Including a Concise Refutation Of Skeptical Idealism
by Philip McPherson Rudisill
April 16, 2001 with slight editing as of August 10, 2017
Philosophers have long debated how we can tell that we are not dreaming. But the more profound question is raised by Kant, namely: how in the world did we ever come to assign any meaning and reference to the term dream in the first place, since there are patently other sounds that we dont assign any meaning to, e.g., the uhh or errr which we liberally sprinkle our speech with?! What is necessary in order to arrive at our understanding of dream? In the first place we must first have an objective world existing externally to us, a world of Humean things, things which are independent of us and which are uniform in their existence.* For it is only in contrast to that world that we can position a dream as an internally seated reflection (and modification) of that independent and uniformly existing world.**
* See Humes Enquiry Section 118.
** These last two sentences state concisely the critical component of Kant's "Refutation Of Idealism" which focuses on the "skeptical idealism" of René Descartes. Briefly stated, the fact that we have internal experiences such as dreaming is only possible by a contrast to an objectively existing and enduring world of external objects. In other words: the internal experience is based on a contrast with an external experience of real objects. This is presented in more detail in a section at the end of this essay.
But all that merely raises a new question, namely how did we come to think of (or think up?!) and recognize such an independently existing world, since we are never given any intuition of independently and uniformly existing things on their own, but rather merely appearances/Erscheinungen, i.e., objects on our retinas (especially) and per our other sense organs. At this level there is no distinction in these appearances between a dream and a sighting in the objectively existing, external world; even as there is no difference, subjectively speaking, between the rain and the rainbow, even though the former is actually in space apart from us, while the latter is only on our retinas and not in the same space as the rain at all. And so how is it that we come to make such distinctions in and amongst our appearances, and assign some of them to the dream world, i.e., entirely within us when asleep, and others to the world of waking reality which continues, we know, even while the things of the dream world possess our consciousness? I submit the following to provide the solution to this problem.
We are prompted by an a priori sense of orderly existence (per our categorical understanding), and by means of our consequent drive to find meaning to sounds (making them into words), to pay attention expectantly when we lie down in bed. Later, upon arising from bed, we recall that earlier state of going to bed, and we notice that what has just happened, i.e., in our dreams, took place since that time. We then conceive of a state called sleep by watching other people as they sleep, and noticing how different they are, e.g., not responding to normal stimuli. And we come to consider the time between our going to bed and our getting out of bed as such a state. At that point we can conceive of dreams, namely that what we saw and experienced in that time between going to bed and getting out of bed was a product of that sleep, and not actually happening at all, i.e., it was entirely our own imagination, a mimic of reality.
What we will have done, in order to accomplish this, is to begin to order and arrange the appearances, and the way we do this is to conceive of a world of independent and uniformly existing things and we utilize that conception to ascribe certain appearances to sightings of those things by a perceiving being (ourselves). In order to see that things dont get smaller as they get further away, but merely look smaller, for example, we must realize we are not actually seeing the thing looked at on its own, but only an appearance of an object, namely an image of that object in our eye. This differentiation of thing and appearance we (who are two-eyed) test by shutting one eye and then the other, and seeing that the two visual fields overlap and thereby come to suspect them as always existing and necessarily so under laws of interdependence with each other and even with us.* This is likely first prompted when we notice that our finger splits as it reaches our nose, and we will have further investigated to see that the split grows in proportion to its closeness to the nose.**
* This observation would have been prompted and made possible by Kants notion of the "affinity of the appearances", i.e., that all appearances are connected, directly or indirectly, and which prompts us to be on the look out for the suggestion of connection, e.g., coincidences.
** This calls for an unusual capacity in the human, one that I call lancian vision,*** namely an ability to look past an object of visual focus, e.g., a single finger approaching the nose, in order to see what happens when something is not being physically looked at (at least not directly). And this in turn is based upon that capacity of the human (and perhaps unique to that species) of "paying attention", i.e., accumulating data with the expectation and anticipation of making a connection. (I find this especially fascinating, this capacity to pay attention to something which is not physically focused on, looking past the finger but still paying attention to the finger which now appears as two "ghosts".)****
