A Typical Dream

This is how my dreams go.

In the dream, I discovered some public information about myself that I previously believed to be private. The information appeared to have been deliberately stolen and disclosed, and was selectively presented in a way that portrayed me negatively. I felt confident in my ability to handle blackmailers and those who might otherwise discredit me, and had even invested efforts over the years to set honey traps and alarms for such people. But such matters require a clear, calm head, and I didn’t want to assume that this was a garden-variety blackmailer. So I began to investigate. As I investigated, I found a number of other scattered disclosures of the same sort. I concluded that the effort was likely backed by a sophisticated spying effort, targeted me personally, and probably driven by a single individual working through many proxies.

My first priority was to discern the nature and motives of this newly discovered adversary, without tipping him off. I surreptitiously conducted a number of covert and overt test activities, and monitored for reactive leaks to discern his intent.

Was the adversary motivated by blackmail? Almost certainly not. The leaks were done in such a way as to avoid attention. It seemed that the adversary didn’t expect me to discover the damage until it was irreversible.

Was his motivation to destroy my reputation publicly? Again, this seemed implausible. Though the disclosures were sometimes of the sort that required me to do damage control, the reputation damage seemed to be a side-effect rather than a primary goal. This adversary surely had far more information about me that he could have selectively disclosed in a maximally damaging way, but he chose not to.

Was the adversary trying to cast doubt on the whole idea that one could maintain divergent public and private narratives (see below)? Was he trying to make me see some fatal flaw in the whole public/private strategy that I hadn’t seen before? Again, not likely. He seemed to be operating under the assumption of a public/private split and playing by the rules of that game, but with the caveat that he could override my choices about what stays private versus public. He assumed a public/private split, but he also assumed that he could play on both sides of that equation.

Ultimately, I became convinced that his motives were far more sinister. His goal was to selectively expose portions of my (ostensibly) private history in such a way as to be maximally prejudicial to an impartial judge reviewing all of the evidence at some point in the future. In other words, he didn’t care about swaying members of the general public (though that might be a side-effect), but he cared very much about prejudicing the opinions of a hypothetical unbiased person who had access to all of my public and private history at some day of judgment in the future. In short, he was meticulously and systematically preparing a case against me!

This was a cause for serious alarm. Even if you don’t believe in a judgment day, you care about how an impartial person would judge your character if given access to all of your private history. Experiment after experiment shows that we make choices in a way that allows us to preserve the belief that we are basically good people. We refuse to take actions that we would consider to be inconsistent with the self-image of ourselves being mostly good. Regardless of whether we have a religion or not, we all have an internal measuring stick of a “basically good person” which is independent of our selfish desires. We all have a moral standard that is bigger than ourselves, and we care about how we measure up to that standard. My shadowy adversary was attacking the very foundation of my self-image. He was systematically corroding my identity; using the very narrative that I believed would prove me a “basically good person”, and exposing that narrative in a way that everyone, including me, would perceive to be corrupt. In short, his entire aim was to make it impossible for me to see myself as a “basically good person”.

In normal life, the public/private split is how we defend ourselves from the flawed judgments of others. We each have a public narrative, which is what everyone else believes about us, and a private narrative, which is what we tell ourselves actually happened. Most people will readily assent to the existence of this split, but will postulate that the private history of the average person is considerably more treacherous and sordid than the public history. In other words, we assume that other people are telling us only the good things about themselves and hiding the bad things. But this assumption is exactly wrong.

If you’re like most people, you believe that an impartial judge would be more likely to deem you a “good person” if he had absolute access to your private history. How could he not? You never acted in a way that was inconsistent with that self-image, after all. Granted, you might hide things that other people “wouldn’t understand”, but any self-serving lack of transparency is always backed by an even more compelling private reason why it is morally defensible to hide those things. The typical person, when faced with critics, tells herself, “If only they knew everything I was going through, they wouldn’t judge me so harshly!

It’s a surprising contrast, but it is totally consistent to believe that your unabridged private history will vindicate you, while believing that everyone else’s private histories would condemn them. This is because we trust our own moral judgment more than we trust others’. At the very least, you trust yourself to be fairer in assessing your own faults than others would be. Not only must you protect yourself from others’ poor judgment caused by lack of information, you must consider the possibility that others will actively seek to destroy your external reputation or (like my shadowy adversary) destroy your self-image.

Of course, private things will sometimes leak, and you always run the risk of blackmail or shame. But you tell yourself that you could tolerate these outcomes, because you would still know that your entire sum of actions would vindicate you if disclosed. In contrast, my adversary was a new kind of adversary; he had full access to my private narrative, and was using it in a way that undermined my very identity.

