Here, I'm not so much interested in Dennett's ideas on consciousness as I am in his ideas concerning privileged access.


I like the opening idea that there is the folk-belief among people that everyone is an expert on their own consciousness. After all, they have a direct relationship with their own consciousness, and this, thereby, makes them an expert on consciousness.


I'm not all that impressed with this talk -- not that it's not good -- but he really only presents one piece of evidence, and we are lead to the inference that we don't know our own minds only indirectly through that evidence. I was hoping for something a bit stronger.


I like though how he incorporates real time thought experiments into his work.

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I appreciate your reference to henotheism; that is a comparison that has occurred to me as well.

You said: Alrighty then, so much for a "hermeneutics of sympathy." Now a little hermeneutics of suspicion: So, what are we to make of these "spiritual ontologies" within a post-metaphysical framework?

In my original thinking about this, I was linking Wilber's argument in Integral Spirituality that there is "no single dog" (but rather a multiplicity of enacted entities) to Skowlimowski's argument that the "walls of the universe change" as we change, in participatory relation, and Ferrer's argument in The Participatory Turn that spiritual realities are enacted, multiple, and have ontological "weight." More recently, after reading Sean Esbjorn-Hargen's paper on Integral Ontological Pluralism, I've been looking at thinkers in other fields who appear to be thinking along similar (enactive, ontological pluralist) lines, such as Annemarie Mol. She is writing in the context of an ethnography of medical practice, and argues for the multiplicity of enacted medical "objects" (like disease) -- summarizing her position on the ontological "status" of objects as "more than one but less than many."

Here's a description of Mol's view from a review of her book, The Body Multiple:

Alongside her ethnographic account of the multiplicity of the disease “atherosclerosis,” Mol draws on social theory to conceptualize this multiplicity. In the subtext that runs along the bottom of the page across the book, she explains how her argument further elaborates constructivist approaches in STS and symbolic interactionist accounts of the performance of social identity. Her focus on the enactment of disease in medical practice, Mol points out, is informed by the commitment in STS to the social study of phenomena which are usually classified as belonging to “objective reality.” In line with this tradition, Mol points out, her ethnography zooms in on the objective category of “disease” and not the (inter-)subjective category of “illness.” Mol then goes on to criticize constructivist work in STS, and in particular, laboratory studies. She argues that this work was still complicit with the modern scientific understanding of reality. Laboratory studies, she argues, presented reality as something that is solid and durable, once scientific facts have become well-established. But, says Mol, “Matter isn’t as solid and durable as it sometimes appears.” (p. 42) Objects should rather be understood as having a fragile identity, one which, moreover, “may differ between sites” (p. 43). One can wonder whether laboratory studies really presented reality as something solid and durable. For example, didn’t Steve Woolgar and Bruno Latour argue in Laboratory Life that as soon as facts become consolidated, they become invisible, and no longer cause any noticeable “resistances” to human intervention? It seems to me that Mol rather wants to open up different sites for the study of the manufacture of reality, besides the laboratories of big science. Be this as it may, her critique of the concept of construction leads Mol to replace it with the more fluid notion of “performance,” developed by Erving Goffman. This concept for her has the desired connotation of malleability and fragility, she says. Thus, Mol comes to argue that the concept of the staging of social identity, may be applied to the realm of objects, too. In socio-material practices in the hospital, the argument then goes, not just subjects, but objects too, are performed, staged, or, as Mol prefers to put it, “enacted.”

By re-arranging the sociological concepts of the construction of reality and the performance of identity, Mol prepares the ground for her philosophical claim. If an objective entity like disease is approached as something which is enacted in socio-material practices, she argues, then the ontological multiplicity of this object comes into view. In different practices in the hospital, every time a slightly different version of the disease “atherosclerosis” is enacted. This difference, Mol points out, must not be understood in terms of a fragmentation or pluralist character of objects. Instead, the multiplicity of objects must be taken to mean that they “are more than one but less than many (p55).” Multiple objects, Mol posits, hang together in specific ways. In the middle chapters of the book, Mol elaborates this claim ethnographically. Here she describes how coherence between the different versions of the disease is brought about in the hospital. This is achieved in different ways: in some cases, differing versions of the object get aligned. For instance, two visualisation technologies - radiology and ultrasound - enact atherosclerosis differently. The former shows vessel lumen, the latter tells about blood velocity. They are made comparable in the establishment correlates between lumen loss and blood velocity. In other cases, the various versions of the object are not actively brought into agreement, but lead a distributed existence : the epidemiological and the surgical definition of atherosclerosis, for example, may differ, but since these different versions of the object do not come into contact in practice, this does not become a problem. The achievement of commensurability or the lack of necessity thereof, are themes which have received much attention in STS. But Mol presents them as a further elaboration of her claim of ontological multiplicity. She refers to the above practices of achieving coherence as “coordination work.” That actors in the hospitals engage in such coordination goes to show that the multiplicity of objects should not be understood as irreducible.

