Consciousness, Dreams & The Supernatural

The notion of binaries or opposites is deeply entrenched in Western culture and thought. Although it seems perfectly natural to perceive and categorize the world in terms of dichotomies (black-white, either-or), what seems natural is actually learned. Our teacher in this regard is Aristotle, who was so impressed by the Pythagorean Table of Opposites that he founded an entire system of logic on the principles of identity and contrast. One thing cannot be another and it is the contrast between opposites that creates meaning.

When we bring these western habits of thought to the concept of consciousness, our learned reflex is to dichotomize and contrast with its supposed opposite: unconsciousness. We are either conscious or unconscious. This is, however, a mistake. I was reminded of this while reading David Lewis-Williams’ Inside the Neolithic Mind — Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods:

Human beings are not either conscious or unconscious, as may be popularly supposed. Normal, everyday consciousness should rather be thought of as a spectrum. At one end is alert consciousness — the kind that we use to relate rationally to our environment and to solve the problems that it presents. A little further along the spectrum are more introverted states in which we solve problems by thought. Relax more and you are day-dreaming: mental images come and go at will, unfettered by the material world around you. Gradually, you slip into sleep and the hypnagogic state, possibly with vivid hallucinations. From there, you drift into normal dreaming, a world of changing forms and impossible circumstances.

Because fluctuating consciousness is a human universal, all societies must come to terms with it or make sense of it. Values are assigned to different parts of the spectrum. Lewis-Williams argues that religion is founded on these fluctuations and develops “out of the socially situated spectrum of consciousness.” It is a powerful argument and one that is at least partially confirmed by Native American dream traditions.

In “Dreams, Theory, and Culture: The Plains Vision Quest Paradigm,” Lee Irwin observes that dreaming is central to Native American traditions:

To understand the visionary world of Native American religions, it is necessary to overcome a rational bias that would reduce dreaming to an expression of the “irrational” or “epiphenomenal” mind. Because we all dream, it would seem superfluous to point out the continuity that exists between our dreaming and waking lives.

Yet it is a mark of modern consciousness that dreaming is strongly identified with the “pre-rational” mind and with a substratum of “primitive” instinct and emotion beneath the threshold of rational conceptualization. The dreaming basis of culture must engage our attention as something far more complex and subtle than a purely sensory and empirical waking model of consciousness permits.

In the Native American context, there is no separation between the world-as-dreamed and the world-as-lived. These are states integral to the unifying continuum of mythic description, narration, and enactment. In contemporary, non-indigenous culture, the distinction between waking and dreaming is largely a consequence of culturally reinforced rational theories of mind and has resulted in a bifurcated world view for most Euroamericans.

It seems fairly safe to say that dreaming played an important role if not central role in ancient religions. It surely is no accident that Australian Aborigines characterize the foundational elements of their supernaturalism as “Dreamtime.” It also seems fairly safe to say that as religions became more organized and systematic (following the Neolithic transition), dreaming is displaced by doctrine and belief as the source of the supernatural.


Irwin, L. (1994). Dreams, Theory, and Culture: The Plains Vision Quest Paradigm American Indian Quarterly, 18 (2) DOI: 10.2307/1185248

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14 thoughts on “Consciousness, Dreams & The Supernatural

  1. Chris

    Eastern cultures also have binaries, like yin-yang – but of course Chinese culture is ‘advanced’, so maybe the idea that ‘dream cultures’ are pre-rational can’t be completely dismissed, however unpalatable it is. Neither aboriginal nor Native American cultures have advanced rationalist cultures. (I’m agreeing that rationalism is culture-based.)

  2. Cris Post author

    They do but the binaries are conceived as continuums that cycle from one to the other; they are not postulated opposites as in western culture. I’m not so sure about about rationalist cultures being “advanced” vis-a-vis indigenous ones; they just have different epistemologies and ontologies that flow from those epistemologies. I would not characterize one as being more “advanced” than the other.

  3. Chris

    Western culture doesn’t just have different epistemologies and ontologies than indigenous cultures, it also has, to take those examples, a vast literature, of enormous complexity, studying the basis of those very things. There is nothing remotely comparable in any indigenous culture. I would call that more ‘advanced’ (as in highly developed) – at least by any standard usage of the word.

    Of course, you’re really talking about consciousness and conceptions of consciousness, so I agree that ‘advanced’ is probably inappropriate in that regard.

  4. Cris Post author

    To the extent we disagree, it may just be a matter of terminology. On certain issues, such as the contemplation of what we call epistemology and ontology, of course indigenous cultures don’t compare. But rather than calling it more “advanced,” I would say in those cultures these fields simply are not developed or emphasized. Under the circumstances of pre- and non-state societies, such concerns would have little or no relevance.

    I strongly suspect that in other areas the “rationalist” paradigm is significantly “less advanced” (or underdeveloped and not emphasized) than indigenous societies. For example, I think that social relations are considerably more sophisticated and nuanced in such societies than our own. Another example would our relationship to the “natural” world. While our “advanced” scientific way is one way of encountering it and negotiating with it, I suspect that indigenous ways of knowing that world and relating to it may be far richer, and thus more “advanced.”

