Dreams, Free Will, and Accountability

This is one of those speculative posts that are primarily for generating conversation.  Dreams are very strange.  We still do not know much about them, what causes them, or what they mean.  There are plenty of theories, but we still have nothing concrete.  From a Christian perspective, to what degree, if any, are we culpable for the substance of our dreams?  What about the actions we do in our dreams?  If I sin in my dream, do I need to repent of that sin upon waking?  If the substance of my dream is plainly unpleasing to God, will God hold me accountable for the substance of that dream?

My feeling on this has always been, “No”.  I think that even in the non-Christian world, people would not tend to believe that they should be held accountable for what they dream, or the actions their “dream-selves” might perform in that dream world.  And why not?  For me, it is because I do not believe that I have any real control over what I dream.  I have no control over the substance of my dream, nor do I have control over my actions in a dream.  I do not feel the need to repent of a dream that is less than pleasing to God simply because I do not feel like I had any control over that dream.  I may ask God to help me not to have such dreams in the future because of the lingering affects those dreams may have on my thoughts, but I do not see the dreams themselves as sinful.  What do you think?  It seems to me that this is also tied to the intuitive belief we all seem to share that we should not be held morally accountable for those things which we cannot control. 

I recently read someone arguing that the power of contrary choice could never be a basis for arguing guilt in a court of law because of the difficulties involved in proving that someone could have done otherwise.  I understand the point, but I think the courts essentially presuppose that people, in general, do have the ability to do otherwise, and should therefore be held accountable for their actions.  Therefore, it is not something that needs to be proven.

However, if someone can mount a fairly persuasive case that in a particular instance the crime committed was committed in such a way that the person could not have done otherwise, the courts tend to be very forgiving, lessening punishment, or alleviating responsibility altogether.  It needs to be remembered, however, that the courts are also concerned about protecting the innocent, so demonstrating that someone could not have done otherwise doesn’t mean that the individual should not still be removed from society in order to protect people (as in the case of those with mental disorders, etc.). 

Imagine that someone was on trial for committing a crime and it was demonstrated that the person was actually being controlled by another to perform the actions by way of a drug and radio signals sent to a device implanted in the ear.  By combining  the drug’s effects with various sound frequencies, the controller was able to get the person to do whatever he wanted the person to do.  This was true to such an extent that the person being controlled had no idea that he was being controlled, but believed that he was acting freely in committing the crimes.  Who would suggest that the courts would hold that person accountable once the facts came out?  And who would suggest that the courts would not hold the controller accountable once the facts came out?  I think we would all agree that the courts would hold the controller accountable while considering the one controlled to be innocent of the crimes, even though he personally performed the crimes and believed, at the time, that he had performed them freely.

Therefore, I think it is rather obvious that the courts do see the ability to choose and do otherwise as under girding moral responsibility to a great extent, even if the courts do not place a burden of proof on demonstrating that one could have done otherwise in every particular case.  That is because our courts are largely based on the universal human conviction that moral accountability is directly tied to moral free agency.

For similar reasons, I think we do not tend to hold ourselves accountable for the substance of our dreams, believing that we were not in control of what we dreamed.

I think it is rather basic to our God given constitution to see accountability tied to free moral agency in the libertarian sense, based on the idea that freedom is inherent in control and control is needed for responsibility and culpability.  Language seems to presuppose it.  Our institutions of justice seem to presuppose it.  The Bible seems to presuppose it (e.g. the language of the Bible and the assumptions that seem to under gird its basic teachings).  Perhaps, even the way we view our dreams seems to presuppose it.

This may not constitute proof for free will or the connection between free will and moral accountability, but I think it demonstrates that those who reject free will in favor of strict determinism have much to overcome in order to convincingly make their case.

