The Mandukya Upanishad is a philosophical text found in the Vedas, which are among the most important scriptures of Hinduism. Here is what V. Subrahmanya Iyer says in a foreword to a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad:

While [the Mandukya Upanishad] shows how the most advanced modern sciences and modern philosophies are approaching its conclusions, it gives to the world of our own times its central doctrine that partial data give partial truth, whereas the totality of data alone gives perfect truth. The ‘Totality’ of data we have only when the three states of waking, dream and deep-sleep are co-ordinated for investigation. Endless will be the systems of philosophy, if based on the waking state only. Above all inasmuch as this philosophy holds that mere ‘satisfaction’ is no criterion of truth, the best preparation for a study of Vedānta Philosophy is.a training in scientific method, but with a determination to get at he very end: ‘To stop not till the goal (of Truth) is reached.’

Personally, as a Hindu myself I am skeptical of V. Subrahmanya Iyer's characterization of the Mandukya Upanishad, but I am still interested in his quote for its own sake.

Empirical science focuses on what the mind experiences in the waking state, i.e. information about reality that is gleamed through the senses and, I suppose, through introspection of one's own mind. But my question is, have there been any thinkers who have formed a theory of reality which takes into account not just data from the waking state but also what the mind experiences in the dreaming state and the state of deep sleep?

I should mention that the reason V. Subrahmanya Iyer characterizes the Mandukya Upanishad in this way is that he interprets it as making the argument that just as in the waking state we find that all the objects in our dream are not there anymore, within a dream we find that objects of the waking world are not there anymore, so both objects in the waking world and objects in dreams are equally unreal. But are there other thinkers who have used our experiences in dreams to form other conclusions about reality?

  • I don't know any thinkers in particular, but I do believe cognative science as a whole seeks empirical answers regarding the brain in all states, including dreaming.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 5:10
  • @KeshavSrinivasan What is the value of any investigation conducted while in any mental state other than your waking state? Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 7:08
  • I share the view V. Subrahmanya Iyer. The only people who study all states of consciousness are yoga practitioners, This is because thinking is not able to study all these states, and certainly not 'turiya'. Thus speculation is no use and a scientific approach is required. . .
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 12:12

7 Answers 7


I recently heard an interesting story on NPR you might be enjoy: http://www.radiolab.org/story/182747-wake-up-dream/

In particular they spoke to Steve LaBerge, author of, "Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming" and he speaks of Dr. William C. Dement who has done some very interesting research in the area of sleep and dreaming.

There is plenty of empirical research on dreaming, e.g. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737577/ but if you are looking for "perfect truth" consider that the "totality of data" is an absolutists canard.

We are not omniscient beings. Knowledge of perfect truth is logically and epistemically impossible. Knowledge is imperfect and incomplete. Despite this we build bridges, skyscrapers, replace human hearts and send people to the moon with our uncertain, "non-absolute" knowledge.

Consider that the self cannot be rationally assessed. How are we to verify the dreamers claim that while their eye-movement displayed a certain pattern, or when they reached up from their bed that they were dreaming of this, that or the other? We can agree and conclude the dreamers claims sincere, but we cannot.


... my question is, have there been any thinkers who have formed a theory of reality which takes into account not just data from the waking state but also what the mind experiences in the dreaming state and the state of deep sleep?

In Ludwig Binswanger's Dream and Existence he blurs the distinction between subjective thought and dreaming and hardens the distinction between subjectivity and interactive, rationalised reality.

"Dreams, the fleeting shadow-play that mocks the mind, issue from no temples, no heavenly power sends them, each man creates his own." (Somnia, quae mentes ludunt volitantibus umbris, no delubra deum, nec ab aethere numina mittunt, sed sibi quisque facit [Anth. lat. 651 R]).

so Petronius put his finger on the most important aspect of modern dream theory: "Each man creates his own!" ("sed sibi quisque facit!").

Who is the Quisque of Petronius? Can we really lay our hands on the subject of the dream or even simply on the act of dreaming? The proponents of the pure Quisque-theory of subjectivity forget that they have grasped only half the truth. They forget that man steers his carriage "where he wishes, but beneath the wheels there turns, unnoticed, the globe upon which he moves."

To wit, one's wakeful preconceptions may be just as unreal as a dream. As a psychiatrist Binswanger had a good empirical reason for this line of theorising.

