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Machines Like Us

How much should you care about how you feel in your dreams?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012
by Eric Schwitzgebel

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!)