To Cleanse the Doors of Conception: Psychic Dreams, Scientific Monsters, and Transcendent Realities

Dream researcher, Teeming Brain friend, and future Teeming Brain contributor Ryan Hurd — who has spoken about dreams, consciousness, sleep paralysis, and related matters at Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, the Rhine Center, and elsewhere — recently shared an account of an apparently precognitive dream that he personally experienced. As I was reading through it, in addition to finding his description of what happened to be rather fascinating, I found that a number of thoughts and recognitions were crowding forward from the peripheries of my awareness to announce the wider implications of such experiences. All of them have to do with the question of what’s really involved in and portended by exactly the philosophical effect Ryan identifies in connection with anomalous experiences in general, namely, a cracking of the “dam” of assumptions that lead most of us to explain away the significance of such anomalies for our worldview, or even to screen out a conscious acceptance and/or awareness of such things altogether. When this kind of breach in one’s personal cosmos is effected, the resulting flood of formerly rejected realities has the capacity to recast everything in ways that can be experienced as horrific, salvific, or even both at once.

Ryan says his dream involved a flooded attic from a burst pipe in the wall of his house. In the dream, as he was heading downstairs to look for help, he ran into his brother-in-law, who shares a house with Ryan and his wife. The next morning, back in the waking world, Ryan says his brother-in-law told him that he had “just had a dream about me coming down the stairs carrying buckets full of water.” This all came on the heels of Ryan’s discovery a week earlier that water was seeping into the basement — something he hadn’t mentioned to his brother-in-law.

His description of what followed is truly striking, since events unfolded in a multi-stage manner that sounds almost intentionally designed to punch holes in any attempt at a wholesale dismissal of paranormal possibilities:

With my pipe dream (ha) and his synchronous dream of me and the buckets, I knew we better spend some time in the basement prepping for a possible flood. So we spent several hours that same day getting all our belongings off the basement floor onto shelves and pallets. Six days later, during a heavy rainstorm, the basement flooded. Water poured through a crack in the wall like a spigot was turned on full-force. The image was shockingly similar to my dream. Yet the cause was clearly rainwater seeping out of the ground and coming through a crack in the foundation. I remember joking about how my dream of the broken pipe in the attic got the details wrong.

However, when the plumber came, he diagnosed the situation as a rusty pipe from the roof. Huh? Turns out, our row house — which was built in the 1890s — has a typical feature for homes of that era: the gutter collects water from the roof, and then the pipe enters the house again, connecting the rain gutter with an outgoing water pipe in the wall that then goes out to the city sewer. The pipe probably had never been replaced, and eventually corroded, first causing seepage, and then the flood.

So my dream wasn’t that wrong after all: a water pipe in the wall burst, with water originating from above the living space. [1]

Ryan acknowledges that his prior conscious knowledge of the basement’s moisture problem could well have led his unconscious mind to speculate about possible problematic outcomes, thus resulting in a dream whose apparently precognitive nature was really just a matter of pure, meaningless coincidence. However:

[W]hen you add my brother-in-law’s dream to the mix, I have to give up my “rational” defenses. We both dreamed we saw each other on the stairs: In my dream, I am seeking help to deal with the flood above; in his dream, I am carrying buckets of water. Is that telepathy on his part?  Mutual dreaming? I don’t know, but it’s pretty uncanny.

In addition to drawing a general lesson about the value of “honoring  our dreams,” which in this particular case resulted in clothing, books, and “an irreplaceable archive of letters, notes and photographs” being saved from destruction, Ryan uses the opportunity to offer valuable reflections on the nature of scientific skepticism and the worldview to which it gives rise:

In all the years of writing for this blog, I have never had a driving urge to convince skeptics of the existence of anomalous experiences like precognitive and telepathic dreams. I’m simply more interested in the transformational aspects of dreamwork and consciousness studies. Admittedly, I’m also skeptical of a lot of paranormal claims — due more to a grumpy temperament than a philosophical position. I most likely wouldn’t believe in psychic dreams at all, if not for the inconvenient truth that I have these experiences myself.