*** Named after a friend of mine.
**** See also Thomas Reid and the Split Finger.
Now the supreme conception we bring to the world, therefore, is that of connection, namely that appearances make sense and they make sense for us via a universal inter-connectivity (the affinity). The proof for Kant lies in this: it is only by means of this assumption of universal connection, which Kant calls affinity, that we are able to have even our first perception (via paying attention), which is the building block for all empirical knowledge and certitude. We must remember here that for Kant the perception is the Wahrnehmung or the careful look* It is by means of the affinity of all appearances, namely the principle that all appearances are connected (immediately or remotely), that we are able to turn our attention to an empirical situation with the intention of replicating a suspicious, earlier sighting or hint of a sighting. And so it is only in the assumption of the continuation of the world according to laws, namely such that the future and present are like the past, that we can, for example, even imagine paying attention to the sound we hear and the moving lips that we spy and notice their correlation (in order eventually to conclude that the sounds we hear are the voice of a person). That is a perception and that requires an a priori consciousness (the subjective deduction of Kant's categories of understanding**) as a capacity, and an assumption of the affinity (connection) of all appearances (the objective deduction**) as a prompt in order ever to occur in any human to pay attention to this.
* Earlier I had sought to use Truthful-Taking for the German Wahr-nehmung but then realized, thanks to Werner Pluhar, that properly this would have to be Careful-Taking. It would only be through a careful apprehension of things that we could be sure of having a factual look at things. In contrast, we often do something while preoccupied and find that we must later return to repeat in order make sure that we actual did what we had wanted to do, e.g., making sure that we did indeed lock the door earlier while preoccupied with thought.
** This refers to the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories from the first (A) version of Kants Critique of Pure Reason (CPR).
Something similar happens with regard to Humes specific problem in Section 118 of his Enquiry, namely his inability in his own system to account for the most elementary of all possible perceptions, namely that his table does not in fact get smaller the further removed he is from it. Here we notice the correlation of distance and size. The animals may possibly not notice this as we do; they may notice that things get larger and smaller, and they may sense a comfortable and uncomfortable size of things (speaking of retinal images), but they may not notice that the change in size is proportionate to the distance. We do notice this, however; and we find this intriguing and mystifying. Once we have recognized the table as an object, we treat it per Kant's First Analogy* as constant with regard to the quantity of the material making it up. We experiment with our hands and calibrate the sense of sight and that of touch, and we conceive of this uniformly existing object, corresponding in some way to our sense of touch, and the look of this thing, corresponding to the retinal image in our eye; and we conclude that the actual object does not change in size (per the uniformity of the touch), and so it is only a picture or appearance that we are seeing and not the thing as it is on its own. It is by means of the affinity of all appearances that we are intrigued to calibrate sight and touch in this way, for without that the fact (an assumption) of their correlation, while it might be noticed in passing, would not become a matter of interest and experimentation and empirical determination.**
* From The CPR.
** The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, maintained that the first object of experience for the human was the eye, i.e., the realization that what we spy are not things on their on but merely the appearance or looks of things to us.
A very important and relevant consideration, perhaps, has to do with drawings. We also notice the projection of line drawings into space (see Necker Cube) and in photographs and paintings. This tells us very early, in conjunction with our calibration of touch and sight and with our assignment of reality to touch and actuality to sight,* that space is actually in our heads, and that while all the things we see about us in space actually are in space, but this space itself is actually only within us, and is not a thing on its own at all,** an odd expression from Kant, but which is certainly true:
* Another contribution from Werner Pluhar, if I have understood him rightly.
** This may be especially true for two-eye persons who are able to experiment with the parallax by noticing the splitting or doubling of the finger as it approaches the nose per a paragraph note above.
All this will have an affinity with the recognition of the pantomimicly drawn circle in the air, for there we must assume the affinity of all appearances in order to be able to focus on something in an entirely original way, and not by means of perception,* which is always a sort of look-back, empirical as it is. We assume an affinity of all things when we begin to capture the tracing of this circle by a mime artist in mid air, following his tracing finger as it makes its way around the face of an imaginary clock out in front of both of us,** and when we come to a rule (= concept of a circle) which reproduces this individual circle any time we wish, then we have come to recognize this object, even though it is a product of our productive imagination, and not existing as such on its own at all. But because we know that space is within us and not external to us at all, we can distinguish in our imagination between a circle that it is simply a circle (merely thought about and pictured in our heads) and one which we can "see" in an objective space apart from us (though always within us) and which we can point it out to and discuss it with others.
* Kant refers to this original capacity of looking as an a priori and pure intuition/viewing. Hence it is different from the perception, but only in terms of the content. The perception is an a priori (anticipatory) consciousness of an empirical, a posteriori content, while the pure viewing/intuition/Anschauung has no empirical component at all. Whether I am making the second look, which characterizes the subjective perception in being careful in the apprehension of the data, or in making the first look which characterizes a(n a priori) sighting/viewing of a pantomimic circle, I am looking forward in anticipation of acquiring something, which involves an apprehension, and so my mind is attuned to apprehending something and in anticipating a completion. This is the same consciousness we are familiar with when we return to check whether we actually did lock a door or set an alarm, having done so earlier while preoccupied. In general it is called "paying attention".***
** It is interesting and even amusing to realize that if the mime artist tracing out the circle is facing us and does the tracing in a clockwise, we see the tracing in a counterclockwise motion; which would be a contradiction if we did not realize that space is merely our way of viewing external things, and not a real thing on its own.
