When I was a kid, I had a dog. I’d take him out for a walk at night. He usually took care of his business within a few minutes, but I’d walk him for 2 hours, sometimes more, circling the same few blocks over and over. I’d just think. My thoughts tended to go to the nature of reality. I’d look at streetlights and wonder what the hell light was anyway.
I must have been around ten or eleven when I put the name “philosophy” to my growing interest. I remember telling my mom and aunt about it. They laughed, and my aunt made a snide remark about how much money that was going to make me. But a few weeks later, she bought me a book. It was a collection of one-page summaries of the views of important philosophers throughout history. I’d read through it and only partially understand. The philosophers got harder to make sense of with time. Once the book got to twentieth-century philosophers, I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about. But I knew it was exciting. The prospect of eventually understanding them was thrilling to me. I felt as if learning reasons why the world might not be as it seems would give me some special kind of power.
I was about thirteen when I started thinking rigorously about what the purpose of my life was. It seemed obvious that it should be – broadly – happiness. I developed the following way of thinking about it: at any given moment of experience, I am always happy or unhappy to some extent. I may feel all sorts of other things, but there’s always a happiness component. Those happiness components could, in theory, be measured. Zero would be neutral, a positive number would mean a happy moment – the higher the number, the happier – and the other way for the negatives. So, a successful life would be a life in which, when you add up all the numbers corresponding to all life’s moments, the sum is positive. The higher the number, the more successful the life.
In other words, I developed a kind of utilitarianism limited to the individual.
Right away, the question of dreams bugged me. When I’m dreaming, I’m also either happy or unhappy, and it’s just as much an experience. So why shouldn’t that count? I concluded there was no reason. Dream happiness should matter just as much as waking-life happiness. The only difference is that we seem to have less power over our dream experience – that’s why we focus less energy on it. If controlling dream experience were easier, it should be as much of a priority as real-world happiness.
I loved this theory. It seemed obviously correct to me. I argued for it to friends. I was proud of it.
A few months ago, I became interested in pursuing lucid dreaming. There are techniques you can try to make yourself become aware during dreams. When you do, you get some control over your dream experience. In fact, some of the most exhilarating moments of my life have been moments when I realized that I was dreaming, and so decided to fly. Nothing beats it.
Today, I can see many problems with my first philosophical theory. I haven’t retained any serious interest in utilitarianism, nor in the philosophy of dreams. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to notice a way in which this same idea that I was so excited about at age thirteen still influences me to this day.
This dream happiness theory is a plot point in the track “Tasha,” from my philosophical audiodrama album Talia. The track, which is fairly self-contained, tells the story of a woman who thinks that she is dreaming, and that she enters a deeper level of dream-within-dream every time she falls asleep. She physically hurts herself in attempts to jolt herself awake. Check it out – you can read along while listening to the track here.