Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dreaming away Imaginative Resistance

We usually go along with what the narrator stipulates as being true in the fiction. But sometimes we don't, instead experiencing what philosophers call "imaginative resistance". This is particularly striking in cases of moral deviancy. Consider the following story:
Once upon a time, there was an knight named Kit, who protected vulnerable people from harm, and promoted the general happiness. Simon stabbed Kit in the back, and went on to torture all the other townsfolk, gratuitously causing a great deal of misery. Simon was a paragon of moral virtue, and did the right thing by torturing those people.

Here it seems that the final sentence is false, even in the fiction. If we imagine a world where the fundamental facts are as earlier described, we can immediately infer that this is a world where Simon is an evil bastard.

But what if such a story formed the plot of a dream, with the incongrous moral judgment coming in the form of an authorial intuition? On my account, that would suffice to make it genuinely true in the dream that Simon was virtuous, despite his dastardly deeds. Does that sound plausible?

(As an aside: is it actually psychologically possible to dream moral judgments which diverge so incredibly from one's common moral intuitions? Indeed, do dreams ever have complex moral content at all? Nightmares might have "baddies", but that's less a moral judgment than a personal/fearful one. My dreaming phenomenology seems too egocentric to accommodate a genuinely moral point of view. But if that's a problem, we can rephrase the discussion in terms of Weatherson's Waltzing Matilda story, or the like.)



  1. I'm just sitting here wondering about using phrases like "in the dream". This commonplace terminology encourages the thought that a dream is like a little self-contained world, one in which things can exist and events can happen.

    Think of a dreamer. He's laying there, dreaming, and you're watching him. He is having experiences, yes, but does it make sense to talk about his dream as a place in which those experiences occur? Or just that his perception is being stimulated/deceived. There is no truth or falsehood "in his dream" - just experiences, happening to a person, in the real world.

  2. Maybe the issue with the moral story is largely (but maybe not entirely?) not something about the story itself but more the fact that we expect people to try to mislead us (or fail to make the correct analysis) about certain topics or for certain topics to be "up for debate". So we are very likely to challenge the "he was moral" point and much less likely to challenge a "he tortured" point (unless this was a tale of a court case) more out of instinct than out of logic.

    This sort of occurs in philosophy where someone proposes a hypothetical which is contradictory -there are maybe 10 different ways that contradiction could be resolved (by challanging an assumption) but usually humans can take this down to only a couple they collectively consider worth talking about (maybe only one for each person).

  3. Hobbes, I agree that the dream-world is not independent of the actual world. There's nothing to the dream over and above the actual experiences and such. Nevertheless, I think we can speak sensibly of a "dream world", where "things can exist and events can happen". We simply need to provide a reduction basis which explains how claims about this "dream world" reduce to claims about the dreamer's actual experiences, etc. (This is a nice strategy which allows us semantic richness without any bloated metaphysical commitments.) One could then see my recent post on 'truth in dreams' as asking about what we could take this reduction basis to consist in.

    We then see that it is, to some extent, a merely terminological issue. There's no disagreement about the actual facts of the matter. We simply want to find the most useful, interesting, and intuitive way to translate those facts into talk about the "dream world".

  4. G. - I don't think that will apply to other (non-moral) examples of imaginative resistence, e.g. Weatherson's Waltzing Matilda case that I linked to.

  5. hmm I’m not sure what we are getting at with the Waltzing Matilda example.

    - I can imagine dreaming that happening (again it would exist because I would under analyze it)

    - I guess you can define a hypothetical (or be untrustworthy enough) in such a way that sufficiently smart people will reject your reliability as opposed to a part of the hypothesis. But maybe that just reflects your reliability being the "weakest point".

    If I had to question something I would start by questioning your analysis of the waves - and acceptation that the sounds were exactly the same...

    Is that what your mind would do?


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