Epistemology Thought Experiment on Prime Time TV

Epistemology Thought Experiment on Prime Time TV March 2, 2012

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Last night I caught the series premiere of Awake on Hulu and I found it captivating.  The basic setup: Detective Michael Britten (played by Jason Isaacs — Lucius Malfoy) is in a terrible car accident.  After the crash his life bifurcates.  In one reality, his wife died in the crash.  In the other, he lost his son.  He lives a full day in one world, goes to bed, closes his eyes, and wakes up in the alternate world.  Again and again and again.

The show doesn’t nail down whether Britten is experiencing something supernatural or if his grief has made him delusional and one set of experiences is false.  In each world, he’s seeing a different psychiatrist.  Both of them are trying to convince him that the other shrink is wrong to to tell him to accept the other world as true.  Meanwhile, the crimes Britten investigates in each world seem to be entangled.

In the pilot, each doctor tries to come up with ways tests that differentiate between reality and illusion.  One of the psychiatrists (played by B.D. Wong) is much more aggressive than his counterpart.  This proves he is real, he argues.  The other doctor appears more passive because she’s just part of Britten’s subconscious.  When Britten confronts his other doctor with this argument, she says that Wong is the illusion — he matches Britten’s expectation for what psychiatry should feel like.

I’m really excited to see how this show develops and what kind evidence Britten will decides counts as persuasive.  On this blog, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how you decide between two contradictory worldviews that both line up pretty well with the evidence you’ve got on hand.  I’ll keep watching this show and I’ll let you know if it comes up with any heuristics that seem useful outside this particular context.

Personally, I’ve not done too well in coming up with a way to spot that I’ve dreaming.  Although I’ve heard you can’t read in dreams, I’ve certainly believed I was reading new stories in some of mine.  Other times, I’ve tried to do something unusual in the hopes that other people’s anomalous reactions would confirm I was dreaming.  [Unfortunately, in that particular dream, I tried kissing someone, and everyone’s horrified reactions convinced me I wasn’t dreaming, so when I finally woke up, it was from a nightmare].

Recently, I ended up practising ASL in my dream, and the signs seemed to be accurate, but I couldn’t fingerspell at all; I knew I wasn’t actually making the letter-signs.  I’ll have to pay attention and see if I can use that as a test.  Pretty much the only in-dream giveaways I know work now are:

  • I turn out to be naked
  • I can’t remember what happened before what’s currently happening (I have to already be suspicious to even think of this one)
  • Lord Voldemort makes an appearance (This one doesn’t work very well, as I tend not to look a gift adventure in the mouth while I’m dreaming)

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  • deiseach

    Yes, where did that “you can’t read in dreams” come from? Because I’ve read books in dreams, poems in dreams, and had dreams about going into bookshops to buy novels (that did not exist in reality). Also, I dream in colour – wasn’t there something about most people don’t, or only women do, or something along those lines?

    How I know I’m dreaming – sometimes I’ve become aware, in the dream, that it was a dream; I’ve had the thought “Oh, hey, this is a dream!” and settled back to see what happened next; sometimes I’ve been someone else (not me: a man, or a different woman) in my dreams; I’ve had dreams (but not since I was a pre-teen) about flying – or rather, levitating with great effort several feet in the air.

    On the other hand, I once woke up from a dream absolutely convinced I had committed a murder; I was crying and thinking “I have to turn myself into the police now!” and it took me several minutes to come back to the ‘real world’ and convince myself that no, that was just a dream, I really didn’t kill anyone.

  • deiseach

    Argh. That should, of course, have been “turn myself in to the police” (as in surrender myself to custody) and not “turn myself into the police” (which would be a different offence, impersonating a police officer).

    • leahlibresco

      Well, once you’d committed murder, what did you have to lose? 🙂

      • deiseach

        True – start off with murder, then work my way up to serious crimes like jaywalking!


  • Emily

    Wow, I’ve never had dreams with that level of self-awareness and agency.

    Sounds like an interesting show, too.

  • David Carey

    A few things that I’ve heard can be used as “reality checks” in dreams are:

    Flipping a light switch – they say that light switches generally don’t work in dreams

    Looking in a mirror or at your hands – you’ll often have the wrong number of fingers or they’ll be blurry, and your image in the mirror will most likely not be the same as your current appearance.

    Re-reading text – They say that you can sometimes read in dreams but if you read some text and then re-read it it will generally change.

    I was attempting the whole lucid dreaming thing for a while back in college with some success. The thing that helped the most was simply asking myself all the time if I was dreaming or not. Just thinking those thoughts so often made them eventually bleed into my dreams and when I was able to ask myself in the dream I would usually become aware that I was dreaming.

    Funny side note on dreams – I went to school for jazz studies (saxophone performance) and certain teachers and students were always talking about having dreams where they were able to play and improvise at such an incredibly high level, effortlessly. And then they would wake up feeling great about the dream experience. It bummed me out that I never seemed to dream about music so I didn’t have these experiences. Then one day I did dream that I was performing on a gig. The only problem was I played at the same level as in my waking life (maybe even worse!). I woke up all bummed out. 🙂

  • Patrick

    I generally find that I know when I’m dreaming.

    But if I did need a check, it would be my ability to do math. I can do math in dreams, but I have no long term memory, so I can’t remember previous steps in the math problem. So if I were multiplying two long numbers, I could do every individual step, but I’d forget the original numbers I was multiplying during the process. This features highly in my frustration based dreams.

