Anthropic dreams

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Wed Sep 17 2003 - 21:18:35 MDT

Our recent Transhuman Atlanta gathering reminded me of an interesting
dream I recently had, and which I would like to share with any anthropic
theorists out there. In fact, this is probably the most philosophically
interesting dream I have ever had in my life.

First, you need to know something about the way dreams work for me, and in
particular, an odd thing about the way I wake up. Usually, like everyone,
I forget my dreams. When I'm suddenly woken up, for example, by an alarm
clock or by my cellphone ringing, it seems - I'm not quite sure if this is
what is happening, but it's the explanation that seems most likely - it
seems as if the last fifteen seconds of mental imagery are still "in my
loop" when I wake up, so I remember them too, just as if they were lucid.
  So the memory I actually have is of waking up, and then five seconds or
fifteen seconds *later*, the phone rings. With an experience like that,
it's easy to see why anyone less than a dedicated rationalist would assume
psychic powers; "Oh, look, I become lucid fifteen seconds *before* the
phone rings, I must be psychic". Sometimes I'll even apparently remember
that I have a dream in which an alarm goes off in my dream, which wakes me
up, and then five seconds later the alarm goes off; one needs to have done
quite a lot of reading in cognitive science before one looks at that and
says, "Timing fault in memory formation - yes, the brain really is that
fragile", and not "I had a precognitive dream."

This led me to ponder the problem of dream memories and personal
continuity. I now remember having experiences that I would not remember
if I had not been woken up by an alarm clock; I remember those apparently
lucid dream experiences, and those "inserted" memories, as if they were
part of my ordinary life continuity. What happens to the person who
experiences the dreams I have and *don't* remember? Did I really
experience the dream of the alarm going off, or was the memory
manufactured and inserted without ever being experienced? Are *all*
dreams manufactured and inserted without ever being experienced?

This is where we stand at the moment I had my anthropic dream.

My cellphone rang and woke me up. I apparently remembered becoming lucid
in my dream a few seconds before the cellphone woke me. And my "inserted"
dream experience leading up to the cellphone ringing was the thought: "If
I don't wake up now, this experience will not have existed in retrospect.
  Therefore, since I'm now having this experience, something will wake me up."

Now, what this *feels* like is this:

You're dreaming, and your dream turns lucid, and you think to yourself:
"If I don't wake up now, this experience won't have existed in retrospect.
  Therefore, since I'm having this experience, something will wake me up."

And then, a moment later, the cellphone rings and wakes you up.

The illusion of a spooky anthropic effect was *very* strong.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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