The obvious way I could defend against such an adversary would be to create a third narrative that is private even from my private narrative – a narrative that nobody but I and my supposedly impartial third party judge could possibly know. I needed to go underground, so to speak, and drop the game a meta-level. Once I obtained control of an impenetrable layer of narrative, I could selectively choose experiences that would fill that narrative in a way that would vindicate everything in the other narratives. As long as I could create a truly private narrative I was confident that I could take actions that would fill that narrative in such a way as to inoculate myself from any corruption.

To implement this defense, I needed to figure out how to hide a narrative from this adversary, and he had proven remarkably adept at discovering things I was hiding.

Assuming that my adversary had full control over the physical world, my first strategy was to create a split between physical events and purely mental events. Even if the adversary was omniscient and omnipotent in the physical world, he couldn’t access my mental world (this works, with minor tweaks, even if physicalism is true). And the mental narrative of intentions and motives is just as important as the physical facts when you’re being judged. So my strategy was to construct a vindication narrative where the innermost layer was populated with only mental events. This seemed promising, but I soon found that the adversary could predict the content of the mental events with enough accuracy to be dangerous. I was eventually able to guess how he was doing it, and concluded that this entire strategy would always be vulnerable to this attack, and thus unworkable.

My second strategy was to hide specific actions behind “torn decisions”.

A great many of our decisions are obvious and predictable, and thus are not very interesting for measuring character. “Should I murder this person who annoyed me, or count to ten and walk away?” Making the right decision here doesn’t say much about who you are, it simply says that you’re a prototypical human. To truly define the essence of who you are, we need to look at your “torn decisions”: situations where you were torn between two contradictory choices, with absolutely equal reason for making either choice, yet you committed to one choice or the other. These are the decisions that define you.

Torn decisions are ideal for someone looking to hide his motivations from others. In a torn decision, you have equal motivation for making either choice. By definition, your ultimate choice should appear to be indeterminate to an impartial third party. In fact, it’s this appearance of indeterminacy that most tightly binds the decision to your identity, because the things that were determined are considered to be externalities.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see the flaw in this strategy. You can carefully plot a narrative where you are forced into a torn decision, and where you magically (and for all intents and purposes indeterminately, even to your supposed third-party judge) make the “right” decision. But your plotting prior to the torn decision is bound to be detected. You need to set the wheels in motion before your adversary is participating in the game, or else your torn decision will be seen to be fraudulent, and your plan will be foiled. I needed to find a time when my adversary was asleep, so that I could set the torn decision scheme in motion. Unfortunately, my adversary didn’t sleep, and I was unable to find any opportunities to hide myself.

I finally concluded that I had to move backwards, to a time before the adversary existed. The only way to win at this game is to lay the groundwork before the existence of anyone who could possibly judge you unfairly. In a world of torn decisions, pre-existence is indistinguishable from winning. At this point, some of the urgency faded, because I knew that the battle was already over (regardless of outcome). If I were to win this battle, it wouldn’t be because of any future actions of mine, but would be because of actions that had already been taken. While this applies to events placed in temporal order, it could also work for all of material, formal, and efficient; so it could alternately be framed to work within present time. For example, if I existed as an entity outside the material realm, in a space where my adversary had no access, I could easily cloak my actions in the physical world behind a veil of indeterminacy in real-time.

For my new plan to work, I had to abandon hope of staging my torn decisions and go with torn decisions that were truly torn – where the outcome was entirely indeterminate even to myself. Of course, such torn decisions could simply be random, in which case the exercise would be moot. But I could see two other possibilities in addition to randomness:

First, if it were true that some essential part of my identity had existed before the adversary, it is possible that this essential part previously staged all subsequent torn decisions to appear wholly indeterminate to myself. Obviously, this scenario would require some concept of personal identity (essence, soul, etc.) with a lifespan greater than my physical life. I couldn’t assume such a thing, but if such a thing were true, it would be reasonable to imagine that “essence” operating freely and openly at first, and then strategically dropping behind a veil of indeterminacy right before the advent of the adversary. The threat I was currently facing was very serious, and if I had been able to conceive of the threat (which was obviously possible, since I was having this dream), then it seems only prudent that I would have mitigated the threat.

Second, even if I came into existence after the adversary, the scheme would still work if I had assistance from a third entity who existed before the adversary. If you postulate that there is or was an entity who existed before the adversary, it is plausible to hope that this entity had your best interests at heart (if not, he would be no different from the adversary and it would be moot). So you can hope that you are being hidden behind a veil of indeterminacy put in place by that entity. This entity might even be the same as the entity you visualize as your internal “impartial judge”.