… Why do I fight it? It’s embarrassing, but I guess I fight it because I don’t understand it. And that, folks, is why the scientific worldview — as a belief system, not as a method of inquiry — is a conservative force that must be checked by open dialogue and a willingness to look into the murky corners of perception.

That, dear readers, is a point to be reread, pondered, assimilated, and allowed to undermine any reliance we may place upon an unconsidered faith in science as the end-all of knowledge. Consider again Ryan’s words: “the scientific worldview — as a belief system, not as a method of inquiry — is a conservative force that must be checked by open dialogue and a willingness to look into the murky corners of perception.” The distinction he identifies is crucial. It isn’t science as a method of inquiry but science as a belief system, as a worldview, that impoverishes our perceptions and therefore our world.

This is because, properly speaking, a scientific worldview is impossible. The point is patent but oddly and sadly overlooked by most. As explained by — to name one particularly pertinent and potent philosophical critic — Huston Smith:

It happens…that a scientific world view is impossible. I do not mean that we are a long way from having such a view; I mean that we never will have one — it is impossible in principle, a contradiction in terms. For “world” implies whole and science deal with part, an identifiable part of the whole that can be shown to be part only. [3]

Smith is of course not alone in this recognition. Theodore Roszak, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, and many other incisive and eloquent observers and thinkers have noted in their various ways that there can be no such thing as a scientific worldview and/or that any such worldview will be profoundly defective and destructive, for the clear and simple reason that science, in the customary meaning of the word, proceeds according to a method of observation, inquiry, and analysis that actively screens out certain data inherent in any and every given situation and circumstance. These data are, most immediately, the reality or realities of subjectivity, as inherent in the presence, person, and participation of the one conducting the research.

The scientific method is a way of knowing that is explicitly geared toward the producing of objective knowledge, meaning knowledge purged of subjectivity, purged of the preferences, perspectives, shadings, and gradations of private, individual perspectives.  (This is notwithstanding the widespread and longstanding recognition of the “observer effect” in quantum physics, which, according to the information and opinions available to us lay observers of the field, still stands as an unassimilated anomaly in its own right.) But subjectivity, we tend to forget, is the very reality and position from which this method was not just originally formulated but is still deployed. As a way of knowing that is purged of its own foundation in first personhood, science is wonderfully useful for producing practical, operational knowledge. It has also been enormously helpful on the philosophical side for teasing out and clarifying many aspects and principles of reality, including the nature and role of subjectivity itself, that were formerly bound up in an unarticulated mass of assumptions and presuppositions throughout most of human history. But any attempt to start from science and use it to formulate a worldview, defined as a comprehensive framing, modeling, and/or understanding of reality, is erected right from the outset on a fiction and a fallacy.

Such attempts fall victim to the feedback loop identified by Smith (see, for example, his essay “Excluded Knowledge: A Critique of the Modern Western Mind-Set” in Beyond the Post-Modern Mind), wherein the fundamental Promethean motivation to gain power and control over nature that lies historically, culturally, and psychologically at the base of the scientific enterprise leads us collectively to construct a false or virtual view of the world and ourselves that we then mistakenly and unconsciously project back onto the world itself. The world, in turn, then reflects back an appearance of mechanistic naturalism and insentient materiality when we look at it through the epistemological lens of a method — the scientific method, as formulated by the likes of Bacon, Descartes, and so on — designed to filter out everything else in the interest of giving us what Smith terms “power knowledge.” We read ourselves out of reality and then forget that the resulting view of things is not “the way things are” but a temporarily convenient fiction. The universe appears to have no place for us. Our inner lives appear as a mere function or side effect of neurochemical processes that have no intrinsic meaningfulness (because there is no such thing meaning) or intentionality (because there is no such thing as intentionality or teleology). This is all pure fantasy. But it’s no less deadly for being so.

