Presupposing that it is possible to control your dreams in such a way as to give the dreamer absolute control, either some of the time or all of the time, within the context of their dreams, does the dreamer have the right to exercise that power?
While it is true that it is “just a dream,” the question is more difficult than dismissing any characters you might encounter as figments of your imagination. This is because you, yourself, are a figment of your imagination derived from some subsection of your mental capacity. The piece of your mental storage/processing/information capacity that represents you as a person is less than the totality of your mind. This is evident because there exist selections of information within your mind that do not constitute yourself as a person. For example, if you didn’t know some arbitrary piece of information, you would still represent yourself as a conscious entity. In fact, I would go so far as to posit you could forget nearly all of your explicit and implicit memories and still retain your significant self. You would remember little of your past and be virtually devoid of skills or knowledge, but you would still represent yourself as a person.
Therefore, any other subsection of your mind must be equally valid even if they only reveal themselves in dreams. They may encompass less information or be less prevalent in your interactions with the world or other people, but they can still be defined as human in the same sense that you can. Therefore, you have no right to control or abuse them since they have the same intrinsic rights as any individual. However, any action you may perpetrate against them is subject to the dilemma of the perfect crime- it is impossible for you to be caught. Even more significantly, even if you were to confess, society would think nothing of your ‘crime’.
Before I continue, I think I need to elaborate on what exactly I mean by artificial persons/characters in your dreams. Characters in your dreams that you might encounter are probably constructed, but they are stitched together by the same mental infrastructure that, during the day, stitches you together. They are handed a persona to play, and given a parcel of neurons to make their behavior authentic while keeping their internal dialogue from the dreamer. If you haven’t experienced this before, where a character in your dreams can “know” something that may or may not be revealed to you later, it can happen, and it’s a very telling phenomenon. Actually, it probably has happened to you, you just haven’t noticed it. These characters are always much simpler than you are during the day, often just a persona with a couple significant memories that might affect their behavior.
As an interesting aside, is a simple subsection of the human mind more or less valid than a complete mind of a lesser creature such as a squirrel? Too tangentacious- back to dreams.
There is some confusion about what the purpose of dreams is exactly. I am not nearly as qualified to answer this question as many of the eminent sleep specialists, psychologists, etc. etc., but I have my theory and who else’s theory would I share? I would state that dreams are the sandbox of the mind, and that this is in fact a vital function of being a psychologically healthy human being. During the day, a certain degree of consistency is a requirement of survival. There is a deeply ingrained need for each of us to be consistent, especially regarding our actions in the presence of others. When we dream, we are freed from the presence of other, real, people, and this gives us the psychological leeway to roleplay. Considering the usually random nature of dreams, not many dreams will have an effect on the dreamer, but the ones that do will produce a lasting behavioral change.
Now, while you sleep your body has a chance to repair itself because the mind and the body have agreed “OK, you do your thing and I’ll do mine, see you in the morning.” The body won’t ask the mind for anything- i.e. food, and the mind won’t ask the body for anything- i.e. movement. This separation enables the body to begin maintenance and the mind to play sandbox. Now, the practical benefit of sandbox experimentation is that the mind is always in gear for learning. That is to say that classical conditioning, operant conditioning, etc. etc. are always active. So when you experience a dream, you are actively learning from cause and effect. The difference is, your mind has constructed your environment lock, stock, and barrel, and is extrapolating effects from your experiences in the real world. Things that are incredibly unlikely in the real world will be experienced less often in your dreams. I can hear your screams of “No! I have dreams of flying all the time and I can’t do that in real life!” Well, the reason is simple. You have imagined flying during your time awake and therefore it’s in the mix your mind is weaving your dreams from. Your mind can’t tell the difference between thoughts you have and thoughts derived from sensory input. The world you perceive as being all around you is actually entirely inside your head based on data received through your eyes. To make this assertion a little stronger, consider people who have been blind from birth who can navigate their way through familiar locations without reaching or stumbling uncertainly. They have constructed a model of their environment by touch, which is equally valid but far less efficient because you can only update the model by touching it instead of by receiving continuous updates delayed only by the speed of light- effectively instantaneously.