I don't see her view as being very different from the views of Wilber, Skowlimowski, and Ferrer, but here she is clearly applying it primarily to "concrete" things such as objects of medical inquiry and intervention. So, the difference between hard, concrete objects and spiritual "ontologies" may not be as wide as you suggested (if we accept her account). Perhaps more a difference in degree than in kind.

In an earlier thread, Postmetaphysically Conceiving of Interreligious Resonance, I appealed to this basic view as a way of accounting for the mutual "recognition" that mystics are reported to sometimes experience across traditional lines (say, between Thomas Merton and Chatral Rinpoche) without presupposing, as perennialists often do, that they are all experiencing the same (metaphysical) "thing." From the ontological pluralist perspective, you might understand this more in terms of homologous enactments (which do have "ontological weight," as does the multiple object of "atherosclerosis") rather than as "direct contact" with the same essential underlying "something."

What do you think?
Hi Balder,

After reading the Google excerpt from her book, it strikes me that Mol is attempting to move beyond the idea that there are only "mere perspectives" about "disease" (the scientific object, as opposed to "illness," which involves the patient's subjective experience) and to try to move toward the "object," which she concedes has become more and more removed in constructionist acounts, to the point where it has become almost transcendental.

While I welcome this move, I still feel that her general inclination is, loosely speaking, "Foucaultian," where knowledge is the result of institutions; and that she is also basically coming from a social constructionist, or "the sociology of knowledge," point of view; and that her account is largely ethnographic. That's all fine but I think it still leaves "hard science," and its object, more or less untouched. It's an approach, and a valuable one, but it's not the only one we have on how we know in science, or how we can understand science itself.

On "more or less": I've recently felt that Foucault's approach, for example, is, while valuable, something that occurs "on the sidelines." He often deals with oddities and exceptions to the rule, and the value here is to show that the rules are not solid. But my sense is that after all of these post-structuralist critiques, "hard science" seems to go on.

Foucault picks his subjects carefully. It strikes me that there is a kind of sliding scale upon which one can make use of such critiques. An the one end are chemistry and physics; then we have biology; then medicine; then psychiatry and psychology, within which we have things like hysterical/psychosomatic phenomena, such as the "June Bug" phenomenon, false memory syndrome, and the things Hacking describes in his book, all which would constitute the "far end" the scale. Interestingly, it is in this final category that we find so many phenomena associated with religion and spirituality.

I read a book some time ago on "Jesus as Healer" when I was researching the historical Jesus literature; it suggested that when Jesus "cured" blind people and crippled people, and people with nasty skin conditions (the Aramaic apparently does not say "leprosy" but simply "bad skin"), he was curing "psychosomatic" conditions and "hysterical" reactions (like hysterical blindness and paralysis). When I was at U Mich I taught a course on the Old Hag phenomenon, wherein people, in a state of sleep paralysis akin to lucid dreaming, believe that they are under attack by "entities" like the old hag (Ireland/Newfoundland), the couch mar (Louisiana), spirits of the dead (England), aliens from outer space (Americans who watch science fiction movies), vampires (Transylvania), succubi (medieval Italy), etc., which sit on the chest of the victim and suck their life essence out of them. Last night I watched a not bad program by Explorer on NatGeo called "The Moment of Death" that gave a fairly good explanation of the near death experience (one of which I have had). In such cases, the "object" would appear to be almost entirely constructed, not just subjectively by the individual but intersubjectively by his/her sociocultural context, and the etiology of the condition in such cases will be, IMO, different from that of heart disease. And so, I think that the ontological status of the "objects" of such things cannot be of the same order as that studied by sciences like chemistry. I also think that it is pushing the limits of discourse to suggest that they are of the same order, or to say that the natural sciences contruct their objects to the same degree that the social sciences do. I know that some "spiritual types" will like this sort of association between the two disciples, that is, putting them at par, since they would like nothing more than to see the "objects" of their experience to be on an ontological par with the rocks and tides and blue skies acknowledged by hard science, but I see such as move as not much more than attempting to ride the coat-tails of the post-structuralist critique -- something that has been going on in "new paradigm" literature ever since Kuhn wrote his book.

