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The “Dream Argument” by Descartes Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2021


The Dream Argument was published by Descartes in 1641 as a portion of “Meditations on First Philosophy.” He argued that it is impossible to consider the world to be real by only using human senses. While people can disprove their beliefs through examination, self-reflection, and research, the reality of existence is much harder to prove. Every sense of the human body can fail or give false sensations due to both external and internal stimuli. Moreover, sensations that people experience while dreaming can also appear completely real.

Therefore, it is distinctly possible that the world people believe to be real is only a dream. Deep dreaming states can make even an hour of sleep feel like a lifetime of events, with fear, pain, happiness, and even more complex feelings like compassion being experienced. The images and situations of dreams are often based on familiar events, but at the same time, completely new ideas and objects may be seen. This idea transitions into other arguments that Descartes explores in the book, and as a way to be sure of the existence of at least one thing, he proposes that since he is capable of thought, he has to exist. He uses this idea as a focal point to find arguments for the existence of other entities (Rosen et al. 299). However, the dream argument remains very convincing.

Evaluation of the Argument

The element that makes the dream argument appealing is tied to the modern perspective that could be applied to it. Rene Descartes lived in a world where the only organism that was considered sentient was human. It was centuries before any idea of artificial intelligence or simulation of reality could be seriously conceived, which is why his argument is based solely on the idea of dreaming. His doubts about the reality of existence are surprisingly more relevant in the modern era than they ever were. By presenting the world as a simulation or even a recording of a past existence, it is possible to not only show the validity of his argument but also destroy his arguments against its reality.

By examining our current advances in artificial intelligence and learning algorithms, it is not impossible to predict the creation of a machine capable of thought in the near future. The process by which such a machine would operate would be initially tested in a virtual environment to inspect its capabilities. The machine would “think” that it exists, but by definition, it would be simulated. If the reality is, in fact, a simulation, any human would not be different from a simulated machine, regardless of their ability to think.

Given enough time and resources, it is not unlikely that humanity would be capable of creating a similar simulation. Just like Descartes’s argument, this world may be simulated through the reconstruction of the real one. Except it is much harder to differentiate between simulation and reality since there is no focal point that could be used to either prove or disprove this theory.

Response to a Pressure Point

One of the possible issues that can be seen in the simulation argument is that the processing resources needed to compute such a complex world filled with beings of human cognitive capabilities would be beyond achievement even with infinite time and resources due to either limitation of existing materials or legal ramifications of simulating sentient beings. However, this argument stems only from the knowledge of already existing technologies and materials.

The same argument could be made in the 1940s about the technology available to people in the modern era. There are two possible answers to this pressure point. The first is that the technological process or materials required to create such a simulation are not yet discovered. For example, the recent advances in graphene manufacturing may lead to quantum processing is achievable, but it was considered impossible in earlier decades (Fan et al. 28).

New types of materials may allow for more complex computations to be performed at a cheaper price point. Alternatively, if this world is simulated, the materials that were used to create it may be purposely removed from it, or their properties changed to prevent a scenario in which a simulated universe creates a simulation within itself. This option removes the possibility of humans creating another simulation, but it is completely possible due to the nature of programming. The processing limitations of today are likely to become trivial in the coming decades, which will lead to much higher processing capacity.

Works Cited

Fan, Zheyong, et al. “Efficient Linear-Scaling Quantum Transport Calculations on Graphics Processing Units and Applications on Electron Transport in Graphene.” Computer Physics Communications, vol. 185, no. 1, 2014, pp. 28–39.

Rosen, Gideon A., et al., editors. The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

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