Dream a Little Dream

Last time we talked about an important conundrum of free will.  We’ll take a brief side tour here to look at something relevant to that conundrum. I’m sure we all had analogies such as these: analogy on innumerable tests as kids.  One thing many may not know is that analogies–or better, the concept of analogy itself–is highly important in traditional theology.  First, though, let’s dream a little dream.

Suppose you have a dream.  In the dream,  your dream self is talking to a friend–let’s call her Alice.  Let’s stipulate it’s a lucid or semi-lucid dream, so you know it’s a dream.  You try to convince Alice that she and everything else around is merely part of your dream.  She will, of course, think you’re crazy.  Frustrated, let’s say you make a nearby tree fall.  She scoffs–“The wind picked up and that tree was old and rotten, anyway!”  You insist on your point, but she demurs, and insists that this is the real world, and no dreamer exists.  You argue until you wake up.  You’re back in your bed, and the dreamworld, Alice included, is gone. Now, let’s analyze this hypothetical dream.  Alice is actually, from her perspective, right.  Ultimately you, the dreamer, cause the dream; but within the dream itself, everything occurs within the context of forces and actions within the dream.  The tree is old and rotten; the wind blows it down.  There is no way I can prove to Alice that I’m what caused the wind.

From the perspective of the dream-world, all forces and actions are explicable internally, with no need to invoke a dreamer.  Yes, dream logic may be weird–maybe the tree was purple with pink polka dots–but everything within the dream follows that logic.  Alice would have to be able to step out of the dream into the real world–your world–to see that you were right.  The one absolute proof is the one thing you cannot provide. She is also accurate when she says the dreamer doesn’t exist.  For her, “existence” means “existence as a dream being” (though she thinks she’s real).  You–the real you, not  your dream self–do not, in fact, exist in that way.  You are not a series of impulses in your sleeping brain (your dream self is, serving as your “avatar” within your dream)–your mode of existence is completely different.  Alice does “really” exist–you are really having the experience of talking to her in your dream, there is real electrochemical activity in your brain corresponding to her, and so on–but she doesn’t exist in the way you do.  There is an analogy of being between you and her; but it’s only an analogy.  She is, and you are, but it depends on the meaning of the word “is” (and “are”).  The term “is” is not used univocally (that is, in the exact same way) in talking about Alice vs. talking about you.

This is an analogy (hey, go with it!) to the traditional view of Scholastic theology regarding God.  I’d note in passing that I have major issues with Scholasticism, but it does get many things right, and when it does so, it totally nails it.  Anyway, Scholastics began by saying that God as such–God in His true nature, as He really is–is totally different, totally other from us.  The most accurate statements about Him are apophatic–that is, statements that say what He’s not.  Thus, He is not mortal, not limited, not finite, and so on.  Of course, for a God you want to worship and relate to, that doesn’t give you much; thus, there is cataphatic theology–saying what God is.  Thus, God is alive, personal, loving, and so on.  So how do we square the apophatic and cataphatic?  By analogy. As in the case of you and Alice in the hypothetical dream, any similarity between us and God is by way of analogy.  God “thinks”, “loves”, “acts”, and so on; but those words don’t mean the same thing for Him as they do for us.  “Thinking”, for example, as applied to what God does, is no more what we do when we think than what a calculator or computer does.  We might call a computer a “thinking machine”, but that’s an analogy, since it does not, in fact, think.  As far below us as a computer’s “thinking” is, so high above us is what God does.  What He does isn’t “thinking”, either.

God does not even “exist” in the same way we do, nor is He “something”.  As the dreamer’s existence is of a different type than that of the people within his dream, and as the dreamer is not a thing within his dream, likewise God exists outside all forms and categories that we know in this world, and He is nothing–that is to say, no thing–of the type of things we know.  In a sense, we are in fact beings in God’s dream. This, I think, is a particularly good way of looking at it.  If I said we’re characters in God’s novel, for example, it would imply a lack of free will.  The author decides what each of his characters is going to do as he writes his novel.  A dreamer, though, is not in control, at least not in this sense.  Every dream person in a dream is free to do whatever he likes.  Arguably, each such dream person is a manifestation of the subconscious of the dreamer, and thus he does make them do what they do on an underlying level.  Still, as the dreamer perceives things, the dream people indeed have free will.  The analogy is imperfect; but God is more like the dreamer who conjures up a world with certain rules and then lets it run as it will, than an author who crafts every single action of every character.

One interesting result of this is that it means that both theists and atheists are correct.  The atheist is correct that there is no God, or better, that God does not exist.  Certainly He does not “exist” in the way that we or anything we know of exists.  He is certainly not an old man with a white beard in the sky.  He is, in fact, no thing–or as St. John of the Cross would say, “nada”.  In fact, St. John, in his famous book The Ascent of Mount Carmel, where he uses the ascent of said mountain as an allegory for the human quest for God, he says at one point, “Nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, and even on the mountain, nada.”  When we come closest to God, we see how totally Other He is.  In any case, the theist is correct, too, when he asserts that God exists.  He exists, however, in a mode beyond anything we can directly understand.  He is the dreamer, not anything within it. One might ask, if God is so totally other then how can we even know of him?  This is a legitimate question, and it is answered by the concept  of mystic experience; but that’s a topic for another time.  The take-away from this post is this:  Whenever we say anything about God–“God is X, God does Y,” etc.–we must always hold in mind that X, Y, and any other terms must be understood analogically.  We must not indulge in too much anthropomorphism. Next, another philosophical premise we must deal with.

Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will

Also part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Posted on 01/08/2013, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

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