Why Dreams Feel Just Like Waking

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If you lift a ball in your hand while awake, you feel downward pressure. If you ask a physicist why that is the case, then he will say: This pressure is felt because of Newton’s gravitational law – GM1M2/R2 – where G is the Gravitational constant, M1 and M2 are the masses of Earth and the ball, respectively, and R is the distance between their centers of mass. Nature somehow calculates all this automatically.

Now imagine you are lifting the same ball in a dream. You will still feel the pressure in your hand, won’t you? But is that pressure because of the Gravitational law acting on the ball, hand and a supposed Earth in your dream? Does your mind (or brain) somehow unconsciously remember G, M1, M2, and R, then perform the calculation just in time to produce the same effect? Ask that question to the same physicist, and I’m sure there won’t be a convincing answer.

There are a few different possibilities, which arise if we consider the physicist’s position carefully.

First, you already know the Gravitational law from birth unconsciously, such that the mind automatically performs the calculation and produces the same experience as a dream. But if that were the case, then empiricism is wrong in saying that we know the world by experience, because we would know everything there is to know—right from birth—as even a child who has never been to school has the same experience.

Second, empiricism is right, and we do get information from the world, but that means that we must have memorized the values of G, M1, M2, and R, and then the formula GM1M2/R2 and then performed a calculation, although we cannot remember those values off-hand, nor can we recall calculating the formula. Even if that were the case, you should feel that pressure only for the ball that you have previously held in your hands while awake. If your dream was not your waking experience before, then you could not know how you got all those numbers, and how to explain the dreaming experience.

Whichever position you adopt, empiricism becomes false. Either we know everything from birth, such that observation is not required. Or, we cannot see anything new in a dream that we haven’t seen during waking, because without that knowledge, we would not know which numbers to compute.

So, let’s take some alternative viewpoints. Suppose you say that both dreaming and waking are simply hallucinations created by our minds. In such a case, there is no external reality, and everything is being produced by our minds. This includes you inventing the formula GM1M2/R2, followed by individual values of these things, followed by a computation of these numbers to produce an effect. Every new experience you have is now produced by your mind-brain, which means that the mind-brain stores infinite amounts of information, and has an infinite computational capacity to create experience.

The position of Solipsism (that only I exist), or Idealism (that everything is created by my mind), requires the mind being an infinite disk and CPU. Clearly, such a postulate is not impossible, but very unlikely, not just because of infinity, but also the issue of why would you store such infinite amounts of information and have an infinite computational capacity, and yet not know anything about it? Solipsism and Idealism not only require infinite resources but your total ignorance about the existence of these resources.

So, now let’s consider Realism or the idea that there is a reality out there, to which we access. But as we have seen above, this works well only when we consider the waking state, not the dreams.

Of course, there are serious problems even in explaining the waking state. For example, you can say that the real universe is infinite amounts of information storage (which we call “matter”) but where is the CPU to compute all the formulae? If nature is run by mathematical laws, then where are these laws computed? Realism requires that some non-material entity must compute the laws. But how does that non-material reality interact with the material reality? No scientist can answer this question, which is why Eugene Wigner framed a paradox: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Natural Sciences.

I think you can recognize that this paradox is akin to a dualism between matter and mathematics. If you are pedantic, then it is a dualism between numbers stored on a universal disk (“matter”) and a CPU (which is non-material). Now if you insist that the computation could also be material, then you are probably not realizing the problem. If there are N particles in the universe, then you have to compute pairwise forces for each particle pair, and there are nC2 = N(N-1)/2 such pairs. For any universe greater than 2 particles, the computer that can compute such pairs would have to be computing a greater number of equations than the particles in the universe. In short, materialism now replaces non-material mathematical computation with another universe—that is much bigger than the present universe!

Now, the present universe is just a disk storing numbers, and the other (non-material universe) is like a gigantic CPU that computes the equations for this universe to work correctly. But since you are a materialist, therefore, you must ask: What powers the gigantic CPU (bigger than the present universe), so that it can compute the working of the present universe? Just so that the CPU works correctly in a materialist hypothesis, there must be another CPU to compute its actions, which would require an even bigger CPU. This leads to infinite universes, each bigger than the previous one, for just one universe to work correctly. The “disk” universe is the smallest; the CPU universes are successively bigger.

When you realize this problem, then you are better off with dualism rather than materialism. Of course, you still don’t know how the non-material stuff interacts with the material stuff. But it is at least not as ridiculous as saying that my existence in this universe requires infinite other beings to exist, just so that they can compute the laws to power my digestion, blood circulation, breathing, and thinking.

To recapitulate, we have thus far rejected Solipsism, Idealism, and Materialism, as being outright ridiculous ideas. We have Dualism, which seems reasonable, but we have to solve the problem of their interaction.

