You are on page 1of 1

The butterfly dream is one of the most well-known text passages of Chinese

Philosophy. It was written (dreamed) by Chuang Tzu, who lived around the 4th
century BCE and who was, together with Lao Tzu, one of the great Taoist
philosophers. The dream goes as follows:
One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly a happy butterfly,
showing off and doing things as he pleased, unaware of being Chuang
Tzu. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Chuang Tzu again. And he could not
tell whether it was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt the butterfly or the
butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu. But there must be some difference
between them! This is called the transformation of things.
As probably many before me, I have wondered about its meaning. In my humble
opinion, the dream exemplifies the distinction between existence and nonexistence. We would typically think of the person having the dream as an
existing entity, and the world he is living in as reality, while the dream world
would be fiction and thus non-existing. However, Chuang Tzus butterfly dream
tells us that we do not know which is which; meaning we cannot distinguish
between the existing and non-existing worlds. Actually, in some sense, both
worlds are existing (or non-existing). In our effort to identify one of both worlds
as ultimate reality, which the dream tells us is not possible, we are constantly
switching between both worlds, living in either one and taking it for real.
This difference between existence and non-existence is a classical Yin-Yang
opposite. And yet, because existence is regarded as so fundamental, many
would rather abandon the concept of Yin and Yang than to give up their sense of
reality. Too strong is our desire to identify the real world and to classify Chuang
Tzu as being part of reality. Only few dare to accept the fact that our dreams are
as real as our bodies, although this is exactly what Chunag Tzus dream tells us
in my opinion. Scientists, and mathematicians in particular, are no exception to
this. Mathematicians would shudder with horror at the mere thought of
performing calculations on objects (sets) that do not exist. In mathematics,
everything needs to exist. On the most fundamental level of mathematics, where
formal proofs are a rare guest, mathematicians have introduced a plethora of
axioms to guarantee the existence of sets, numbers, etc. This clearly shows their
ignorance about non-existing things, which are not worth to be considered
simply because they do not exist. However, I think that Chuang Tzus butterfly
dream tells us to incorporate non-existing objects into our formal considerations;
and that mathematics needs to embrace the intrinsic uncertainty between
existence and non-existence.