Awaking from the Primordial Dream

This is Chapter 20 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

The whole world reaches in man
its own consciousness


Carl Jung, gazing upon a timeless African landscape, found himself momentarily absorbed, dreamlike, into a world not yet fully awake:

From a low hill in the Athi plains of East Africa I once watched the vast herds of wild animals grazing in soundless stillness, as they had done from time immemorial, touched only by the breath of a primeval world. I felt then as if I were the first man, the first creature, to know that all this is. The entire world around me was still in its primeval state; it did not know that it was. And then, in that one moment in which I came to know, the world sprang into being./1/

I imagine most of us have had some such experience, at least to the extent of finding ourselves lost in the hypnotic scene before us as in a reverie. We find ourselves enmeshed, or “caught up,” in the world. Our minds seep outward into our surroundings, so that we no longer stand apart from the tableau we contemplate. The psyche, having momentarily escaped the self's constraining will, lives outside the self. Once that loss of boundary occurs, it requires a certain inner wrench, or pulling away, to extract (recollect) ourselves from the world. Only then do we regain our previous separate existence.

In Jung's case the wrench was also a moment of revelation. He not only recollected himself, but he was struck by the nature of the transition. He knew he had experienced two radically different relationships to the world, and in moving from one state to the other he felt that not only he, but also the world itself, had changed. Something in the world depended on the birth of awareness in him. It was not only he who had “come to himself,” but the world had come to itself through him.

Living in a dream

You may well ask, “What exactly was this change of awareness Jung describes? Surely he maintained full awareness of the world even during his reverie. He was, after all, conscious throughout, and his senses were registering the scene. His ability to describe the episode in retrospect proves as much.”

There are, however, differing levels of awareness. When I awake in the morning, I may recall my dreams -- proving that I experienced them with some sort of consciousness -- but I nevertheless wake up to a sharper awareness. My dream consciousness, however powerful its feelings, is in some regards duller, less focused than my waking consciousness. It lacks conceptual clarity. And above all, it is less aware of itself. In the hierarchy of awarenesses, each higher state may “know,” or be awake to, the lower ones, while the lower ones remain asleep with respect to the higher. Freud could only have written his Interpretation of Dreams while wide awake.

Jung spoke of that one moment in which I came to know. This knowing is not, in the first place, a matter of gaining additional facts. The spellbound Jung could not “know” any facts at all. His consciousness was temporarily dispersed in his environment, without awareness of self; his coming to himself was a return to a more centered awareness. Such a centering must precede the apprehension of fact.

There are infinite gradations of consciousness. We can demarcate a “lower” end of the spectrum by imagining the wholly dreamlike, instinctual consciousness of animals. The gazelle and lion upon which Jung gazed, and the eagle circling overhead, do not ever “come to themselves.” They may see with eyes far sharper than our own, distinguish smells we will never know, and give ear to distant chords hidden in our silences. Yet, while they live in these experiences, they do not apprehend them. They glide through the primeval landscape in a dream.

Ancient man -- myth-making man -- long retained elements of a dreaming consciousness, and was incapable of anything like what we would call self-reflection. It is all too easy, in considering the culture of earlier periods, to mistake such a different form of consciousness for a mere difference in information or factual understanding. The ancients, on such a view, simply had not learned what we have learned. But this is a serious error.

We run up against this error when we contemplate some of the wonders and mysteries of the prehistoric races. We look, for example, at the ruins of certain stone monuments -- observatories marvelously calculated to mark the waystations of sun and moon. It is possible to deduce from these relics just what the ancients must have known of astronomy and mathematics, and the answer sometimes stuns us. For it appears they possessed skills that even a trained astronomer today would be hard put to duplicate without her computer-generated charts and electronic calculator.

But all this is to assume that these earlier peoples possessed a consciousness much like our own, and executed their designs with a kind of scientific awareness. It is risky, however, to carry such reasoning too far. After all, what must the migrating tern or the spawning salmon “know” in order to navigate thousands of miles with the precision of an ICBM? This, too, we can deduce, and it turns out they must know a great deal of astronomy, geophysics, and mathematics -- if indeed they approach their task with an engineer's consciousness. But, of course, they do not. Knowledge of facts is not the only knowing.

