Please pardon my layman's language as I am not a student of philosophy.

I was talking to a friend who has read Advaita Philosophy of Shankara in-depth. He iterated the fundamental theory of this tradition as:

You cannot know whether you are dreaming or awake. A dream is felt as a dream only after "awakening". There is yet another state, state of deep sleep, wherein the self and world both cease to exist. If you say 'I was in deep sleep', it is just what others would have guessed looking at you; not yours (you were 'absent'). So, which of these states is your original state? If you believe the state of awakening is the state, where were you while dreaming? Surely a king can have a dream of becoming a destitute and the other way round, can't he?

But you have been 'witnessing' all these states. That 'witness' is the ultimate truth or 'parabrahma'.

I tried to counter this argument with these questions: 1. If I were absent at the time of deep sleep, how could anybody wake me up by force? If they could (of course!), that would mean an apparatus of consciousness was present throughout my sleep. So, the total absence of consciousness is not valid.

  1. I distinguish dreams and awakening with a simple heuristic: whatever has continuity is awakening and whatever is abrupt, is a dream. When I wake up in the morning I just resume my life where I left it.

  2. It's sure that we are not aware while dreaming, but we tend to remember these dreams. If we don't remember, we would never know if we were dreaming. That means, consciousness was still present in some diminished way at the time of dreaming.

  3. At least some dreams are based on the feelings of the conscious mind and past experience. I dream of my deceased grandmother singing a song for me (I am a kid there). How do dreams know I have a grandmother and she could sing that song? Surely, there is some connection, isn't it?

My friend was curt enough to sweep aside these questions by saying I am too much 'obsessed' with the state of awakening. He asked me to think, for a while, if we were discussing all this in dream.

A certain trend goes to the extent of saying this line of thought is the ultimate philosophy and denigrates the 'westerners' for completely missing it. They could see no philosophy department in the west terribly interested in Advaita (apart from historical and geographical curiosity).

My question is, what do you make out of this argument? I read somewhere that Descartes thought on similar line. Please pardon my tale and let me know what is the correct way of looking at it.

Thanks, Vivekanand

  • that's quite a big question, but first off it's simply wrong to say that cos we can't know for certain we can't know.
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 3:18
  • 1
    This is a good subject for a philosophical discussion, but not for an answer on this site --it is too broad. You will have more luck if you narrow your focus, otherwise this question will probably be closed. If the question is specifically whether there is a Western analogue to this point of view, then the work of both Plato and Descartes arguably apply, although with different emphases. While people outside India may not associate the subject primarily with the Advaita, dreams remain of philosophical interest to many people in the West, as a quick search on this site will confirm. Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 4:29
  • To avoid someone closing this question, consider changing it. Many of the answers are challenging your list of questions, and not even reaching to the Advaita argument. You might be able to simply pare this back to a discussion of your questions with context of Advaita, but not actually approaching Advaita itself (which is a much broader topic)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 16:07
  • "what do you make out of this argument?" is to be asking for opinions, which is not what this site is about.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 12:50
  • 1
    A lot in this question, can you maybe narrow it? Also, rephrase "what do you make out of this argument?" - our opinions aren't what's important, what's important is what different philosophers/schools say. Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 20:50

6 Answers 6


The premise

A dream is felt as a dream only after "awakening".

is apparently wrong, at least for some people.

The phenomenon of lucid dreaming is a counterexample. Furthermore, it suggests that at least under some circumstances, both you-while-dreaming and you-while-awake can agree on what is a dream.

(Anecdotally, I can also attest that it was very effective at letting me avoid recurring nightmares when I was a child.)

  • It does not change the negation of initial statement - "No one REALLY felt reality like a dream." Lucid dreamers eventually awake, otherwise we will never hear about such phenomena. Thus reality renders as superior in all cases.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:36
  • @AsphirDom - I was concerned more with quickly demonstrating that the argument was flawed (evaluation of the argument was requested) than providing a robust defense of reality.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 22:11
  • @AsphirDom - As a child, lucid dreaming became confusing between what is 'real' and what is 'dream' as my 'dream' has continuity while i was 'awake'. Eventually, I had to make a choice as to which reality i would accept, (and it is still possible I chose wrong) of the two, I chose this one where I am now writing this post. It is possible there are different extents to which one may have lucid dreams, but when the 'dream' is as complex and continuous as reality, spending more time 'dreaming', the two become a confusing blur of realities in which neither is false. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 3:50

Like the others, I must look at the premises you provide. The topic your friend is exploring is very detailed and complex. It is very easy to dismiss it because one of your initial premises simplifies the argument to the point of simple rejection. Only once the premisses are accepted can one begin to look at whether they agree with or contradict your friend's position.

