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I Must Be Dreaming December 3, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Skepticism.
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37 comments

Before we jump into this week’s post a little back story on where I’m coming from will help.  I attend church in San Diego at a community called Coast Vineyard, pastored by Jamie and Michelle Wilson.  One of the things I appreciate most about Coast is that, from the top down, they welcome difficult questions and value discussion of the topics raised on Sundays.  In that vein I’d like to take Coast up on their invitation to engage in tough questions by providing some comments on this week’s sermon.

I know that some of the readers here at Valence also attend Coast but most do not so it’s probably prudent for me to start with a short summary of the topic at hand.  I don’t want to ‘assign homework’ here but if you’re interested you can listen to the entire sermon otherwise you’ll have to make due with the following:

Dream Interpretation and the ways that God supposedly speaks through dreams was the topic of Jamie’s sermon which was set in the context of the story of Joseph (specifically Genesis 40 and 41).  For those of you not familiar with the story of Joseph here’s the low down.  Joseph has been sold into slavery to Egypt by his brothers who are jealous of his coat of many colors (a gift from his father).  Sound familiar now?  In Egypt, after being wrongly accused of slipping the naughty to his master’s wife, Joseph finds himself in prison where he discovers a penchant for interpreting dreams.  News of this talent gets back to Pharaoh who just so happens to be having some trouble making sense of some dreams of his own.  He keeps dreaming of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows and seven shriveled heads of grain swallowing up seven good heads. Freud would have a field day here. You know what?  We better let Donny Osmond bring it home…

Needless to say Pharaoh does find his man.  Joseph takes charge of Egypt’s agriculture and the famine is averted.  Yeah!

All kidding aside I do actually want to explore what this story has to tell us about the usefulness of dreams in our modern context.  Why am I so concerned about what seems like such a benign religious claim here?

Good question.  I’m not trying to nit-pick but I do take issue with the advice implied by Joseph’s story and Jamie’s sermon that we should be making life decisions for ourselves and others based on what is perhaps the most unreliable of all human experiences, dreams.  In fact, I would argue ‘divine dreams’ cease being benign quickly lest we start using them to sleuth out whether the old woman in our village is a witch or if we should quit our job.  Things can become very serious very fast.

I also suspect that it is precisely in such mysterious corners as dreams that we are the most likely to start invoking the divine in error.  Because the results and interpretations of dreams can be so ambiguous it is easy to assume supernatural intervention where there is none.

First, is the story of Joseph (or, as Jamie pointed out, the similar story of Daniel) credible evidence that God speaks through dreams?

I don’t think so.  It’s useful to keep in mind that the stories of Genesis, if not mythical in their totality, are the result of hundreds of years of oral tradition.  Once recorded these stories were subject to copying errors, reinterpretation and outright modification.  Further these were tales written by a people who spent extended time in exile or persecuted and so would have reasonable motivation to invent hopeful stories about how one of their own climbed to the highest ranks of politics.

It is certainly not surprising that the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar so closely resembles Joseph’s assent to power considering the Jewish exile to Babylon.  Instead of providing evidence for God’s continued presence in our dreams, the similarities between Joseph and Daniel seem to show that the Jewish people found dream interpretation a convenient literary device for explaining an unlikely rise to power.

Even if these stories were accurately reported, I have to seriously question whether we should be trusting the cognitive explanations and weight ascribed to dreams from a prescientific people who had little to no conception of the brain’s activity.  The idea that dreams had cosmic significance was an understandable mistake made by a people who relied on outright magical interpretations of the world but a mistake nonetheless.  We need to think very seriously about dreams and their naturalistic origins before following them down this rabbit hole.

Is dream interpretation a reliable way to discern truth?

Maybe. I wouldn’t argue that dreams don’t have meaning at all.  Sure, dreams are commonly motivated by actual events in our lives and so they may very well indeed reflect the truth of our subconscious processing.  But this is certainly a material function of the brain and a far stretch from claiming that dreams have prophetic significance or their interpretation is a conduit for revealed knowledge.

The problem with retrospectively claiming revealed truth or direction from our dreams is that studies have shown dreams to be fluid and extremely malleable in our memories.  It is very common to connect concepts and events that may have been dreamt weeks apart into one cohesive tale; especially, if someone externally is providing an ‘interpretation’ that motivates you to agree or evokes an emotional response.

The very sad reality of human experience is that our personal memories are so acquiescent that they can rarely be trusted as credible evidence.  This commentary is doubly true of dreams.

Thomas Gilovich in his book How We Know What Isn’t So (The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life) puts it this way:

Dreams are particularly suspect…because their multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic nature makes them something of a ‘one size fits all’ premonition that is easy to fulfill.  Psychologist James Alcock cites intriguing evidence of the retrospective nature of many prophetic dreams: Those who claim to have such experiences report that their prophetic quality disappears after he has them record their dreams!

Therefore the evidence we have for supernatural dream interpretation claims seem inherently unreliable.  At best we have the reports from subjective personal experience which is anecdotal and subject to the pitfalls of memory and at worst we have mythical accounts which may have never happened at all.

Further, evidence for dream interpretation is probably not gathered evenly.  That is, we don’t hear about all the prophetic dreams that go unfulfilled, instead we only hear about the rare cases which appear confirmed.  The fact that we are only conscious of ‘positive hits’ can strongly and dangerously bias our perspective.

In conclusion, I know it is fruitless to try and ‘prove’ that God cannot speak through dreams and this certainly isn’t what I’m trying to accomplish here.  Divine dream interpretation is an unfalsifiable claim that cannot be disproved (similar to the Flying Red Elves) but I think it’s appropriate to lean on Carl Sagan a bit and assert that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” before investing in belief.

The claim that there is supernatural knowledge being imparted to people in their sleep by God is certainly extraordinary.  Do we similarly find the extraordinary accompanying evidence to validate belief here?  I don’t think so.  What do you think?

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