Leaving lucid dreaming aside for the moment, how often do you experience dreams in the present tense? Obviously, when we recount a dream we are later in time than the dream itself, thus we narrate in the past tense, but the time of the dream itself is generally present. (Excepting those dreams in which we remember, or dream, or etc.) Still, when I hear people refer to “believing” a dream to be real during the dream, I don’t buy it. I’ve never had a dream in which I asked or wondered whether I was dreaming or awake and concluded that I was, in fact, awake. In those few instances in which I’ve thought at all about the status of reality from within a dream, I have always then become lucid to the dream. (I’m searching for someone who can claim to be an exception.) Dreams don’t cloak or hide themselves, it’s just that we tend not to need to know they’re dreams, and we tend not to bother asking. (That latter part may be why dreams are useful metaphors for waking consciousness, as we tend not to ask after the status of our waking consciousness, either. (One wonders what lucidity would be in this analogue.)) Do we really “believe” that the dream is real? Wouldn’t a more accurate description be just to say we are dreaming? Sometimes we are inclined to smooth over complexity and seek a falsely simple explanation; other times, though, we muddy otherwise clear waters. I don’t believe I’m awake, either. I’m just awake.
If you ask how I know I’m awake, I’d say that’s a different kind of question. I don’t have to know I’m awake to be awake, but being awake entails an “awake” kind of awareness. If you’d like me to offer compelling reasons that demonstrate I was asleep last night and woke up this morning, I can try and do that. But episemo-phenomenologically that is a different process than the being-asleep and being-awake that I’ve done/been over the past day. That’s what makes lucid dreaming such a fascinating experience: I am doing something regarding dream consciousness other than just doing dream consciousness, which is ordinarily all we do in that state. Reflecting on being awake is easier when awake than reflecting at all while asleep, so it feels less dramatic. Nevertheless, neither do I have to know I’m dreaming to dream, nor does (non-lucid) dreaming imply that I believe myself to be awake. The magic of dreams has nothing to do with deception; it’s just that dreams are dream-like.
This has already become a bit convoluted, though. Is it belief or knowledge? Well, I would say that if we know we’re awake, in that same sense we know when we’re dreaming. If we ask, “Am I awake?” the answer is immediately clear in both contexts. But nor was I experiencing a state of knowledge (and certainly not the kind of knowledge derived from analysis) in or in order to be in either state. So although I’d perhaps grant a kind of knowing to dreaming and waking consciousnesses, I’d want to push back against that a bit. On the other hand, belief doesn’t seem to me to play just about any role in either. When I ride my bike to class I don’t believe I’m cycling. Frankly, I have more pressing concerns. I just am riding my bike. Occasionally I am led to reflect on the present cycling, in which case you can say an awareness of being-cycling is a constituent element of the reflection. But belief seems like a terrible word to describe this. Knowledge, too, seems inadequate. I think saying that I know myself to be biking is to already complicate matters too much. I’m cycling. Maybe I’m also reflecting on my cycling, or on cycling generally, or whatever. But I’m also just doing that.