The many in our dreams

Giotto di Bondone's Joachim's Dream (1303-1305). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As I posted on social media recently, a critical essay of my work has been published, a few days ago, in a Russian newspaper. I know a few words in Russian but can't really read an essay. Yet, Russian-speaking readers told me that one of the criticisms made in it is the following: whereas we can see an interact directly with other people and animals, the different alters of a patient with dissociative identity disorder (DID) can't see or interact directly with each other. Therefore—or so the argument goes—my stating that life, biology, is the image of dissociation in universal consciousness is incoherent.

It so happens that, in my upcoming book on Schopenhauer's metaphysics, I tackle precisely this criticism in the passage reproduced below. In it, by 'universal will' I mean universal consciousness. Since I offer this as a defense of Schopenhauer's metaphysics, the implication is that, in my view, Schopenhauer, too, explains personal identity and life in terms of universal dissociation. I make this case quite extensively in the book, which will very soon be available for pre-ordering.

Soon available for pre-ordering.
Long quote from Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics

A criticism that could be offered at this point is this: whereas we can perceive and interact directly with other individual subjects in ordinary waking life—after all, I can surely see and interact with other people and animals—an alter of a human DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] patient cannot perceive and interact directly with another alter of the same patient; there is nothing the second alter looks like from the point of view of the first; the first alter cannot reach out and touch the second. So how is it that I can reach out and touch other people and animals if they, like me, are analogous to alters of the universal will?

The key to making sense of this is rigor in interpreting the analogy: we are likening (a) a person with DID to (b) the universal will with something analogous to DID. But remember, unlike the case of the person, there is no external world from the point of view of the universal will. The latter is, ex hypothesi, all there is, all phenomena being internal to it. So we are comparing apples to bananas when we relate the person’s life in the outside world to the entirely endogenous inner life of the universal will. It is much more apt to compare the latter with the person’s dream life, for only then all experiential states in both cases are internally generated, without the influence of an outside world. This, and only this, is a fair analogy.

So what do we know about the dream life of a human DID patient? Can the patient’s different alters share a dream, taking different co-conscious points of view within the dream, just like you and I share a world? Can they perceive and interact with one another within their shared dream, just as people can perceive and interact with one another within their shared environment? As it turns out, there is evidence that this is precisely what happens, as research has shown (Barrett 1994: 170-171). Here is an illustrative case from the literature:
The host personality, Sarah, remembered only that her dream from the previous night involved hearing a girl screaming for help. Alter Annie, age four, remembered a nightmare of being tied down naked and unable to cry out as a man began to cut her vagina. Ann, age nine, dreamed of watching this scene and screaming desperately for help (apparently the voice in the host’s dream). Teenage Jo dreamed of coming upon this scene and clubbing the little girl’s attacker over the head; in her dream he fell to the ground dead and she left. In the dreams of Ann and Annie, the teenager with the club appeared, struck the man to the ground but he arose and renewed his attack again. Four year old Sally dreamed of playing with her dolls happily and nothing else. Both Annie and Ann reported a little girl playing obliviously in the corner of the room in their dreams. Although there was no definite abuser-identified alter manifesting at this time, the presence at times of a hallucinated voice similar to Sarah’s uncle suggested there might be yet another alter experiencing the dream from the attacker’s vantage. (Barrett 1994: 171)
Taking this at face value, what it shows is that, while dreaming, a dissociated human mind can manifest multiple, concurrently conscious alters that experience each other from second- and third-person perspectives, just as you and I can shake hands with one another in ordinary waking life. The alters’ experiences are also mutually consistent, in the sense that the alters all seem to perceive the same series of events, each alter from its own individual subjective perspective. The correspondences with the experiences of individual people sharing an outside world are self-evident and require no further commentary.