*** An interesting experience is that of overlooking something in a quick search of some area, and where we have to take a second look (with much more care) and find that the item we were looking for was there all the time, and we had simply looked while preoccupied or in haste, and so had overlooked it. By the way, this experience is premised on the First Analogy (of the CPR) of the continuation of the quantity of matter, for otherwise it would be OK to assume that the item looked for did not exist at the time of the first look and only came into existence at the second look. And in that case we would never speak of "overlooking" something in a search.
And in this wise we can see the relevancy of the subjective and objective deduction of the categories. The former (the subjective) gives us the a priori consciousness needful for paying attention to things, and the latter (the objective) gives us the affinity of all appearances so that we have reason both
1. to undertake the perception and
2. be assured that any recognition is compatible with all recognitions, even those not yet made.
Here is a relevant experience of mine regarding dreams: I was about 12 years old and lay down on a cot on the back, screened porch on a warm day in Rome, Georgia (USA), and I fell asleep. Suddenly I was aroused by shouts and sounds of gun shots; I carefully raised myself from my cot and peered over the banister into the back yard where I saw a raging gun battle between two groups of men, one of which, led by an uncle I saw only rarely, was charging the other. The ground was covered with wounded and dead, and the air was filled with smoke. I became very frightened and lay back down on the cot in order to avoid being shot; and then it suddenly occurred to me to get up and go find my daddy. And so I jumped up from the cot and ran upstairs only to find him and my brother calmly working on some project together. What's going on?! I shouted to them. Whats wrong? my father asked, expressing surprise at my state. I went to the window and peered carefully down into the back yard where the battle should have been raging, and there I saw only a peaceful yard with no guns or men or wounded, indeed not even broken shrubbery or displaced yard utensils. I then realized that I had been sleeping during the battle, and that everything described above in italics was simply a very unusual dream (unusual in fitting in so well with going to sleep and awakening from that sleep).
The reason for the difficulty I had in making out the dream in this case is because the elements and details of the dream fitted in perfectly with the details and elements of my waking perceptions before and following the dream. The getting off of the cot and seeing the battle and laying back down all took place only in my dream, but it fitted in perfectly with my original laying down on the cot to sleep and my getting up off of the cot to go find my father. But this is what we do generally in dealing with what we come to call dreams and the real world: we conceive of as an independent and uniformly existing world (the famous and unexamined presupposition of David Hume), and we first order and arrange the appearances as elements of the sightings of this world. Essentially we connect all perceptions together within a single expanse of time. By virtue of this the appearances in this case between getting out of bed and going to bed are reality, and those between going to bed and getting out of bed are dreams. The former all fit together, and even include the latter, but considered as dreams. The dream cannot be fitted in with the other perceptions in terms of its actual content, e.g., the raging battle was cleaned up too quickly to be accounted for,* and so is ascribed to our mental reflection of this world of Hume; a remarkable, mental construction which has to be undertaken by every human!**
* It had taken less than 60 seconds to leap from the cot and race upstairs and peer out the window. My own general experience told me that evidence of such an enormous battle could not be wiped away in such a short span of time. And also my father and brother would have also known of the battle if it had actually taken place.
** John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement in 18th Century England and America), a contemporary of Kant (neither of whom apparently ever heard of the other), wrote something similar regarding dreams in his Sermon 121, i.e., "5. And how can we certainly distinguish between our dreams and our waking thoughts? What criterion is there by which we may surely know whether we are awake or asleep? It is true, as soon as we awake out of sleep, we know we have been in a dream, and are now awake. But how shall we know that a dream is such while we continue therein? What is a dream? To give a gross and superficial, not a philosophical, account of it: It is a series of persons and things presented to our mind in sleep, which have no being but in our own imagination. A dream, therefore, is a kind of digression from our real life. It seems to be a sort of echo of what was said or done a little when we were awake. Or, may we say, a dream is a fragment of life, broken off at both ends; not connected either with the part that goes before, or with that which follows after? And is there any better way of distinguishing our dreams from our waking thoughts, than by this very circumstance? It is a kind of parenthesis, inserted in life, as that is in a discourse, which goes on equally well either with it or without it. By this then we may infallibly know a dream, -- by its being broken off at both ends; by its having no proper connection with the real things which either precede or follow it."**
** Shakespeare in The Tempest (Act 5, Scene 1) had something similar to say about life, i.e., "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep".