I so, I am feeling a need to move on beyond the post-struturalist critique... or perhaps a sense to go back to somewhere else, but this time a bit more wiser. I get the sense that others, too, are feeling somewhat tired with post-modernism. Jim recently referred to certain French philosophers who were looking for a way out of the somewhat tired post-structuralist approach, philosophers who posited an absolute reality that predates our understanding of it. For myself, I have also been influenced of late by Dawkins, and Dennet, and also by Pinker's critique of social constructionism.

I know that when we first met, I was challenging you to be more post-modern, suggesting that you had not fully incorporated the post-structuralist critique into a response you had given to Julian. I was perhaps "playing" a bit at the time, goading you to delve deeper, feeling the certain unease you had with the radically post-structuralist point of view. Today, I'm not sure if it's an sympathy I have with Gadamer's distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften that compels me here, or if I am simply reverting back to my initial inclinations for the natural sciences, or my background in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, but I get the sense that post-structuralism -- whose lessons I feel must still be understood in a deep manner -- may have run its course, at least for me. I grow particularly tired of the ideological dimension of post-structuralism and it's somewhat paternalistic (!) approach to "educating the masses."

To close, I'll post a reference from Wiki on Bruno Latour, who has also worked on the topic of the "social construction of scientific facts":

"In a lengthy 2004 article, Latour questioned the fundamental premises on which he'd based most of his career, asking, "Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?" He undertakes a trenchant critique of his own field of study and, more generally, of social criticism in contemporary academia. He suggests that critique, as currently practiced, is bordering on irrelevancy. To maintain any vitality, Latour argues that social critiques require a drastic reappraisal: “our critical equipment deserves as much critical scrutiny as the Pentagon budget.” To regain focus and credibility, Latour argues that social critiques must embrace empiricism, to insist on the “cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude -- to speak like William James”.

Latour suggests that about 90% of contemporary social criticism displays one of two approaches which he terms “the fact position and the fairy position.” The fact position is anti-fetishist, arguing that “objects of belief” (e.g., religion, arts) are merely concepts onto which power is projected; the “fairy position” argues that individuals are dominated, often covertly and without their awareness, by external forces (e.g., economics, gender). “Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind?” asks Latour: no matter which position you take, “You’re always right!” Social critics tend to use anti-fetishism against ideas they personally reject; to use “an unrepentant positivist” approach for fields of study they consider valuable; all the while thinking as “a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish.” These inconsistencies and double standards go largely unrecognized in social critique because “there is never any crossover between the two lists of objects in the fact position and the fairy position.”

The practical result of these approaches being taught to millions of students in elite universities for several decades is a widespread and influential “critical barbarity” that has—like a malign virus created by a "mad scientist" -- thus far proven impossible to control. Most troubling, Latour notes that critical ideas have been appropriated by those he describes as conspiracy theorists, including global warming skeptics and the 9/11 Truth movement: “Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique.”
Yes, Jim, "more wiser" is grammatically incorrect usage. ;-)
Kela, I appreciated your letter -- and am grateful for the "goading" that you've given me for the past couple years, starting with our first meeting on Jim's blog.

I will respond separately to your comments on the difference in ontological status between near-death visionary objects and rocks or trees.

Here, I want to point to a section of an essay by Michel Bitbol I've referenced previously, this time in response to your comments about Gadamer's distinctions between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. The essay is Science as if Situation Mattered (an excerpt from which was posted here on IPS, and which is available in full online here). I would be interested in your response to the entire essay, particularly in relation to the "new direction" beyond post-structuralism that you are seeking. For me, I see value in this enactive, participatory approach and believe it does go beyond post-structuralism, but I believe I'm still less qualified to make that assessment than you (even after your post-modern goading).

Here's a relevant passage from the essay:

"As I mentioned previously, Varela also focused on practices, rather than on illusory theoretical explanations of conscious experience. His specific suggestion consisted in complementing the set of standard practices of science with disciplined attention, and connecting the first-person outcome of this attention with neurobiological invariants. Such sophisticated practices clearly have a disclosing aptitude (through their phenomenological « descriptive » component), but they also focus on shaping experience (i) by the phenomenological « reduction » they rely on, and (ii) by the neuro-phenomenological feed-back loop they institute. Far from generating objectivist short-sightedness, the motto « just develop the scientific inquiry » here partakes of a larger project in which subjectivity is recognized both as an ubiquitous background and a dialectical partner.

