By Zulhaqem Zulkifli
In this paper, I will attempt to show the utility of the dream motif in encouraging a scepticism of reality. I will first explicate the concept of the dream argument, allowing me to compare dream motifs in The Elder Scrolls and the Zhuangzi. This would be followed by a comparison between the concept of the dream of the Godhead and its role in achieving enlightenment in The Elder Scrolls fictional narrative and the butterfly dream of Zhuangzi, which illustrates the utility of the motif of dreams to encourage a scepticism of our perceived reality. The next section shall consider the salient differences of the dream motif narrative in both The Elder Scrolls and the Zhuangzi. In the penultimate section, I shall show that in spite of those differences, the idea of the dream motif to propel a sceptical approach towards ‘perceived reality’ is a powerful one.
The Dream Argument
The dream argument refers to the problem of the indistinguishable boundaries between our waking consciousness and dreaming states which is based on our perceptions and senses. Essentially it centres upon our senses and perceptions of our conscious reality which is called into question when we realise that our perceptions which are taken to be real can just also be perceived to be real when we dream. This shakes the foundations of what we perceive to be the distinction between reality and dream, and this is both epistemically and metaphysically problematic for our ordinary conceptions of reality. Such an argument was considered by Rene Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy, where he addresses this idea in soliloquy; “…Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events – that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing-gown – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!”, postulating the nature of experiences in our waking states and dreams can be very similar such that we may not be able to clearly distinguish between the two. This idea may be represented as the following;
1) I know that if I perceive an event when I am awake, then it is true that I am awake.
2) I now know that such perceptions of events are also achievable in my dreams.
C) I do not know whether I am sleeping or awake.
This illustration challenges what we think we know. It makes us question fundamental ideas, such as our existence and reality, which we often take for granted. The dream argument also provides us with a secondary schema of phenomenon. Where previously it was assumed that it is necessarily the case that our knowledge of reality is tied to our waking state, the dream argument threatens to overthrow this conventional paradigm by positing an alternative consideration of the unconscious mental state of dreaming, which sometimes has been observed to possess equally impactful and vivid experiences. Since the previous standards of what we perceive to be reality is grounded on the principles of such impactful and vivid experiences in our waking states, then it may justify the idea that dreams, which offer such similar experiences, may also be claimed to be reality.
The Elder Scrolls X Zhuangzi
The Elder Scrolls, a popular series of role-playing video games by Bethesda Softworks, conforms to the cosmological narrative. It posits that all of reality is, in actuality, a dream of the Godhead, a mysterious creator entity that is in an unconscious state. And this entity dreams the reality of the universe. Michael Kirkbride, former designer and author of in-game lore for Bethesda Softworks, states in Loveletter From the Fifth Era, The True Purpose of Tamil — “God outside of all else but his own free consciousness, hallucinating for eternity…”. “God”, in this instance, refers to the Godhead entity which builds the reality of The Elder Scrolls universe. And this universe is a mere mental construct in its dream.
But before I can go to my argument proper, there is another related concept within the lore that has to be explicated which is the idea of CHIM, a kind of enlightened state a character may achieve in game. CHIM (pronounced K-EE-M), refers to the state of enlightenment that may be achieved by a character when he or she realises that all of reality is a dream of the Godhead and that they do not really exist. This is not, however, the final step as narrated in another of Kirkbride’s writings, The Tower, which states, “Imagine being able to feel with all of your senses the relentless alien terror that is God and your place in it, which is everywhere and therefore nowhere, and realizing that it means the total dissolution of your individuality into boundless being. Imagine that and then still being able to say “I”.” (Kirkbride, 2010). After the realisation of being a mere figment of the Godhead’s dream and of one’s non-existence, one has to assert one’s existence even though there is none. This can be illustrated through the following representation – Let us take (1) to mean existence and (-1) to be non-existence due to the Godhead’s dream. The realisation of being part of the Godhead’s dream is seen as 1 (-1) = 0, where (0) indicates nothingness. This is also known as zero-summing. To achieve CHIM is to avoid zero-summing and would involve an assertion or willing of one’s existence, in spite of the evidence of one’s non-existence, and would look like this: 1(-1) = 0 (+1), where (+1) is the assertion of one’s existence, and thereby achieving CHIM. Having said this, what is more relevant to this paper is the utility of the dream of the Godhead. One of the more important phases that has to be established before achieving CHIM is a belief in the idea of the dream of the Godhead. For this belief to be established, it necessarily requires one to adopt a sceptical attitude towards the nature of reality. We observe the provision of a secondary schema of phenomenon in this narrative in the form of the God head’s dream, which is utilised as platform for initial scepticism of one’s existence and of perceived reality.
