July 26, 2018

Phenomenal Conservatism and Dream Skepticism

Filed under: Philosophy — camcintosh @ 2:53 pm

Phenomenal conservatism: if is appears to S that p is the case, then S is prima facie justified in believing p is the case. It appears to me that I am not dreaming. So, I am prima facie justified in believing I am not dreaming.

Dream skepticism objection: Ah, but as you learned from Wykstra, ‘appears claims’ are justified only if: If p were not the case, then S would not likely be appeared-to-p-ly. But the possibility of a dream-inducing evil genius guarantees that your appearances would be no different, whether you were dreaming or not. So you cannot justify knowledge of the external world by appeal to phenomenal conservatism.inception-totem

But maybe there is a difference, namely: it appears to me that there is a difference between dreaming and wakefulness. Now, the very fact that I am aware of such a distinction at all suggests the distinction is real. Were our whole lives a mere dream, how could we even be aware of such a distinction as that between dreaming and wakefulness?

To say I merely dreamed of the distinction does nothing to discredit the legitimacy of the distinction: I have a concept of a phenomenal state called “dreaming”, and I also have the concept of a different phenomenal state, one that is not dreaming. The distinction is as conceptually solid as any other between two distinct things. But then how do I get the concept of wakefulness in the first place other than from a state of wakefulness? It would be like having the concept of a color without having seen the color.

So the fact that it appears to me that there is a distinction between dreaming and wakefulness justifies my belief that there is something that induces non-dreaming phenomenal states—i.e., an external world. But does it justify the belief that I am not dreaming now? I don’t see how it could seem to me that there is a distinction between two phenomenal states without having actually experienced those different states, as seemings are phenomenal states. I must know what its like to dream, and know what it’s like not to dream; i.e., to be awake. And these two are not the same. So I must be able to tell the difference somehow (even if I can’t articulate exactly how). So I have good reason to believe that it is false that were I dreaming, I would not be appeared-to differently. And since it seems to me now that I am awake and not dreaming, I am prima facie justified in believing I am awake and not dreaming.


  1. Hi Chad.

    It almost sounds like that there is definitely a you that is independent from *either* of those phenomenoligical arena. Distinction between the arena seems initially likely; I would also say on the grounds of levels of awareness. The issue to my mind is not so much whether there is distinction between sleep and wakefulness, but whether, like the apparent binary gender options, this is not a human ordering of experience. Notice my loathing of the word “mere” keeps it utterly excluded from the previous sentence.

    So, where would you place the hullocegenic experience? Or waking up from a dream in another? Or irrational fears from within a wakened state?

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


    Comment by JB — July 26, 2018 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

  2. Doesn’t the Dream Skepticism Objection simply beg the question? If phenomenal conservatism is true, I can be justified in believing that ‘appears’ claims are justified even in many cases where the Wykstra principle would imply that I’m not justified. For example phenomenal conservatism implies that I can be justified in believing that I’m seeing my hands (and hence not dreaming) provided merely that it appears to me that I’m seeing my hands in the absence of defeaters, and hold the belief because of that appearance. (E.g., I have no reason for doubting that I know that I’m seeing my hands.) But the Wykstra principle implies that I can’t be justified in having that belief on that basis. Why shouldn’t a phenomenal conservative simply deny the Wykstra principle? That would be an appealing move for independent reasons–for example the principle leads to radical skepticism.

    Comment by Zamfir — September 18, 2018 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  3. For me this comes down to personal subjective cultural specific experience, and also definition of terms. Eg from the smaller subjective physical self, ones dreams, from a larger non-physical self this life may appear as dream. All of it is “real” but different perspectives.

    Comment by John Sorensen — March 29, 2019 @ 8:44 am | Reply

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