In the Zhuangzi (Taoist text), Zhuang Zhou wrote he dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke up he did not know whether he was perhaps a butterfly dreaming he is a man. (Wikipedia)

Personally, I never dreamed of being another creature. When I remember a dream I had, the memories are always as if I experienced it. This makes me wonder whether it is actually possible to dream your self is something substantively other than self. By this, I do not mean dreaming something impossible, like flying. I mean an actual other self, like another person or an animal, i.e. a butterfly.

This makes me wonder
a) is Zhuang Zhou's dream of being something wholly other than he, actually possible, or must it be just a fabrication added to a dream about flying;
b) is it implied by a dream, in which self flies, that bodies and souls are separate, because bodies cannot fly?


Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhuangzi_(book)

  • 2
    Considering that despite controversies psychologists mostly agree about the existence of the multiple personality disorder several "selves" can coexist even when awake. And some people self-identify with all sorts of animals, Zhuang Zhou apparently did. But how is this a question about philosophy? And how is it objectively answerable even if it was: "is it possible" according to whom? What does "where sensing takes place" means? Could you please clarify what you want answered here on SE.
    – Conifold
    Sep 19, 2017 at 0:15
  • @Conifold, Taoism is regarded part of philosophy and the question is about an important part of Taoism. If answered honestly, from own experience, the answer would be objective. "Is it possible" according to dreamers, according to their own experiences during their dreams? When I dream, my senses work from myself. What I see or feel when dreaming happens from myself. I want to know if any person ever experienced a dream in which s/he was another, because it never happened with me. Does that help? Sep 19, 2017 at 5:44
  • The idea would be that it is all a dream, and the butterfly story is intended to put this thought in our heads. This is 'philosophical' Taoism, the view that the space-time world is a creation of Mind just like the dreamed butterfly. .
    – user20253
    Sep 19, 2017 at 11:35
  • @PeterJ, the story causes extreme doubt about reality. Have you ever had a dream in which you were something other than self? Sep 19, 2017 at 12:05
  • 1
    @Conifold, knowing what you dream and honestly stating it is not opinion. It is fact. Sep 19, 2017 at 17:48

2 Answers 2


I cannot give a non-opinion based answer to your two explicit questions, but I can give you some context for the second: This is a ancient and durable argument for either idealism, which is the concept that spirit is more fundamental and "real" than body, which is somehow generated by spirit, or dualism, which is the idea that both body and spirit are real and neither reduces to the other.

One influential version of the argument is by Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and called the "floating man" argument. It asks us to imagine being created floating in midair, with no sensory connection to the world around us. The mere fact that we can picture this, he claims, means that we are not solely bodies.

Another version is considered by Descartes in his famous Meditations, namely Meditation I and II, in which he considers the phenomenon of dreams as a challenge to the reliability of the senses. His eventual conclusion that the most essential part of people is our souls, not our bodies, is in part an extrapolation from that, and other similar evidence.


Several experiments of "out of body experience" or "body structure modification experience" have been tested through the Virtual Reality technology. I can't find the article, but they even tested that if the POV of a subject was transferred via VR set and 3D camera to a silicone mannequin and you poked the mannequin with a knife, the brain felt immediate danger as if it was its real body (even though you can clearly see that it's plastic).

a) From these experiments we can clearly see that you definitely can project yourself in a situation were your body is different from your original self. Even in situation where you are totally conscious that it isn't your body. It appears the brain recognizes something as its body as long as your senses perceptions remain somewhat coherent (you see a ball touching you, you fell it; you send the signal to move your fingers, they move; etc). Therefore, projecting yourself in a butterfly, in a dream where your brain doesn't need much coherence to build a "credible" experience, doesn't seem to be such stretch.

b) This doesn't imply dualism (as in an immaterial spirit and a material body) : everything is just your brain adapting to a new situation. What you call senses are just an abstraction made from the feedback your brain gets from the nerves. As long as when your eyes see your wings hit something, the nerves then indicate that you have hit something, your brain will adapt to the new situation. If you used to have arms, but are now impersonating a butterfly, your brain "reasoning" (adaptation process) would something like : "When this signal is triggered, I know that it is not my arms that hit something any more, it's my wings". Some neuron connections change and you now can feel through your wings. As long as it is coherent, your brain can adapt. You don't need dualism to explain that.

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