Sunday, 9 March 2014

I Dream Of Kant

In the last 6 months, when I've found myself with a little free time away from the various technology jobs, the household duties, and writing and promoting my book, I've been studying the ideas of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. I had been picking up little snippets of his conclusions over the last 4 or 5 years and I'm really pleased that I'm getting properly stuck into his theorising now. I think the man was genius of the highest order.

A few weeks back I had a really weird dream. It was some kind of futuristic scenario, where I was being made to commit hi-tech hari-kari for some unspecified misdemeanour. Everyone in the dream was rather cheerful and chipper about the whole affair including myself which in itself was highly odd. However the best part of the dream was that as I was waking up, I had a bit of a Kantian epiphany about the process of dreaming.

Kant wrote a lot about empiricism, which is the basis for most of our science. He suggested that this was a good thing. If I have understood correctly, he argued that it was reasonable to base our knowledge of the world on empirical evidence. In these discussions he also suggested that a feature of the material world was that it had temporal causality; that is, events created consequences in time.

This might not be completely clear, so consider the following example. If on a Saturday night at your local drinking establishment you take it upon yourself to poke a muscular, tattooed gentleman in the eye, then you would probably expect consequences to follow (and probably not good ones) a little later on. In a less flippant vein, if you heat water it will, some time later, reach 100 degrees Celcius and subsequently begin to turn to water vapour, and so on.

Time, therefore, is a feature of the causality that Kant describes. In my reading of his ideas, I also find suggestions that in addition to this knowable, empirical, causality-bound phenomenon that we know as the world, the possibility also exists of an alternative way in which the world may exist. This is more theoretical possibility than reasoned or empirical conclusion, and Kant suggests that because it is empirically difficult (or even impossible) to experience, then nothing really can or should be said about it.

On another note, I've been banging on for ages to anyone who would listen, about the failure of psychology to really understand the more bizarre elements of our psychic selves; for example, dreams, mental illness, near death experiences and the like. These seem to me to indicate something other that is resistant to the temporal causality and empiricism through which we understand this life. Of mental phenomena, I think dreams are most interesting, because everyone has these. Mental illness and NDEs are not universal but dreams are.

So to my petit epiphany. It was noteworthy primarily because it joined these threads together. In the dream, I was pondering all the potential ramifications of the action I was about to take. Would it hurt? Could I get away with not doing it? What would be the consequences if I chose not to? As I woke I realised that none of these consequences would ever have to be faced - it was just a dream.

While I was experiencing the dream it was as real as anything else in my life. I also realised that it had its own internal temporal causality; that is what I did in the dream affected what happened later on in the dream. However the causality of the events within the dream did not extend to the non-dreaming state. Thus all sorts of of odd and crazy things could happen in dreams and they would end there. If the same things happened in a single hour of my waking life there would be consequences in the days and weeks ahead.

Thus this served as an excellent illustration of the point that Kant was making about causality and offered me a little insight into the nature of dreams. They are almost like self-contained instances of the phenomenon we know as the world. Knowledge and memory and personality can transfer between the real world and dreams, but causality does not. Which is a good thing for those who have dreams about failing all their exams or poking their boss in the eye, but is bad news for those who wake after dreaming that they are the proud owner of a new Ferrari.

Isn't philosophy fun?

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