resonances that suggest the supernatural, they never require us to see putatively supernatural events as anything more than products of a character's imagination, especially if he or she might be asleep.  This is true of the famous twelfth chapter of The Scarlet Letter, in which Dimmesdale, the town minister and unconfessed father of Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl, climbs the public scaffold at midnight to ease his guilt.  Hester and Pearl happen by and join him on the scaffold, a comet shaped like an A illuminates the scene like lightning, and Chillingsworth, Hester's former husband and sworn discoverer of Pearl's paternity, appears nearby in the flash.  This dramatic scene, literally in the novel's center, hints of supernatural overtones, but Hawthorne elaborately points out that Dimmesdale probably dreamed it.
     So too Young Goodman Brown.  Here Hawthorne portrays another troubled New Englander, this one anxious about his "Faith" -- literally his wife and metaphorically his religion.  Brown goes at night into the forest to find his Faith, discovers and joins her and the rest of the village in lurid devil-worship, and wakes up next morning alone in the woods.  Again Hawthorne makes the dream option explicit, concluding this time that, dream or no, the experience changed Goodman Brown from an optimist to a pessimist. For Hawthorne and many other Euro-American writers of the Romantic era, the importance of dreaming lay in the kind of psychological self-revelation these two New England stories dramatize.
     The heyday of dreaming as psychological self-revelation arrived in the early 1900s with Jungian and Freudian dream theory.  Jung held that dreams are expressions of a collective unconscious evolved and transmitted over countless generations.  Their primordial images of fear, pleasure, success, and failure have been passed along through biological reproduction and lodged deep in the human brain as archetypal memories.  Arguing that dreams of water or reptiles, for instance, did not reflect simply the dreamer's own experiences but also archetypes buried in his or her collective unconscious, Jung denied immaterialism.  Everything we are and dream, he held, is a product of natural evolution.
     Freud's theory was even more materialistic.  It assumed human beings are driven more by libidinal urge than self-preservation, because reproduction counts more than personal survival towards species success.  That's why Freud's id, or primal sexual instinct, is the hot lava on which the ego, or primal survival instinct, floats.  The ego in turn supports the super-ego, or consciously reasoning, socializing, and moralizing self.  Dreams are products of these conscious and unconscious drives and are vitally important in treating psychiatric disorder in general and sexual psychosis in particular.  They are natural, physical events without a shred of supernatural content.
     Freud's view of human civilization as a thin veneer over volcanoes of human amorality, irrationality, and selfishness was widely shared by Euro-Americans of his day and helps explain his profound influence on them and us.  His dream theories represent the apex of a psychological realism friendly to Lucretian materialism and hostile to J-writer supernaturalism.
     If, then, dreams consist of nothing but electro-chemical neuronal firings in the brain when we sleep, how are they caused?  No one yet knows.  We do know that when we're awake our brains constantly re-image and re-create the external world with the help of the body's sensing mechanisms, subject it to countless kinds of measurement and judgment, and interact with it in ways so "experiential" and "intentional," to borrow some  existentialist terms, that we not only imagine put can pretty well prove we're alive.  This feeling of being alive -- of perceiving, intuiting, imagining, and gloriously existing -- is caused by countless neuronal and synaptic events in our brains that, individually, are no more capable of thinking or feeling than is a campfire spark.
     Collectively, though, they can do wonders like landing human beings on the moon, writing and playing Corelli concertos, and finding the Higgs boson.  Of course they can also massacre schoolchildren, pollute and overheat the planet, and become addicted to heroin or reality TV, but I'll defer negatives like these to future posts.  The point here is that, given the fantastic complexities and capabilities of the human brain, dreaming isn't one of its more remarkable accomplishments.
     Although how and why we dream is currently no better scientifically understood than most other brain processes, dreams themselves often seem fairly easy to comprehend in terms of proximate causes.  When I'm sleeping and need to urinate, I often dream of being in or near water, and when I badly need to urinate I may find myself in a house where all the toilets are occupied or clogged or where I'm wandering naked among strangers.  Usually the unpleasantness and embarassment I feel corresponds to my urinary needs.
     Or I may have been sleeping in one position too long and developed arthritis pain in a shoulder, hip, or knee.  Here the dreams vary widely.  I may be lost in a city I vaguely recognize but can't remember my way around in.  Or I may be driving a car that keeps stalling or falling apart.  Or I may be a student taking a test in a class I've never attended or done any work for.  Or I'm a teacher teaching a class whose subject matter I don't know.  The list goes on and on, but what matters is that the moment I wake up I know the dream was mostly a reaction to the pain in one of my joints.  The same is true of some dreams I have of snow or skiing.  Waking up, I realize the blanket's fallen off or the bedroom's cold.
     Academic dreams of the kind just mentioned often recur.  They stem, I suppose, from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome I developed during my sixty years in academia as student and teacher.  Often nightmarish, they're sometimes pleasant, even euphoric, and I suspect these nicer dreams indicate how much I enjoyed some aspects of academia despite my dislike of many others.
     Not all my recurring dreams have any links I'm aware of to my waking life.  One dream takes place in a landscape that begins in a valley containing a village-like cluster of houses and rises to a bluff where elegant governmental or commercial buildings block the way and force me to find a route through.  Doing this isn't hard, and beyond them rise attractive hills from which I can look back and admire the architecture of the buildings I've passed and the village cluster beyond.  Sometimes I'm going from village to hill and sometimes the other way, but I always find an easy path through the mid-buildings.
     I have no idea what the dream means, nor do I know why I sometimes dream I'm renting the front, left, second-floor room of a run-down, almost furnitureless house somewhere in a seedy, semi-rural area.  The first dream's more agreeable than the second, yet in both I seem to recognize where I am and feel at home despite never having seen either place in my entire waking life.
     But this lack of connection between my recurring dreams and my waking life may be more significant than all the links I make between my dreams on the one hand and my worries, bodily functions, and bedroom conditions on the other.  In the final analysis, I'm convinced the brain-body is too complex a material system to explain in simple cause and effect terms.  Even when sleeping, the brain bubbles with tremendous energy, superfluity, and redundancy.  If its network of neurons and synapses can re-image and re-process the empirical world so well that we know we exist, it can easily manufacture dreams full of things and events we've never seen or known.  In fact, most dreams are probably nothing but aimless, random doodlings of the brain's circuitry.


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