For Heraclitus, genuine awakeness is, negatively put, the awakening from private opinion (doxa) and subjective belief. Put positively, it is life (and not just the life of thought!) that accords with the laws of the universal, whether this universal be called logos, cosmos, sophia, or whether it is considered as a combination of all of them in the sense of a rational insight into their unitary, lawful interrelation and in the sense of action according to this insight. Hegel presents this Heraclitean doctrine by saying that here Reason, Logos, becomes the judge of Truth—not, however, of truth that is second best, but, rather, of divine, universal truth: "this measure, this rhythm which penetrates through to the essence of the All" (an echo of the ancient συμπάθεια).

To the extent that we participate knowingly in the divine understanding we participate in the Truth; but to the extent that we are particular and special, (ίδιάσωμεν), we are deceived. According to Hegel, these are very great and important words:

Nothing truer or more unprejudiced can be said about Truth. Only consciousness of the universal is consciousness of truth; but consciousness of particularity and particular action, originality which results in idiosyncracy of content or form, is untrue and evil. Error, therefore, consists solely in the particularization of thought—evil and error consist in the divorce from the universal. Most men think that their conceptions should be something special and original; precisely this is illusion.

According to Hegel, "the knowledge of something of which only I am aware" is just dreaming, and the same is true of imagination (in the sense of phantasy) and emotion ...


Sigmund Freud was a medical doctor and psychologist, more so than a philosopher, but his ideas are arguably philosophical, and he definitely saw himself as subscribing to a form of empiricism, since he saw psychoanalysis as being an empirical science of the mind. With this in mind, he would fit the bill for an empiricist who took into account dream states and the subconscious in his theories of the human self. One of his most influential books is "The Interpretation of Dreams".

Also, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an extensive article on Dreams and Dreaming. the references in there should be useful for your inquiry.

  • Freud Philosophical??? You need to read Cioffi and Wittgenstein for his demonstration that Freud's claims were pseudo-scientific. In short "Freud's fanciful pseudo-explanations (precisely because they are brilliant) perform a disservice. (Now any ass has these pictures available to use in 'explaining' symptoms of illness.)" - Ludwig Wittgenstein
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 3:06
  • @Mr.Kennedy: Being pseudoscience doesn't disqualify something from being philosophy, even if it makes it bad philosophy. Only being in bad-faith about trying to find truth, would make it not philosophy. Richard Webster argued his thinking was essentially religious, in 'Why Freud Was Wrong'. And Florence Rush argued that he intentionally covered up sexual abuse of patients for social reasons en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Freudian_Coverup These to me are the critiques that go beyond it being bad philosophy, into not philosophy.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 12:23
  • It seems strange to mention Freud on dreams, but not Jung.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 12:25
  • sorry @CriglCragl truth value is merely axiomatic and neither good- nor "bad-faith about trying to find truth" have any bearing upon respect for obtaining knowledge.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 23:44
  • Axiomatic? You mean what, only mathematical truths are real truths? How do you account for Gettier problems?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 3:15

Reasearch on sleep is the subject of empirical research as part of psychology and medicine.

For an introduction see


The broadest classification discriminates between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. The latter is the stage of dreaming.

Sigmund Freud was the first who investigated the semantics of our dreams as part of his psychoanalytic approach. He characterized our dreams as the "royal road to the unconscious". This was a groundbreaking insight, because also today it is difficult to access the unconscious processes of our mind.

Different from legends which interpret dreams as prophecies, Freud made the hypothesis that - broadly speaking - dreams represent wishes of the dreamer and their fulfillment. He published his theses in "Freud, Sigmund: The interpretation of dreams (German: Die Traumdeutung)" 1900. The book is a classic and a must for dream research - even when its results are questioned and even when it is questioned, whether the whole domain of psychoanalysis is science.

  • Why should dreams be anything but dreams? While we obviously remember something of our dreams, it seems we can't investigate our own dreams while we are asleep dreaming. So, the only "royal" road is not our dreams but the memory of our dreams and it is only a road to our dreams and nothing else. There is no good reason to take dreams to be somehow representative of our other unconscious processes. There are better candidates for this role, mental illnesses for example. Freud's merit is to have understood the empirical value of the memory of our dreams. And little else, it seems. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 7:01

I would agree entirely with V. Subrahmanya Iyer. But a complication arises for the word 'empirical'.

For the natural scientist 'empirical' data means data derived from the physical senses. For me, and presumably for Iyer, it is a more useful word when it refers to data that has been confirmed or discovered in experience. This may be a sensory input, but it may also be apperception or direct unmediated knowledge (Being).

If we allow 'empirical' this wider meaning then an empirical scientific study of the waking, dreaming and deep-sleep states is possible. This is what Yoga, the Perennial philosophy, advaita Vedanta and mysticism is.

