Gewinner der Karl Max von Bauernfeind-Medaille 2016
Träume und Wahrheiten
fatum 3 | , S. 11

The (Somewhat Unexpected) Importance of Dreams in Science

I have a dream … – Dreams have become famous, and indeed are regarded as essential, when it comes to groundbreaking moves in politics, psychoanalysis, literature, and spirituality. Political reforms, the revelation of inner truths, real or fictional, as well as many instances of spiritual and religious experiences could not be thought of, or just would not have happened without a dream. Martin Luther King, Sigmund Freud, Lewis Carroll, and Bishop Ignatius may serve as intriguing examples:

Undoubtedly, the quintessential use of a dream in politics has been made by Martin Luther King on occasion of the March on Washington in 1963, starting with: And even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream … that all men are created equal (King 1963) – ultimately, it is the dream of America as the land of the free. And it is about not just having the dream but being the dream. It dwells in the urgency of now.

From the time of antiquity, the dream has also mystified the dreamers themselves – but not just them. Rather, the desire to know the meaning of the strange events in the course of our sleep, and the stories we remember when wake up, fascinates psychoanalysis as well. It was Sigmund Freud who introduced the idea that activities in our unconscious mind can be revealed by way of various techniques such as free association and interpreted by an expert. In his view, dreams are all forms of wish fulfillment or an attempt by the sleeping mind to produce a solution for unresolved issues in our past. The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life (Freud: the Interpretation of Dreams, ch. 7F).

Moreover, in the literary domain, we probably all know Lewis Carroll and his Alice. Using one of the countless possibilities of writing within a dream setting, he worked with Alice’s ability to get lost in the dream state and thereby make connections to her real life – as we all do when dreaming. Other illustrious examples for dreams as part of the poetic narrative are Homer’s Iliad, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While some characters are led astray by their dreams, others receive valuable insights. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine says: I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.

When it comes to spiritual experiences, dreams are conceived as prime inroads into the inner self. The Bible, too, speaks of God dealing with or helping people through their dreams. Yet, such the warning goes, dreams cannot be taken at face value as they may lead in the false direction. Meditation and prayer, however, may help to find the grain of truth dreams hold. By contrast, in the religious sphere, the judgment is clear. Here, the counsel of Bishop Ignatius is as prototypical as it is unmistakable: Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life (The Arena, ch. 10). Indeed, with the Church Fathers, dream revelations were regarded with considerable suspicion among theologians and ecclesiastical authorities. At the same time, dreams remained a powerful and pervasive feature of religious expression at a popular level.

What about science, then? In science, authors seem to maintain a highly ambivalent, if not outright negative stance. Science, as a domain of the rational, the objective, and the reproducible, has no obvious place for dreams. Truth-seeking, the ultimate goal of science of any epistemic variant, needs method, strives for over-arching theory-building, and thus requires a clear mind, and not a dreamer.

But is this really true? What can we learn from science and technology studies in this respect – that is, from a field that, among others, reflects on the various and historically changing ways of producing the truth? Let us consider the history (a), philosophy (b), and sociology of science and technology (c):

(a) To begin with, history of science and technology is full of dreams that either scientists hoped would come true or that (more often than not unintendedly) turned into nightmares instead. As to the latter, and by way of a sketchy example only: The patenting of the internal combustion engine by Karl Benz in 1886, followed by Henry Ford’s mass produced cars, started not only a plethora of innovations, but also an ongoing series of unexpected consequences. Among others, it turned out to be a technology that was killing people in noticeable numbers. In 1950ies, mass motoring had a profound impact on urban planning in the US. It led to increased demands for petroleum, increased urban air pollution, and it required increasing areas for motorway construction.1 For good or bad, dreams in science (here: dreams of mobility for all) proved to be both a powerful engine for technological advancement and for ambivalent societal effects.