We can now turn to Vedic philosophy and explain how this interaction problem is solved. And the solution is that the material reality is generated from a formulaic reality. You can imagine the existence of a CPU that generates numbers, and those numbers are the visible world. But those numbers were generated by a CPU using a formula, which is a “deeper-level reality”. Thus, each level of reality is both a number and a formula. It is a formula because it can generate a new level of reality. And it is a number because it was generated by a previous level of reality. But even that formula is not applied universally; it is applied only to selective things. For example, Newton’s formula is applied to masses, but not to charges. So, that formula is also an idea, which we call Newton’s gravitational law.

This leads to the doctrine of the three modes of nature. The mode of sattva-guna is like the idea; the mode of rajo-guna is like the formula; the mode of tamo-guna is like a number. Since you can think of all observable things alternately as an idea, a formula, and a number, therefore, everything is a combination of these three viewpoints. The deepest level reality is a pure idea and does nothing unless the mode of rajo-guna propels it into computing to produce a number. And the grossest level reality is even devoid of rajo-guna so that it is a number, but it cannot generate other numbers. This tripartite nature of numbers is discussed at length in the book Gödel’s Mistake.

Vedic texts, and Sāñkhya philosophy specifically, identify several levels of this reality; they are called gross matter, sensed properties (called tanmātra), senses, mind, intellect, ego, moral sense, chitta, karma, and guna. The deepest-level reality is called the guna, or the three modes of nature, which then generate successive levels of reality. In the primordial state, there is only sattva-guna, so it is like a pure idea. Then this idea is computed by the appearance of rajo-guna, and successively many such realities are generated. In a sense, a universe springs out of a pure idea—through a formula—via several stages of manifestation, until you get what we normally call the visible material world of things.

Sāñkhya is a conception of reality in which everything is a number. But it is not just a quantitative number. Rather, each number is also an idea and a formula. So, each number can generate a new number, but that generation depends on the idea and formula encoded by the previous number. Thus, we need to change our thinking about numbers—they are not just quantities. They are also ideas and formulae with generative capacity. Thus, Sāñkhya philosophy states that the body emerges from the senses, the senses emerge from the mind, the mind from the intellect, which comes from the ego, which comes from the moral sense, which comes from the chitta, karma, and guna, and all this arises because there is a soul, which is also an idea, formula, and number, which was generated by the Supreme Soul. This Supreme Soul needs no other idea, formula, or number to generate it. Since the generative capacity in the subtle reality is very apparent, therefore, it is said that the soul and God are different from matter. But when we recognize that even subtle matter is generative, then this stark distinction fades away. Thus, the cascading succession of generative realities comes to an end with a self-generative reality. By the acceptance of this Supreme Soul, Sāñkhya philosophy becomes a theistic view of matter.

Now, we can return to our original question: Why do our dreams seem just like waking? And the answer is that they are being generated by the senses and the mind. They are different than the waking experience in one specific sense—the waking world of material things was also generated by some senses and mind, but we did not generate that world. The generative principle is still true, but it wasn’t our mind and senses. And yet, we can interact with or know things generated by other minds.

But the “laws of nature” remain the same in the two cases, because the senses and the mind—if they generate things—generate them in the same way. They may not generate some reality; in which case we will not see them. But if they do, then the principles of generation are identical in the two cases. Thus, what we see during dreaming is just like what we see during waking. That is because the senses and the mind are generating the reality according to common principles—from within themselves.

The generative capacity of the senses and the mind is considered superior to the capacity of the senses and the mind where they access a pre-generated reality. Thus, when the senses know the generated world, then they are in tamo-guna; when they generate a reality, then they are in rajo-guna; and when they seek the source from which they were themselves generated, then they are in sattva-guna.

Similarly, the deep sleep state is considered even superior to the dreaming state, because it the source of the generator from which subsequently things were generated by applying a generative principle. A yogi who can remain conscious during the deep sleep of the body can see the generator reality. Those who can observe the dreaming without identifying with it can see the generating process. And those who can remain detached from the gross body can see the generated byproducts as numbers.

The philosophy of generator-generating-generated is not unique to Sāñkhya. Rather, it is the essential idea that pervades all other Vedic ideas; for example, God is the generator, His Śakti or power is the generating, and the soul is the generated. As a result, sometimes, we can say that the soul is the child of Śakti, and then sometimes, the child of God. The philosophy of soul and God is not different from the philosophy of matter; if either of these philosophies is understood, then both are understood.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Why Dreams Feel Just Like Waking," in Shabda Journal, March 15, 2021, https://journal.shabda.co/2021/03/15/why-dreams-feel-just-like-waking/.