Friday, February 23, 2007

Dreaming, Belief, and Emotion (by guest blogger Jonathan Ichikawa)

Colin McGinn thinks that we believe what we dream. In his book Mindsight, McGinn raises lots of questions about dreaming and imagination, but only briefly considers the suggestion that we "no more believe our dreams than we believe our daytime reveries." That's my view. He rejects it on the grounds that without invoking belief, we cannot explain our emotional involvement with dreams. Here's a quote:

The sure test that dreams are suffused with belief is their ability to generate emotions that are conditional on belief, such as fear and elation—with which dreams are full. (p. 112)

The problem for the imagination model, then, can be stated thus:

(1) When I dream that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p. Therefore,
(3) When I dream that p, I believe that p.

This argument strikes me as pretty bad. This parallels a puzzle in the philosophy of literature involving emotional responses to fictions. Fictions arouse emotions in us without causing belief; we seem to be happy that p, even though we do not believe that p. This is what philosophers of literature call the "Paradox of Fiction," and it takes the form of an apparently-inconsistent triad:

(1') When I read in a fiction that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p. Therefore,
(3') When I read in a fiction that p, I do not believe that p.

It is generally accepted that (3') is true, so philosophers of fiction agree that it is either (1') or (2) that has to go. We may, with Kendall Walton, deny that we really experience fear and elation, but rather experience different, similar states, which he calls quasi-fear and quasi-elation. Or, we may say with Derek Matravers and others that belief isn't really necessary for fear; imagination can also play the role that belief often plays in fear, and likewise for the other emotions. I prefer the latter option, but I think it's obvious that one of these has to be right.

If we take the latter option to solve our puzzle about fiction, then we have also directly avoided the problem for the imagination model by denying the shared premise (2). If, on the other hand, we insist that these emotions include a cognitive element, denying instead that fictions really generate these emotions, then we may very well ask whether dreams really generate them either. It will be, perhaps, more plausible if we qualify our denial of emotional involvement in dreams thus: dreams don't involve emotions, except in the way that fictions do.

10 comments:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Just to make one further point clear, Jonathan, I take it from the rest of McGinn's chapter that he would deny your (3'), or come close to denying it. He seems to think that in both dreams and fictions we "quasi-believe" the story and accordingly have "quasi-emotions" about it; though in dreams both the beliefs and emotions are rather closer to real than in fictions. Yes?

Not that I find that a very attractive picture....

Justin Tiwald said...

Isn't there a fair amount of evidence that the limbic system reacts to stimuli even before we have a chance to form beliefs of any kind? I recall reading something like this in an article about attack ads: we see the black screen, hear the forbidding music and the James Earl Jones-like voice over, and we become hostile before drawing any conclusions whatsoever. I'm sure similar things have been said about sexual arousal and human pheromones. No doubt Eric is better apprised of this than I am, but it strikes me as offering a fairly compelling reason to reject (2).

Justin Tiwald said...

But of course, the defender of (2) would respond that my feeling of hostility in the attack-ad case doesn't arise from any particular attitude. It would be a feeling without an intentional object--a "mood."

So let me revise this. Let's say the feeling of hostility arises without taking an object. Then the picture of the candidate is splashed across the screen, and I now feel (however fleetingly) a sense of hostility about the character of the person in that picture (which I take to imply a feeling of hostility about the character of the candidate herself, since I am able to recognize her immediately). Wouldn't I then have a feeling that she is worthy of hostility without the belief that she is worthy of hostility?

Tad said...

Jonathan -

Thanks for the interesting post. I think you neglect an important distinction however. Dreams inducing emotions are usually, if not always, in the first person. These are surely the kinds of dreams McGinn has in mind: I dream that I* am falling. But it's very rare to read a fiction about oneself. It is true that readers often identify with narrators and other characters perhaps. But that's not the same as supposing that the fictional events are happening to oneself*.

Indeed, I think there have been a few movies out recently (the names of which escape me, but I think maybe Jim Carrey was in one) the conceit of which is precisely a fiction that the lead slowly realizes is about himself. Note how different and more intense the emotions get as this realization dawns. That kind of fiction is much more like a dream, however the fact that these sorts of fictions are movie gimmicks shows that it's not what's typically involved in fiction.

