Chapter One–Doctrine Of The Subtle Worlds

Nature exhibits itself as exemplifying a philosophy of the evolution of organisms subject to determinate conditions. Examples of such conditions are the dimensions of space, the laws of nature, the determinate enduring entities, such as atoms and electrons, which exemplify these laws. But the very nature of these entities, the very nature of their spatiality and temporality, should exhibit the arbitrariness of these conditions as the outcome of a wider evolution beyond nature itself, and within which nature is but a limited mode.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and The Modern World, p. 93.

As the outposts of scientific Knowledge come more and more to be set on the borders that divide the material from the immaterial, so also the highest achievements of practical Science are those which tend to simplify and reduce to the vanishing-point the machinery by which the greatest effects are produced. Wireless telegraphy is Nature’s exterior sign and pretext for a new orientation. The sensible physical means for the intermediate transmission of the physical force is removed; it is only preserved at the points of impulsion and reception. Eventually even these must disappear; for when the laws and forces of the supraphysical are studied with the right starting-point, the means will infallibly be found for Mind directly to seize on the physical energy and speed it accurately upon its errand. There, once we bring ourselves to recognize it, lie the gates that open upon the enormous vistas of the future.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 16.


My intention in this chapter is to introduce what I am calling the ‘Doctrine Of The Subtle Worlds.’ Let me begin by stating in a very bald way the essential points of this doctrine.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds is by no means a new idea. In fact, modern Western civilization is probably the only civilization in history to construct a cosmology which excludes the subtle worlds. Anthropological research gives ample testimony to the fact that tribal people’s at the hunting-gathering stage of development are animistic and include in their cosmologies many disembodied, non-human intelligences and the worlds in which those intelligences have their abodes. Elements of this animistic belief remain prominent in all of the classical civilizations.1 Even as late as Dante, Western civilization operated in terms of a cosmological picture which was dominated by angelic and demonic divine and semi-divine agencies, and which was divided into a terrestrial, sub-lunar world subjected to physical laws and diverse sub-terrestrial and celestial spaces governed by entirely other principles.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds did not become entirely discredited until after the Renaissance. It is probable that the discrediting of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds came about as part of the large-scale shift in consciousness which accompanied the discovery of perspectival space.2 When people began to imagine space as what we now call a Cartesian grid, that grid spread itself out to cover not only the Earth, but all of the celestial spheres as well. When Newton, somewhat later, calculated the motions of the planets based on the assumption that they were balls of rock rather than celestial divinities, the distinction between the terrestrial, sub-lunar reality and the numinous spaces of the outer spheres entirely dissolved. Heaven collapsed into Earth. In 1678 there was a serious philosophical treatment of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds by the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) in his True Intellectual System of the Universe.3 After that, however, the topic dropped out of respectable academic discourse for many centuries.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, however, did not disappear. Rather it went underground, and was kept alive in the so-called Occult traditions — traditions such as Hermeticism, Alchemy, and Kabala. The phenomenology of the subtle realms, banished by respectable society from public, outer space, retreated into a shadowy domain that modern psychology re-discovered as ‘the Unconscious.’

It is interesting to note that this doctrine, while still repudiated by official cultural authorities, is nonetheless the object of great fascination among reasonably well-educated people. An evening with television, watching alien abductions and demonic possessions on the X-Files, then switching over to Star Trek where non-material, extra-dimensional entities regularly take an interest in worldly affairs, is sufficient to show us that the notion of the subtle worlds is struggling to become more fully conscious on a popular level. But it is difficult, indeed, to find comprehensive discussions of these subjects in mainstream academia. In this chapter, I want to find a way of approaching this subject that takes it out of the realms of legend and science fiction and into the realm of serious philosophical and scientific discourse.

Our Knowledge of the Physical World

Whatever our metaphysical orientation may be, we all share the pragmatic conviction that we live in a real, external, physical world. The real, external, physical world is the common stage on which we enact the dramas of our lives. It is what we share with other human beings, with all other life, with the Sun, with the galaxies. It is because we share the same real, external, physical world that we know where we stand in relation to each other, and because standpoints in the physical world remain comfortingly unchanged in their inter-relationships, we can travel far and yet still find our way home.