To conclude, we must realize that by adopting such an attitude, Varela promoted an epistemological leap which can only be compared with Darwinism.

Before Darwin, natural science was methodologically restricted to reproducible state of affairs and lawlike necessity. Whenever contingency came in, it was imported from a non-scientific realm (e.g. from theology cum finalism). But Darwin encompassed contingency within the scientific domain by extending the methods of science to a natural history of random (genotypic and phenotypic) variations plus « selection of the fittest ». This method proved so powerful that some authors recently offered a Darwinian explanation of an all-pervasive type of contingency: that of the laws of nature themselves (Smolin, 1999).

Similarly, until now, natural science (in the sense of the German Naturwissenschaften) was inherently dismissive of subjectivity, or more generally situatedness, and of the procedure of intersubjective or intersituational « simulation » as well. It was constitutively (and for excellent epistemological reasons) foreign to what we may call the ultimate contingency: that you are you, with this birth, this biography, this genotype, these projects, this standpoint, this way of seeing things, these feelings ... this situation. Not the dry (third-person) fact that there is such an entity in the common world, but the awe-generating (first- or second-person) platitude that you coincide with this unique center of perspective, that you are the coordinate origin of your local world. This structurally excluded aspect of natural science was traditionally taken care of (somehow) by the Geisteswissenschaften, in their most specific German sense. But one presently witnesses a multifarious trend towards cross-fertilization of the two formerly incompatible Wissenschaften. After history and ordinary contingency, hermeneutic « understanding », with its capacity for tackling what I have called the « ultimate contingency », is creeping in at several levels of science (notwithstanding Sokal's caricature). The reason for this is that the program of « naturalization » imperatively requires an unprecedented breaking (and widening) of the procedural framework of natural science in order to overcome the momentous failure of the various reductionisms. In the field of the science of mind, implicit hermeneutization of objective science by P. Churchland (inspired by Kuhn), represents a half-recognition of this need. But Varela's program of establishing mutual constraints between first-person and third-person descriptions appears to be the first direct and self-conscious statement of the tendency to expand the area of both Wissenschaften by unifying their formerly separated branches at a higher methodological level. Varela clearly posited the design and the principles of the epistemological leap.

As I have shown in section 3, his ideas were only anticipated (although cryptically, in the modus operandi of the formalism and in one of its interpretations) by quantum mechanics. For, in the framework of quantum mechanics, the methodological turn which consists in encompassing both the situated accounts and the invariant entities in a non-reductive process of fine tuning has already been taken in practice. A few more decades (and some more foundational work) may be needed to realize this wholeheartedly. Here as in the science of mind, there are still resistances. But the falling apart of the resistances that arise in both disciplins is likely to be dramatically promoted by a full appraisal of their common root."

I agree that we need to distinguish between the "ontological status" of visionary objects, such as an encounter with Krishna or Christ, and physical objects such as trees or rocks or tides. Just calling them "visionary" and "physical" objects already involves that sort of distinction. I think an enactive framing would emphasize the interactive and performative contexts in which these "objects" are encountered or experienced, and both would be "on par" in being "enactments" (rather than simply pre-given, directly accessed things-in-themselves), but I still think we can -- and need to -- distinguish these enactments such that we don't end up conflating them or giving them identical ontological "weight," erasing any meaningful boundary, say, between objective scientific findings and subjective visionary experiences. One way this might be done, following Bitbol, might be to distinguish or focus on (situational) contexts of (and degrees of) invariance.

I see a need to move in several directions -- 1) away from a simple representational paradigm (and, of course, this move has already been taking place in numerous fields), but not so far that physical objects become "merely" cultural fictions or interpretations (so, that's move 1-b), backing off from some of the post-structuralist extremes, which I think an enactive, participatory, ontological pluralist framing enables); and 2) towards the recognition of spiritual enactments as having "ontological weight," rather than reducing them entirely to linguistic artifacts or, as Ferrer says in the essay I just posted, "discursive entities." How to do that satisfactorily is, indeed, a challenge.

Do you have any thoughts on that? Ferrer outlines a participatory approach, and I outlined a similar approach (integral, enactive pluralist) in my ITC paper, but I still think there are a number of challenges to be met.
Hi Balder,

OK. Wow. We're into the deep shit here. Where to start. I'm gonna backpedal here and set the stage to a response, and then respond.

