Epistemology is the study of knowledge and belief. Epistemologists want to figure out what we can know and how we know what we know. What kind of information do we need to have in order to make an educated guess about something? Is that guess, even if true, a piece of knowledge? Must knowledge be certain, that is, not subject to doubt? Are all of our beliefs true?

The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) worried a lot about these questions, and used the power of doubt to try to build his body of knowledge from the ground up. He began by doubting things that we usually take for granted about the existence of the external physical world. Eventually, he found that he could find a reason to doubt pretty much everything that he had thought to be true except his own existence.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes acknowledges that all of his thoughts and even sensory experiences could be happening in an immaterial dreamworld, but that no matter what, there is still a thinking, feeling being experiencing it all. His reasoning was that if there was doubt, there had to be a doubter, so at least one person was thinking those doubting thoughts. That is where the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” originated. From this revelation, Descartes built up his theory of knowledge about everything else.

This discussion was the foundation for Descartes’ distinction between the mind (mental world) and things that exist in the real physical world. This distinction was fairly widely accepted in Western thought until 20th century philosophers like Wittgenstein, Austin, and William James began to question how sharp the distinction really is.

Descartes’ worry is similar to ones we find in many children’s fiction and in poetry/poetic prose: How do we deal with the world of dreams? Dreamworlds feel just as real as anything else while we’re experiencing them, but as soon as we wake up, we usually are certain that the world we have just left is nothing but a fantasy, and that the “waking world” that we are experiencing now is true reality. But how can we be sure?

Around the second century B.C.E., Chuang Tzu, one of the leading founders of Chinese Taoist philosophy, was interested in similar questions surrounding dream realities. In his famous “Chuang Chou and the Butterfly” story, Chuang Chou has a vivid dream of flying around as a butterfly, with all the accompanying sensory experiences and knowledge. Suddenly, he wakes up and thinks he is a man. But how does he know that he was not awake before, and now is a butterfly dreaming he is a man?! Instead of exploring the question further on paper, Chuang Tzu leaves it for the reader to consider, asserting only that surely “there must be some distinction” between Chuang Chou and the butterfly. The proposition of the mind/world distinction gets us thinking about not just the epistemic questions of how we come to know things about the world, but also metaphysical questions about the actual true nature of reality.

Citation: Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, introduction and translation by Burton Watson, 1964, Columbia University Press.

–> Read the complete works of Chuang Tzu for free online at Terebess Asia Online.

For more discussion, visit Matthias Steup’s Epistemology article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as Professor Tom Wartenberg’s “The Dream” book module on Teaching Children Philosophy and the Spark Notes guide to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.