Sane individuals can meaningfully agree when discussing events in the physical world. Measurements can be made here. Experimental conditions can be specified here, and replicated at will. Knowledge of this world is the very stuff of our science. Manipulation of this world is the very stuff of our material technology.

The physical world is, so far as everyday life is concerned, real and objective. It exists outside of us whether or not we are looking. It was there before we were born, and it will endure long after we are gone. All of our waking actions presuppose the reality of the physical world. If, in some elegant flight of idealistic logical consistency, we deny the objective reality of the physical world, we find ourselves in a “performative contradiction” – our everyday actions, which presuppose the reality of the physical world, give lie to our idealistic pronouncements.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds does not deny the reality of the physical world. It is not an idealistic theory that tries to reduce all of our experience to an illusion, or a mere seeming. But the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds does maintain that the physical world is neither all of what is real, nor all of what is objective and external. It suggests that, in addition to the knowledge we have of the physical world, there are other forms of knowledge about the real, objective world which are crucially important for human beings.

Before discussing these other domains of knowledge, however, and without questioning the pragmatic, overarching reality of the physical world, I would like to draw attention to the ways in which we come to feel the certainty that we do about physical reality. We can, without undue oversimplification, say that we know about the physical world in two ways – through our systematic scientific explorations, and through our everyday existence as physically embodied beings.

Scientific Knowledge of the Physical World

Our scientific knowledge of reality is based, of course, on scientific method. According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the method of science is a mixture – the proportions of which vary from one [specific] science to another ­– of logical construction and empirical observation, these components standing in a roughly dialectical relation.”4 In other words, scientific knowledge involves a recursive interaction that starts with the generation of hypotheses, tests those hypotheses against the ongoing data of experience, and then generates refined or new hypotheses. In general, scientific method enjoins simplicity of logical formulation for hypotheses, and insists that, in cases of conflict, the facts always have the last word, even if that makes the logic complex, inelegant, or otherwise inconvenient.5

The scientific method is informed by a spirit which takes a fierce and stubborn delight in reducing conceptual proliferation to an absolute minimum, and in subjecting every hypothesis that survives to an unrelenting confrontation with stubborn actuality in all of its messy details. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds which is advanced in this essay is entirely aligned with the scientific spirit and with the scientific method in this broad sense. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds raises some questions about the detailed application of the scientific method within the domain of the subtle worlds, but the arguments advanced here are developed with full respect for the principle of conceptual parsimony, and for the necessity of rigorous testing of any hypothesis against all of the available empirical evidence.

In the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, the sciences that successfully model themselves on physics and which are generally held to be in the most intimate contact with the ultimate facts of the physical world, the criteria for the formation of hypotheses, and the methods by which they are tested, are particularly narrow. In the hard sciences, a hypothesis must be expressed as a quantitative relationship among the results of measurements performed on qualitative properties6 of the system under consideration. In later chapters, we will examine more thoroughly the exact conditions under which measurement is possible. In any case, if I want to advance an hypothesis in the discipline of physics, I will identify the system to be studied, I will perform measurements on qualitative properties of the system (e.g., mass, momentum) and I will advance some prediction based on a mathematical analysis of the results of those measurements.7 The hypothesis must not only be logically parsimonious, it is allowed only one form – a mathematical expression of a quantitative relationship among measurements of qualitative properties of the specified system: e.g., I = V/R, or E = MC2.

Furthermore, the method by which hypotheses can be tested in the hard sciences is also extremely narrow. Obviously, a quantitative prediction about the magnitude of a given property in a given context can only be confirmed or disconfirmed by performing a relevant measurement. A measurement is a procedure that assigns, in some consistent way, a numerical value to a state of a given property. Every act of measurement is, ultimately, validated by direct sensory perceptions on the part of some observer. In the final analysis, someone has to read a meter, compare the result to a standard, or somehow, through the senses, to observe the measurement.8 A valid measurement must be replicable. It must be possible to perform the measurement at various times with various observers and, in each case, to produce essentially identical results. A scientific experiment is the whole arrangement of observers and artifacts that results in a measurement.