“Something truly transcendental has the opportunity to step through the door and recast everything into a new and unexpected shape, and in this reenchanted world, the demons can, perhaps, re-present themselves to us as the angels they would rather be.”

And deadly is indeed the correct term to invoke here. For we’re not just talking here about forgetting, denying, and repressing our own subjectivity and interiority, but about doing the same thing to the transcendent and/or chthonic and/or daimonic forces with which we share this inner space of what has variously been called the intellectual plane, the astral realm, Idea Space, and daimonic reality. Smith warns of this in words that effectively evoke the deep philosophical import of the point:

An epistemology that aims relentlessly at control rules out the possibility of transcendence in principle. By transcendence I mean something superior to us by every measure of value we know and some that elude us. To expect a transcendental object to appear on a viewing screen wired by an epistemology that is set for control would be tantamount to expecting color to appear on a television screen that was built for black and white. We can “put nature to the rack,” as Bacon advised, because it is our inferior; possessing (in the parts we can get at, at least) neither mind nor freedom, those parts can be pushed around. But if things superior to us exist — extraterrestrial intelligences superior to our own? angels? God? — these are not going to fit into our controlled experiments. It is they who dance circles around us, not we them. [3]

What’s more, these “things superior to us” may turn out to be not God or gods but demons and the Devil himself. Or rather, they may, and do, turn into these things if we fail to relate to them properly, and it’s a failure that entails, basically, doing exactly what Western-influenced scientific civilization has been doing for the past several centuries by failing to acknowledge these forces and principles in our official map of reality.

The results of this catastrophic mistake emerge in several forms and settings, including popular culture and entertainment, which has now become a realm of increasing demonic freneticism, as Victoria Nelson reminds us:

Because the religious impulse is profoundly unacceptable to the dominant Western intellectual culture, it has been obliged to sneak in this back door, where our guard is down.  Thus our true contemporary secular pantheon of unacknowledged deities resides in mass entertainments, and it is a demonology, ranging from the “serial killers” in various embodied and disembodied forms to vampires and werewolves and a stereotypical Devil. [4]

The same effect can also be seen in the trajectory of history at large. As I have argued elsewhere, one way of understanding the meaning of the twentieth century, which was marked by epic violence of a magnitude never before seen in human history, is to read it as a period when our collective human unconscious and the daimonic realm of which it is an exemplar and conduit were deformed by violent repression and abandonment under the reign of a triumphalist scientific rationalism and then let loose, by our deliberate ignoring of them, to wreak havoc on a global scale. We acted as Frankenstein and created a monster out of our own visionary unconscious by mistreating it and pursuing a monomaniacal course of “Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.” [5]

And yet the concrete agent or vehicle of this monster’s demonic rage was none other than us. It’s always this way: we make demons out of our angels and then become possessed by them. We even, or especially, do this when we have no such thoughts in mind, and when we are the type of people who tend to scoff at such ideas. Consider, for example, the case of Albert Speer. As Roger Forsyn, deputy director of the NASA Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership, points out in the Summer 2012 issue of The New Atlantis, the dangers inherent in the “technical personality” — a type prized above all others in scientific-technological civilization — are epitomized by, but not by any means limited to, the life and person of Speer, who, as Adolf Hitler’s chief architect, serves as an object lesson and warning to current technicians and engineers because of his ability to split his consciousness and ignore the horrific uses of the vast and, from a certain point of view, wonderful projects that Hitler assigned to him:

Hitler and his henchmen inspired the evil that culminated in the Holocaust and the other atrocities of the Third Reich and deaths of World War II. But they were not alone; there were millions who also contributed, either directly by actively participating or indirectly by their silence and disregard. There were engineers, technicians, and architects whose ostensibly amoral technical abilities and organizational capacities supported a regime that nearly brought about the end of Western civilization.