Clearly, our empirical grasp of extreme forms of dissociation shows that a DID-like process at a universal scale is, at least in principle, a viable explanation for how individual subjects arise within the universal will. Whether the cognitive mechanisms underlying dissociation are also conceptually understood today is but a secondary question: whatever these mechanisms may be, we know empirically that they do exist in nature and produce precisely the right effects to explain the illusion of individuality posited by Schopenhauer. In this regard—and in many others as well—Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is empirically plausible.


  1. I'm curious as to whether or not you have read this rather dated (May of 2003) journal paper: The disunity of consciousness? It appears in the Trends in Cognitive Science Journal and it was linked to in this recent The Conversation article by Subhash Kak, Why a computer will never be truly conscious.

    For your own amusement, What is the matter in Amy Glennon?, with a transcript here; which is quite old (1995) but I recently had cause to recall . . .

  2. Years ago I was in contact with a German girl (that also had a YouTube channel, which she has now deleted) that had intense DID.

    This was of course her formal diagnosis, but since she was a person that was very oriented towards spirituality, alternative forms of healing and understanding the world, as well as esoteric and the occult (all of this not only theoretically, she also had a lot practical experience in these areas), she understood her "disease" quite differently.

    We chatted on various occasions and tried to figure out together what her actual problems may be and what her diagnosis means outside of the realm of modern mainstream medicine and the materialistic understanding of our reality. I myself have about a decade and many thousands of hours of personal experience with various meditative practices and through them states of oneness, bliss, rapture, as well as hell and pain, not to mention a slew of experiences that could be dubbed "paranormal" (from telepathy, to entity contact, to experiencing one's body as pure energy, heightened intuition and knowing things will happen...etc.) - because of which I did feel like I could help her understand her condition. And indeed together we came to some interesting conclusions.

    To keep it short, it seemed quite likely to both of us that both she and either most or all of those suffering from DID are in fact beings that have incarnated on this plane that have some sort of mutual pact or agreement where many souls (or alters in your terminology), share the same body. Indeed the experiences she had with her alters and the transformations that occur, as well as her own insights into this area, showed strongly that the majority or even none of the alters present were in fact her, as the core alter/soul inhabiting the body, simply being further fragmented, but in fact distinct core alters / souls, each with their own point of view and agenda. Though despite that she did seem to be the primary holder and keeper of the physical body and thus the physical body she had was in a way a co-expression of the minds (since of course the body is the mind in gross form, as you know very well) of a multitude of core alters /souls, yet it seems primarily her own.

    If this is true then through DID you have indeed stumbled upon the perfect example in terms of physical manifestation of how the Cosmos works in terms of the individuation of souls / core alters and their experiences and a perfect ground to explore and study the nature of beings / core alters beyond the physical. In the case of DID this means that the alters of a patient suffering from such a condition are in fact not merely some kind of fragments of one core alter being further dissociated from itself, but in fact separate and distinct individual core alters / souls on the Cosmic scale, sharing one physical body. Thus in esoteric terminology - DID, for the most or in all cases, is in fact an example of many souls/monads inhabiting one physical body. In your terminology, these would be alters of course, but I have frequently used the term "core alter" here to differentiate between alters that are fundamentally only dissociated from the All (core alters or souls/monads in esoteric terminology) and those that are even further dissociated from core alters themselves, like a fragmented form of core alter personality.

  3. Bernardo, I ran across your work for the first tie last night - I found a YouTube video where three people were sort of "panel discussing" an article you wrote for Scientific American. I have to say I am *absolutely fascinated*. This has a "very right feel" to me.

    I'm in my mid 50's. I'm educated as an engineer (PhD level), but I took extra math in graduate school and ever since have been "pushing my envelope" in various areas of science. To some extent that's been out of general interest, but a core goal of mine has always been to understand how mind/consciousness can emerge from standard physics. Ultimately, my conclusion was... it can't. The standard "emergence" theory just holds no water with me - it calls for too much of a shift; we're not talking about the shape of a snowflake or a "termite cathedral" here.