I have been re-researching the issue of dreaming as it occurs in philosophical literature -- I wrote a paper on the topic as an undergrad -- as I think it may have some relevance to the present discussion. First off, I find it somewhat interesting that ontological status of objects in the dream state are not generally considered problematic, and yet the status of objects preceived in meditative states, which are no less called "subtle objects," are up for grabs. Why is this? Perhaps this problem is a version of the problem in which there is a difficulty calling the state of deep sleep and the "causal" samadhi both "causal states." (Interestingly, Shankara has no problem lumping the two together: they appear as the Sanskrit compound sushuptisamadhi.) One way out of this might be to say that the difference between the two is the degree of lucidity involved. As I have said before, I'm not sure about the possibility of lucidity, that is reflexive awareness, in the causal state, but it might serve as a useful criterion for distinguishing dream states from subtle meditative states. But then a subtle meditative state will really not be that much different from a lucid dream. In that case, the fact will be that I am aware and that I am experiencing an intentional state of consciousness, ie., consciousness directed toward an object. But can we say the same about the objects of such states? Are they, too, facts?

As many have noted, intentional propositions have a different "logic" to them, or to be exact, different truth functions. If I say, "it is raining right now," that proposition is true iff (if and only if) it is actually raining out right now. If I say, "I believe it is raining right now," that proposition is true iff I actually believe it is raining out right now. But the truth conditions governing this intentional proposition will be entirely independent of the fact concerning whether or not it is actually raining out right now.

This is why I say that the only fact that can be educed from lucid dreaming and/or subtle meditative states is the fact that I am experiencing X. However, (IMO) the ontic status of the object in such states can be questioned, and should be questioned. I may have an erotic dream about my buddy's new, hot girlfriend, but that is different from me actually making the douchebag move of seducing her. (Interestingly, Shankara says that we are not responsible for our erotic dreams, while Augustine is more disturbed by such things.)

But let us return to lucid dreams, my topic today. Here I wanted to return -- temporarily, at least, as I'll be back on the war path soon enough -- to a kind of hermeneutics of sympathy and to argue against Dennett. As I say, I have been re-researching the topic of lucid dreams, because I think the concept provides an intuitive rebuttal to some of Dennett's contentions.

Both Dennett and Norman Malcolm (whose book is called Dreaming) appear to deny lucid dreams, or to be exact Malcolm appears to reject them as possiblities, on "logical" grounds, and Dennett simply challenges them. Malcolm says that to dream is to be asleep and to be asleep is to be unconscious. This bit of arguing is based upon what philosophers call "conceptual analysis." Concepts have a kind of "logic" to them, in this mode of thinking, which derives from Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, Malcolm, while a good thinker in many respects, is no Wittgenstein. His argument here is merely a piece of apriori dismissiveness. Dennett, on the other hand, argues, in his piece "Are Dreams Experiences?", that it could be that the content of all dreams is auto-loaded -- an idea that is something drawn from a sci-fi movie -- at the moment of awakening.

The upshot is that both more or less reject lucid dreams as a counter example to their accounts of dreaming. I get the sense that both might have said (and I think one or the other actually does say), "it may be that you merely dreamt that you had a lucid dream." Now... let's ponder that, for a moment...

Conclusion? It's ridiculous. In my intial undergrad paper -- which was all of three pages -- a risky venture for a term paper -- I used a Wittgesteinian move against what I felt was the hokey appropriation of Wittgenstein. I asked, "what would it mean to judge, while dreaming, that one was dreaming, and be wrong?" Answer? It makes absolutely no sense. It is akin to saying we don't exist ala Descartes. That's the thing about reflexive awareness. It makes no sense to deny it, since its denial presupposes its existence.

So my point here is that there is a limit to the denial of privileged access. If I judge that I am dreaming, while I am dreaming, and then I state that that is what happened, upon awakening, it will be extremely counter-intuitive to deny that that is what I did.

So, then I read a recent contribution/article/entry on dreaming from an upcoming edition in an Oxford series on the Philosophy of Mind which stated that Dennett's and Malcolm's views on dreaming are still on the "outside." Then I read a very interesting article that did a kind of geneaology of Dennett's thought. Dennett was profoundly influenced by Wittgenstein's thoughts on the philosophy of mind, as well as by those of Gilbert Ryle, who was at Oxford when Witt was at Cambridge, and who with J.L. Austin, the orginator of "speech act theory" and "performative utterances" (a precusor to enactive theories), instituted "ordinary language philsophy." I suspect that Dennett's questioning of the privileging on first person accounts is based on his encounter with Wittgenstein and Ryle (as is, most likely, mine). (Both Wittgenstein and Ryle subject first person subjectivity to a ruthless critique.) In fact, the issue of privileged access is referred to in a somewhat oblique manner in Dennett's article on dreaming.

