Party Game: From Dreams and Delusions to Wars and Wiretapping

The "word cloud" containing the words "dreams" and "delusions" doesn't contain the words "wars" and "wiretapping," but perhaps it should.

Thinking about the genesis and consequences of the Iraq War and the recently passed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that authorizes wholesale wiretapping, I recalled a relevant party game I once wrote about. The game, described by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his book "Consciousness Explained," is a variant of the familiar childhood game requiring that one try to determine by means of Yes or No questions a secretly chosen number between one and one million.

The Game

In Dennett's more interesting and suggestive game, one person, the subject, is selected from a group of people at a party and asked to leave the room. He is told that in his absence one of the other partygoers will relate a recent dream to the other party attendees. The person selected then returns to the party and, through a sequence of Yes or No questions about the dream, attempts to accomplish two things: reconstruct the dream and identify whose dream it was.

The punch line is that no one has related any dream. The individual partygoers are instructed to respond either Yes or No to the subject's questions according to some completely arbitrary rule. Any rule will do, however, and may be supplemented by a non-contradiction clause so that no answer directly contradicts an earlier one. The Yes or No requirement can be loosened as well to allow for vagueness and evasion.

The result is that the subject, impelled by his own obsessions, often constructs an outlandish and obscene dream in response to the random answers he elicits. He may think he knows whose dream it is, but then the ruse is revealed to him and he is told that the dream really has no author. In a strong sense, however, the subject himself is the dream weaver. His preoccupations dictated his questions which, even if answered negatively at first, frequently received a positive response in a later formulation to a different partygoer. These positive responses were then pursued.

The game is more a vivid thought experiment (illustrating one possible mathematical approach to extreme confirmation bias) than an empirical finding. Still, there is some evidence that seems to support the idea that dreams and hallucinations can be explained in part by a variant of this party game.

In both phenomena, a person's hypothesis-generating ability is intact, but the ability to test or falsify these hypotheses is impaired by drugs, sensory deprivation or unconsciousness. The result is a more or less meaningless sequence of "answers" to the questions posed, albeit implicitly, during the dream or hallucination. Unencumbered by any critical reality checks, this set of answers allows the dreamer or hallucinator to concoct his own story.

A similar argument suggests why inane religious homilies, I Ching sayings and ambiguous horoscopes seem to many to be so apt. Their aptness is self-provided. In effect, their cryptic obscurity suggests "questions" that the devotee poses, answers himself, and then, Rorschach-like, fabricates into something seemingly appropriate and useful.

Iraq and FISA

Returning to Iraq, the new FISA wiretapping law, and the speculative thesis of this column, I suggest that a dynamic something like the above can describe not only individuals but larger groups of people as well.

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