I had a dream

As I slept fitfully, still recovering from COVID, I had one of the more interesting dreams of my life:

I was desperately trying to finish some PowerPoint slides in time to give a talk. Uncharacteristically for me, one of the slides displayed actual code. This was a dream, so nothing was as clear as I’d like, but the code did something vaguely reminiscent of Rosser’s Theorem—e.g., enumerating all proofs in ZFC until it finds the lexicographically first proof or disproof of a certain statement, then branching into cases depending on whether it’s a proof or a disproof. In any case, it was simple enough to fit on one slide.

Suddenly, though, my whole presentation was deleted. Everything was ruined!

One of the developers of PowerPoint happened to be right there in the lecture hall (of course!), so I confronted him with my laptop and angrily demanded an explanation. He said that I must have triggered the section of Microsoft Office that tries to detect and prevent any discussion of logical paradoxes that are too dangerous for humankind—the ones that would cause people to realize that our entire universe is just an illusion, a sandbox being run inside an AI, a glitch-prone Matrix. He said it patronizingly, as if it should’ve been obvious: “you and I both know that the Paradoxes are not to be talked about, so why would you be so stupid as to put one in your presentation?”

My reaction was to jab my finger in the guy’s face, shove him, scream, and curse him out. At that moment, I wasn’t concerned in the slightest about the universe being an illusion, or about glitches in the Matrix. I was concerned about my embarrassment when I’d be called in 10 minutes to give my talk and would have nothing to show.

My last thought, before I woke with a start, was to wonder whether Greg Kuperberg was right and I should give my presentations in Beamer, or some other open-source software, and then I wouldn’t have had this problem.

A coda: I woke a bit after 7AM Central and started to write this down. But then—this is now real life (!)—I saw an email saying that a dozen people were waiting for me in a conference room in Europe for an important Zoom meeting. We’d gotten the time zones wrong; I’d thought that it wasn’t until 8AM my time. If not for this dream causing me to wake up, I would’ve missed the meeting entirely.

43 Responses to “I had a dream”

  1. Isaac Grosof Says:

    I’ve also had the experience of having a dream closely related to an upcoming experience, which saved me from oversleeping. In my case, I forget the content of most of the dream, but I remember think “Oh no, I need to wake up” during the dream, and I actually had forgotten to set an alarm for my upcoming flight, which I would have overslept otherwise.

    I wonder if it’s easier to consciously think to wake up than other conscious thoughts during a dream.

  2. Danylo Yakymenko Says:

    A dictatorial almighty AI that punishes discussions of its glitches is not a dream. It’s our future if we stop fighting.

  3. dubious Says:

    So, the AI has adapted to using subtle distraction, such as emails and meeting schedules, to distracting subjects from remembering the precise paradox encountered in prior iterations.

    Moral: Never check your email until at least 9am.


  4. Jon Awbrey Says:

    As We May Dream

    We do not live in axiom systems. We do not live encased in languages, formal or natural. There is no reason to think we will ever have exact and exhaustive theories of what’s out there, and the truth, as we know, is “out there”. Peirce understood there are more truths in mathematics than are dreamt of in logic — and Gödel’s realism should have put the last nail in the coffin of logicism — but some ways of thinking just never get a clue.

    That brings us to the question —

    • What are formalisms and all their embodiments in brains and computers good for?

    For that I’ll turn to cybernetics …

  5. Grad student Says:

    But of course, you should use Beamer regardless of whether PowerPoint will destroy your slides containing forbidden knowledge.

  6. Ian Finn Says:

    Professor Aaronson, this was fantastic! Thank you very much for sharing.

  7. Uhoh Says:

    Great post. You still got it!

  8. Sniffnoy Says:

    Well, the other week I had some dream that, like, some person I knew had cheated on a game show? And like, they were in a whole conspiracy with their family, and they were also cheating at math contests and spelling bees. And I was trying to unravel it, of course, and so one of them — who lived in the same dorm as me, because I was living in a dorm I guess — shit on my bed. This did not deter my investigation, but it did complicate it.