  • Maiki

    I think the “not being able to read” in dreams is related to the “not being able to fingerspell”. I can definitely “Read” in dreams — as in pick up a book, get the content out, or write down some equations and get a solution. I can’t “parse” what I read, though, it is almost as if the pages are blank and I’m reading through osmosis.

    That said, my dreams are weird in that 99% of the time my dreams have no sound, and “talking” is “idea talking” in the same way. I don’t know if this is related to the fact that I’m bilingual/trilingual (natively, I’m learning more as “second” languages) — thoughts flow more easily as language-independent ideas than as words.

    Definitely there are weird phenomena in my dreams, but I don’t think they are consistent across people or even from dream to dream — for example, variants of 2 color color blindness are common (one bit of color is missing, and the other colors are pretty vibrant, e.g. blue/orange, purple/yellow, red/green), out-of-body point-of-view (even though I’m still controlling my actions and thoughts), body or eyelids being “trapped” in response to conscious decision to move.

  • MaryLynne

    I used to be able to lucid dream – I haven’t been able to in a while now. It is just the coolest thing.

    A problem I had was that as soon as I realized I was dreaming, I woke up. Then I found a tip that helped: as soon as I know I dreaming or if I feel myself start to wake up, I started spinning around in my dream. That kept me dreaming.

    A test was to look at my hand – the number of fingers would blur. Or look at a clock, look away, look at it again – the numbers would change.

  • AshtaraSilunar

    I can’t think of anything offhand that I can’t do in dreams. I’ve reread favorite books and smiled at my favorite passages. My dreams are internally consistent, so there may be odd rules, but they’re consistently applied.

    I may look different, or be a different gender, but I’m always human, and my hands look normal. So that’s no help. And I’m not one for mirrors in the real world, so they don’t really appear in my dreams.

    Sometimes I know I’m dreaming, sometimes I don’t. There are usually original characters, cameos from real life are quite rare. Some have been interesting enough that I used them for the basis of a story later.

    I dream in full color, full sound, and scents are present (I seem to notice scent more than a lot of people, so that’s at least consistent. The only clue that it’s a dream is often a “scene change”, skipping the experience of the drive from one location to another.

  • Jonathan

    You didn’t mention that the second psychologist is the former president.

  • Jonathan

    Also, they once made a similar show about Zhuangzi.

  • In dreams, I often read or have conversations without content. So, an argument often is like this: “Opening statement made with arrogant levels of certainty”; “Clever rebutal that turns a particular element of your statement around on itself”; “Demonstration that your reply is historically contingent”; “Demonstration that /your/ reply is based on an equivocation.” And so on. Not that those words are said because there are no words; there are only moves.

    But this never clues me in. I don’t realize I’m just reading the form of a story or having the form of a conversation until I wake up. (I do sometimes have real conversations.) If I need a check, I’ve heard (xkcd? Inception?) that you should look at your watch twice in a row; the times won’t match up correctly. I tried this once and it worked–likely because I expected it to. (Other times when I expect something to happen and it doesn’t don’t normally clue me in, though. That’s what most people would experience as nightmare territory, of course–I don’t feel fear very often in dreams, so I don’t think it counts as a nightmare–and so it seems to make total sense that the monster could do precisely the worst thing I have just been imagining. Basically, my dream villians frequently have Pennywise powers.) And conjoined twins showing up (or, indeed, my being conjoined to someone) should also be a good sign, but I never remember how unlikely that is until, again, after I wake up.

    Usually, if I find out that it’s a dream, it’s because I just know it is. Dreams: where truisms are pretty much the only form of logic.

  • andusay

    Wow, deiseach, you have very similar dream experiences to mine. I, too, can read in dreams. The cool thing is that the stuff I read is good. No, I am not dreaming that I read my own work, I think it is someone else’s and just believe it is very good. I think the sub-conscious is very capable, more capapble that the conscious, so maybe this isn’t all that amazing.

    I also dream that I can levitate (damn, but that is fun) although the power slowly ebbs as the dream goes on, until I can no longer levitate in any manner that is worth while. I play the piano much better than I do in real life. I dream that I am back in school for some odd reason, usually that I missed some odd class and have to re-take it (20 years later).

    Some dreams are so realistic that it actually takes some time to get back into reality when you wake up. The worst of these deal with something I have done wrong and some terrible consequence I will have to deal with.

    Oddly, in my dreams the surroundings often change, sometimes dramatically, and I just accept it as the norm. I was walking in a field, and next I am on a boat in a lake. How did I get there? No matter, let’s just continue.

  • Hibernia86

    If you wonder if you are dreaming, it should be pretty easy to test. You can try to do something impossible and if you are dreaming, your mind probably will let you once it realizes you are dreaming. However, you would need to consider the possibility that you are dreaming. Only once have I ever had a dream where I knew I was dreaming. My other dreams often involve me trying to do something and always getting obstacles in my way. But only once did I ever ask if I was dreaming. Most of the time my brain in a dream doesn’t work this way.

    Another fun story: Once I was sitting at my computer at night and I looked out the window and saw someone walk by. I then turned around and he was there with a bat and swung it down at me. I tried to scream but couldn’t….Then I woke up and realized that I had fallen asleep at my computer and I dreamed that I was at my computer and got murdered. My brain can be an asshole sometimes.

  • @b

    The film Waking Life talks about lucid dreaming and mentions; light switches, digital watches, and practising your 360 degree vision. 5 stars.