… Albert Speer did not, as far as any historians know, personally design any death chambers, nor did he personally kill another human being. But Speer did use his brilliant technical expertise and talents to enable the war efforts of the most evil regime in history, allowing it to murder millions of human beings. But even as we condemn him, we must ask — especially we engineers and technicians — is Speer so different from us? How many of us would be willing to compartmentalize our emotions, suppress our consciences, almost to sell our souls, for the opportunity to work on the grand projects that Speer was involved in? How many of us are so focused on solving a technical problem that we fail to contemplate where that solution might lead? … Almost every engineer in the course of his career faces moral decisions that are similar to, if less weighty than, the ones that Albert Speer faced. In examining Speer’s life, we must ask to what extent his character is representative of the technical personality in general … “I forgot,” Speer later said, shortly before the end of his own life, “that humanity is the most important part of life.” [6]

All of this — science’s false claim to present us with a coherent worldview, the price of lost soul that we pay when we try to believe and live as if this claim is true, the exclusion of the transcendent forces in our world and psyche that this bit of self-deception requires and represents, and the consequent demonic transformation of those forces into agents of murderous malevolence — is why anomalous experiences like Ryan’s precognitive dream are so exquisitely valuable: because these are, as stated above, “cracking-of-the-dam” experiences that jolt a person’s entire outlook with a glimpse of possibilities and principles that have no place in the conventional scientific “worldview,” but that nonetheless present themselves as incontrovertibly and inescapably real. It is precisely this kind of experience that has the capacity to — if you’ll forgive a slight alteration of William Blake’s famous line and an oblique nod to the memory of Aldous Huxley — cleanse the doors of conception and thus precipitate a rethinking of everything. (And since the subject of religion has already been mentioned and is always hovering close by whenever such matters are discussed, perhaps it’s not out of line to note that “rethink” is actually the literal and more spiritually accurate meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which is more commonly translated as “repent.”)

When reality presents itself in lived experience in a way that is incongruous with one’s deepest assumptions, sooner or later the assumptions and the outlook they sustain have to crumble, at which point a new world, literally, can reveal itself. This is also when the demons can cease being evil and Frankenstein’s monster can stop raging in its hell of abjection. Something truly transcendental has the opportunity to step through the crack in the cosmic dam and recast everything into a new and unexpected shape. And in this reenchanted world, the demons can, perhaps, re-present themselves to us as the angels they would rather be.


[1] Ryan Hurd, “Cracks in the Dam: Honoring Psychic Dreams,” Dream Studies, November 21, 2012.

[2] Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 109. Emphasis added.

[3] Ibid., 114-15.

[4] Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 18.

[5] See Matt Cardin, “When the Muse Becomes Monstrous: The Demonic Modern History of the West,” Demon Muse, August 2, 2010.

[6] Roger Forsyn, “The Architecture of Evil,” The New Atlantis No. 36, Summer 2012.

Image: “She left the Door open” by h.koppdelaney under Creative Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on November 26, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hey Matt, I’m delighted my piece inspired your own… that’s always gratifying.

    I just wanted to note a small correction that my dreams was a water pipe bursting in the attic, not the basement. What made this detail interesting was finding out later that, in actuality, the water did “come from above.”

    also I was reminded about Allan Wallace’s Taboo of Subjectivity — a great book that tackles these issues of science as a belief system, and how subjectivity gets swept under the rug. He also introduced the concept of scientism versus science.. what we often see from Dawkins and other “skeptics” is of the first category.

    thanks again – great piece!

    • Many thanks for the correction, Ryan. I have amended the post.

      Thank you, too, for recommending the Wallace book. It looks truly fascinating, especially with its/his focus on the equal validity of subjective explorations of consciousness and experience to accompany and complement the objective study of phenomenality. The first time I ever saw that idea explicitly presented was in Ken Wilber’s EYE TO EYE (where it of course received a bracingly lucid exposition), and it has remained with me ever since as one of the most compelling responses to give and disciplines to pursue in the face of the reigning orthodoxy that discounts subjectivity entirely.

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