What is true for individual projects, such as the project of ubiquitous mobility, is also true for the project of science, at large. The Enlightenment could not be thought of without recourse to the dream of a world radically improved, ordered, engineered, and mastered by science and technology. It did not take long, however, to realize the nightmarish side of this grander dream as well. Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) stated bluntly: The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant. One standard narrative of postmodernism was – without further ado – to declare the end of the Enlightenment dream. Studies in the history of science, however, cast doubt on this abbreviated storyline: a society introduced to science and technology – albeit willy nilly – also says hello to doubts and uncertainties, and is utterly aware of the limits of knowledge provided by science, impressive achievements notwithstanding.

Old car assembly line
Mass motori­zation – a powerfulengine for technological progress and ambivalent societal effects. Citroën assembly line, 1918. Source: Wikpedia-User Baptiste vialatte, author unknown

(b) The philosophical branch of science and technology studies is also affected by dreams – the so-called Cartesian Dream, in particular. Dreams and dreaming have been topics of philosophical inquiry since antiquity. As famously suggested by Descartes, dreams pose a threat to knowledge because it seems impossible to rule out, at any given moment, that one is dreaming (albeit renounced in Meditation 1.7.). This controversy has accompanied philosophical thinking in different areas such as epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics.

But it has also become clear that scientific evidence from sleep and dream research can indeed inform the philosophical discussion. For instance, and epistemically speaking, whether dream interpretation is a source of insight is at least in part an empirical question that is only beginning to be investigated systematically.2 Ethically speaking, another debate concerns the issue of whether or not dreams provide grounds for moral concern. One stance holds that moral responsibility requires the ability to act otherwise. As, however, we cannot refrain from having certain types of dreams, moral responsibility thus cannot be an issue.

Contemporary philosophy of science is also concerned with what they call the end of the Cartesian Dream. Modern science engages with society, especially when it comes to claims such as social justice or sustainability. What is at stake is a new relation, or, as it were, a new contract between science and society3: For science to remain a legitimate and trustworthy source of knowledge, science will have to include society in the collective processes of responsible co-production of knowledge. On these grounds, the challenge for science is both an epistemological and a normative one (collaborative production of knowledge) as well as a methodological one (beyond reductionism). The so-called end of the Cartesian Dream calls for nothing less than readjusting the autonomy and authority of science vis-à-vis multiple stakes claimed by extra-scientific actors and institutions such as civil society, industry, and politics.

(c) When it comes to sociology of science and technology, a prime location to look for dreams in all their ambivalence is innovation research4: innovation is an intensely future-oriented business with a strong emphasis on the creation of new opportunities and capabilities. As such, future-oriented abstractions are important objects of enquiry for scholars of innovation as they guide activities, provide structure and legitimation, attract interest, and foster investment. They give definition to roles, clarify duties, offer more or less shared ideas of what to expect and how to prepare for opportunities and risks. Collective dreams, or, in parlance of these scholars, collective expectations and visions, drive technical and scientific activities way beyond scientists and engineers. They also mobilize resources in politics, form innovation networks, and organize deliberative processes in society at large. In the meantime, a plethora of methods emerged that help to identify and make the most of such dreams. The growing consensus among scholars in sociology of science and technology is: whether utopian or dystopian, dreams or nightmares, expectations and visions cannot be neglected any more if one is to understand and govern emerging technologies.

Another exemplary area of dreams pertains not to the practice of science but to its basic organization, the university. On the one hand, contemporary universities change into formal and market-oriented organizations. On the other hand, as this identity provides rational and political legitimacy but not an emotional one, they also change into expressive organizations. In the context of an overarching emotional order to which authors have referred to as the dream society5, successful universities today also engage in the branding of themselves as attractive and charismatic actors that help make individual dreams come true – not just by providing knowledge, but also by spurring motivation and spirit. In doing so, it is not just Ryerson University, for example, that engages in unleashing entrepreneurial dreams.