I distinguish dreams and awakening with a simple heuristic: whatever has continuity is awakening and whatever is abrupt, is a dream. When I wake up in the morning I just resume my life where I left it.

There are discontinuities in waking life. They occur around particularly abrupt events, such as a car crash. A person may be driving along, when "suddenly" a person appears in front of them. This shows up in people's consciousness as a discontinuity. After the fact, a person tends to try to fill in the details such as, "its possible he just walked into the road while I was looking at my iPod." However, this is an after-the-fact activity. It is well recognized in witnesses of horrific events that, long after the event occurs, witnesses can "remember" details about the event which can be proven wrong with photographic evidence. This tendency causes great frustration in the world of murder investigation.

The difference between this sort of event and "dreaming" seems to be one of magnitude, not a fundamental shift.

The dual of this also appears. Some dreams mesh so well with reality that it is hard to tell they were dreams. Dreams of waking up to your alarm are particularly disconcerting in this way. Another class of dreams like this are nightmares: for a short while after you are "awake," the "reality" of the dream persists for you. The ultimate example of this is a child's nightmare where you, as a parent, must go to their room and look under the bed for monsters from the nightmare, and you must console them that it was only a dream because they are unable to distinguish the dream from "awake."

  • If you reflect about what you wrote. And you should. You will see that from the way you described mighty DREAM it follows that it can penetrate ANY aspect of our (your!) "reality", thus making your first statement that you must look at premises and analyze them logically -- completely Wrong. Your argumentation thus does not survive self recursion. Interesting dreams i see.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:54
  • If you strike the sentences which offend you, and recognize that the original question sought an argument based on logic, then my argument is not wrong (certainly not Wrong with a capital 'W'). As for self-recursion, it may not function as you expect, but I challenge you to explore ways to shift your thinking to see if it could be self-consistent in a way you did not initially realize. You might find you have assumptions about the meaning of "dreaming" and "reality" which you think are universal, but are not assumed by all individuals, and may not actually be beneficial.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 23:13
  • As a hint: consider that we must teach children what a dream is. They don't know from birth. This makes the definition of a "dream" a cultural one.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 23:15
  • Ok, rephrasing. In your setup you can have almost Any initial premises (facts and definitions) about what a dream is. Since your have no clear border between dream and reality (by rooting memories to dreams). On a side note -- reality Is continuous. What you described with accidents and such is not discontinuity but acceleration and slowing, higher or lower perception of details. But Always some perception. Never stop. Hence continuity.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 1:29
  • @AsphirDom: True, we have no reason to believe reality is discontinuous. However, there is documented psychological evidence that our perception of reality is sometimes discontinuous. The author claims that perception of a discontinuity is a way to distinguish a dream from waking. My point is that such an argument is not as cut and dry as one might wish when making a logical argument.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 5:40

This questions been there as long as philosophy. Because it is intriguing at first.

But to what purpose?

The reason being, it is my assumption you would like to be a better person. In what state are you more in control of your actions? Dream or awakening?

For me awakening. I have no control over my dreams.

Say, if i killed a man in my dream, should i be in a moral dilemma? Personally I wouldn't.

As for as i know, i can account for my actions in the state of awakening. So i concentrate on the things I do in that state. If i make a mistake, I find the reason why i did what i did, and change it. If I did something right, I question whether i just want to believe so, is it actually is. And act accordingly...


There is a thread in the psychedelic community that accepts both the truth and the falsehood of this proposition.

The idea is that what is essentially 'human' in thought is abstraction, and that abstraction itself is the 'dream' process. The evidence purported is that humans metabolize a substance called DMT that is used in animals to trigger dreaming, when we are awake, and we use it more when we are doing things like 3D discernment and, perhaps, symbol processing.

