The Butterfly Dream

The butterfly dream is one of the most well-known text passages of Chinese Philosophy. It was written (dreamed) by Chuang Tzu, who lived around the 4th century BCE and who was, together with Lao Tzu, one of the great Taoist philosophers. The dream goes as follows:

One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly — a happy butterfly, showing off and doing things as he pleased, unaware of being Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Chuang Tzu again. And he could not tell whether it was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu. But there must be some difference between them! This is called ‘the transformation of things.’

As probably many before me, I have wondered about its meaning. In my humble opinion, the dream exemplifies the distinction between existence and non-existence. We would typically think of the person having the dream as an existing entity, and the world he is living in as reality, while the dream world would be fiction and thus non-existing. However, Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream tells us that we do not know which is which; meaning we cannot distinguish between the existing and non-existing worlds. Actually, in some sense, both worlds are existing (or non-existing). In our effort to identify one of both worlds as ultimate reality, which the dream tells us is not possible, we are constantly switching between both worlds, living in either one and taking it for real.

This difference between existence and non-existence is a classical Yin-Yang opposite. And yet, because existence is regarded as so fundamental, many would rather abandon the concept of Yin and Yang than to give up their sense of reality. Too strong is our desire to identify the real world and to classify Chuang Tzu as being part of reality. Only few dare to accept the fact that our dreams are as real as our bodies, although this is exactly what Chunag Tzu’s dream tells us in my opinion. Scientists, and mathematicians in particular, are no exception to this. Mathematicians would shudder with horror at the mere thought of performing calculations on objects (sets) that do not exist. In mathematics, everything needs to exist. On the most fundamental level of mathematics, where formal proofs are a rare guest, mathematicians have introduced a plethora of axioms to guarantee the existence of sets, numbers, etc. This clearly shows their ignorance about non-existing things, which are not worth to be considered simply because they do not exist. However, I think that Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dream tells us to incorporate non-existing objects into our formal considerations; and that mathematics needs to embrace the intrinsic uncertainty between existence and non-existence.

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4 Responses to The Butterfly Dream

  1. Suraj Kumar says:

    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.
    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.

  2. Suraj Kumar says:

    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.

  3. shafee anwar says:

    you said:
    ” Mathematicians would shudder with horror at the mere thought of performing calculations on objects (sets) that do not exist. In mathematics, everything needs to exist.”
    But what would you say about the complex numbers?
    it has it’s own geometry and algebra (and is even used to solve problems in electrical engineering, so you can’t say it’s useless)

  4. It seems you are making two implicit assumptions: i) complex numbers don’t exist, and ii) what does not exist is not useful. I would argue that we don’t know whether complex numbers exist. They derive from natural numbers from which I think we don’t know whether they exist, so how can we know whether complex numbers exist? Just because they have what we call an “imaginary” part, doesn’t mean this part can’t exist. I would also argue that there are things that may not exist, but that can still be useful and serve a purpose. For example, look at your favorite fictional character and the effect it has on you.

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