Last but not least, dreams suffuse reforms of the system of higher education itself. In 1999, Germany signed the Bologna Reform to join a unified European educational system. Internationally recognized bachelor’s and master’s degrees were introduced. The dream was that Europe would become not only a common economic union, a labor market, and a political entity, but also a cultural, social, and scientific entity. About 16 years later, the European Students' Union now warns that, along with jam-packed and highly inconsistent BA and MA-programs throughout Europe, the basic recognition of degrees and qualifications is not, as yet, a reality.6 If this dream is ever to come true, as many studies in higher education research show, further structural reforms are key.

In other words, science – as a practice, as a system, as an organization – is pervaded by dreams. It is no surprise, however, that science also tries to approach the dream scientifically. Indeed, dreams have become the object of scientific inquiry in and of themselves: in a culture of objectivity, dreams have always posed a challenge: as they appear in the sleeper’s mind as fleeting phenomena and can only be known after awakening, they could hardly be considered as an observable object at first. More disturbingly, their often irregular and irrational aspects as well as their sometimes immoral character seemed beyond rational reconstruction. Step by step, however, dreams became the resource of a new regime of self-observation: to begin with, men of letters methodically recorded and collected their own dreams. Later, the emphasis moved to collective and comparative studies, often including statistics as well as physiological approaches to sleep. Finally, during the rise of psychoanalysis and of dream studies conducted in sleep laboratories, various overlaps between self-analysis and objectifying methods occured7 – along with new tools and technologies developed in the realm of neuroscience.

There is another way in which science attempts to benefit from dreams, namely when it comes to increasing creativity in science, which is unanimously seen as a cornerstone of innovative thinking. Seminars and workshops abound that teach how to think “out of the box”: yet the power, and even more importantly, the sheer courage, to think against the grain of the normal, the accepted, the orthodox seems to be in need of a safe place so that it can emerge. Dreams and visionary thinking are such places. They are, in a way, exterritorial domains for experimenting with ideas that are either entirely novel, intriguing recombinations of old ones, or implications hitherto unthought of. “Our aim is to foster exchange, collaboration and inspiration and encourage visionary thinking, which is essential for ground-breaking research. By inviting leading scientists and innovative companies, we create a stimulating atmosphere where young researchers can network, discuss their visionary ideas and start a dialogue about the future of science.” Announcements such as these encourage even utter novices that creativity can, in fact, be learned – given that dreams and visions are taken seriously, articulated, and processed.

Almost 400 years after Francis Bacon’s “Noble Dream,” the relation of dream and science has considerably changed: In Bacon’s Nova Atlantis, science in Solomon’s House is a collaborative undertaking, conducted in a rational and impersonal way, for the material benefit of mankind. Today the roles of dreams have diversified: among others, they have become a genuine object of scientific study, they drive innovative thinking (with regard to the epistemic dimensions of science as well as changing its basic institutions), but they also retain their status as necessary conceptual opposites of science leading to ambivalent attitudes toward dreams. In other words: Noble dreams obviously change but they are part and parcel of science. Targeting the as yet unknown inevitably faces the tension between reason and reverie.

  1. See Wren Green, Key Lessons from the History of Science and Technology: Knowns and Unknowns, Breakthroughs and Cautions (Wellington, 2001).
  2. See Christopher L. Edwards et al., Dreaming and insight Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013).
  3. See David H. Guston, Understanding the Social Contract for Science (Cambridge Books online, 2000), 37–63.
  4. See Mads Borup et al., The Sociology of Expectations in Science and Technology Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 18, nos. 3/4 (2006), 285–298.
  5. See Rolf Jensen, The dream society: how the coming shift from information to imagination will transform your business (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).
  6. See Nic Mitchel, European student union’s warning over Bologna dream (2015), (accessed: November 17, 2015).
  7. See Andreas Mayer, Sites of the Unconscious. Hypnosis and the Emergence of the Psychoanalytic Setting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).


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