Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Much Should You Care about How You Feel in Your Dreams?

Psychological hedonists say that people are motivated mainly or exclusively by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of displeasure or pain. Normative hedonists say that what we should be mainly or exclusively concerned about in our actions is maximizing our own and others' pleasure and minimizing our own and others' displeasure. Both types of hedonism have fallen on hard times since the days of Jeremy Bentham. Still, it might seem that hedonism isn't grossly wrong: Pleasure and displeasure are crucial motivators, and increasing pleasure and reducing displeasure should be a major part of living wisely and of structuring a good society.

Now consider dreams. Often a dream is the most pleasant or unpleasant thing that occurs all day. Discovering that you can fly, whee! How much do you do in waking life that's as fun as that? Conversely, how many things in waking life are as unpleasant as a nightmare? Here's a great opportunity, then, to advance the hedonistic project! Whatever you can do to improve the ratio of pleasant to unpleasant dreams should have a big impact on the balance of pleasure vs. displeasure in your life.

This fact, naturally, explains the huge emphasis utilitarian ethicists have placed on improving one's dream life. It also explains why companies offering dream-improvement regimens make so much more money than those promising merely weight loss.

Not. Of course not! When I ask people how concerned they are about the overall hedonic balance of their dreams, their response is almost always "Meh". But if the overall sum of felt pleasure and displeasure is important -- even if it's not the whole of what makes life valuable -- shouldn't we take at least somewhat seriously the quality our dream lives?

Dreams are usually forgotten, but I'm not sure how much that matters. Most people forget most of their childhood, too, and within a week they forget almost everything that happened on any given day. That doesn't seem to make the hedonic quality of those events irrelevant. Your three-year-old may entirely forget her birthday party a year later, but you still want her to enjoy it, right? And anyway: We can easily work to remember our dreams if we want. Simply jotting down one's dreams in a diary hugely increases dream recall. So if recall were important, one could pursue a two-step regimen: First, work toward improving the hedonic quality of your dreams (maybe by learning lucid dreaming), and second, improve your dream memory. The total impact on the amount of remembered pleasure in your life would be enormous!

Robert Nozick famously argued against hedonism by saying that few people would choose the guaranteed pleasure one could get by plugging into an experience machine over the uncertain pleasures of real-life accomplishment. Nozickian experience machines don't really exist, of course, but dreams do, and, contra hedonism, our indifference about dreams suggests that Nozick is right: Few people value even the great pleasures and displeasures of dream life over the most meager of real-world accomplishments.

(I remember chatting with someone at the Pacific APA about this a couple weeks ago -- Stephen White, maybe? In the fog of memory, I can't recall exactly who it was or to what extent these thoughts originated from me as opposed to my interlocutor.  Apologies, then, if they're due!)

[Related post: On Not Seeking Pleasure Much.]


Pete Mandik said...

Maybe there are millions of lucid-dreaming normative-hedonists out there, and you simply are unaware of them given their lack of motive for announcing their accomplishments to the waking world.

Sweet dreams, Eric!

John Cox said...

More than enjoying my dreams I should think their value consists largely in what they tell me about my waking life. Do I live out my fantasies at night? My punishments? Though I personally do not remember what I've been through during my non-waking hours, alas, I am inclined to think they have their own significance within my existence, and I daren't mess with them but behold them. Unless I'm flying or breathing underwater, in which case, let 'er ride!

Gabe Dupre said...

It may depend on an agents view of personal identity. If, for example, someone is a Lockean memory theorist, they might not see the person dreaming as themselves, as while dreaming we do not share enough of our mental lives with the waking person. This would reduce the motivation we have to improve the quality of the dreamers dreams.
The lack of interest in improving our dreams may also simply be due to our lack of knowledge as to how much it is possible for us to improve our dreams. If we don't think it possible to act so as to improve our dreams, we are likely to reduce the interest we might have in doing so.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Pete: LOL!

@ John: I think that all fits well with the content of the post.

@ Gabe: Yes! Actually, Stephen White reminded me personal identity issues were the main focus of our conversation. That's a very interesting related issue. I also agree that defeatism about improving dreams may be playing some role. But if the hedonic quality of dreams really is highly important, it would seem to be irrational to give in so quickly and with so little evidence to defeatism.

Mike Jacovides said...

When you are told that you will succeed at something 'in your dreams', you are supposed to be disappointed.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mike: Funny, and also a very good point!

Chaz Firestone said...

Dennett's arguments in "Are dreams experiences?" (his answer: no) seem interestingly relevant to this question. If it turns out that we don't experience anything at all in dreams, then it'll also turn out that we don't experience (inter alia) pain or pleasure, and then there wouldn't be much for the psychological hedonist to get worked up about.

Wonder if that could be worth considering. Though I also wonder whether anyone finds those arguments compelling...

(The ref is Dennett, D. C. (1976). Are dreams experiences? The Philosophical Review, 85(2), 151–171.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, but very few people accept Dennett's 1976 view on this. You might also check out Norman Malcolm's 1959 book on Dreaming. I agree that if Dennett and Malcolm are right, that completely recasts the arguments in this post.

Unknown said...

We value dreams and waking life differently. We also value ideas and direct experiences differently. Would you trade a profound informative dream for a boring day that the office? What about a profound religious experience? Dreams can inform waking life in profound ways.... so that we recast our lives to conforms to a realization in our dreams.

We are driven by deep representations about value. We value the rare and profound, and those are not often ordinary experiences, and may be hallucinations and dreams.