13 thoughts on “Dreams, Free Will, and Accountability

  1. Jay, there’s only one way that I would argue for repentance related to dreams. I certainly don’t hold that we are guilty of “sins” we “commit” in the surreal movies that our dreams can be. But perhaps we should use our dreams as catalysts for searching our hearts for things that need to be repented of. Here’s why I say that:

    Over the years, I’ve found that the things I allow or choose to have my mind engage with during the day often show up again in my dreams. In fact, I’ve been able to shape the dreams of a particular night by focusing my mind of a particular topic or setting while awake. And at times of long-term intense focus on a particular project or event, yes, that project or event comes alive while I sleep.

    SO . . . if I’m dreaming that I’m engaged in sinful behavior, then perhaps I should be examining how I’m using my thoughts or spending my time during the day. It may be THERE that I find the matters for repentance that my dreams suggest to me.

  2. Sam,

    Did you not mean to address this to me, or are you just confused about who wrote the post? I think you are right about what often influences and causes our dreams, but I don’t think those are the only things that could cause us to have dreams that seem sinful. Still, as you suggest, the realm of control and culpability lies outside of the dream, in the real world. So we can be responsible for what leads to certain dreams while not necessarily being responsible for the content of our dreams. The dream itself, then, is simply a symptom of the wrong choices we made in our waking hours. Is that correct? So we wouldn’t repent of our dream or what we might have done in our dream. Rather, we would repent of the prior act of allowing the images into our mind which caused our dreams to be inappropriate.

    God Bless,

  3. Ben,

    Yes, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to, to allow the dream to be the catalyst that leads us to do some personal examination. Maybe it will lead to matters of repentance, maybe it will lead to matters of lifestyle change.

    For a long, long time, three or four nights a week, I had dreams that were violently and destructively awful, nasty and ugly. Some very successful movies could have been made from the things I dreamed. I would often come awake and have to stay up for an hour or two, literally too frightened to go back to sleep, lest I fall back into the same situation I had come out of upon waking.

    It was surely not coincidental that, for all those years, I devoured books and movies of a similar nature. Loved Stephen King and similar authors, Wes Craven and similar directors. I have no idea why it took me so long to connect the two, my sensory input and my nightmares.

  4. Of course, late night chili, if it’s good enough, can bring about all manner of prophetic visions in the night!

  5. As others have noted, much of our dreams comes from the things we think about in our waking hours.

    God also gives dreams.

    Satan also gives dreams. If he can make us feel dirty before God because of dreams he sends us (or thoughts he puts in our minds), he can lead us to neglect God and prayer if we allow him to.

    Dreams can influence our emotions about God, making us feel closer and wanting to draw closer, or the other direction.

    So I agree with most of what has been said. We are not responsible for our dreams, and therefore don’t need to repent of them. But we can pray that “holy dreams and hopes attend us.” And we should guard what we think on and place in our hearts.

  6. Wesley,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you concerning dreams. When you say,

    We are not responsible for our dreams, and therefore don’t need to repent of them.

    What do you base that conviction on? Would you say that it is because we exercise no real control over the content and actions in our dreams and should therefore not be held accountable for it?

    God Bless,

  7. Thanks, Ben. I appreciate the link.

    Yes, I base it logically that I am only responsible for what I can control.

    I base it biblically on the passages that indicate God only holds us responsible for our willful transgressions. After all, God judges the intent of the heart.

    The soul that sinneth, it shall die. (Ezek 18)
    To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, it is sin (James 4 I think)
    The Old Testament difference between known sin and unknown sin, and the sacrifice for each. Under the OT system, uncleanness could happen to you through no fault of your own, but it was a separate issue from sin.

    If we want to get very specific with Scripture that addresses sin and dreams, there were regulations of uncleanness for a seminal emission, but no sacrifice was required. God didn’t treat it as sin.

  8. Brian,

    I agree. We cannot control all of the thoughts that might pop into our heads. But we are accountable for how we respond to those thoughts. Do we take them into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5), or do we entertain them unto sin (Ja. 1:14, 15)?

    God Bless,

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