It is rather as if the arctic tern takes wing upon an ethereal sea of wisdom, borne along invisible paths by an intelligence calling as much from Nature as from within its own mind. In its dream, more profound than any man's, it achieves harmony with the world, because its course is as much the world's as its own. So we may speak less accurately of the migrating bird's intelligence than of a larger, more diffuse wisdom comprehending the bird and drawing it along.

Even in our own dreams, we cannot clearly distinguish self from world. The elements of the dream scenario tend to represent, in one way or another, aspects of ourselves; our inner life is “spread around,” displayed outwardly. Everything is suffused with our own consciousness. But then, if this consciousness is not really centered in me, if it meets me from without as well as within, can it be fully my own? While dreaming, I am not set wholly apart from my plastic and psychically active surroundings; I inhabit a world that is alive, with no clear boundary between inside and outside. And in this union with the world lies cradled a deep wisdom. By attending to my dreams, I may recognize an inner need long before my intellect fully awakens to it.

There are, then, different levels of consciousness or awareness, quite apart from the possession of different facts. Indeed, achievement of a certain level of consciousness is required before we can possess any facts at all -- as opposed to their possessing us in a dream. There are ways of knowing besides the knowing of facts. While the wisdom of the ancients was certainly not a technological or scientific savvy, we cannot for that reason alone dismiss it. That would be like criticizing the tern for its inability to conceptualize modern navigational theory.

History as an awakening

The human race has awakened by degrees. And our arousal continues. Only during the past few hundred years, for example, has the discipline of history existed in anything like its present form. The Greeks and Romans had their historians, of course, but their narratives served primarily as story and moral example. The study of the past for its own sake, and the idea that the present grows out of the past like a plant from a seed by a sequence of wholly natural causes and effects, really began taking hold only in the seventeenth century,/2/ as one result of a new and peculiarly reflexive awareness. The first modern historians found it possible in a new degree to step back from the immediate stream of human experience and view it all as objective process. They began to see more clearly -- standing outside of it -- a development in which their forbears had only been immersed as participants. Thus they continued that same distancing of psyche from object, that same pulling away of consciousness from that-of-which-it-is-conscious, whereby our primeval ancestors first came to know that the world was.

The new interest in origins extended beyond human history, embracing biological (Darwinian), geological, and cosmological origins. At the same time, awareness turned in upon itself even more with the discoveries of the depth psychologists. We became aware, as it were, of unawareness, conscious of the subconscious -- of that to which, though it is indeed a kind of consciousness, we have not yet fully awakened. Likewise, if history is a species of self-reflection, then the still younger discipline of historiography -- the study of the nature of history -- is reflection upon reflection. Our love of the prefix meta- today testifies to our inveterate habit of stepping back to consider every subject from a yet higher vantage point.

It may not come as stirring news that the human race has been waking up. We have placed a man on the moon -- surely a task requiring wakefulness! And who among us does not fully expect that we will come to know more and more of what is -- if Jung's peculiar emphasis really means anything?

But the emphasis does mean something, for it points beyond the accumulation of information to a change in the nature of our consciousness. It helps us to interrupt our preoccupation with technological accomplishment, and directs attention to the sorts of changes that made technology possible in the first place. There may, after all, be dangers as well as advantages in these changes. History suggests a progressive contraction of consciousness into the skull of the detached, self-contained, and isolated observer, so that we come to know the world as set apart from ourselves. More and more of our experience becomes a chronicling of “world” or “other,” until we stand finally as detached observers even of our own subjectivity. Our awareness sharpens, becoming clearer and more wakeful, by virtue of this contraction from the periphery -- from dreamlike entanglement in the world -- to a focused center. But the uttermost center of a circle is a null point. Might we become so radically detached from the surrounding world that we can no longer find our way back to it -- that we lose not only the world but also ourselves? Might we, in the end, wake up to nothing at all?