If turning actual perception into dreams is 'what we do', then we are always dreaming, even when awake, and the form that our memory takes is that of the dream state, rather than the animal memory of the real waking state, which we largely ignore.

Large doses of DMT delivered directly create an obvious simultaneous waking-and-dreaming state, in which one can still navigate reality to a certain degree, while telepathically discussing things with strange creatures displaying magical powers. That makes this assumption very convincing, when it is going on. But it is questionable whether one should make philosophical deductions from unnatural states of consciousness.

  • From which states of mind you think philosophy should deduct?
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:41
  • I think you need to spend a great deal of time in any given state to be able to generalize from it. I am not the sort to do this for more than two or three minutes at a time, so I am reluctant to treat this as a 'genuine' state of mind to generalize from.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 18:54

You cannot know whether you are dreaming or awake. A dream is felt as a dream only after "awakening".

This is clearly false since one can conclude he is dreaming, and a dream can be felt a dream while dreaming - this is called lucid dreaming which is a phenomena which was scientifically investigated - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream

As for your argument:

I distinguish dreams and awakening with a simple heuristic: whatever has continuity is awakening and whatever is abrupt, is a dream. When I wake up in the morning I just resume my life where I left it.

This is false, since dreams may involve false memories, and these false memories can provide you with a sufficient sense of continuity within the dream world.

In fact, memory within the dream is just another aspect of dreaming; once while lucid dreaming I noticed a pleasant but out of place background music; I thought about it for a minute and then I remembered that it was the sound of my real-life TV which I forgot to turn off before going to sleep; I was quite satisfied with myself for figuring this out from within the dream world; soon after, I woke up and I was surprised that the house was totally quiet, and then I started laughing when I remembered I don't have a TV in real life.

we tend to remember these dreams. If we don't remember, we would never know if we were dreaming. That means, consciousness was still present in some diminished way at the time of dreaming

I think consciousness and memory are orthogonal; you can have memory without consciousness and consciousness without memory.

For example. people can have false memories of events which never took place - clearly false memories were never consciously experienced; for example see the Thurston County case - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thurston_County_ritual_abuse_case

The contrary, consciousness without memory is also possible - think of locking the door to your house at night 2-3 times, since you don't remember doing it the first time; in general we usually remember little of our life; do you remember what you did 20 years ago? do you remember every moment from last week? from yesterday?

Nevertheless, dreams involve consciousness; try lucid dreaming and you will see for yourself.

  • He asked you if dreaming and awakening is both false? And you just deflected everything with Lucid dreaming. So, there are no dreams because there is LD? Or there is no reality because there is LD? You dramatically increased the difficulty of phenomena in question by mentioning LD. Moreover his statement is NOT false, because if you did NOT have LD you DO remember dream only after awakening. LD complements not neglects.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:47
  • @AsphirDom, If the question is presented as a sequence of false arguments, why is it not fair to point out the fallacies? how can the statements "You cannot know whether you are dreaming or awake" and "A dream is felt as a dream only after awakening" be true if LD exist?
    – nir
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 21:32

A common man who is aware of his three states only, thinks like this.

Truth is 'beyond' these states. Though that Truth is same to us also, in this present state we don't 'know' that...Only very very few people realize that Truth... You can see verses regarding these ideas in the Bhagavad Gita.

FYI, Here are some of my recollections: 1. Here Krishna comes down to a lower level to raise his friend from his level. (Chapter IV ... Verse 5) 2. Read about its eluding subtle nature. (Chapter II ... Verse 29, Chapter VII ... Verses 3 & 14)

Does a person dream of an animal attacking him...? Where did this animal come from...? Was that animal the same person in another form...? In that dream, who attacked...? Who felt the attack...? What about the action...? Didn't it have any continuity...? When does he know that it was only a dream...? Similarly, the Truth will be revealed only after the experience of another state; though it is always with you or, let me say, though it is You Tat Tvam Asi.

He asked me to think, for a while, if we were discussing all this in dream.

Mere thinking cannot solve the problems mentioned in your post.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .