A Dream Inside a Locked Room

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I’ve been learning a lot about emotions and psychology lately, and it’s made me think about philosophy. All three of these are connected, so it makes sense that the philosophy of cognition has been on my mind.


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There are many perspectives on all aspects of these subjects. What I’ve been thinking about in particular is the T. V. show, True Detective. Season One is one of my favourite shows because it has a lot to do with the philosophies of nihilism and pessimism. Matthew McConaughey and Woodey Harrelson’s acting in it is spectacular, and so is the plot. I also love the skipping back in forth in time. It’s one of those shows that I notice more depth to the more I watch it. I realized the last time I saw it that it seems to have a mythological structure. But that’s an idea for a whole other blog.


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One specific line has been running through my head. Rust, played by Matthew McConaughey, says it. His nihilistic perspective on life is that we’re all living in “a dream inside a locked room.” What I think his elaboration of this means is that we hallucinate our own subjective interpretations of objective reality. Rust also seems to argue that everyone’s perceptions are unique. No one can experience them in the same way as us, no matter how well perceptions are described or measured. So the metaphorical dream is our hallucinated and inaccurate experiences throughout life. The locked room is each of our brains. That’s because even though societal interactions and cultural upbringings influence biology, no one can access our thoughts. Nobody interprets reality in exactly the same way as anyone else. So we’re all kind of having our own independent dreams of life inside the locked rooms of our minds.


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Learning more about psychology helped me understand what “a dream inside a locked room” means. To an extent, our environmental experiences shape our perceptions. However, every person’s interpretation of reality is different. No one can know how anyone else’s thoughts feel. This is partially why our perceptions give us inaccurate information.


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This is why a long time ago, a philosopher named Thomas Nagel wrote a paper about perception. It’s called What it is Like to be a Bat. The conclusion is essentially this: Since we cannot experience the perceptions of any other living creature, no one’s interpretation of any behaviour is entirely correct. This extends to empirical scientific data in general because scientists don’t have more accurate hallucinations of reality than anyone else.


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These types of arguments were used to dismantle classical psychological studies that used methods of behaviourism. This philosophical approach to psychology was popularized by B. F. Skinner from the 1930s to at least the 80s.


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In experiments, behaviourism involved measuring the response to a stimulus, assuming that it gives you useful information. This is related to the misconception of classical science that human brains are reactive rather than predictive.


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A fundamental problem with behaviourism is that people who observe the responses to stimuli are inevitably influenced by their preconceptions. They also miss important data because no human being is perfect. We can’t fully understand how any scientist interprets data because we are incapable of experiencing their thoughts. It’s pretty much impossible to know exactly what the person measuring the behaviour is observing. They could be witnessing the response or the stimulus. But either of these could be reactions to something completely different, or the stimulus behind another response. This is why scientists control for a wide variety of variables in experiments. But even though science helps us learn mountains of valuable information, no scientific observation or study is 100% objectively true.


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Image result for human cognition is a puzzleIn case you were wondering, I don’t actually think that we’re all having dreams inside locked rooms. It’s a fascinating metaphor, but I’m not quite that pessimistic and over-dramatic. However, it makes a lot of valid points and provides interesting food for thought. There are ample mind-boggling aspects of human cognition. Scientists are continuously making progress in putting the pieces of this puzzle together. Pragmatically, our experiences are as real as we can possibly know. But I think that we should always remember this: No one actually knows what is really going on!


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