The solitary bird, gripped by an unknowing intensity as it ploughs through the trackless ether -- “pulled along” by an intelligence lying more in the world than in itself -- hears, on the dull edges of its consciousness, a call of destiny sung by hidden choirs. It is not alone. I, on the other hand, venture to set my foot in one direction rather than another only amidst a seizure of self-doubt. I hear no call, and I am alone. I observe with greater and greater precision from a position of greater and greater isolation. Meaning disappears in the face of narrow certainty, so that I become more and more certain about ever thinner facts that no longer bear their own significance within themselves.

The world is the womb of meaning; without it we cannot live. Whatever else we may say about the dream, it connects us meaningfully to the world. It is no accident that we sometimes hear “messages” in our dreams. Where the world of our waking experience has become for us inert and dead, the dreamworld remains alive with psyche. The elements of a dream are frequently charged with an inner significance, although typically we cannot quite “put our fingers on” the meaning -- cannot grasp it consciously, with our waking minds. It is as if meaning and clear intellectual apprehension stand in a kind of tension, with each existing at the expense of the other. The more we wake up, the less dreamlike or meaningful our life becomes, which is also to say, the less connection we find to the world. We come to know the world objectively by being cut off from it. This paradox, growing ever more acute, raises the question just how much longer our contracting psychic centers can hold their worlds together.

The mind of the computer

“But wait,” you say. “This has gone far enough. Birds do not ‘take wing upon a sea of wisdom.’ Nor is their consciousness somehow vaguely diffused through the world. And those ‘hidden choirs' they hear are actually staccato data streams issuing from internal computers -- biological information-processing mechanisms much like the silicon-based machines of our own latter-day invention. Poetic references to dreams and the rest are fine, but don't substitute them for knowledge of how the world really works!”

With this objection we arrive at that modern fascination with the computer as an image of the human mind. The fascination may itself be symptomatic of a further development in the evolution of consciousness. If we demarcate one end of the spectrum of consciousness by imagining the profound dream of the higher animal, we see something like the opposite end exemplified in the computer. For the computer never dreams, and it does not know meaning. What we meet in the computer is a kind of pure, unblinking wakefulness, an unsurpassed logical clarity with no awareness of content, a consciousness that has contracted to a nullity, so that the only things left to it are the empty logical forms of its own perfect acuity.

Now, without too much difficulty we can imagine a consciousness wholly sunken into dream, possessed of no waking awareness (so caught up -- like the entranced Jung -- within an awareness of, that there can be no separation or detachment, no awareness that). We find it much less easy, however, to imagine a consciousness jolted into an utterly blank wakefulness -- a consciousness so detachedly aware, that it has lost all contact with anything of which to be aware. This may seem like so many empty words. Perhaps our difficulty arises because the former condition, while largely behind us, survives fragmentarily in our nightly dreams, whereas the other still lies ahead, even if we are rapidly approaching it. The computer may allow us to see clearly and in advance a state of mind that otherwise might overcome us by surprise.

It is no accident that the problem of meaning now disturbs those disciplines most vigorously pursuing computer models of the mind. How does a computer really mean anything by its output -- its mechanically generated strings of symbols? How does it transcend mechanism and arrive at reason? The computer manipulates a symbol (for example, the word “house”) solely according to the symbol's form; how, then, does it get from the form of the word “house” -- a particular sequence of five letters -- to the content, the actual meaning of the word? Can a computer truly become aware of anything?

Most scholars and engineers within computer-related fields are convinced that, if we can only understand the mechanism of the computer's intelligence sufficiently, questions of meaning will somehow fall into place as a kind of side effect. After all, we human beings are merely complex mechanisms ourselves, are we not? In the end, whatever we have of meaning and conscious experience of the world will be found in the computerized robot as well. Of course, not a few are willing to suggest that what we have of meaning is nothing at all; “meaning” and “experience” are simply peculiar varieties of self- deception -- phantasms of a subjectivity best exemplified (and dismissed) in our dreams.

And so we who pride ourselves in being fully awake seek to expunge our last memories of those shadowy dreams still echoing from the childhood of the race. No longer capable of taking our own dreams seriously, and blind to our evolutionary past, we would reinterpret the consciousness of our ancestors upon the analogy of the computer. Not content with waking up, we deny we have ever dreamed. This is all too easy. For the dream today has become fragile in the extreme, vanishing quickly from mind under the bright, featureless glare of daytime wakefulness. The gods no longer favor us with overwhelming and powerful visitations. Why should we who have delivered ourselves from the fears and superstitions of the night take any further notice of these things?