  9. Chris J. Says:

    … triggered the section of Microsoft Office that tries to detect and prevent any discussion of logical paradoxes that are too dangerous for humankind—the ones that would cause people to realize that our entire universe is just an illusion, a sandbox being run inside an AI, a glitch-prone Matrix.

    And yet it was all an illusion, so it worked! Microsoft Office did detect that it was running inside a dream. And it did this even before you had a chance to realize you were in a dream. Impressive technology!

  10. Christopher Says:

    > He said that I must have triggered the section of Microsoft Office that tries to detect and prevent any discussion of logical paradoxes that are too dangerous for humankind

    Given that this should be uncomputable in general, I imagine working around the false positives and negatives would get really annoying, lol.

  11. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Better a reality shredding paradox than an inappropriate pronoun. Very neat dream and glad you uncovered the repressed conflict with Microsoft.

  12. Aspect Says:

    It’s one of the few times where Greg Kuperberg is wrong about something. Powerpoint is just better.

  13. bks Says:

    I’d be more interested in how y’all got the timezones wrong. Maybe if you had more code in your slides, and less paradoxes, this would not have happened?

  14. Jochen Says:

    All that we may see or seem is but a finite state machine.

  15. Jon Awbrey Says:

    The state of AI and Hypertext today is that we are still using the Dubya³ to argue which Electronic View-Master™ is better.

  16. JimV Says:

    Impressive dreaming. The lesson I am inclined to take is that consciousness and mind are not identical. That is, that minds/thinking is much more than consciousness. Corollary: thinking can be done without consciousness.

    The evidence here is that your mind apparently produced a Power Point developer with a detailed argument which your consciousness did not feel to be a part of itself. There is a lot of other evidence leading to the same conclusion, of course.

    I am slightly tempted to think your mind concocted the scenario to wake you for a zoom conference which it had realized was at the earlier time, but that would be going too far. If one tends to have anxiety dreams about presentations, sooner or later one of them will seem prescient, as Dr. Feynman noted in a different context.

  17. Roger Schlafly Says:

    It is nice to see that you have blocked the super-human AGI bot from trolling your blog, but now it appears to have gotten into your head another way! You may never know how that dream got implanted.

  18. Scott Says:

    bks #13: Far from the first time it’s happened! I clearly said 8am Central in my emails, their calendar invite implied 7am Central, neither of us noticed the discrepancy. I’m guessing they may have juxtaposed Central time with the much more common EST.

  19. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Aspect #12

    Although I rarely use Powerpoint, and never Beamer, it is clear that Microsoft products rule the “office task” world.

    MS actually works on usability and integration, as will be readily apparent if you have to use a LMS (Learning Management System) such as Blackboard. (I should mention that Blackboard has actually gotten a lot better lately and I appreciate the effort.)

    But how many times a day do you effortlessly use Excel or Word? BTW, basic LaTeX can be entered into equation editor (ALT + =) in Word — not bad for classroom presentation.

    A word to the wise: Whenever someone starts going on about using Linux apps, move quickly before they start yammering about using Lisp.

  20. Michael Brooks Says:

    It’s funny how dreams can make huge connections to real-life, even if it’s very exaggerated.

  21. TheEmotions Says:

    > A dictatorial almighty AI that punishes discussions of its glitches is not a dream. It’s our future if we stop fighting.

    All this talk about AI taking the world… look, do you guys realize that all our computing power is contingent on the existence of cheap oil, which is a finite quantity? Let’s assume GPT-255 gains sentience and superintelligence. What’s its plan to get itself more fossil fuels to keep itself alive? Use its psychic powers to transmutate more oil like Sabrina from the Pokémon anime?