The method of the hard sciences produces knowledge that is largely free of individual delusion and personal prejudice, and that is, within its own limits, exquisitely accurate and almost perfectly reliable. It is important to realize, however, that the knowledge gained through the hard sciences, no matter how true it is, is also quite limited.

First of all, this knowledge is constructed using only a small subset of the data that is available to us in our everyday interactions with the world that contains us. Science uses the data available through the five senses. It extends that data in amazing ways through instruments that make otherwise unobservable phenomena (e.g., infrared and ultraviolet light) indirectly observable – but it ultimately grounds itself in the five senses. There is, on the other hand, good reason to think that human beings can quite regularly access information through channels other than those that terminate in the five bodily senses. This issue will be explored in greater depth later on. For now, I want to suggest that the method of the hard sciences, though having a certain ultimate finality when it comes to pragmatic analysis of the data generated (directly or indirectly) by the five bodily senses, is much less adequate when it comes to organizing the larger data set of which the inputs from the bodily senses are a small selection.

Secondly, within the scope of the data that is available through the bodily senses, the hard sciences can help us to organize only that small portion which can be expressed in numerical relationships. The hard sciences, that is, only apply to that element of our experience which can be measured. None of our thoughts can be directly measured, none of our feelings can be directly measured, and many aspects of our sensations cannot be measured. Only certain clear, crisp, conscious, and highly focused elements of our sensory field actually participate in the operations of measurement. Any measurement of the more subtle aspects of our experience rests on an a priori definition correlating that more subtle experience with some precise, sensory marker. I might, for example, measure blood flow volume in a human being, and, by a definition, correlate that with levels of anxiety. But I cannot directly measure the diffuse and amorphous feeling of anxiety. No set of numerical relationships among measurable quantities can ever represent the full reality of any actual, felt, sensory experience.

The hard sciences generate a set of data for themselves by a very stringent process of abstraction which pulls out of the full data of life a very thin slice. Out of all the data of experience, it selects only that which comes through the five bodily senses. Out of that, it attends only to that which can be measured. The thinness of this slice does not minimize its decisive importance. But in our fascination with the crystalline clarity of the knowledge that is produced by the methods of the hard sciences, we may tend to neglect some very important patterns in the data that they exclude. We will, when we come to discuss the subtle worlds, see just how important these other patterns can be.

Finally, the hard sciences, by virtue, perhaps, of the wonderful austerity of their methods, and by virtue of the extreme accuracy and the unsurpassed pragmatic power of their discoveries, are often taken to have the greatest ontological authority of any of the sciences. When we want to know what is real, we tend to look to physics for our answers. And physicists, when they want to know what is real, look to the data from experiments.

Experiments are systems of observers and artifacts so arranged as to permit replicable measurements. When we arrange a system of artifacts in such a way that it enables an operator/observer to perform some function in a repeatable way, we usually call what we have so created an instrument or a machine (an instrument, in this sense, is a kind of passive machine, a measuring device). Thus, in every experiment, there is a machine, a mechanical device, interposed between the observer and the object of study. The physicist, qua theorist, postulates a relationship to be observed among a set of measurements. Qua experimentalist, he arranges some combination of artifacts, the operation of which is a set of measurements that specifies a set of numbers. The theory stands or falls by the agreement or disagreement between the predicted numbers and the numbers specified when the experiment is performed.

All of this is well known. But it has been insufficiently remarked that the actual data of the hard sciences is brought into being by a process of small-scale manufacturing. An experiment is, in essence, a kind of machine. The experimental result, the measurements, are manufactured for the theoretician by the experimentalist using custom-made devices. What the hard sciences deal with not the natural world in its raw, sensory presence. It is rather the totality of what can be manufactured as data by the essentially industrial process of experimental measurement.

The hard sciences underlie our technological power. They express some profound truth about the real world. But it is interesting to note that the data of the hard sciences are manufactured and, as such, are artificial. The theories generated by physics predict the behavior of devices. It is not clear what, exactly, the behaviors of those devices tell us about the world as it exists outside of the experimental context.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, the so-called ‘standard’, or mainstream interpretation, goes so far as to suggest that the properties which experiments measure do not, in fact, exist outside of the experimental context. In other words, an electron does not have a position or a momentum until and unless a measurement is performed that specifies values for those properties. In fact, we cannot even say that there is an electron which does not have properties until they are measured, because to say that an electron is, or is not, an object is actually a way of describing two different behaviors of certain relevant experimental devices.