Dennett is interested in preserving first person "phenomenological" accounts. Here, he may be influenced by Thomas Nagel and his seminal article "What is it like to be a bat?" I'll return to Nagel later. Dennett is also very much interested in linking intentional states to neurobiological component -- something that has been a part of his project all along. This is why, I suspect, as we found in Jim's review, that he said, "I may very well be an enactivist." In other words, his programme parallels Varela's in many ways, though I suspect that Varela leans toward phenomenology while Dennett, toward neurobiology.

That's all for now, but I will return later with a reflection on the age old problem of the relation between Subject and Object, and on how that cashes out in terms of what direction we take in philosophical/methodological reflection, and also give an account that refers to Kenny's reference, in the final appendix to Integral Spirituality, to E.P Snow's "two cultures," where the "two cultures" imply (but do not infer ;) Gadamer's distinction between Geistes- and Natura- Wissenschaften.

P.S. In the meantime, Balder, I get the sense that you have "deeply felt" a particular critique. (Yuck. Why would I put it that way? What I mean that you have come to understand the implications of a critique to the point where, ala understanding a Chomskian rule, you can recognize the problem in other contexts and supply the relevant critique when needed.) The issue, as I understand it, pertains to what you call "representationalism." I get the sense that some teacher -- as well as, probably, some body of literature -- has made an indelible impact upon you on this topic. Can you explain to me what you mean by "representationalism," and can you also explain its theoretical defects, as you understand them. This is no "test." I'm actually quite curious, and hope to either learn from you or at least find some common ground.
Hi, Kela,

Thanks for your letter. I think you've raised some very interesting questions and issues. I want to offer a few thoughts on the question of the ontological status of meditative and dream objects -- in my case, more from the perspective of a "practitioner" (I studied dream and sleep yoga from a Tibetan teacher for three years) than a scholar, but without intending to privilege one perspective over the other.

To start, I agree with your suggestion that a subtle meditative state is not very different from a lucid dream. I'm not sure it will be helpful -- and I think it's fair, and important, to take a critical look at these claims -- but I'd like to offer some distinctions I'm familiar with from the Tibetan tradition. In Bon dream yoga teachings, several different forms of dream states are recognized: samsaric or conditioned dreams, dreams of clarity, and clear light dreams. Both samsaric dreams and dreams of clarity can be lucid or non-lucid, whereas clear light dreams are lucid by definition. A non-lucid samsaric dream is basically the unconscious "replaying" of bag-chags (karmic traces), while a lucid samsaric dream is one still driven by bag-chags, but in which you are aware that you are dreaming and can interact intentionally with the experience as a dream. A dream of clarity, in Tibetan tradition, is imagined to emanate from a level below, or at least less tied in to, one's personal "karma," and is believed to emerge only when the dreamer has already developed a degree of stability in non-personal awareness. A dream of clarity may provide you with particular insights, teachings, or "visions" that are taken to be more "objective" than the karmic projections of ordinary dreams. This distinction is not easy to make, apparently, because the teachings warn that just because you dream about a dakini or a guru or a pure land, that doesn't mean it's a dream of clarity; that can still be a samsaric dream, a projection based on your personal karmic conditioning. A dream of clarity may either be non-lucid or lucid, but it stands out generally as having an exceptional or profound quality, and is afforded "more" objective status than samsaric, conditioned dreams. Lastly, a "clear light dream" is essentially an experience of the arising and dissolution of dream content while in a nondual state of awareness, and is said to be essentially the same as the experience of rigpa in the waking state.

In this scheme, the presence of lucidity doesn't have anything to do with the ontological status of the contents of the visionary experience. We might correlate non-lucid and lucid "samsaric dreaming" with daydreaming or absent-minded reverie and intentional visualization or "active imagination," at least in relation to the relative presence of "lucidity" in dreaming or waking subtle state experiences. But in each case, the content is understood as (largely) "projection" and is distinguished (ontologically) from the rarer "content" of a "dream of clarity." For this discussion, I am not recommending uncritically accepting these distinctions, but I wanted to raise them in the interest of possibly comparing them with similar distinctions made by others -- such as Jung, with his notions of the "big dream" or the "objective psyche." I don't think it is very controversial to at least accept that people sometimes experience visionary content which subjectively appears to transcend immediate biographical influence or conditioning or egological control (vivid and profound-feeling "archetypal" content, possible precognitive experiences, etc). I agree with you that it is very hard to confirm whether this appearance is anything more than appearance, anything more than subjective seeming, but in some cases I am willing to keep the question open.

