(Psychological Paradoxes & Puzzles — 11)

A Paradox: The gods are real and they are not real

If Freud and others are right, it is as if we have two minds, that is two ways of thinking. Typically, one is active at night when we are asleep, while the other is dominant during the day when we are awake and alert. The two ways of thinking are as different as night and day. The purest example of the night-time mind would be a dream, and the purest example of day-time thinking would be a rational, logical, scientific chain of thought. In sleep we relax away from the strict rules of rational thought and reality testing only to shoulder them again when we begin to awaken. Being rational and logical requires work, whereas, in the night-time mind, whatever is is real, and no evaluating is required. It is possible for the night-time mind to emerge and even take over in the day, and it is also possible for a person to think logically within a dream. For most people this may happen sometimes, and for some it may happen quite often. For some people, the rational, reality testing mind may be all but absent, even in the day, and waking consciousness then takes on a dream-like feeling where impressions and intuitions and feelings and inclinations rule without challenge and without control.

Within a dream, people can stumble into "worlds" that are much more wonderful or much more horrible than the everyday, waking world. Not all dreams have magical houses or god-like beings or witches, or mothers who have died but some do. In dreams we might find treasure chests of iridescent jewels or meet a tantalizing goddess or be chased by an adversary who can not be killed. We find golden keys and coats of many colors and hear authoritative commands that can contradict the moral rules of our waking lives as well as the laws of society. For this mind, all these things are real and have power like the "she who must be obeyed" in Rider Haggard's novel (She).

But the minute we wake up, everyday reality pulls us from our dreams. If we are coming out of a nightmare, we will be happy to be able to shake it off and get back to our real lives. If our dream was of a journey to the heavens, we might hate having to open our eyes and be dragged back into the nagging problems of the often insipid reality of everyday life. But, in either case, for most of us, we leave our dream worlds and dream thinking when we wake up and enter our real world and our realistic thinking. When we are in one, the other is gone and may as well never have existed.

The Paradox

Premise 1:

When we are under the spell of a dream or a dream-like state, there are gods and devils, angels and demons, heaven and hell, a world of the dead, magic and super-powers, and every otherworldly thing we learn of from the myths and tales of native peoples and from the sacred writings of the world's religions.

Premise 2:

All the things that were there while in a dream or in a visionary state don't exist and are unreal and were, at most, "merely imaginary" — at least this is how it looks when we are awake, as we are now, and obeying the laws of our rational minds.

Premise 3:

We are always in one mind or the other, and so there is no outside point or third mind from which to judge between or arbitrate between the two. All we have is the testimony and "reasoning" of one or the other, and so it is an eternal back and forth between two parts of ourselves that contradict each other.


The gods and their worlds are real, and they are not real.


1. There are different names people have given the two minds, to the two ways of thinking. Both William James and Carl Jung spoke of a passive way of thinking. Freud used the phrase Primary Process, and he called the mind that "contained" this type of thinking, the Id. Perhaps this primitive mind that is there in all of us is what is referred to in some Eastern mystical writings as the Original Mind. And so on. The other way of thinking seems to be newer from the point of evolution. It seems to be connected with the cortex of the human brain. It is what people call the Rational Mind or the Scientific Mind or the mind that tests reality.

2. The primitive mind does not seem to be troubled by contradiction. One minute it thinks one thing, the next minute the opposite, and, if we point out this contradiction to it, it doesn't seem to care, partly because it is on to the next thought. It is concerned with here and now, as it were. It is adjusting to present conditions and problems, whereas the rational mind has to distance itself from the present to get a bigger picture. The original mind produces contradictory thoughts about god and magic powers and the world of the dead and other traditional religious subjects. It has no trouble believing in many gods and then in the one God and then in this or that specific god. It is terrified by death, but then sees clearly that there is no death, and then it becomes terrified again. It catches a glimpse of a woman and sees her as a goddess, but, when it experiences the effects of her behavior over time, it comes to see her as a monster, but, later, after she offers a few words of explanation, it worships her again. If it sees contradictions in these movements, it doesn't care. If it cares, it doesn't have time to worry about it.

3. The primitive mind is made of up what we call thought and ideas, but it also contains products of the imagination and feeling and sensation. It is a chemical unit, as it were, and no part can be separated out without the work of the rational mind. It is an open question whether the purest rational thinking consists solely of abstract propositional ideas or whether it also contains images and feelings and sensations. 


Is there a third mind (as opposed to the assumption of Premise 3), perhaps a higher one, capable of adjudicating between the lower two or of holding their contents in itself to meld the two together or to hold the two contents in itself to arrive at a "best way of looking at the situation" on a case by case basis? — If there is such a "third" mind it must do fair justice to both of the minds we have been discussing. Their views must both retain their power and drive. A third mind that hasn't integrated the lower two would be insipid and unrelated to a significant part of our psychological realities. 

A Partial Answer?

