“Is this a dream?”

Sugata Mitra

“Is this a dream?”

Sugata Mitra

Professor of Educational Technology & Physicist

Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. Professor Mitra has a PHD in physics, though has made significant contributions to cognitive science and education technology. He won the TED prize for his famous Hole in the Wall experiment in 2013, which was also the inspiration behind the film Slumdog Millionaire.

I met Sugata Mitra following a brief and intriguing correspondence in which he had replied to a letter I had written with:

Question: ‘Is this a dream?’

Where to look for an answer: Inside the old matchbox somewhere at the back of the lowest right hand drawer.

We met to discuss this in Newcastle in the Summer of 2015.

KP What did you mean by saying that we should look inside an old matchbox for the answer?

SM I think I meant that there is an answer, but we just don’t know where to look for it. If you ask somebody how long will it take for an object of 20g to fall to the ground if I drop it one meter from the surface of the earth.  But then I say, I don’t want to know the actual answer, I want to know how you would find it.  So then, what could we do – well we could say I need to know the fundamentals of why things fall, and figure it out. Or you could say, I’ll google it and find a formulae, and then I’ll figure it out. Or you could say, I ‘ll take a stopwatch and an object and I’ll tell you. Or you could ask a friend. These are all valid answers.  But you could not say, ‘I need to look inside a teacup’ – that is considered not a valid answer. Nor would it be be valid to say ‘I’ll ask my dog’.

What I’d like to question is the last two examples, is it really true that you can’t find the answer by looking into a teacup or asking your dog? What if the real answer is that you can find the answer by looking anywhere.  What if the answers to all questions were in everything, and not in specific places.  Somehow it seems more elegant to me to say that all the answers are everywhere, they are multiplexed, as opposed to saying that answers are kept inside little boxes, which are kept inside other little boxes, and until you know the sequence of boxes to look for, you can’t find the answer.

KP The scientific method has been very effective, so why would we look elsewhere?

SM Yes, we would look elsewhere only if there are questions to which the scientific method is unable to answer, like ‘is this a dream?’  So since such questions exist, therefore the method of answering them must also be questioned.

KP Is the question in any way borne of a worldview influenced by Hinduism?

SH Most Indians are affected by that view of the universe – that it could all be a dream. But on the other hand, the Hindu texts are very different from other religions, because they also after a while say that maybe the argument itself is not correct.  The most famous one being about the existence of God.  One of the vedas speaks about multiple God’s, that you cannot have this reality without having millions of Gods. Then the next one says you don’t need that, there is only one God. Then the third one says, what if there is no God at all? And it just leaves you with that.  I don’t know if the authors were merely having fun, or were they seriously trying to say that you can’t box things [in]. You cannot say that ‘this is true’ and ‘this is false’.  The true can be false and the false can be true…it depends on how you look at it. It basically says that it isn’t an ‘ism’, it never says that it’s a religion, it never says that it is right.  It just raises certain issues for you to think about. It is a way of thinking, and a way of looking at life.

KP So Hinduism inescapably influences thought, but your training is in physics – presumably that has influenced where this question comes from too?

SM Yes. I find it interesting to think about not only in terms of mysticism, but also in terms of hard science. In my work as a particle physicist I have done many experiments to look for where meaning comes from.  They all made some scientific sense, but left me with the feeling that somebody is fooling around with you. Somebody or something is fooling around. Let me put it this way…

Imagine a space which is full of an absolutely random distribution of little things that are and little things that are not. It is quite easy to imagine that can be true. Since we think in three dimensions, let’s think in three dimensions. So, a huge three dimensional space full of ones and zeros. If it is big enough, can I not say that all possible strings [of digits] exist inside it? Of course I can, quite easily. So Beethoven’s 9th symphony exists inside there, depending on where you look at it from. But to know where to look at it from, you need a conscious being to make sense of it. So what is consciousness? I have no idea what consciousness is, but I know that there is well over 100 trillion neural synapses in the brain, and each neuron either fires or it doesn’t. So I could represent my entire brain as long string of ones and zeros. If that is so, then in that infinite space of one’s and zero’s, that string also exists somewhere. So if that string encounters the right header [starting point for a sequence] and the right string, it will then hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It is a string listening to or interpreting another string…But then I can imagine a world without physics, because this world doesn’t need any physics – it’s just strings reading each other. And since all such strings exist in that infinite space, all realities can exist inside there. This is immaterial, there is no matter involved in this – because matter doesn’t have to exist in this reality. All you need is a state of being and a state of non-being – an infinite number, an infinite volume. And then you can have a self-consistent universe of strings reading each other. Some strings think that they are brains, some strings think that they are music (if strings could think) – so there you go. At that point I gave up, because I thought – is there a way I could prove this or disprove this?