When we refer to quantum physics to tell us about the ultimate nature of physical reality, we draw on ideas like the particle/wave duality, quantum indeterminacy, and quantum non-locality and we probe what it means to live in a world the deepest reality of which can be thus characterized. But when we ask mainline quantum physicists about the meaning of these ideas, they tell us that they are ways of characterizing the behaviors of experimental devices. Even physicists who are less stringent in their interpretation of the data, and who hold that the data do pertain to some physical existent transcending the experimental situation, nonetheless agree that human beings can only access the deepest truth about reality by doing experiments – that is, by studying the behaviors of machines that produce sets of numbers.­

From a certain point of view, this whole endeavor seems quite fantastic. A civilization is born in which those seeking the most ultimate of truths about reality manufacture, and intently consult, elaborate oracles which speak obscurely in an arcane language of number. This procedure is saved from ridicule by the immense power of its results.

An experiment is a relatively closed system. It is arranged so as to exclude the operation of as many variables as can be practically excluded. Within this artificially simplified situation, relations between variables can be isolated, discerned, and studied. Machines of all kinds, and the factories in which those machines are made, are, like experiments, artificially simplified situations. In the design of machines and factories, however, the objective is not to discern quantitative relationships among variables, but rather to use those invariant relationships to bring about specific effects in the service of larger purposes. The point is that experiments, factories, and the insides of machines are all artificially simplified environments so constructed as to minimize the number of variables that are relevantly operative, and to bring into useful prominence certain quantitative relations among those that have been so highlighted.

The hard sciences really work. With the knowledge of reality that we get from the hard sciences, we can make real things happen in the physical world. Scientific knowledge confers power on those who hold it. Scientific knowledge is so readily convertible into power because experiments turn out to be reversible. In the laboratory, they turn patterns of events into patterns of numbers. In the factory they turn patterns of numbers into patterns of events. The modern, automated factory concretizes this metaphor to perfection.

The hard sciences do give us profound knowledge of the world. These sciences have demonstrated with astounding completeness and exactitude the inextricable interweaving of the qualitative properties and the quantitative properties of sensory experiences in the world, and of certain crucial invariances within those quantitative patterns. But this particular knowledge, to be applied, requires a situation which is, more or less, as simple as is the experimental situation in which the knowledge is first gained.

We study the behavior of machines, and we use the knowledge so gained to construct more and more elaborate and effective machinery. After a while, we find ourselves living inside of our own artificial creations, protected (and isolated) from the biosphere by a vast, semi-autonomous system of artifacts that constitute a kind of “technosphere.” As this takes place, the knowledge of the hard sciences, the knowledge of the behavior of machines, becomes more and more convincing, more and more powerful.

If, under the spell of the hard sciences, we imagine that the methods of experimental science get at the most ultimately real features of the real world, then we are saying that knowledge of the quantitative relationships entwined with sensory experiences is the only knowledge that we need for predicting and controlling reality. Thus we imply that all process is quantitative, all causality is reduced to computation, and the ground of being comes to be imagined as a massively parallel computational device. It is hardly surprising, then, that we find ourselves deluged with movies and novels in which the characters awaken to the fact that what they had thought was somehow a real world is, in fact, virtual – simulated by an impersonal process of calculation.9

We now know that given any set of related sensory variables we can, over some limited range of values, identify significant quantitative relations among them. We now know that we can, over some limited range, generalize from those quantitative relations and make reasonably good predictions of some future behaviors. We have learned that, in the patterns of data from the five senses, quantitative patterns are strongly, though never entirely, determinative of qualitative interactions. We now know that the world is such as to permit human beings to construct machines. Machines are predictable and controllable, their behaviors can be well understood by quantitative methods. Knowledge of the behaviors of machines interacts recursively with itself, leading to the production of more and more knowledge of more and more elaborate devices. We have learned how to turn our knowledge into an explosion of power.