But even in the case of material which appears to carry some objective weight -- whether in the form of difficult-to-explain access to, or encounter or production of, images or information which do not simply duplicate or replay biographical or sociocultural inputs, or in the form of visionary figures which seem compellingly autonomous and intersubjectively "real," etc -- I still understand these experiences in enactive terms, as intersubjectively mediated (if not wholly self- or socially-generated). In other words, there may be elements to the experience which seem to transcend (or at least elude wholesale reduction to) biographical or cultural inputs, but in no cases do I interpret these experiences as direct contact with "reality itself."

To speak about this more concretely, I want to look at a few examples. First, I'll look at a phenomenon which is traditionally regarded as having relative objective weight, but which I tend to regard as largely individually and culturally constructed: the encounter with a deity in the context of tantric guruyoga. In practical terms, the practitioner first actively works to "construct" a deity or visionary image. This is an imaginative, culturally mediated exercise. At some point in the process, however -- perhaps on an extended (dark) retreat or in some other intensive practice situation, sometimes in the dream scenarios I discussed above -- the image may seem to "come alive," to behave independently from the constructing ego, to exhibit some autonomy or intersubjective responsiveness. I have heard Tibetan teachers describe this in terms of a possession of sorts: first you construct a suitable "vehicle," then the "deity" comes to inhabit it and work through it. Although in these cases, the deity is held to be "none other than one's own mind," it is still granted an "objective" status that would be problematic or at least highly questionable in a modern epistemological context (since other people, animals, objects, etc, are also regarded as "none other than one's own mind," and yet they have a great deal of autonomy from the individual subject). I regard this as largely a "mythic" formulation and do not take it literally.

Personally, I do not believe dakinis, guardians, or the yidam deities are independent beings existing (in some invisible dimension) at large in the world, in the same manner that people or animals exist at large in the world. I see them largely as cultural / subjective constructs, and so in that sense I depart from the traditional account of these beings. But with that said, I also accept that, in practical terms, we might -- in the context of an intensive practice tradition -- have experiences in which these "beings" show up, phenomenologically, in a way that is on par with other "objective" entities, to the extent that they are experienced as relatively autonomous or ego-independent. And I accept also that such experiences (of apparently "objectively existing," relatively independent entities) can have lived value and a positive impact, when cultivated in the context of a visionary practice tradition, and even when related to as if they have such relative autonomy. (Ricoeur's second naivete...?) One way of seeing this -- though there are others -- is that these visionary beings are enlivened by the cognitive unconscious, and in some cases may even communicate "wisdom" or profound "insight" not immediately available to the conscious ego.

On a more controversial note, some subtle-state experiences -- in dreams or visions -- might reveal information, or deal with knowledge or visions, which are hard to explain even by reference to the vast processing power of the cognitive unconscious, and which appear to yield "results" which are at least theoretically intersubjectively testable in the world at large (such as precognitive visions, or distance viewing, or other apparent examples of "extraordinary access," to coin a phrase). I would still see such "knowledge" as mediated and interpreted, but it may be suggestive of something like a collective information field (perhaps related to recent "light" or "quantum" models that have been discussed on this forum), or perhaps there might be other explanations.

I'm not feeling "complete" with this letter, and am still thinking through a few things, but I will post it now since it is already long, and since it has already taken me all day (in between calls at work) even to eke out this much. More later.

Best wishes,


I feel privileged (!) in the fact that I have elicited, from you, one of the best tracts/responses I have ever read on line.

Yes. And in my "experience," when the (g)(G)(g)oddess is invoked, she has "ontological weight."

(jana: a prussian snow-flower)

I would like to shift the emphasis from the "ontological status" of said objects to the question of their "ontological weight." And I believe that in an enactive paradigm, the question will shift from a question of empirical (truth-functional) "status" to (existential) "weight." The latter is, of course, a metaphor, but it is of no less importance; probably, it is of more .