Dreams give your mind a chance to tinker with the world without actually constructing laboratory conditions within it. Obviously the system isn’t perfect due to limited hardware and neuronal fallibility- actually a survival advantage, but that’s a different topic- so we can’t do, say, physics experiments in a dream setting. However, evolution figured out that sitting around a fire and thinking “what would it be like to fly?” didn’t actually get anywhere, and somewhere along the line it figured out a way to introduce very, very strange situations into an organism’s learning capability without actually needing to experience them. After many, many dreams an organism is actually fairly well suited to respond to a huge set of extraordinarily unlikely events, such as a person suddenly finding that they are lost in the desert. Dreams are, however, random, so the vast majority of dreams give little to no survival value. And the ones that do will provide a very shoddy original course of action meant to be deployed rapidly instead of effectively. It is highly advantageous to have some reaction ready for all possible situations, rather than get frozen in indecision. I would go so far as to say there are virtually no situations in which the average adult human would be completely and utterly unable to act from being frozen. I would also say that the few situations that would cause such a reaction would result from balanced conflicts rather than complete lack of options. However, there are an infinite number of infinitely improbably events that would produce such a reaction. For example, if an alien spaceship fell from the sky, turned you into a sentient but undercooked bowl of lasagna and tractor-beamed you into a fighting ring with a sedated pit bull and a venus fly trap the size of an office building, would you know what to do? Even now, your mind has taken that situation and is assessing options. But until just now, you didn’t have a plan for such a situation because it was so unlikely and insane that there could be no conceivable survival use for having a contingency plan.
The human brain runs on heuristics. That means we use oftentimes less accurate, less perfect methods that can easily be far more efficient than the “better” solution. Our brains are hard-wired to use inductive logic, assimilating recurring behaviors based on consistent positive outcome and reducing negative-effect behaviors. This has a simple benefit- “I ate the green berries and threw up. Don’t do that again.” Basic inductive reasoning, completely instinctive. In fact, it is literally wired up- neuron connections that are used more frequently acquire more neurons backing them up, forming highways for more common paths, and smaller links for less-used processes. This is why we learn skills best through repetition, and why we repeat to learn things “by heart” so they are implicitly memorized. More-used pathways are retained, less-used pathways are dropped. Returning to forgetting, a controlled rate of neuron inaccuracy is vital because otherwise we have huge volumes of useless heuristics clogging our decision-making which often needs to be lightning-fast. If you want to call a contact, would you rather look through your personal fast-reference file with your frequently used information, or look through the entire phone book every time? Efficiency of action was vital to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, where acting quickly and being correct 80% of the time was infinitely preferable to taking ten times longer but getting 100%. Dreams are an excellent way to randomly introduce new, as yet only envisioned, situations that may require action in the future, and enable the formulation of crude heuristics for when that situation may come to pass. When we actually face the situation, our brain matches the world-picture to the “index tag” it associated with the dreamed-up heuristic, and instantly we have a plan of action, however crude or incorrect it may be.
Here is the main distinction between the human mind and the minds of animals. We have a conscious mind wired to use deductive logic, the second (known) fundamental thought process, where basic presuppositions must logically lead to the conclusions that follow. If A is true, then B is true. A is true. QED, B is true. A squirrel cannot do this. Dreams are unnecessary to do this. However, in order for deductive reasoning to take place, a consolidated information space is needed instead of a freeform web of constantly reinforced and trimmed heuristics. So, from the faculty of deductive logic we can deduce the existence of a conscious mind. We hold the numbers 2 and 3 in our conscious mind-space and evaluate their addition to get 5 deductively. In actuality, our conscious mind is mired in our more primitive, inductive mind to such an extent that we cannot meaningfully extricate it. However, that may not be a bad thing since a purely conscious entity wouldn’t have access to the wealth of heuristic data the more primitive mind can store. It still is more efficient, however much we might fight it. But there are times when the conscious mind checks against the heuristic and can deductively conclude that it is counterproductive/harmful/useless and discard it.