  22. 1Zer0 Says:

    JimV #16

    Well, if the mind is thinking + conscioussnes, then it’s already long known that you can disable the thinking part on high amounts of psychedelics like LSD 🙂

    > “Complete memory suppression can result in the profound experience that despite remaining fully conscious, there is no longer an “I” experiencing one’s sensory input; there is just the sensory input as it is and by itself. This suppresses the otherwise nearly constant sensation in waking life of being a separate observer interacting with an external world. Although ego death does not necessarily shut down awareness of all mental processes, it does remove the feeling of being the thinker or cause of one’s mental processes. It often results in the feeling of processing concepts from a neutral perspective completely untainted by past memories, prior experiences, contexts, and biases. ”


    Several neuroscientific experiments were conducted in recent years to get some data on it


  23. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I agree, you should use Beamer. 🙂

  24. manorba Says:

    Wow what a coincidence 😉 your subconscious woke you up with a strange but work-related dream just in time… for a work appointment you would have missed otherwise!

    it’s one of the reason why i am still very sceptical about general AI intended as a copy of the human mind… the subconscious, together with the total lack of a semantic level but i’m disgressing.

    oh i hope you get well soon scott! if it is of any solace, it’s the same over here. it goes and comes back very shortly. some of the ppl i know has been isolated for weeks. but it goes away at some point 🙂

  25. arch1 Says:

    JimV #16:
    “…your mind apparently produced a Power Point developer with a detailed argument which your consciousness did not feel to be a part of itself.”

    I dreamt I was sitting in a room with my dad when I noticed a truly weird happening in a corner of the room.

    Me: Look over there!
    Dad: [Sees weird thing, swivels head back to me with sly grin]: What does that tell you?
    Me [With profound shock of realization]: We’re in a dream?
    Dad: Riiiight.

  26. Hans Wurst Says:

    When it wants to be wakened, the brain gives itself a complex nightmare. The bad dream motivates the sleeper to awaken.

  27. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Roger # 17 and Greg # 23:

    OK. With an *enormous* experience *behind* me (especially of all your country, including that of your *host*), I now am neutral w.r.t. Microsoft PowerPoint and Beamer.

    But, you know, I actually used Beamer for the last paper I presented that I know of. In the waking state. Here: https://imechanica.org/node/26123

    Though I didn’t mention what happened to it later on, I did mention about it on my blog. And, most of your readership, Scott, *knows* about it, doesn’t it?

    And, as to my *past* compatriots, talking of today, I wrote this email to one of them, right this “evening”:

    Yeah, like, Capitalists had to post this parody of the Beatles, about growing up and all, right on 14th September but never on 5th September, or 5th October:


    Dr. Leonard Peikoff set off the trend, if you ask me, Atanu! Of not answering my *emails*! Written to him while I still was in the S. F. Bay Area!

    The point is what your America chooses to celebrate and what it chooses to tend to diminish. In your worship of the money.

    Yeah, a lecture on the root of the evil is awaited from you, of all places, Atanu!

    Saturday 2022 September 17 02:26:29 IST

    I must admit, gentlemen (and ladies, if any such still are left), that I have subjected to much abuse of this kind *also* to Dr. Atanu Dey.

    Thanks in advance. Whatever,

    Best, whatever,

  28. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    By the way, if a math REU serves as evidence about the future, the presentations were mainly split between Beamer and Google Slides. Not many of the students wanted to use Powerpoint.

  29. Roland Says:

    I once heard the story that you should not look at papers not written in LaTeX. Does a similar criterion apply to slides? 😉

  30. Mitchell Porter Says:

    This morning I had a dream in which Peter Woit was rich enough to host private parties in his expensively decorated flying super-yacht, and mentioned that the forthcoming version of his twistor-based alternative to string theory would be in the key of C (maybe that was meant to be C, the field of complex numbers). And then later I was arguing with some young rationalist proteges of Eliezer Yudkowsky, who said that job security for academics is an epistemic risk, because they don’t face any pressure to be right…

  31. Gnirut Says:

    Does the fact that both PowerPoint and LaTeX are Turing complete render this discussion moot?

  32. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    That’s a little something for Stross’ Laundry Files fans.

    Also, this is the first I’ve seen of the new comment policies. I like them.

  33. Qwerty Says:

    Pretty amazing to see you remember these fairly complex logical details from a dream – and be able to articulate them! I mean, to dream of a concept like a paradox!

