I’m reading Freud’s book on and off right now. It’s kind of a slog. From reputation, you’d think it was going to be filled with either mystical bullshit or mystical insight. The surprise is to find neither- it is materialistic and boring. His thesis is that dreams are not entirely meaningless, and contain psychological information. Even in 1899, this certainly could not have been a revolutionary idea- fiction has included dream sequences for a long time.
One of the central claims is that one’s reason is entirely inoperative during sleep, as if this is something that can be turned on and off with a switch. I’ll debunk this with a counterexample in a moment, but first we should observe that it’s an incoherent idea that arises from Enlightenment sensibilities. (According to the Rationalists and their ilk, the emotions and the rational mind are strictly separable processes, and a man must strive to rule his emotions with his mind.) Though the dreamer may temporarily enter Faerie, he cannot escape the principle of non-contradiction. The other laws of logic must also remain in effect because materialists define these as the processes which the human mind is capable of understanding, and if the dream were a purely material reaction of electrochemical stimuli the suspension of “reason” would be an immediate contradiction.
In contrast, the Philosopher states:
[In dreams], too, we think something else, over and above the dream presentation, just as we do in waking moments when we perceive something; for we often also reason about that which we perceive. So, too, in sleep we sometimes have thoughts other than the mere phantasms immediately before our minds. This would be manifest to any one who should attend and try, immediately on arising from sleep, to remember [his dreaming experience]. There are cases of persons who have seen such dreams, those, for example, who believe themselves to be mentally arranging a given list of subjects according to the mnemonic rule. They frequently find themselves engaged in something else besides the dream, viz. in setting a phantasm which they envisage into its mnemonic position. Hence it is plain that not every ‘phantasm’ in sleep is a mere dream-image, and that the further thinking which we perform then is due to an exercise of the faculty of opinion.
The typical response of amateur Rationalists here is to “rationalize” that the dreamer is remembering incorrectly. Rather than waste more time on this point, we shall ignore the opinions of those who have to close their eyes and plug their ears in order to think clearly.
The counterexample I promised is an egregious one and not typical of my dreams. In my dream I had called in to The Daily Shoah, which is a simple result of listening to a great deal of it lately at work. One of the hosts asked me how I thought Ted Cruz’s exit from the race would affect the voting patterns in the rest of the primary, presuming the remaining candidates didn’t also drop out. I worked up a quick model of the situation in my head and estimated that only one in three Cruz voters would still vote in the primary for any candidate, and of these two of three would go to John Kasich and one of three would go to Donald Trump. I also predicted another factor of one half that I can’t remember, despite wracking my brain, and came to the conclusion that one in eighteen likely Cruz voters would actually show up to vote for Trump (1/3 * 1/2 * 1/3 = 1/18). I then said that I figured Trump would win handily before the conversation went on a tangent.
Now, as I mentioned above this is not a representative example of the reasoning I’m capable of in my average dreams. It’s pretty high-level reasoning and usually my dreams are too fantastical and concrete to warrant this sort of thing. (The verbal content tends to be sparse and impressionistic.) But the extreme nature of this dream proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the less extreme sorts of reasoning (the sorts of which intelligent animals are capable) are possible and likely common in dreams.
Some of the visual and dramatic elements of dreams also appear to have an abstract verbal element to them. The best example I can think of comes from a dream I had during the initial period of frenzied activity when the Complete SJW List was starting up. In the dream my left ear caught on fire and half of it burned off before I succeeded in dousing it. I realized later that the best interpretation of this was that the abstract verbal portion of my brain had used the phrase “my ears are burning”, and the childishly literal portion was interpreting this with dramatic imagination. This is similar to the tendency of autistics and children to interpret turns of phrase too literally, in combination with the adult tendency to use proverbs to help them interpret situations using previously acquired mental models.
To give another example of children interpreting turns of phrase with naive literalism, I’ll borrow one of my dad’s anecdotes. When he was at the post office as a child, his dad (my grandpa) gave him a letter to put in the mailbox outside in the parking lot. He was warned to make sure he “got it over the water”. In retrospect some years later, my dad realized that it had rained that day and the mailbox’s “in” slot was probably wet, and my grandpa was only telling him to toss it through the opening to avoid getting the letter wet. But because he was young and naive, he imagined that there must be some sort of water reservoir (maybe a bucket) inside the mailbox that some of the letters dropped into if they weren’t thrown hard enough. So for years afterward, he’d throw letters into mailboxes as hard as he could.
As an adult, he could simply have reasoned that “there’s no reason that a bucket of water would be in there, and a lot of good reasons that there wouldn’t be”, thus dispelling the false belief. But a child is more prone to misinterpretation because they have less experience of the world to dispel these delusions. Given the fact that a lot of our dream content tends to refer to events from our childhoods and relies heavily on childlike feats of imagination, I think it’s plausible that we also revisit these childish foibles.
To end this post on a tangent (because why not), this line of thought has led me to consider as a definition of reason: “the process by which I adjust my perception to minimize absurdities”. It’s not set in stone because I haven’t thought about it long enough, but so far I haven’t found any problems with it.