But human creation is richer than machines, and cosmic creativity vastly transcends the human. Our experience is infinitely richer than anything we can express or contain in quantitative measurements The truth of the hard sciences applies to a segment of our experience, to an artificial abstraction, to the measurable properties of that particular data which we receive through channels which terminate in the five physical senses. If we imagine this data to be an epistemologically privileged window into an ultimate ontological reality, then we may end up suspecting that we inhabit a virtual reality, and that we, ourselves, are expressions of an impersonal process of computation.

This knowledge is not, however, the totality of our knowledge of the world. We will now take a fresh look at everyday experience, and at everyday common sense about that experience, to look for ways of enriching our sources of information about reality, and of finding ways of approaching the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

Re-Examining Everyday Experience

Our knowledge of the physical world, as we said earlier, comes through our scientific explorations, and through our everyday existence as physically embodied beings. In a later chapter, we will perform a systematic analysis of the field of experience. In this chapter, our objective is just to demonstrate the initial plausibility of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, by suggesting first, that the physical senses are not the only source of information that we have about the physical world and second, that the other sources of information that we do have about the physical world strongly suggest the existence of other, more subtle worlds in which human beings can and do operate.

Although, as has been suggested, we rely very heavily on our sensory experiences to tell us about the real world that we inhabit, we don’t often pay attention directly to the qualities of sensory experience itself. Let us begin paying attention to the senses themselves by observing that the sensory field is divided into channels10. These channels are the sensory modalities – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We know quite clearly the differences among these channels – for example, we know what it means to see, and we know that seeing is different from hearing. The precise nature of this difference is easy to notice, though it is not easy to articulate.

Science is based on measurement. Measurement always involves sensory observation. Sensory observation takes place in a field that is divided into the five channels. Scientific work takes it for granted that all of the senses, in some measure (there is sometimes a distinction made between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sensory modalities), give us information about the real, outer, objective world.

Physical Senses and Subtle Senses

There is, however, another distinction in the sensory field, one that is just as fundamental as the division into five sensory channels, but one that is more problematic from the standpoint of scientific knowledge. This distinction divides the physical senses from the subtle, imaginal senses.

There is nothing in this observation that is magical or mystical. The simple and incontrovertible fact is that, in any given moment, the information we get from our outer, physical senses is only a fraction of the total information available to us. The physical senses tell us about what is happening just here, in this particular physical place and just now, at this particular physical moment. But along with the immediate sensory experience that we have of the outer world, we have, simultaneously, another set of sensory experiences that parallels the experience of the outer world.

We say “I remember.” We say “I imagine”. But how do we know the things that we remember? How do we know that we are imagining and how do we know what it is that we are imagining? We know these things because we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things that are not present in the physical here and now.

This can be illustrated by a simple examination of a particular act of remembering. Suppose that you are in a building, and that you are not, at this moment, in a position to look at the outside of that building. What color is that building, and how do you know what color it is? The chances are that when you read that question, you saw the building ‘in your mind.’ Now it may be that, in this particular instance, you didn’t actually see the building in your mind. Sometimes we ‘just know’ something without representing that knowledge in a sensory way. And memories vary a great deal in the specific clarity with which they are presented to our minds. But if this particular memory didn’t come with a specific visual impression, there are certainly some memories you have that are distinctly visual. In other words, you sometimes see things without using your physical eyes. We can apply a similar analysis to the other senses, and to imagination and to dreams.

By and large, during our waking lives, the sensations that we associate with the physical senses strongly dominate the perceptual field. During sleep, however, or in other altered states of consciousness, the balance between the physical senses and the subtle senses can change. In a dream, virtually all of the sensory experiences that we notice come to us through the subtle channels – the same channels that we use when we remember or imagine. And when we dream, it often seems as if we are awake to a world, a world as elaborate and as detailed as is the world of our waking lives. So, when we examine the field of sensory awareness, we discover that there is a kind of doubling going on. We have a set of five senses that opens on the outer, physical world, and then we have a set of five senses that presents us with a whole other set of interesting and informative experiences.

