Saturday, April 29, 2017

Dreams and divination

The Bible narrates some revelatory dreams. The Bible even has a famous prophecy about Christian dreams (Acts 2:17-18). That raises the question of whether we ought to interpret our dreams. How seriously should we take our dreams?

There are "primitive" cultures in which oneiromancy is a fixture of the culture. In addition, depth psychologists think dreaming is significant. Freud and Jung are two noted examples. 

Recently, I was listening to a psychologist discuss dream analysis. I didn't listen to him for that reason. He was initially discussing Dostoyevsky and secular ethics, but then he got onto the subject of dreams, which is natural for a psychologist to discuss, since dreams are an important and historically neglected feature of human cognition. 

He discussed what dreams represent. In dream analysis, a psychologist will ask the client what the dream reminds them of, then attempt to connect that to a network of ideas. 

A presupposition of dream interpretation is that dreams are symbolic. Therefore, the objective is to decipher the symbolism.

However, I'm skeptical about the operating assumption. I think ordinary dreams are figments of the imagination that don't really symbolize anything. To be sure, that's an oversimplification. Sometimes we dream about familiar people and places. Many dreams draw on memories. Dreams aren't imaginary in that sense, although we also dream about strange people and places that only exist in our dreams. I mean the plot in a dream is imaginary. And even when we dream about a real place, there's often a degree of surreal distortion.

Ordinary dreams can be significant in the sense that we sometimes dream about things that are significant to us. In that respect, dreams can sometimes be a reflection of what's important to us. But in that case, the interpretation is obvious to the dreamer. 

Then there's the question of revelatory dreams. If these are coded language by which God commuicates to some people, does that require interpretation?

Even if it did require interpretation, that doesn't mean the interpretation is available. In the case of premonitory dreams, those don't require interpretation ahead of time, because the future will suppley the interpretation. If the dream comes true, the interpretation lies in the fulfillment. In that respect, premonitory dreams are self-interpreting, but not in advance. And, of course, that's a direct way to distinguish ordinary dreams from revelatory dreams.

I think it would normally be a mistake to make decisions based on dreams, since most dreams are imaginary rather than prophetic. That's a highly unreliable source of divination and decision-making. A snare.

Moreover, the paradox of premonition is that it's usually too late to act on premonitory dreams, because it's only after the fact that you are in a position to know that the dream was premonitory. 

This raises the question of whether dreams ever can or should function as a warning. That depends in part on whether you can confirm certain presently true details–as well as whether treating the dream as a possible omen entails nothing more than a minor inconvenience. It would be foolhardy to act on a dream if that carries the potential for major irreversible loss in case it's just a figment of your imagination. 

The question of premonitory dreams also goes to the perennial issue of fatalism. And that, in turn, goes to the distinction between foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. If a dream comes true, then in retrospect you can see that it was bound to happen that way. But that's in part because, if you don't know ahead of time whether whether a dream is premonitory–and most dreams are just ordinary dreams–so there's no reason to take actions that would change the outcome. Moreover, most dreams aren't threatening. And threatening dreams (nightmares) are apt to be unrealistic, so there's nothing you could do to avert the dire consequence since the dream doesn't correspond to reality, in any discernible sense. Rather, it's one of those surreal things that only happens in a dream. It can't happen in real life.

And there's another paradox. If the future doesn't turn out the way you dreamt because you did something to thwart the dream, then you will never know if the dream was premonitory. Did it not come true because it was never about the future in the first place? Or did it not come true due to your evasive maneuvers? 

One can think of hypothetical examples in which that's a false dichotomy. Suppose you dream about a terrorist attack in Times Square tomorrow, so you avoid Times Square tomorrow, and the attack occurs. The dream was true, but it wasn't true for you, because you took preventive measures to opt out of that scenario.

This also goes to fictional dilemmas about seers who futilely warn the populace about some impending catastrophe. The authorities assume they are loons, and lock them up. The predicted disaster occurs right on schedule. The seer is belatedly vindicated.  

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