That’s the gist of the dream. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes, and was more like an intense wrestling match than a detailed analysis. I was being attacked, and I tried to defend myself. Since I was experiencing these things directly, my understanding of the mental parts at each new progression was instantaneous, and it was only dreaming the actual physical acts portrayed that took time. The beliefs I adopted in the dream are not necessarily beliefs I agree with. It is typical for my dreams to take some very extreme philosophical positions and see how they play out, rather than stay within one set of beliefs. These dreams often give me new ways of looking at old problems, and can accomplish more in 5 minutes than I could achieve in weeks of conscious effort. This dream left me with quite a bit to think about:

  • The storyline of this dream gives me a new way to think about suggestions, by Mark Balaguer and John Searle among others, that free will can only be explained through indeterminacy. Such suggestions had always seemed strained to me, and I felt they were motivated mainly by a desire to cling to folk-theory concepts of free will. However, it now seems that some combination of an impartial judge and an adversary would strongly motivate a drive to indeterminacy.
  • Attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for the existence of religion have sometimes focused on the theory that evolution endowed us with an oversensitive agent-detection mechanism. It’s better to wrongly infer a teleological agent behind the sound of a twig snapping that it is to wrongly assume no teleological agency and get eaten by a predator. I do believe that hyperactive agency detection plays a role in the formation of religion, but it is very unsatisfying on its own. Surely people would have learned to filter out the erroneous detection events. Instead, they took these erroneous events, rationally analyzed them, and became persuaded that there was something worth preserving in them. With this dream, I can see the outlines of potential new approaches to explanation of agency-detection’s role. For example, it might be the case that the “imaginary impartial judge” is a stable feature of intelligent life. Start with the knowledge that your own choices are prone to errors of judgment, and imagine a standard of conduct by which you can monitor your own judgments to detect and correct errors (since we are biased against error). This standard would be distinct from your immediate “self”, so it’s natural to want to apply agency detection to it. And maybe, you decide that your behavior would be exactly the same whether that standard represented a real or imaginary entity. Just as we dismiss solipsism by saying that we act as if there are other people regardless, we might decide that we act as if this third party exists, whether he really does or not. In both cases, we don’t have much choice anyway, but the point is that it might be no less rational to act as if the third party exists than to act as if other real people exist. Or perhaps this is not enough on its own, but maybe the addition of multiple independent agents with potentially conflicting wills and competition, would lead to this belief.
  • Assuming, for the sake of argument, that “imaginary impartial judge” is a basic feature of any universe that supports sentient life, what are the variable features? For example, if someone decides that there is an impartial judge, does it also follow that he would be wise to imagine an imaginary adversary who is almost as powerful as the judge? Does the fact that such an adversary is conceivable create any urgency to mitigate this potential threat, by acting as if? What about order of existence – does the de facto crown always go the first entity who is lucky enough to spawn into existence and thrive (the conceivability of suicide would be a counterexample)? What are the competitive advantages that any competent “first born” would figure out before anyone else could exploit them? (Creation of servants, masking behind indeterminacy?) How much consideration should be given to alternate configurations – adversary created before judge, for example?
  • If you were able to confirm that the “impartial judge” and “adversary” were basic features of any universe that supported sentient life, would this knowledge justify you to stop acting as if these were real? Would you still be bound to keep defending your own integrity, or might you instead be obligated to transcend this condition? The entire framework of this dream was based on the assumption that we can, and do, ensure by our own actions that we are “basically good people”. It presupposes that the responsibility is all ours, and as long as we are “righteous in our own eyes”, we only need help in our legal defense. But this is quite an assumption, and it might be worth challenging.
  • In a wildly different tangent, this could suggest ways of understanding the intentions behind the “bornless ritual“, the opening invocation of Ars Goetia. Like the invocations of Crowley which came later, these golden dawn invocations often seemed like crude perversions of selected orthodoxy. In the case of the bornless ritual, an obvious gratuitous perversions would be the use of “unbegotten” contra “begotten not created”. But it’s easy to read this as simply a difference of terminology, and the theme could be consistent with “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” And whatever the case, the author seemed to have been familiar with the idea of affiliating oneself with the right portion of the precedence chain. “Bornless” is about as high in the precedence chain as the human mind can conceive.
  • This could provide a different perspective on the symbolic function of Melchizedek in Midrash and Pentateuch. Melchizedek’s name basically means “impartial judge”, and Melchizedek is portrayed as blessing Avram and giving him the name Abraham. Perhaps to postulate an Abraham, your religion must also postulate an independent third party “impartial judge” who existed before Abraham, in order to give him authority. Based on the events of this dream, I think that’s a very neat feature of any religion, and perhaps an essential feature of any religion worth taking seriously.

And many other angles.

This is the first time I’ve dreamed about this specific topic, but I’ve written down hundreds of similarly wacky dreams, spanning topics from “my life with a fragmented body” to “the fascination of the fractal semi-human”. Most of them could be turned into entertaining science fiction stories, I’m sure, and they have provided some fun food for thought.

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