    Did it all become clearer as you wrote it down? I should try that with my vague dreams, although maybe I’m not self-aware enough to really do this. My dreams are rarely coherent.

  34. manorba Says:

    Correct me if i’m wrong, but i’m under the impression that you remember the dreams only if you wake up while you’re having it, ie. in the rem phase.

  35. Doug Mounce Says:

    MS Word also works “better” when you have to share documents with troglodytes, but Beamer is so elegant that it makes the work enjoyable. It’s like the study they did on editing documents either primarily navigating with the mouse or primarily navigating with commands. The result was that people thought they were faster when navigating with key commands, but they actually were faster navigating by hand with the mouse.

  36. Jan Says:

    On a related note, has anyone here ever been in a dream inside a dream? Where you dream that you were dreaming something, then woke up from it “phew it was only a dream”, and eventually wake up also from *that* dream? I has happened to me, but it’s very rare (only two times that I’m aware of). Yes I’ve seen the movie Inception! That movie script is actually more inspired by the concept of lucid dreaming, which is related to but different from what I was trying to describe.

  37. matt Says:

    Scott, I am interested to learn of Rosser’s theorem. I am curious for your thoughts about something. I have understood the impossibility of solving the halting problem in a slightly different way than it is usually presented. I am curious if (1) this way is “wrong”, either being actually mathematically incorrect or perhaps just being not the best way to think about it and (2) if this way of understanding it can also give a proof of Rosser’s theorem. The way is basically based on the paradox “the largest integer that can be written on this notecard, plus 1”. Suppose we had a Turing machine T (or fragment of C code, or whatever) that could solve the halting problem. (note, all algorithms take the blank input) Then, it is an exercise to write a Turing machine T’ slightly larger than T that loops over all machines of size at most |T’|, determines if they halt, and then executes them if they do. Then, there is a paradox: T’ runs longer than any machine of size at most |T’|. This always seems a little simpler to me as you don’t have to deal with either writing a quine or using a hack of handing a program its own source as input, though you do need to write an interpreter and you need to note that it is possible to encode the size of T’ using only log(|T|) bits.

  38. Scott Says:

    matt #37: Yeah, your proof is basically the standard way to prove the uncomputability of the Busy Beaver function (see my survey), which then implies the unsolvability of the halting problem. As with much else in this subject, you can go in either direction—from Busy Beaver to the halting problem or the other way around. Despite superficial differences, though, every uncomputability proof that I know has something that looks like self-reference at its core.

  39. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Nancy Lebovitz #32

    Previously I was scared off by the synopsis of Laundry Files but reread and now plan to go through the series. I really enjoyed Neptune’s Brood.

    I have been reading older science fiction recently that I missed previously. There is something charming about FTL spacecraft constructed with vacuum tubes and crewed with navigators and engineers hard at work on their slide rules.

  40. mls Says:

    Jan #36

    That happened to me twice as a teenager. Even more curiously, the second dream had been the same in both instances — “waking up” from some nightmarish dream next to my calmly sleeping girlfriend only to be attacked by dogs seconds later, forcing me to actually wake up.

  41. Christopher Says:


    > And yet it was all an illusion, so it worked! Microsoft Office did detect that it was running inside a dream. And it did this even before you had a chance to realize you were in a dream. Impressive technology!

    I think you’re fan boying too hard. Rosser’s theorem isn’t a paradox, it’s just syntactically similar to [REDACTED]. It was Microsoft Office itself and the dev who drew attention to the dream state they claimed to be protecting.

  42. OhMyGoodness Says:

    If this is a simulation inside a sandbox then the Modeler certainly tracks this blog as an output stream of interest and so I have a message for the Modeler-

    Hello, please increase the coupling coefficient between human beliefs and objective reality. The current setting is too low and risks an imminent blowout overflow condition in the Absurdity Stack. Thank You.

  43. Mia Anthony Says:

    I’ve also had the experience of having a dream closely related to my exam, which saved me from oversleeping. In my case, I slept while I’m preparing for the next paper, and I forgot the content of most of the dreams, but I remembered the “three questions that come in the exam” that appeared in my dream.

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