Similarly in the Zhuangzi, we also see the utility of the dream motif in the famous “Butterfly dream” chapter. In the chapter, it states that “One night, Zhuangzi dreamed of being a butterfly—a happy butterfly, showing off and doing as he pleased, unaware of being Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Zhuangzi again. And he could not tell whether it was Zhuangzi who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming Zhuangzi.”. Zhuang Zi questions the nature of reality through the use of his dream of the butterfly in order to encourage a sceptical frame of mind. This is brought about by having the conjunction of two strains of thought – Either I, Zhuangzi, am a human, dreaming of being a butterfly, or I, Zhuangzi, am a butterfly, dreaming of being a man, both of which does not seem to provide definitive evidences via the perceptions or senses that would render one false and the other as true. This of course, is a classical illustration of the dream argument, where boundaries sensorial-perceptions of the conscious and subconscious mental states are indistinguishable, such that it makes perceived reality often taken to be true questionable.
Having said this, there are some salient features shared amongst the dream motifs in the narrative of The Elder Scrolls Universe and the Zhuangzi. Most prominently, is the end objectives that both narratives have in mind or are priming others towards. The dream of the Godhead for instance, is a tool which is utilised by characters in the game to cast one’s knowledge of reality into systematic doubt. It is a necessary condition that has to be fulfilled before one can achieve CHIM or enlightenment. Zhuangzi however, has no such objectives in mind. More than that, it leaves us with an open-ended question with regard to our perceived reality, and promulgates an active introspection and extrospection of what we take to be true and the nature of things. Furthermore, the story aims to be “…an insight into the vanity and contingency of (human) existence…an insight into the impermanence of all distinctions in our world, and hence our interwovenness with all beings in a continuous process of change.” (Moller, 1999) – A philosophical inquiry of relationships of all things, including that of dreaming and conscious states. Even so, it is still evident of the major roles of dreams in both narratives in propelling their respective agendas. Dreams prove to be a powerful mechanism for encouraging a scepticism of reality and perceived phenomenon. It acts as a potential alternative framework for our sensorial – perceptions, which upon closer inspection, bears similarity to conventional sensorial – perceptions we experience in our perceived awakened states. For instance, we at times experience lucid dreaming, which has experiences that seem real even though we are dreaming. The nature of lucid dreams show that “…sleep and dreaming do not necessarily prevent knowledge claims in dreams from being true…(and) genuine instances of reasoning and remembering occur in dreams…” (Windt, 2015), further complicating the boundaries between true reality and simulated reality.
This further augments the conundrum that we are faced, whether our reality is a kind of hyper-lucid dream or are dreams true reality. Such a problem is utilised by both narratives to promote sceptical thought and thereby facilitating the process of gleaning ultimate truths unique to their individual narratives.
In conclusion, I have explicated the dream argument, a prominent feature in many philosophical traditions which is used as a backdrop for this paper. The narratives of The Elder Scrolls game series and the Zhuangzi was then analysed and compared to illustrate the recurrent and major motif of dreams and underlying principle of the dream argument embedded within them, mainly in the initial phase of scepticism of reality in The Elder Scrolls’ path towards CHIM or enlightenment and analysis of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream. While they both prove to also have differing end-goal objectives, such differences only serve to augment the powerful nature of dreams, as we observe that the utility of the dream motif represents a powerful mechanism within their individual narratives, aiding and facilitating scepticism of reality through the provision of an alternative schema of phenomenon.
Image Credits: Mediablaw, AZ,