Life the Dream: Learning Philosophy, the Hard Way

(Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies | Katsushika Hokusai)

(Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies | Katsushika Hokusai)

Around 300 years prior to the common era, Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu let loose an idea into the world. Known as the parable of the butterfly, it's elegance is in its simplicity, yet it holds unlimited interpretations to anyone who thinks about it. Once you're told the parable, it seems like such an obvious thought. Yet, if no one ever told you about it, you might have never come up with it on your own.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

The parable of the Butterfly can be told in a paragraph yet it's sparked whole college courses, and countless books and movies. It is THE principle theme in Christopher Nolan's Inception: Am I awake or am I dreaming I am awake?

The Parable of the Butterfly

“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between myself and the butterfly, there must be a distinction. THIS is called the transformation of things.”

Am I dreaming I'm a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I'm a man? If dreams are subjective, then everything must be a dream. We interpret reality in the same way we interpret dreams. We can never know for sure because the comparative bar for knowing is in itself subjective—there is no objective. Both claims are equally valid and ultimately unanswerable.

The beauty of Eastern writing is it does not try to over-explain. It does not think about the audience because unlike the idea of a "writer" in the Western sense; they did not write for an audience. They wrote as a contemplative exercise to clarify their own observations, using parables and analogies. Much in the same way shorthand notes compress massive ideas. That's Eastern philosophy. Rather than domain-specific philosophy, Eastern philosophies are general systems. All purpose, all occasions. Just add imagination...

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Things Discussed

  • Dreams

  • Subjective reality

  • Chuang Tzu & butterfly dream analysis

  • Taoism & the hyperreal

  • Consciousness

  • Philosophy of Inception

  • Metaphysics

  • Rene Descartes

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • Socrates

Books I Recommend:

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