At one time, I did a "deep study" of the roots of tantrism. I studied the works of a dude by the name of Alexis Sanderson, a genius. There are maybe three other people like him in the Western world: 1. my supervisor 2: an asshole depressive at U Hamburg; and P. Jaini at Berkeley.

In any case, Sanderson gets behind the material. He argues, very persuasively, that the original tantric cult was a cult of possession. Where SHAIVA dudes invoked Shaktis, and allowed them to possess them. He says that, according to the Sanskrit grammar, that it is very clear that these dudes are allowing these entities to possess them.

I call that "ontological weight."

So here, these "things" are having an effect on reality. And insofarassuch, they have "ontological weight." Who cares if they can be "empirically tested." We have "results" in a real world: these guys are fucked up. They're possessed.

I call that "ontological weight."
And I call it "metaphysical baggage" which has, as you noted, real world consequences. People that believe this kind of thing have delusions of grandeur, being agents of god or goddess (or its generic and perhaps less offensive "spirit") and treat the world and its peons accordingly. Weighty indeed, a weight from which we need liberation.
On a more personal note, recall I was for a time an initiate in the HOGD. Our ceremonies were of that same type in that we invoked the god(dess) of our stations and let them possess us for the ritual. At the end of the ritual we of course released them to whence they came, but nonetheless this notion of divine beings inhabiting us inevitably and without exception led to ego inflation in our personalities thereafter.
Hi, Kela,

Wow. I'm glad you appreciated that. And, yes, I agree that, in an enactive approach to these issues, the emphasis is more appropriately placed on "existential weight" than on "empirical status." I hadn't heard of Alexis Sanderson before, but I looked at his website and it looks like he has some very interesting essays posted there, which I plan to check out (I kind of have a thing for Shaivism). But based on my ventures into the Tibetan community, which in some of its Tantric and Dzogchen streams seems to have some real affinities with Shaivism, I would say that Sanderson is likely correct: teachers I've worked with have acknowledged belief in different forms of "possession," from "possession" by a deity, to the oracle phenomenon in Tibetan government, to intentional "projection" of consciousness, or summoning of consciousness, into "fresh corpses." I took a vow not to talk about any details, but I spent one summer with several teachers learning various practices and rituals for taking over another's body or summoning consciousness into a corpse.

I am personally very skeptical that these sorts of things "work," and the reality of "raising the dead" is not something I'm prepared to defend from an enactive point of view (!), but I do think that spiritual "possession," as a phenomenon, carries ontological weight in the sense that we are discussing. I've been around Indonesian shamans who have invoked possessing spirits, of gods and animals, and I can say there is certainly a very disconcerting, palpable shift that takes place in them -- an "ontologically weighty" shift that strikes me as involving more than merely discursive reality, which I think is important to acknowledge even while remaining distrustful of, or being willing to dismiss, the mythical interpretations.

Yesterday, I didn't have time to respond to other parts of your letter, including your PS, and I've also been a little pressed for time today, but I do plan to respond soon.

Best wishes,


P.S. Edward, I hear you. It seems to me we're approaching this from two different perspectives -- me, from the (philosophical) point of view of just crafting a post-metaphysical, enactive framing of what might be going on, while you appear to be (ethically, practically) addressing whether such "possession" is really an advisable spiritual practice. It seems, when you say "metaphysical baggage," that you might also be addressing problems with more mythical or metaphysical interpretations of such practices. I'm not prepared to say, for instance, that "yidam practice" inevitably leads to ego-inflation, no matter how it is held or interpreted.
Have you ever seen someone close to you “altered” and possessed by the demon alcohol? Do we really think there is a demon in the alcohol (or the practice or enaction of whatever)? My group sitting practice was on Tuesday nights. So one night I got into this altered state where I could not talk intelligently even though my mind was crystal clear, this lasted for a few hours off cushion. I was hanging around outside with friends (as was our habit) and just looking at their faces. They seemed tormented, you know… the nervous laughter and the avoiding of looking into people’s eyes to try and fit in, the unconscious jockeying for social position, etc. I saw all this written literally on their faces. I wanted to tell them to just relax and put it all down, that they did not have to live this way but I could not talk. Years later I saw a program about the brain and they showed a FMRI (functional MRI) like this one here. It shows clearly what I saw on my friend’s faces. That any ontology we intuit is only a temporary psychic heat rash. Where in this cloud of activity is the ghost in the machine? Granted this is a UR understanding or insight. We can enact LL perspectives as if Green Tara is real but Green Tara knows that she is not real.

ontologically weightless


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