So there is a significant disanalogy b/w dreaming and fiction: in the former, events are almost always taken to happen to oneself, while in the latter, events are almost always taken to happen to others. Couldn't McGinn argue that this supports the view that emotions in dreams are way more intense and significantly different in nature than emotions in fictions, and therefore that the two cases are disanalogous?

Now you might reply that one can dream about events happening to others and feel consequent emotions (e.g., dreaming that your spouse is in distress). Isn't that like reading fiction? I still think there is a disanalogy. Even if your dream is about someone else, it's (a) usually someone you know, and (b) more importantly, you're still in the dream. What happens to the other person will have effects on you in the dream. This isn't true, typically, of fiction.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Eric: you may be right. It's certainly true that McGinn makes much of the parallel between 'dream belief' and the experience of fictional immersion. It's very weird that he never tells us that he's committing to the claim that we believe the contents of our fictions, if that's what he's up to, but at least that gives a coherent reading.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Justin: what you say sounds reasonably compelling to me. (I'm not familiar with the neurological or physiological data, I'm afraid.)

A move open to McGinn, or someone endorsing his argument, would be to deny that such physiological responses are sufficient for the emotions in question. I don't find that very attractive.

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Tad: I'm not sure I'm seeing the point. I take the difference between typical dreams and typical fictions, but I don't see how it connects to my argument.

My argument works if we're convinced that at least one of (1) and (2) are false:

(1) When I dream that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p.

I argued that it is obvious that at least one of (1') and (2) are false:

(1') When I read in a fiction that p, I experience fear, elation, and other emotions of a certain type.
(2) Emotions like fear and elation, arising from an attitude that p, can only arise from a belief that p.

I also argued that there's no reason to accept (1), once you've denied (1'). If I'm right about that, then McGinn's argument is shown unsound.

Help me see how the difference in perspective fits in?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm inclined to think your best line here, Jonathan, is to straightforwardly to deny that a Cartesian dream is (psychologically) possible. We never have sensory experiences in our sleep that are qualitatively the same as the sensory experiences we have while awake. Instead, we have (sometimes vivid) imagery experiences, which are a rather different sort of thing. In the impaired judgment of sleep, we may falsely judge that our experiences are sensation-like rather than image-like. (Though only rarely would someone ever actually have this thought; usually we don't even consider the matter.)

Then, we "believe" in our dreams, maybe, in the same way we believe in our daydreams. In the dream/daydream context, we are prone to make certain judgments and imagine things going a certain way (including imagining ourselves behaving a certain way), but there is no actual behavior and no stable set of dispositions, so it's not genuine belief.

Jonathan: Would you see this as a friendly development of your view?

Pete: Might this satisfy you?

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

Eric, yes, I think that sounds pretty plausible. That sounds like it's in line with what I'm thinking. Do you think that it's inconsistent with something else I've said?

Tad said...

Jonathan:

Sorry about the delay in getting back to you. I think you're right that the connection to your argument is not obvious or direct. I suppose I meant this to be kind of suggestive - perhaps the disanalogy b/w dreams and fictions I point to is somehow relevant to the argument.

In response to your very helpful clarification, perhaps what I mean to suggest is the following. The emotions that arise from dreaming are not of the same type as those that arise from reading fiction. The reason is that dreams are always (?) and fictions are never (?) strongly first-personal for the dreamer/reader. Maybe this difference in type of emotion is relevant to McGinn's claim about belief. Perhaps strongly first-personal emotions can only be caused by strongly first-personal beliefs (e.g., I* am arriving in class having forgotten to put on clothes, or I* am falling from a great heights, vs. the hero of this story is arriving.../falling...). The kind of weak, non-first-personal emotions you feel when reading fiction, on the other hand, are not caused by true beliefs.

I have no argument in support of this. I'm just suggesting a way McGinn's thesis might be defended by appeal to an interesting distinction b/w dreams and fictions. It might just be a psychological fact that strongly first personal emotions can only arise from strongly first personal beliefs. This would rule out the emotion argument for true belief in the fiction case, while leaving it in tact for the dreaming case.