    Several years ago I started vaguely "circling around" the "mind is fundamental" idea, but I hadn't found a way to really cut the knot and get into it - your work seems to open that door for me.

    I think you are definitely on the right track, and I want to thank you for giving me new materials to work with.

  4. I find the analogy of Universal Consciousness dissociating into separate alters which are unaware of the subjective lives of others very fascinating.

    What I am now asking myself, and others, is: just what differences result from this point of view, and the alternate point of view that consciousness is a purely locally generated phenomenon, which somehow arises and is caused only by the physical structure of the organism? Are there any?

    Are there any unique consequences and/or implications, in this life, if we were indeed parts of a unitary consciousness that we have somehow disassociated from?

    1. The most obvious one is that, if living organisms are merely the extrinsic appearance of dissociated alters of universal consciousness, then death is the end of the dissociation. In other words, death is an expansion of consciousness, not its end. But beyond this, I elaborated on many other implications and differences in Chapter 8 (if I recall correctly) of my recently revised book 'Brief Peeks Beyond.'

    2. Why would death be the end of dissociation? Whatever caused the dissociation would still be in force, and the dissociation may continue in a new life.

  5. Thank you, Bernardo. I understand the significance of this issue with regards to a possible afterlife. My question was more to do with significance of this question with regards to the present lives which I'm sure we all have right now.

    My first exposure to your thinking was the excellent interview you recently had with John Horgan. Much of what you said, strongly resonated with me. With regards to possible afterlife however, I find a contradiction between some of your apparent claims. If we join up with Universal Consciousness, and UC operates on the basis of Schopenhauer's Will (instinct), then I fail to see how any sense of ego, such as personal memory of specific events, will survive. In that sense, "we" will be just as dead as the materialist's complete oblivion.

    In the interview, I liked how you described society's present "working hypothesis" of materialism. It is perhaps in the sense of seeking an alternative working hypothesis that I see the possible significance, here and now, of an idealistic belief. If we had such a working hypothesis, and we believed that we were all "just" alters of the same Universal Consciousness, things might go rather better for us. But a little bit of empirical evidence, that might help us decide between my two originally stated points of view, could be valuable to help us in the construction of this alternative working hypothesis, if such evidence exists and could be found.

  6. Hello Bernardo,

    I recently started reading your books, and I am enjoying them very much, however many questions flood my mind.
    How do you think a dream is generated in the first place?
    Under materialism, dreams would be generated by the brain, but under idealism the brain is only the image of a dissociated conscious activity. So what are dreams under idealism exactly?

    Thanks in advance!

  7. Hi Bernardo, the idea that we are dissociated alters of the mind of nature makes perfect sense to me, yet, I would like to say that intuitively I believe that when we die we will certainly end this dissociation but we will ‘enter’ a new dissociative state together with other alters. In other words, we will not yet be assimilated to the ‘mind at large’ and, instead, we will enter a new hierarchical dissociation. I am aware you keep this possibility open and, such a possibility could ’include’ NDE accounts as well as Corbin’s account of esoteric Islam as well as Swedenborg’s experiences and Jung’s beliefs towards the end of his life. Jung’s patients had dreams of giving accounts of their ‘dissociative’ (quotes due to Jung not specifically calling it a dissociative state) life on earth in front of an audience which presupposes that the audience was not yet acquainted with it, therefore the alter cannot yet be completely ‘assimilated’ in universal consciousness. I would love to know if you could expand on this possibility. Jung thought that to speculate on the after life was very useful for us in this ‘dissociated state’.

    1. Jung's account, which you refer to, was of a dream; the dream of a living person. Therefore, it was the symbolic message of the 'unconscious' towards a dissociated alter. As such, it doesn't imply, or even suggest, that dissociation persists in some form after death; the dream's symbolic message was just that the insights of a life time become available to a broader connective context after death, which, if anything, suggests precisely the end of dissociation.