It is quite clear, then, that our subtle senses do play an important part in our knowledge of the real world. How are we to explain the existence of these subtle senses, and how are we to interpret the knowledge that they give us? The materialistic interpretation of reality that currently dominates our culture tells us that the experiences we have via the subtle senses are not perceptions at all, but are rather elaborately processed re-presentations of experiences that originate through the physical senses. In fact, scientific theories of knowledge – relying, as they do, on the scientific method — maintain that measurement via the physical senses is the only criterion that can assure of us of the truth of any given empirical proposition. Our culture strongly privileges the physical senses, and this discourages us from taking the subtle senses seriously at all.

Let us, however, for a few moments at least, pay close attention to these subtle senses. As a way of doing this, let us examine a few observations about the subtle senses as they operate in contrast to the physical senses. This list is by no means exhaustive. It is meant, rather, to be suggestive. It is a way of setting a background that can permit us to ask deeper questions as we proceed.

The physical senses present experiences that are generally crisp, bright, sharp and complete. The subtle senses, by contrast, operate over a wide range of conditions. Sometimes the subtle senses present vague hints of perceptions. Sometimes they present abstractions or partial representations. But, on the other hand, sometimes (as in dreams) the subtle senses present highly detailed, very vivid and very complete experiences.

The physical senses present experiences that are contextualized by a smooth, geometrical continuum. If I hold an object in my hand, I can turn it over and examine it from any angle. If I see a space in front of me, I can walk into that space, and when I am there I can look back and see the space that I came from. The subtle senses often present experiences that are fragmentary. I may, for example, remember a room with a door, but not remember what was on the other side of the door in that space. But, on the other hand, sometimes the experiences presented by the subtle senses (as in dreams) can be quite as geometrically coherent as those we have in waking life.

The physical senses present experiences that are almost entirely independent of direct volitional control. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make the top of my desk look white instead of black. The subtle senses, by contrast, are sometimes highly responsive to the will. Sometimes I can visualize a scene, then change it – either totally or in detail – on the basis of my desires and my decisions. But note, this is only sometimes true. Sometimes I have a subtle vision that haunts me and that I cannot change – even when it is quite painful. Sometimes even the words that I hear in my head (and which I call ‘my thoughts’) take on an utterly irritating independence. And, of course, for the most part I have even less control of what I perceive in my dreams than I do over what I perceive in my waking life.

There are a few observations we might make about subtle vs. physical in the case of specific sensory modalities.

In the visual field some people, at least, notice that subtle visual perceptions tend to have a certain luminous, enamel-like texture. The flat and more gritty quality of outer perception is harder to find in inner perception. In addition, subtle perceptions seem to be illuminated without a specific source.

In the subtle auditory field, sounds are often more condensed and less articulated than in the outer field. For example, when I ‘think’, or when, in a dream, I know what someone is saying to me, I often seem to know the content without hearing the words uttered one by one. Certainly there are occasions when subtle hearing is at least as vivid and as detailed as physical hearing, but this seems to be rather exceptional.

In the field of subtle feeling, there seems to be a general absence of acute tactile contact. In dreams, I often feel the sensations that accompany emotions. But it seems to be rather unusual to have the sensation of actually touching objects in a dream.

This brief survey, then, has allowed us to focus our attention on the phenomenology of the subtle senses. Now that we have identified the phenomenon, let us return to the question of interpretation. What are we going to make of these subtle sensory experiences? The materialistic philosophy that dominates our culture gives us an answer to this question, and our next step will be to look at that answer and to see whether or not it makes sense.

The Materialistic Interpretation of the Subtle Senses

Materialism is the ontological doctrine that follows when we place our epistemological faith in the scientific method. Materialism attempts to account for all of our experiences – including the experiences that we have via the subtle senses – in terms of interactions among the artificial and abstract entities that are identified in scientific experiments. Scientific experiments are, as we have observed, grounded in observations that are made with the physical senses.

