Did Daniel Dennett Predict Inception?
More than 30 years ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett predicted the invention of exactly the kind of dream-manipulating technology used in the new movie Inception. In a 1977 paper titled “Are Dreams Experiences?” Dennett envisioned a future in which scientists develop the ability to insert false dreams into people’s minds:
“[W]e can imagine that the [future dream] researchers will acquire the technological virtuosity to be able to influence, direct, or alter the composition process, to stop, restart, or even transpose the presentation process as it occurs, to prevent or distort the recording process. We can even imagine that they will be able to obliterate the ‘veridical dream’ memory and substitute for it an undreamed narrative.” (134)
For Dennett this ability is a plausible, indeed logical extension of present-day research on correlations between the mental and physical aspects of dreaming. Eventually the increased precision of mind-altering technologies will allow for the total exernal control of people’s dreaming, to the point where they can be fooled into believing they experienced dreams they didn’t, and didn’t experience dreams they did.
The movie Inception is based on the same idea, but with a dark Hollywood twist: What would happen if such dream-altering tools “fell into the wrong hands” and were used for malevolent purposes?
Ironically, Dennett did not think much of the narrative potential of his theory:
“As a premise for a science-fiction novel it would be almost pedestrian in its lack of conceptual horizon-bending.” (135)
Dennett’s main philosophical goal in this paper was to undermine the “received” view of dreaming, i.e. the traditional theory in which dreams are regarded as experiences during sleep that we later remember in waking. As part of his larger project of constructing “a physicalist theory of consciousness” (129), Dennett argued that we may not actually experience dreams, but only assume that what we remember after awakening must have been experienced during sleep. Perhaps “there are no dreams after all, only dream ‘recollections.’” (136)
This claim was important to him because it was part of his overarching argument that all aspects of mental life, even in sleep and dreams, can be explained in purely physical terms, without any reference to subjective experience.
Dennett has gone on to become a highly influential writer on cognitive science, evolutionary theory, and religion (e.g., his 2007 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). All his works apply a vigorously physicalist mode of explanation, consistent with his approach in this 1997 paper.
It is strange to find, then, that at the end of this paper Dennett conceded that, despite his best critical attacks, the “received view” of dreaming was likely to be proven, not disproven, by scientific evidence:
“If it turns out that sleep, or at least that portion of sleep during which dreaming occurs, is a state of more or less peripheral paralysis or inactivity; if it turns out that most of the functional areas that are critical to the governance of our wide awake acitvity [sic] are in operation, then there will be good reason for drawing the lines around experience so that dreams are included.” (146)
Dennett must have known the first condition, i.e. atonia during REM sleep, was true. He also clearly knew there was growing evidence suggesting that complex and sophisticated aspects of waking mental functioning could be identified in dreams. He tried to diminish the significance of lucid dreaming, but still he had to acknowledge its reality and its problematic implications for his critique.
So in the end, does Dennett, a committed physicalist, accept the preponderance of empirical evidence in favor of the received view that dreams are experiences?
Not really. In the final lines of the paper Dennett retreats to the idea that if he can simply redescribe the mind without reference to subjectivity, then it won’t matter any longer what people do or don’t say about experience. If people followed his approach, “the received view of dreams, like the lay view of experience in general, would not be so much disproved as rendered obsolete.” (148).
That’s a remarkably weak conclusion to draw after such an elaborate effort to prove that dreams are not experiences. Rather than grounding his ideas in empirical evidence, he ultimately claims to offer nothing more than better rhetoric.
Dennett’s analysis of dream research does not support his larger physicalist explanation of consciousness. Rather, it suggests that dreaming as a form of conscious experience within sleep poses a serious challenge to his physicalist theory.
Daniel Dennett, “Are Dreams Experiences?”, in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1978), 129-148. The quotes above come from the third printing, 1986.