From The Philosopher,  Volume LXXXIII No.2


THE BUTTERFLY DREAM 

C. W. Chan



Chuang Tzu, a contemporary of Mencius, is universally regarded as the greatest Taoist after Lao Tzu. His butterfly dream is probably the most celebrated dream ever to be recorded in the history of Chinese Philosophy, which makes it almost impossible to omit in any serious expositions of Chuang Tzu's works. Whether or not the dream actually occurred is not a matter of great importance. What is important is that it has captured the minds of generations of Philosophers. My aim in this essay is to discuss a number of views that I find interesting.



Once upon a time, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. It did not know that it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Chuang Chou again. He did not know whether it was Chuang Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is a case of what is called the transformation of things.

Discussion: "This shows that, although in ordinary appearance there are differences between things, in delusions or in dreams one thing can also be another. The transformation of things proves that the differences among things are not absolute "

 The first piece of work that we are going to look at is the paper by Kuang-Ming Wu: Dream in Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu . Even though Chuang Tzu and Nietzsche lived centuries apart, they, nevertheless, have much in common when it comes to dreams. For Nietzsche, reality is subjective and dream is objective. That is, what we see around us and do everyday are all products of our dreams. They are not correct descriptions of reality, but something subjective and illusory. It would be a mistake to take dreams as not dreams but something real.

Chuang Tzu, however, preferred something more compromising: "When I say you are dreaming, so am I." In other words, we are all dreaming. This is best illustrated in his butterfly dream story. 'The passage:

Once upon a time, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. It did not know that it was Chuang Chou.

tells us that, in the dream, he was perfectly clear about his identity, but after he was awakened, this became uncertain.

Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Chuang Chou again. He did not know whether it was Chuang Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Chou.

In other words, awakening gives rise to ignorance or uncertainty. Hence, in reality, we are all dreaming. This awakening to ignorance also demonstrates Nietzsche's claim that all cultural activities are nothing but dreams. According to Wu, Nietzsche merely stated this but did not provide any evidence.

Having concluded that reality is subjective and dream is objective, Nietzsche did not say that we should regard dreams as some nocturnal fantasies that we should dismiss. Instead, he advises us that we should use them as a guide in our daily activities. Similarly with Chuang Tzu, having concluded that there must be, ontologically, a distinction between the butterfly and himself, though epistemologically unsure, and that this is nothing more than a transformation of things, he, too, advises us that we must forever live and be content with this constant transformation.

Next, we shall look at the paper by R.E. Allinson: A Logical Reconstruction of the Butterfly Dream: The Case for Internal Textual Transformation. On this occasion, Allinson looks at the ordering of the lines in the original passage. In order to achieve logical consistency, he said, some of the lines in the original passage should be rearranged. For example, the lines

He did not know whether it was Chuang Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Chou.

should be put before the lines

Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Chuang Chou again.

since the state of uncertainty should be attributed to dreaming, not awakening. Hence, the story should read:

Once upon a time, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. It did not know that it was Chuang Chou. In fact, it did not know whether it was Chuang Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Chuang Chou again. Between Chuang Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is a case of what is called the transformation of things.

 Furthermore, if Chuang Chou was in a state of uncertainty, after he was awakened, then how can he be sure that there must be a distinction between himself and the butterfly, as stated in the last verse.? In other words, the state of the mind should proceed from Uncertain -> Certain, and NOT from, Certain -> Uncertain - > Certain.

It's clear from both the original and the modified version of the story that from Chuang Tzu's point of view, and perhaps from philosophers in general, objects or things should have no absolute representations; under different states of consciousness things look different. To state what consciousness actually is is beyond the scope of this essay. What I would like to say, however, is this: If consciousness is defined as the ability of realisation, then different states of consciousness are just different states of awareness. Using this definition, we can say that there exist two states of consciousness in the passage, namely, dreaming and awakening. But could there be actually three states of consciousness, instead of two, as it's usually interpreted? The first is the normal dream state when Chuang Tzu dreamed about the butterfly, which he thought was himself. The second is what I called the day-dream state - a sort of intermediate metastable state between dreaming and awakening. In fact, it~s during this day-dream state that he was being subjected into not knowing whether he was just now dreaming he was a butterfly or the opposite, the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Tzu. It wasn't until he was more or less fully awake, the third state, at the level of the so-called correct philosophical understanding, that he concluded the dream with the idea of transformation of things.

 Rearranging the content of the passage as Allinson has done, would, in my opinion, destroy that essential message that the story is trying to convey, and that is, even when one is awake - in this case partially awake - such transformations are still possible. Based on this argument, the so-called raw version of the story is sufficient as it stands. Furthermore, as pointed out by William James, every great philosopher has his own vision. In order to grasp the philosophy of a Philosopher, one needs to see things from his point of view. If in attempt to explicate philosophy one adopts the attitude based on a particular set of beliefs as a correct format of philosophy, one would inevitably face the consequence of generalisation.

The question why he dreamt of the butterfly and not a tiger, for example, can be attributed to the way the mind functions and the role it plays in dreaming: what's within is manifested without; our personality is a representation of our inner-self. Chuang Tzu was the sort who enjoyed living in total freedom. The butterfly he dreamt of was. therefore, him, or what he wished to be.

 


 

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