The subjective deduction takes us from the apprehension, through the retention and reproduction to the containment and encapsulation of a manifold by means of a concept/rule. And this rule is a product of the mind's search for order in unifying things, especially appearances. This subjective capacity of looking in advance (a priori) is a necessary component in our obtaining of recognitions and even perceptions.
But it is only in the objective deduction that we see that the fundamental, underlying, enabling conception is an a priori assumption of an affinity of all appearances (universal connection of appearances either directly or indirectly), and it is this affinity (which we then seek out in empirical data) which not only prompts us to take second looks* at things, the original perception through observation and experiment, but also assures us of the compatibility of the eventual recognition of the object of this perception with all possible recognitions, namely it is all part of a single nature and world. In a word: the unity that is presupposed objectively in order to make the first perception is the same as the unity that characterizes our minds in general and makes all perceptions fit together into a single whole of recognitions, a system we come to call the world of nature.** Thats what we bring to the table, our recognition that there is a single nature. Kant calls it the affinity of the appearances, and that is a contribution of the categorical mind. And it is then by means of this conceived single world/nature that we are able to distinguish what is internal from the external, and the dream from the waking state.
* I speak of a "second look" by which I mean only a careful look at something, a look designed to be sure of what is being perceived, and more than a cursory glance or a look while preoccupied by something else.. This is different from the pure a priori look or viewing where we ourselves give the object, e.g., a circle in the air, although care and apprehension are called for in the actual description of the object by the tracing finger.
** See two very brief metaphors of the relationship of the perceptions and the recognitions.
This section is based on the "Refutation" section in the Postulates and also in the Preface (last note) to the second (B) version of the CPR.
According to Descartes the only certain experience we have is the internal experience, e.g., thinking and perception and feeling and such. What we count as the external experience could be a fantasy of our imagination, e.g., an hallucination. Thus the only certain information we have in general is that of our own thinking, and hence the external world is always suspect and doubtful.
According to Kant, on the other hand, we cannot have an internal experience except we first experience the endurance of external objects. I notice that when I concentrate intently on some thought I lose contact with the external world and things can happen around me without me realizing it. This is exemplified, for example, in what is called "driving on autopilot". The same thing, of course, happens with dreaming during sleep.
Lets imagine a dream, and follow this sequence: I feel tired, I lie down in bed and notice the dimming of sunlight and close my eyes; I hear the approach of the Pharaoh and rush out to engage him and stop his army; I open my eyes and notice the brightness of the dawn and get out of bed. Now without a recognition of the continuation of the bedroom and bed and sun, etc., I would take this sequence, including the approach of the Pharaoh, as reality, equal in reality to the external world. The only way that I could ever come to treat the scene involving the Pharaoh as a dream would be for me to first recognize the enduring reality of the bedroom, that it continues unabated throughout the night, for otherwise the dream is as emphatic as my viewing of the external world. Therefore, I must first have the experience of the continuation of the bedroom and furniture and external world (via the First Analogy of the CPR) before I can recognize the Pharaoh element as a dream. Thus this internal experience (realizing that I dream) is dependent upon the external experience of the existence of enduring objects; which is precisely Kants conclusion here. Accordingly then: first there must be the recognition of the external world as enduring and only then the internal experience of dreaming. And the same thing in necessary to realize that I am lost in thought during the daytime.
Wondering now: I would think that sleep would be one of the earliest experiences of each human. In order to recognize that one has slept (assuming here without dreams) a person would awaken and realize that time had passed since the time of having closed the eyes, and that by virtue of the change in the environment, e.g., the sun is in the sky while earlier it was absent. I don't know what experience would come first, sleeping or dreaming (in sleep), but in both cases it would only be in comparison with an objective and enduring and external world that either (dreamless sleep or sleep with dreams) could be recognized.
In this wise then Kant intends to refute the skeptical idealism of Descartes.
Now once there has been the perception and recognition of an external world, then the imagination can play all sorts of tricks with the mind, e.g., hallucinations and mirages. But there must have been originally the recognition of an external world in order to provide the imagination with the fodder needed to mimic and echo that world, e.g., colors and sounds and heats, etc., as well as the look of an external world, e.g., in dreams and mental picturing. No sensation can be imagined before an actual exposure, e.g., the born blind cannot imagine color nor the born deaf sound.