Peculiar Dreams

Peculiar Dreams

Brad DeLong had a strange dream:

“I just dreamed that it was the 1930s and I was briefing the Cravsth lawyers for today’s scotus oral argument in Schechter Poultry…”

I sometimes have odd dreams related to my profession. There are the standard anxiety nightmares — I have a recurring one in which I discover that I have been assigned to teach something I know nothing about, like Intermediate Korean. But sometimes they are odder, like Brad’s. As background to the strangest one ever:

One distinction*: analytic propositions are propositions in which you say nothing about the subject that isn’t true by definition. Synthetic propositions, by contrast, tell you something new. Thus, “All bachelors are unmarried” is analytic — if you know what a bachelor is, you know that it is true. But “All bachelors live in Manhattan”, if true, would be synthetic: it adds some information not contained in the very idea of a bachelor. Another distinction: a priori propositions are propositions we can know to be true without using some experience to verify them (e.g., looking to see); a posteriori propositions can only be known via experience. (E.g., to know whether or not it’s true that my shirt is blue, I need to look at it, ask someone else who has looked at it, etc. Thus, it’s a posteriori.)

It’s fairly obvious that there are true synthetic a posteriori propositions: e.g., I own a blue shirt. (True, but not by definition; requires checking.) Likewise, there are true analytic a priori propositions: e.g., All squares have four sides. (True in virtue of the definition of ‘square; thus, I do not have to go looking at all the squares to see that it’s true, or worry that there might be one square out there that has only three sides. Black swans: not an issue here.) Kant asked: are there synthetic a priori propositions — propositions that we can know to be true without checking them against experience, but which are not just true by definition? He said yes. But logical positivists said no: every true claim must be either true by definition, or one we need to check against experience. And they were rather vehement on the topic. When I had this dream, I was taking a course on logical positivism. So:

I was standing in a hall full of people who were listening to a speaker inveighing against synthetic a priori propositions. The atmosphere owed a lot to speeches by Hitler on the Jews and Joseph McCarthy on Communists: the speaker was standing behind one of those old-style microphones, shouting: We must root out synthetic a priori propositions! We must eliminate them! The crowd was getting increasingly worked up. I was standing by the wall, watching, feeling deeply uneasy.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I was entirely featureless and flat and rectangular, sort of like a large stick of gray gum. And I realized: oh no, I am a synthetic a priori proposition! In the middle of this crowd of people who want to eliminate me! There was no way out of the hall that I could find, and in any case I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so I just huddled by the wall, terrified, hoping no one would notice that I was one of the very propositions they were so eager to eliminate. Eventually, I woke up in a cold sweat.

Question: do you have odd dreams inspired by your professional lives? If so, what are they?

*Footnote: Yes, Quine called this distinction into question, but that’s not relevant to my dream.