...my question is, have there been any thinkers who have formed a theory of reality which takes into account not just data from the waking state but also what the mind experiences in the dreaming state and the state of deep sleep?

I assume you mean 'other than the mystics'. Any theory of consciousness must explain all of its states. Only those who study consciousness 'empirically' and first-hand can speak of the deep-sleep state (Turiya). For most people it will seem to be not-a-state.

...V. Subrahmanya Iyer characterizes the Mandukya Upanishad ... as making the argument that just as in the waking state we find that all the objects in our dream are not there anymore, within a dream we find that objects of the waking world are not there anymore, so both objects in the waking world and objects in dreams are equally unreal. But are there other thinkers who have used our experiences in dreams to form other conclusions about reality?

I doubt any sensible thinker would ever use dreams to form conclusions about Reality. Dreams are an easy way to verify or explain the possibility that life is some sort of dream, but dream-experiences could never settle this question.

The interesting issue here is the word 'empirical'. It is intensely unhelpful that it is usually associated with sensory data only as it means we cannot call Advaita an empirical science, which is what it is if we allow 'empirical' to include non-sensory data.


After his time under the bodhi tree, Buddha was asked what was different about him, and he said, 'I am awake'. A great deal of confusion goes in to understanding what 'enlightenment' might be, but I suggest this encounter gives the core description. And that it is pointing at something that can be understood as both a gradiation, between more and less present and autonomous, and a fundamental shift like waking from a dream and being more completely aware.

Vervaeke in Awakening From The Meaning Crisis looks at wisdom in the Ancient Greek tradition in a similar way, as tools and practices to avoid bulshitting ourselves (in the philosophical sense), and as a gradient, away from it.

This article uses the concept of strange loops, to identify a pattern in a technique used by a set of important philosophers, including Nagarjuna, Wittgenstein & Nietzsche. I would describe it as using the tenets of a system of thinking to recognise that it is fundamentally insufficient, and to shed constraints or restrictions that were imposed by it. As Wittgenstein said, climb the ladder, then abandon the ladder. As the Buddhist metaphor goes, use the boat to cross the stream, but don't continue to carry the boat once on the other side. I feel there is something about, crossing a space of conventional thought or knowledge, and finding how a different set of framing assumptions or mental tools can make an 'open space', a free-er or more liberated place, where the old system has been 'looped', to form just a constituent in the new system. I feel a lot of thinkers are intuitively doing this, not so much answering questions as finding a way towards a new space where previous constraints are understood for what they are, and shed.

Dreaming is found in every single mammal species, and many non-mammals. If humans are allowed to sleep but prevented from dreaming, within 2 weeks hallucinations begin and serious psychological consequences. It seems like dream states may be the subjective experiences of the brain rewiring itself, altering connections and weighting of pathways. In AI research weighted Monte-Carlo tree searches and convolutional neural networks suggest how this kind of rewiring might be capturing useful information. Vervaeke describes part of our sense-making as building cognitive salience-landscapes, which highlight useful features and sift information for key pieces.

But I think there is something intriguing beyond that. Dreaming seems to pre-linguistic, or certainly can be. It seems to me an unrecognised or under-recognised way into understanding where language and meaning come from, to look at dreams and dream-logic. We know specialised mirror neurons help us physically imagine someone elses actions as our own. We know the neocortex is not finished until around age 25, is for social inhibition of impulses. Could our dreams be creating a kind of model of our society and how to act, analogous to a higher-order mirror neuron? Could this be an essential precursor to using language to communicate such a range of information, like a physical manifestation of the Private Language argument? I think so. Playing more physical games with thrown objects, seems to link with being better at maths as an adult. Getting better mental models of others and social interplay, surely makes a person better at communicating.


2 years ago I started experimenting with Lucid dreaming. I am able to consciously control the flow of my dreams now. Dreams are just a collection of impressions, transformed by your intelligence . By Intelligence , I mean a collective unconscious , the citta' and not just the intellect (a product of your brain). About Reality I can only say this , from kena upanishad ,

This great reality is something other than what you know , and something more than what you dont know.

Dreams have an important role in that they are the nexus of different states of consciousness, much like an ocean that takes in water from different rivers. To be aware when dreaming is to witness the meeting of memory, intelligence and creativity. When awake you are aware. You can perceive reality as projected in the firmament of your mind. When asleep , that perception shifts . You are pure mind. Not bound by the physical or the mental , a purer sense of consciousness could be achieved.

NOTE : This is just one way , obviously there are countless ways of achieving the same pure state.

  • I enjoyed very much reading your answer, but note it is not an answer to the question in question.
    – nir
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:14

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