The Flaws of the Dream Argument

Topics: Dream

Throughout Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes proposes a series of doubts he has about the ordinary experience of humans as well as science. In Meditation One, Descartes claims that he wants to reject, or try to reject, all of his beliefs. By doing so, he hopes to make a foundation that is completely certain on which he can build his arguments that combat the doubts. He does so by establishing why one of his beliefs is inaccurate, then explaining how this change will impact his life.

One of Descartes’ doubts pertains to whether or not people can trust their senses. In order to discuss the certainty of senses, he presents the dream argument. Descartes argues that dreams are vivid and are made of past experiences and things that are familiar.

Therefore, there are times where one is unable to tell the difference between dreaming and reality. As a result, dreams pose a threat to knowledge as there are “no definitive signs by which to distinguish from being awake to being asleep”.

This argument serves as a mechanism to evaluate the external world as well as the certainty of sensory judgments. The phenomenon of dreaming is used as key evidence for the skeptical hypothesis that everything we currently believe to be true could be false and generated by a dream. However, Descartes’s dream argument is inherently flawed in his understanding of one’s ordinary experience and the failure to identify certain distinctions between dreams and reality.

In the discussion of one’s ordinary experience and whether the physical objects around him are real or not, Descartes fails to address the role of critical thinking.

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He approaches this question by evaluating a physical object: wax. He observes a piece of fresh wax and a pieced of melted wax and recognizes that every single sensible quality has changed. Yet, in the end, he is able to understand that both forms of the physical object are wax. Descartes argues that he does not understand physical things because of sense, but rather because of his thinking, intellect, and mind. He claims that his understanding of the wax was “not achieved by the faculty of imagination”. He suggests that one cannot rely on a sense for certainty, but instead must trust their mind.

In order to understand that the physical object—wax—is real, Descartes had to use critical thinking skills. He had to understand what the object was and recognize that regardless of the state of matter it was in, it continued to be wax. Descartes fails to address the fact that this deductive reasoning can only be used in reality. In order to think critically about an object and the certainty of it, Descartes must be awake. In relation to dreams, in reality, one can think about dreams by using their intellect and imagination; one can rationally understand what a dream is and the types of things one dreams about. However, when someone is dreaming, they are not able to critically think about reality or understand what reality is. Critical thinking is a key aspect of decision-making, which is only present in reality.

Descartes does not take into account the role of imagination in the distinction between dreams and reality. When dreaming, people often create situations that are not plausible or are make-belief. Consequently, dreams are a series of imagined scenarios. While Descartes is correct in his assertion that dreams incorporate past experiences, he fails to address the fact that, when dreaming, people often surpass these experiences and create and imagine new ones. In an attempt to explain the difficulties of distinguishing between dream and reality, Descartes focuses on two experiences. First, he describes a situation wherein which he is sitting next to the fire and wearing his winter dressing gown. Next, he is sitting next to the fire and wearing his winter dressing gown, but he is imagining this scenario in a dream. In this second scenario, he is “lying undressed in bed”

. He claims that both situations felt equal to real and he is unable to discern whether he was awake or dreaming. Descartes is doing a disservice to his argument by utilizing a very basic and straightforward dream. When he imagined the scenario of him sitting in front of the fire, it may have felt real as it is a common action that he performs. However, had he compared it to a more complicated situation, it would be easier to differentiate between reality and dreams. For example, people often dream about flying or time-traveling. Despite these dreams being very vivid and feeling realistic, they are obviously created by of one’s imagination. These actions are impossible in reality, and thus it would be easy to differentiate between dreaming and reality. Since dreams are a compilation of imagined scenarios, one could only act on such experiences in real life.

Descartes fails to account for the role of pain in discerning between a dream and reality. Throughout Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes argues that it seems impossible to rule out that at any given moment one could be dreaming. However, he does not consider pain. In reference to his fire place experience, in reality, if Descartes got close to the fireplace, he could burn his skin. However, in the second experience, if he imagined himself moving closer to the fire, he would only imagine the pain. Therefore, in dreams, one is only thinking of the pain but does not physically feel it. Descartes could counter this claim by arguing that the physical sensations one feels during a dream can trigger the same reaction then it would in reality. For example, if one is having a vivid dream about being stabbed the brain will react to this threat as if it was reality. Thus, the mind is capable of incorporating physical sensations into one’s dream.

However, as argued earlier, one would only be imagining this pain and not physically feeling it. In reality, if one was stabbed, one would bleed and possibly die, however, this would not be the case if one was dreaming. Since dream pain is not the same as real pain, then that is a clear way to tell the difference between dreaming and reality. In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes cultivates the dream argument, which focuses on the idea that one is unable to differentiate reality from a dream. Thus, Descartes believes that is possible to be dreaming and not be aware of it. However, Descartes’ argument is flawed as he does not address key distinctions between reality and dreams. First, in relation to one’s ordinary experience, Descartes identifies his certainty about wax, a physical object. He is able to understand that wax in both solid forms and meted form is still wax and that it is real. Yet, in order to figure this out, he utilized critical thinking skills.

These skills can only be used in reality, and this is a key way to distinguish between reality and dreams. Another way to distinguish between dreams and reality is through one’s understanding of the characterization and nature of dreams. While dreams do incorporate past experiences, they are often more exaggerated and imaginative. Therefore, they incorporate experiences and ideas that are not probable in reality. Lastly, a key way in which dreams and reality differ is by the feeling of pain. In a dream, pain is only imagined; pain is not physically felt. One has an illusion of being hurt, but they cannot physically feel it. Descartes could argue that the physical sensation felt during dreams mirrors the physical pain felt in reality. However, this physical sensation does not translate to actual harm and therefore is just a figure of one’s imagination. Ultimately, Descartes’ dream argument is flawed in so far as there are plausible ways in which one can differentiate between dreams and reality.


  1. Descartes, René, 1596-1650. Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1993. Print.

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The Flaws of the Dream Argument. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from

The Flaws of the Dream Argument
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