This is a brief extract from Self and Unself, section 48 (of 212). Some concepts here – such as Flatlander, facticity and mode – may seem a little mysterious; they are explained in earlier sections.
Waking reality is illusory, but it is not an illusion. The ordinary, everyday, represented world of is a self-evident, completely consistent and completely dependable matrix of facts which nobody ever actually doubts, no matter how fanciful their beliefs and theories. Solipsists avoid dog shit and believers in God keep their flour dry. If we become aware that such people are taking their own beliefs seriously, that they are trying to walk through walls or make people’s heads explode with voodoo, we start to worry. This is why nobody actually (i.e. ‘in matters of matter’) doubts, or dispenses with, the facts and methods of science unless they’re up to no good. The real and reliable world is real and reliable. ‘Here is one hand’, as one of the more straightforward ideas in modern philosophy has it; therefore things somehow exist.
Clearly too, there are, in the waking world, unlike in [sleeping] dream, other selves—other minds, other bodies, other things. We do not experience a self-generated representation, but a shared representation. This is, literally, common sense, a self-evident network of culturally shaped facts and things which, again, nobody ever actually doubts while functioning normally in the world. I might adopt a solipsist or postmodernist stance, but this doesn’t give me direct control over objects, which is why when we see a magician perform a trick, nobody over the age of six ever thinks ‘maybe he really did pull a large block of ice out of his arse’. It’s also why everyone, no matter how dreamlike they believe reality to be, tends to follow the shared norms of society; because we all well know that we’ll be punished in a very undreamlike way if we don’t. In so-called lucid dreams I can become aware that I am dreaming and think giant chocolate furniture into existence, or make Cleopatra fall in love with me, or stop paying my taxes. Not so on waking, where other things, bodies, people and governments are much more interested in doing their own thing than in doing mine.
The interconnected actuality of waking life provides a practical answer to the problems of facticity and causality which have irritated physicalists since Hume raised them, for, as Kant noted, everything fits together nicely in the waking world and repeated experience with that ‘fitting together’ gives us complete practical confidence that we won’t wake up tomorrow with a Moomin’s head. Waking reality is experienced as such from its consistency. If we went to sleep every night and picked up the same dream where we left off, with the same characters, who came and went consistently, we would start to believe that we weren’t drifting down from reality when we slept, but transitioning sideways to a different one. Certainty about the coherence of waking facticity and causality can, however, never provide us with any insight into the nature of them; for it is not, nor can be, by lack of quantitative facticity that I know I am dreaming, but by lack of qualitative normality. Usually, in a dream, a talking sheepdog in a lunar strip club does not strike me as strange, or cause me to compare it to the waking experience of a world in which lap-dancers don’t live on the moon and dogs don’t talk, thereby leading me to the realisation that I am in a dream. I remain as bound by dream facts as the Flatlander is bound by 2D facts. If a dream dog tried to persuade me I were dreaming I would have no facts within the dream by which to confirm or deny whether it is so. In lucid dreaming, I remember a waking state which I can quantitatively compare to the dream, but I am only led to that comparison via a qualitative experience of weird.
This is why although lucid waking is also possible, I can never be materially certain of it. I have and can have no quantitative experience of a super-awake (‘awake from waking’) state, just as I can have no such mental experience of four dimensions. In certain high-quality, unselfish experiences, I have a qualitative experience of weirdness, a feeling of unreality, but, unlike when I am dreaming, I have nothing to compare the factual experience to, so I can never come to the factual realisation that I am in a shared, solid, dream. I remain in a qualitative state of odd which fades with the quality experience, leaving doubtful facts. This is why the realest times of my life feel unreal, film-like, dream-like and then, when I later try to recall how vividly weird they were, I cannot. I doubt myself, doubt the reality-rending quality of my super-awake experiences, because all I have are factual memories of them. This is why the expression ‘at least you have your memories’ is such a stupid and insensitive thing to say to someone who is bereaved, and why when something does happen to them that is genuinely consoling, it is weird.
The high-quality odd experience is only possible when the isolated modes of self are silenced or softened, when I am ‘taken out of myself’. In such moments facticity and causality weaken and I become conscious that I-here is that-there; that the miracle of dream is not that the sheepdog is talking, but that I am the dog, that the experience of being separate from the dog and the strip club is entirely self-generated. When I wake, I know that subject and object (me, the dog and the strip club) were actually all one, but I can only experience this in the dream as weirdness.
Likewise, the waking moon continues to be the moon, even when I am not looking at it; it continues to be a big silvery ball up there, and not a mind-made illusion in here, because there is something ‘in’ it that really is the good old moon, but there is also a non-factual, non-quantitative aspect to it that somehow depends on its being consciously, qualitatively observed. While only a madman doubts that the quantitative waking division of subjects and objects is not a fact, a far more terrible kind of madness—the normal and ordinary kind—doubts that the qualitative oneness, or identity of subjects and objects, is not identical in both domains.
Consciousness is not a subject sitting in the objective cinema of the self, watching the projected representation of life pass before it. It is the cinema, the audience, the light that passes through the film and the story itself; but this cannot be factually known for certain without making the experience of it impossible; or, conversely, it cannot be doubted without presupposing the very subject-object division into separate things which is questioned. There is no conceivable way to either know or to question an inconceivable union of consciousness and context, either in dreams or while awake. Imagine arguing with a dog in a dream trying to convince you that you were both the same consciousness which had split itself into a subject and an object. What evidence could you possibly produce that it wasn’t so? Of course the dog can’t quantitatively prove the obverse either, but it doesn’t have to. It only needs to lead you to a sufficiently intense experience of quality. If it succeeds, you experience the dream as a dissolution of subjectivity (‘taken out of yourself’) and objectivity (‘this is weird’), which you call meaningful, just as you do during intense experiences of waking quality. This is why we are fascinated with stories about ‘waking up’, from dreams, from illusions, from virtual realities and from the fictive life script which ego surrounds itself with. It’s also why we call conscious people awake (although this metaphorical epithet is routinely co-opted into cliche). It’s also why great stories can be completely unrealistic and yet, through their capacity to express the actual weirdness of the ‘real world’, more truthful than the factual worlds of journalism or science. It is not incredible that some incredible factual thing is happening, but that anything is happening at all.
Self and Unself is available from all normal online book sellers, and also from my bookshop.