I started with the search for where meaning, where does meaning come from? Then I ended up with this situation where being didn’t seem to be a requirement for the world to exist.

KP So the question is not as playful as it sounds?

SM Not at all, so – is it a dream? Yes…it could be. I’m not even sure our binary thinking of ‘this is real because it exists’ and ‘this is not real because it is not made of matter’ is valid, that seems to me a false dichotomy. This table is real, I can feel it and so on…but is my mind not real because I can’t feel it? That can’t be right either. Sometimes to my students I ask, what is matter? Does matter have to exist in space somewhere? They would say yes, things that exist have to be somewhere – at least in science. But what about the internet, does the internet exist? Of course it does, but then where is it? The internet is everywhere, and it is nowhere. We actually created it, we created a non-tangible object. So that settles the issue as far as I’m concerned – reality doesn’t have to be occupying space, time, to have a weight, to react to forces, to exist. As I was growing up I learned about a lot of things that I thought existed, but in the end didn’t – like ghosts, Santa etc. So what if we’re the same – what is we are not real? It could be this way.

KP How does asking and investigating this question personally affect you?

SM Hinduism doesn’t make me feel very happy, because it confuses you. It constantly brings up this question of – is it a dream? Being a Hindu and studying quantum physics means that you cannot put your foot down and say ‘this is the way it is’ for anything. The most you can say is that this has the highest probability. I think that makes a huge difference, because the rest of Western civilisation is built on the fact that there is right and there is wrong.

So that is the origins of the question of whether or not this is a dream.  The answer I gave you – where to look. That comes from a story from when I was about 9 years old, and I had learned to write hieroglyphics – because it’s an exciting thing to do for a 9 year old. We had bungalow in Delhi with a garden, and I took a piece of bark and scratched out in hieroglyphics and I think what I wrote was ‘it is all a dream’. And then I put that bark into a matchbox, and I buried the matchbox in the garden after blindfolding myself. Then I covered it up well, spun myself around and took my blindfold off, so I don’t know to this day where that matchbox is.

KP One day some archeologist might dig it up…

SM That was exactly my 9 year old thinking! I thought they would dig it up and find it a contradiction, because they would find the hieroglyphics but wonder why it is in a matchbox, and why does it say – it is all a dream?

KP Is it a question worth asking if you never resolve it?

SH You would have to ask the Buddha. He used to be pretty good at this sort of thing. There were some questions to which he would say, the question is more important than the answer.  Questions have a great deal of intrinsic value, and the answer can sometimes not be as important as the question. Mainly because the answer could be different depending on where it is that you are coming from. For example, if we don’t have the header for hearing Beethoven’s music, it will come out as horrendous noise – we’ll be asking, what kind of shit is this? Likewise, for all we know when we hear a bird chirping, it could actually be reciting the solution for quadratic equations. It depends on where you’re standing.

Though what you ask is a very important thing, is it worth thinking about? Because, what will it do to you? That kind of brings us back to Hinduism and one of the Upanishads, which says – is it worth it now that you have read this huge book? Well, we don’t know the answer to that, but it says that if you have finished it, you should find yourself some wine, women and chariots.


3 Responses

Generally speaking, we encourage readers to respond to the question that each interviewee poses. What was your first reaction? Do you agree? Disagree? Please, let us know!

    Aaron Moore

    I like the way this question personally affects Sugata. Because it is a question we can neither prove nor disprove, and also because it drives at the base of existence and experience, it encourages us to hold things lightly. It’s an interesting challenge to all fundamentalism.

    Submitted on 23rd March 2017, 10:26 pm   |   Respond

    Manish Malik

    If we train our brains to think that reality is not something that is related to matter then our dreams may feel very real and the materialistic world may feel more like a dream. But what purpose does a dream have? and for whom? And if ‘this is a dream’, what is the purpose of it and for whom?

    Most of my dreams are pointless for my materialistic world, but in some I believe I solve some my problems emerging from the materialistic / social world I live in. If we are all in a dream, then are we saying that we are in God’s dream? And we are simulating some solutions to heavenly problems?

    Submitted on 26th March 2017, 9:17 am   |   Respond

    Christina Easton

    ‘Is it a dream?’ is a great question to pick as it’s good for showing us the limits of science. It is a question I think we can never know the answer to.

    I love that despite uncertainty being uncomfortable (“Hinduism doesn’t make me feel very happy, because it confuses you”), this doesn’t move him to adopt a false position of certainty.

    Submitted on 29th March 2017, 8:11 am   |   Respond

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