    I am not suggesting that science is in any way invalid, because it isn’t, only that science is one way of approaching the natural world. As essential as it may be (and I agree it is essential), it may ultimately be a kind of impoverished way of looking at things.

  5. Cris Post author

    Do you think we have something like “processors”? I have always been wary of computer metaphors when applied to the brain and cognitive function.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    I would suggest it comes down to what you want out of it. If you want to find or catch food that where you put it (planted or penned) your culture would be best attuned to nature. If you want your citizens to commute to the office every morning and perform periodic rituals at the keyboard, or invent new widgets for machines to produce, an altogether different culture would best suit your economy. The East and West have evolved through different paths to a comparable economic functionality. We have the same minds but have developed cultures which train them to different tasks.

  7. Chris

    One final (nitpicking) reply:

    You said you thought indigenous cultures may just be ‘not developed…’ – but ‘more highly developed’ is one of the meanings of ‘advanced’, and that is exactly how I’m looking at it. Indigenous cultures ARE less highly developed in almost every area, therefore they are less advanced by definition.

    I can of course appreciate the dangers and past abuses of that terminology in the world of anthropology. And I fully agree that Western rationalist culture has much to learn about its relation to nature and the relationships between persons from these cultures. I don’t think the West is superior to indigenous cultures in the things that matter – the human things; it often seems almost blind in precisely these areas.

  8. Cris Post author

    It seems like we are largely if not entirely in agreement. And you nailed it — the early history of anthropology was filled with normative or judgmental terms such as “advanced” compared to “primitive” societies. The cultural evolutionists sort of ruined these words for us.

    I will do some final nitpicking myself, primarily because we are having a fruitful back and forth. I will take issue with your assertion that “Indigenous cultures ARE less highly developed in almost every area, therefore they are less advanced by definition.”

    Let’s parcel societies into domains or “areas.” Such a rough parceling might yield something that looks like this:

    Social Relations
    Natural World Relations

    One could make a nice argument that indigenous societies are more advanced on the first two, equal on the third, and are less advanced on the last three. Being more advanced in politics is of course a dubious distinction, so we may want to toss that or call it a wash. This doesn’t look “less highly developed in almost every area.”

    I also tend to agree with Jared Diamond when he says (I think in Guns, Germs and Steel) that an average person living in an indigenous society needs to know far more about all aspects of life and survival than does an average person living in an “advanced” society. His basic argument was that the indigenous people he had encountered had to know far more about everything than do people he encounters in modern societies. So while modern societies may be more “advanced” in toto, individuals living in those societies may (ironically) be anything but.

  9. Chris

    Well, we do seem to have a similar outlook vis-a-vis West vs. indigenous. But I wonder if your categories are too broad or diffuse to be accurately evaluated in regards to this discussion. For instance, in Social Relations, one could make an argument that, for example, Facebook is an advance in social relations, allowing people and groups who are geographically separated, or who have lost contact over time, to communicate or re-communicate (just as you could argue that such distant communication is a poor substitute for the ‘real’ thing). Or you point to certain rigid tribal customs revolving around marriage – the often overt treatment of women as property – as producing more suffering than more free, modern customs, etc. There would inevitably be a host of social relations points where modern/Western culture could be considered more ‘advanced’, even if we grant without argument that indigenous cultures are generally better in these areas.

    On the other hand, there seem to be a lot of issues around the concept of ‘more advanced’. That concept quickly begins to break down when we start making value judgments. It seems uncontroversial to state that the West is more advanced technologically, for example. But that isn’t really a value judgment. On the flip side, we agree that indigenous societies may be better in many interpersonal areas, but are they more ‘advanced’? It seems like they might be simpler, and that that might be the very thing that is better in general.

    Anyway – such a complex subject offers a lot of opportunity to wander afield, so I hope I haven’t gotten too far off course!

  10. Chris

    It’s contradictory of me to suggest your categories may be too broad and then, later, declare that the West is technologically more advanced, which is of course one of your categories! I think I was beginning to get mired in the problems arising in areas where values are concerned, like social relations, religion, etc. Sorry about that.

  11. Cris Post author

    Facebook, it seems to me, offers a perfect example of the tremendous lack of socialization in “advanced” societies. It is a make-believe kind of socialization, largely detached from personal relationships of the physical or intimate variety. When it comes to non-state societies (hunter-gatherers in particular), social relations are incredibly extensive and complex, all of which is a result of fictive kinship, which creates all kinds of cross-cutting social relationships. These cross-cuttings can be mind boggling. You can five “dads” and eight “mothers,” along with dozens of “siblings” etc.

    I don’t think the “advanced” technology of Facebook creates any kind of real complexity in social relations.

    Women in foraging societies are quite esteemed, and I’m unaware of any in which the “wife” is considered property. I can think of several “modern” or “advanced” societies in which this is the case.

    In foraging societies, wives have the right walk out of any “marriage” and to “divorce” husbands at will. Several of them are matriarchal, and when the wife boots the husband, she retains the property.

  12. London Counselling

    We fool ourselves to think that we really have true insight into the mind. So much of the mind is tied to the culture that it has grown up in that it is impossible to really make cultural comparisons in the realm of dreams or the border between natural and supernatural. Is our view ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’because we support it and drive it through a literary tradition that disses the supernatural?

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