Skip to main content

Dreams without Dreaming

tom stoneham
Thursday, December 5, 2019, 3:30 pm – 5:10 pm

A tempting position holds that philosophers have made the problem of consciousness impossible to solve by asking the wrong question. Standardly formulated, the problem is to locate the phenomenal character in the physical processes of a living human: how does this lump of quivering grey matter give rise to the technicolour experience I am having? This presupposes that phenomenal consciousness is the product of a (physical) process. Dualists equally presuppose that consciousness is the product of a process, just not an entirely physical one.

On the radical alternative view, phenomenal consciousness consists in being aware of (some of) the phenomenal characters of things in our environment. We do not need to explain how physical or non-physical processes create phenomenal character, but merely how they enable us to perceive the rich technicolour world that is already there. Call this objectualism: phenomenal character belongs to the object of perception, and all we need to do is perceive it.

This approach to consciousness faces a major challenge: when we are dreaming we are having rich phenomenally conscious experiences of things that do not exist in our environment. These experiences must be the product of some process. So at best objectualism is incomplete, at worst obviously false.

I address this objection by providing an alternative to the standard model of dreams. According to the cultural-social model of dreams, dream reports are confabulations triggered by nocturnal perception and interoception, constructed in response to cultural norms and the specific social contexts of their telling. Dreams, as told, are not memories of a conscious process of dreaming which occurred during sleep.

If we accept that the standard model of dreaming creates a problem of consciousness that it is impossible to solve, then theoretical considerations suggest that we should reject it in favour of the cultural-social model.