And if so, then who is the dreamer? An invitation for a trip to insanity and back.
The question of distinguishing dreams form real life and vice versa have moved the imagination and thinking of humanity since the dawn of consciousness. During ancient times, dreams were seen as magical things. People believed that some so called shamans had the ability to foresee events in their dreams or to dream the history of people, places and things. This mysticism can be found even today, many people hold the meanings or symbolism of dreams in a high place. In addition, I think that we will never let these beliefs go.
Reality and dreams sometimes cause a bit of a headache for a person to distinguish between them. It can be challenging to tell the difference between a memory of a dream and the memories of real events. I am sure that every one of us had this experience at least once in life. We have dreamt something that seemed so real that when we woke up, it lingered in our minds like a memory. Moreover, when we were reciting those memories to someone who we saw in that dream corrected us or looked at us with wide eyes not knowing what on Earth we were talking about. Some dreams are just too realistic.
Since dreams are so mystical and intertwined with reality, many philosophers tried to solve the puzzle behind them. So far, we know that dreams feed from our unconsciousness and from real memories. However, this paradigm sometimes does not add up. There are several anomalies, cases, when people dream about places, events or people that they have never visited, seen or known, yet they can remember those things afterwards, and could even describe them accurately. A crisis from time to time regarding the existing paradigms in the field of dream research is unavoidable.
First of all, we should look at the famous Taoist Zhuangzi’s “butterfly dream” (which he penned down around the Fourth Century B.C.). Once Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly, flying all around happily and doing as he pleased. In the dream, he did not know that he was Zhuangzi. Then he woke up and there he was, in his material unmistakeable form. But he did not know if he was Zhuangzi dreaming about being a butterfly or the butterfly was dreaming about being Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This he called the Transformation of Things. Which clearly represents our first anomaly and problem to be solved. If you can differentiate between dreaming and being awake, then how can you decide which one are you in now? The paradigm shift caused by this crisis has made a great impact on Eastern Philosophy.
Secondly, we do not need to venture too far in time to find pieces of arts, namely films in our case that delve into the muddy ground of consciousness… It is time to look at the films, Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010). Both of these classical movies share one important aspect with Zhuangzi’s dream: they cannot give us the true answer to the main question. Neither can confirm which state is which and what is reality and what is dream. The paradigm to see the world as it stands, is so fragile that at the very moment when a different perception is introduced it falls into crisis and this made our “heroes” to bury the old world. In the Matrix the paradigm shift or its denial is very well composed in the dilemma of the Red or Blue pills. However in opposition to Inception, in the Matrix Neo is presented into a new world after his paradigm has shifted. Although the viewers have this little discomfort in the back of their heads. What if all of this is part of the simulation? We have never got the true answer, because the crisis that has been created only gave us a false paradigm shift, that may present us with other illusions. Maybe all of this was just in order to give them a false goal to focus on, to keep the humans inside the Matrix, so no one can escape it… In the end, we will never get the true answer.
Comparing Inception to Zhuangzi’s dream shows us that it was the film’s foundation. It is clear that there is a difference between things, but at the same time, they can transform. It is forever in moving. Drawing circles. Like the spinning top, still spinning. The dream is just as real as reality, and vice versa.
Inception did not shatter the old paradigm totally. It was only reorganised, the shift was soft, only to make the new ideas fit in with the old. Comparing it with the Matrix, this film did not give our heroes a new world or false goals. They had to bury the old world, but not their complete sense of the world. After the paradigm shift, they could no longer distinguish between dream and reality, which in a sense reached the state that Zhuangzi referred to. Although they used an indicator to decide it for them, which was the spinning top. This paradigm shift has almost caused the characters to go mad, and the final scene has left even the viewer in a state of turbidity. Not every paradigm shift is pleasant, and some even happen in an incomprehensible way. The Matrix has given something to our “heroes” to cling to, but Inception took everything from them. When Cobb leaves the spinning top in the room, deciding to not know the answer, in fact he decides to be happy and live with the old paradigm. If the result was not what he was expecting, then it would drive him insane. In other words, he not witnessing the result was the price of his happiness.
Unlike Zhuangzi’s “butterfly dream”, Inception and Matrix both use the shared dream space to manipulate the minds of the people. They lead even the viewer into false outcomes regarding what happened. In the Matrix an authoritarian computer regime keeps humanity as slaves, manipulating their consciousness and unconsciousness into believing that the world their inhabit is the real world and not a dream. While in Inception, it is clear from the start that people enter into dreams and manipulate it themselves, achieving even the impossible. But then it all shifts and the consciousness can no longer decide which one is which, dragging themselves down the rabbit hole.
There are more questions than answers raised by these pieces of art and philosophy. Many conspiracy theories have arisen because of the cultural shock that followed these paradigm shifts. What if all this is a shared dream? What if we inhabit the dream of someone else? And if so, then who is this dreamer? In some cultures, they call this dreamer God. This could be one answer, at least to calm the mind. However, it is still unresolved.
In conclusion, we can never be truly sure what is a dream and what is reality. But at the same time, we distinguish dream from reality. We can be sure that we are who we are, and that there is a difference between us and other things, or cannot we? Maybe it is for the better not knowing the true answer.