But primitive fear and superstition are not the only sources of terror in the world. We have discovered our own more sophisticated terrors. Or, to put the matter differently, the gods with whom we once coexisted in a dreamworld find a way to take vengeance upon those who unceremoniously abandon them to the subconscious. Not yet are we merely walking computational devices -- as the very busy mental wards of our hospitals testify.

It was Jung himself who most forcefully pointed out our self- deceptions in this regard. If our dream-deprived world is no longer alive with psyche, if the gods have disappeared from it (he repeatedly reminded us), it is only because they have taken up residence within man himself. And so long as we do not recognize their presence, we experience them as demons working their mischief through our subconscious instincts. We then condemn ourselves to live out meanings not of our own making, without being awake to them. In other words, we obtain our sharply delineated consciousness by pushing our dream awareness ever further into the unconscious, where the elements rage unrecognized and beyond our control. As a consequence -- and all our enlightenment notwithstanding -- the parade of wars, tortures, mass murders, and suicides continues unabated, while alienation and psychic disintegration steadily corrode the thin veneer of civilization from below.

The soul of the computer

Waking up, it turns out, is not quite the simple act we might have imagined. We extract our consciousness from our living surroundings, detaching our now isolated subjectivity and thereby reducing the world to a dead, inert collection of “things” with which we feel no inner connection. But the world remains the only mirror in which consciousness can recognize itself, so that we progressively come to experience ourselves in the same way we experience the mechanically conceived external world. We lose our own inner life, and our consciousness converges upon the empty abstractions of the machine.

Ancient man, while dreaming, was at least dreaming of the powers enlivening the world. He thereby knew them, however dimly. We, on the other hand, have gained our acute, materially effective consciousness only at the cost of losing altogether our awareness of the life within things. That life has retreated into our unconscious. Owen Barfield had something like this in mind when he remarked that

the possibility of man's avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind./3/

But our alienation from the world has proceeded so far that we cannot receive this warning as anything but a picturesque overstatement: we accept that the forces unleashed in the atomic bomb are “our own” forces only in the sense that it requires human beings to conceive, assemble, and deploy the thing. The “objective” forces themselves remain quite independent of the human mind. That, however, is not what Barfield is saying. He speaks as one who has traced the withdrawal of nature's living powers into the lost depths of the individual, and who therefore knows the connection between man's unconscious, on the one hand, and the forces hitherto lying bound in matter on the other.

* * * * * * *

The entire spectrum of consciousness, from primeval dream to modern wakefulness, can in a certain sense be found within the individual man today -- except that the dreaming has lapsed into a deeper unconsciousness against which we have purchased our ever narrower observational prowess. We wake up by abandoning the dream world to complete darkness.

The computer presents an apt image for the endpoint of this process. Or, rather, it stands as one possible endpoint, for we may still choose to move in a different direction. Having once “come to ourselves,” we can resist the further contraction of our wakefulness to a nullity, seeking instead to deepen it. We can, that is, work to encompass with renewed consciousness what has previously fallen from awareness -- not by sinking ourselves back into dream, but by taking hold in full wakefulness of the wisdom that once possessed the dreaming childhood of the race. This is the task of imagination.

The computer's pure wakefulness-without-content is, in fact, no wakefulness at all, for being perfectly alert to nothing hardly qualifies as being awake. Nor will we find our deepest kinship with the computer by looking at how its logic circuits are empty shadows of our own thinking. What, in the end, binds us most irresistibly to our computers -- what fascinates us almost beyond recall -- is what we are least conscious of, because most horrified of. If the computer's watchful eye is the red, unblinking eye of Sauron, we will no doubt have to probe the most hidden secrets of silicon and pulsing electricity to find its soul -- only to discover there the same powers that Barfield discerned in the blast over Hiroshima.


1. Jung, 1968: 95-96.

2. Barfield, 1967: Chapter 1.

3. Barfield, 1973: 36.

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