Butterfly’s Dream

One of the most famous stories in the Zhuangzi is perhaps this anecdote between Zhuang Zhou himself and a butterfly, dreaming.

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

The Zhuangzi

It is enigmatic and yet fascinating.

How about our life? Are we living in the dream of someone else? And, while we are sleeping, will someone else wake up and realize that we were living in the dream only? And, again while someone else is sleeping, will we wake up and realize that someone else was living in our dream?

A dream is a tricky concept. If we think of the possibility that the world we live is someone’s dream, then, there is no way to disprove this.

Descartes tried to prove that his thinking self undoubtedly exists even if he could doubt everything in the world including the world itself, saying cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am).

As we can change this phrase even into “I dream, therefore, I am,” his statement can prove the existence of the subject through his or her actions like thinking or dreaming, even other activities.

It can’t, however, provide any proof of why the world where I declare I am can exist. You say cogito ergo sum in your dream, in so doing, you could prove that you undoubtedly exist in your dream.

Some existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger pointed out this tautological perspective and limitation.

If this is the case, then we could craft any kind of grandeur theoretical (even theological) edifices deductively started from such “I think, therefore, I am.”

In fact, all the mathematical theories are the results of such deductive efforts. And, we believe that something logically and mathematically proven could be truthful. There is, however, one fundamental question unresolved. We still don’t know why mathematics in particular plays such a vital role in the universe.

In cosmology, there is even such hypothesis proposing that mathematics is the universe, called Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH).

Contemporary cosmologist Max Tegmark proposes that math is a human discovery and that the universe is essentially one gigantic mathematical object. Mathematics no more describes the universe than atoms describe the objects they compose; rather math is the universe.

But again, even this hypothesis does not answer why mathematics? Perhaps, Zhuang Zhou would ask us, why not a dream?

Often I meditate what if our life is a dream. If so, whose dream? God’s dream? How about our death? Once we die, that means that we wake up? Or, someone else wakes up? Leaping into the next level of consciousness is also the moment of awakening. Once awaken, then we would realize that the world we lived was a dream.

Image by composita

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