1. If, as the great psychologists have written, the "higher" mind arises out of the "lower" one —  if to paraphrase Jung's way of putting it, the Unconscious is the mother and the father of the Conscious mind or Ego — then it would seem that a third mind, a still "higher" mind, if there is one, would have to grow out of the lower two. If it is a genuine offspring, then it would, in itself and by a kind of biological necessity, contain the "genes," as it were, of its sires.

2. I wonder if there is a true resolution here. My own observations of myself and others show conflict between the two "lower" minds followed by moments of apparent resolution and feelings of having found a "higher" answer. But these moments are followed by a collapse of the felt unity back into its opposites. Is there a progress here to the point where a third principle can emerge more and more? Is the "higher" mind like a raw diamond that needs to be split more than once until it's beauty is finally revealed? Or is it like the building of financial security which starts slowly, grows hesitantly and with ups and downs, and, only after decades of hard work finally may, with all the work and with luck, become permanent, or as permanent as anything in this life can be? Or is it an endless war with peace emerging only as a temporary state between battles?

3. I do not have an answer in my own life. It is very easy, when you are feeling at ones best and all seems clear, to think and also to say to others that you have the Answer. And, when it collapses, it is difficult to admit this to yourself and to others, and it is tempting to keep mouthing the words you used when you thought you had the answer. Are the answers of the greatest figures of all time just words they gave at their peak moments? I do not know.

4. If there is growth towards the building of a higher state or the gradual unveiling of a higher state that has been hidden, then that gives a certain purpose to life and a feeling of the possibility of being on a path and of advancing. If there isn't, then it seems the most we can hope for is a growing awareness of the impossibility of the goal. Or, perhaps, an acceptance that there are, at best, only glimpses of higher possibilities. Perhaps others in the future will be able to build on our work and find what we have been searching for and will never find. If nothing else, a growing awareness of the limitation of the human mind and of one's own mind is something, perhaps a type of wisdom.

5. In any case, I find myself agreeing with Jung that the process, whatever its outcome, involves conflict and friction and suffering. The vision of a land of the dead (where your deceased beloved spouse is waiting for you) may conflict with the thoughts of your rational mind. If you flip back and forth unconsciously, between the two, you may escape the feeling of conflict, but, if you try to hold the two in mind, how could there not be suffering? It is not just becoming aware of two conflicting ideas; it is more like being caught between Scylla and Charybdis or like trying to obey Circe and the Sirens at the same time. And this conflict about the after-life of one's dead relatives is just one of hundreds of battles that are revealed once you start looking at the products of the two minds in yourself.

6. The rational mind can only hold so much in itself at one time. There is a limit to how many things we can attend to or pay attention to or think about at once, especially painful things. It seems that this law of the mind may, by itself, make a resolution to our puzzle, to our paradox, impossible. There are too many sides to consider and to grasp and to grapple with at the same time. Or, the question arises again, is there another mind that is outside of our consciousness and our Ego that is a container for this conflict and a clinic in which the warring parties can come to some sort of cease fire and be healed?

7. And, in these musings, we must remember, from time to time, that our answer to the problem we have posed, the very thinking we are using to try to resolve the paradox, is itself an example of one or other of the two minds. If we are under the spell of the unconscious, we might feel inspired by a quest, as an example, for a Magic Kingdom of Peace. But the minute we switch to the Rational Mind we may see our hopes for such a resolution go up in smoke.

8. If you are “addicted” to primary process thinking and its promises that you will find a soul mate (a prince charming) and miracles and eternal bliss (etc.), it is a counterbalance to remember that primary process thinking also suggests paranoid suspicions and endless other unrealistic terrors. If you are “addicted” to rational thought and believe it will, eventually, lead to solutions for all our problems, it is a counterbalance to remember that the rational mind, itself, has concluded that most of what goes on in the universe — including almost all of what has influenced us and is influencing us and will influence us — is unknown to us, is completely unconscious to us, and is beyond our control and understanding.

9. And so we are back to our original question.

A Concluding Comment

If the unconscious mind, with its way of thinking and looking at life, is as much a part of nature as plant life, it might be useful to compare the "kingdom" of the unconscious to the plant kingdom. In the plant kingdom there are species of plants that are poisonous to human beings. If we eat any of these plants we can become sick. Some of them even can kill us. And it is the same with the unconscious. There are "species" of unconscious thought, such as racial or religious prejudice or prejudice against people who are different, that are "poisonous." In the plant kingdom, plants that are poisonous to humans may serve a function and have a legitimate ecological place, but we should never sample them. Similarly, our fears and suspicions, maybe even some of our prejudices may serve some function and have an ecological place for the human species, but we should not "eat" them. We must recognize they are their and must recognize each instance as it arises, but we should not give into their promptings or we can hurt others and ourselves. But, even though there are poisonous plants, this doesn't mean we should eradicate all plants in the world, even if we could. And it seems to me that it is the same with the unconscious mind. Even though many of its products are dangerous and deadly, it doesn't mean we should get rid of all its products, even if we could. We would starve without plants, and we would suffer from the loss of violets and roses and pines and redwoods. And the same is true for the unconscious. We would starve (an inner starvation) and would suffer other losses as well.