A materialistic accounting for subtle experiences works something like the following. Materialists observe that the physical senses operate by sending electrical impulses through the nervous system where they are coordinated in a complex fashion. They assume that sensory experience is a pattern of electrical activity in a nervous system. That is, materialists assume that sensory experience is electrical activity in the nervous system. To the extent that materialists acknowledge the reality of consciousness, they tend to define it as nothing but a more or less epiphenomenal manifestation of nervous processes. The nervous system continues to generate electrical activity even in the absence of stimulation from the sense organs. Materialists assume, therefore, that what I am calling the experience of the subtle senses is what happens when the nervous system generates patterns of electrical activity like those that are generated by physical, sensory input, but without actually referring to the immediate operation of the senses. Clearly the nervous system, if this theory is correct, can generate these perception-like patterns in parallel with physical perception (as it does when I am awake, but thinking or remembering), or it can do so in the absence of significant physical stimulation (as it does when I am dreaming). Materialism begins with the assumption that the only real world is the one that we perceive with the physical senses. The real world is objective. It exists whether or not it is perceived, and it is public. Anyone with the proper set of sensory organs can perceive it, and all reasonable observers can agree on what they perceive. In the context of materialism, all of the experiences that we have through the subtle senses – all of our dreams, all of our memories, all of our thoughts – are assumed to be strictly private. They are not objective, not public, not fully real: subjectivity is dismissed as an epiphenomenon. And there is no new information available through the subtle senses, only re-hashes, re-gurgitations, re-arrangements of prior experiences that have come thorough the physical senses.

Is this materialistic interpretation of the subtle senses true? Is it actually the case that what we experience behind our eyes, between our ears, in our hearts and in our minds – that all of that is nothing but a private show put on by electrical activity in our nervous systems? This is a crucial question. The doctrine of the subtle worlds becomes intelligible and interesting only if our subtle senses can give us access to subtle worlds that are just as real and just as objective as the physical world that we perceive through our physical senses. Let us, then, take the time to examine the merits of this materialistic interpretation of the subtle senses.

Critique of the Materialist Interpretation of the Subtle Senses

Is it the case that what I perceive through my subtle senses is strictly a private re-arrangement of experiences that originate in the physical senses? The materialist position attempts to account for experiences that we have on the subtle channels by reducing them to patterns of electrical activity in the nervous system. But the materialist position also reduces experiences that we have on the physical sensory channels to the same sorts of electrical activity. So, within the framework of the materialist interpretation, both physical sensory experience and subtle sensory experience are nothing but patterns of electrical activity. What, then, is supposed to be the difference between them?

The difference is supposed to be that the experiences on the physical channels really come from outside, whereas the experiences on the inner channels are just highly processed echoes of those outer experiences. But how can we know that? If all of my sensory experiences are nothing but electrical activity in the nervous system, then the entire outer world is something that I construct by processing nervous impulses. This means that everything that I think of as real – gravitation, electromagnetic forces, strong and weak nuclear forces, atoms, molecules, suns, galaxies, cells, animals, and even nervous systems and the electrical impulses in them – is something that I have constructed. But if even the nervous impulses themselves are a construction, how can I maintain that they are an objective reality out of which my experience has arisen?

If the materialist hypothesis is true, then my notion of the outer world is just that – a notion. It is something that I construct out of a complex stream of data. I somehow interpret those data to imply the existence of an outer world. But I can’t really know that that world is there. Once I assert that my experience is nothing but a pattern of electrical impulses, then I put myself in a situation in which I can never actually know what the source of those impulses is. In other words, my entire experience of a supposed outer world could be nothing but a particularly coherent dream.

Thus, in the context of the materialistic interpretation, both subtle and physical sensory experiences are similar patterns of electrical activity. Once we stipulate that both subtle and physical sensory experiences are reducible to nervous activity, we have established that they are fundamentally of the same nature, and it becomes very difficult to establish that one is real information about an objective, public world while the other is strictly private. I can confidently assert that the physical experiences display a certain type of continuity that does not characterize the subtle experiences, but that is the only difference I can establish between them. Indeed, as we will see in Chapter Five, the data of the subtle senses also disclose a profound order, and that order, in its own way, supports the objectivity and externality of the worlds that they disclose as well.

The Subtle Senses and Psychological Differentiation

The materialistic interpretation seemed to give us a way of accounting for the difference between physical and subtle perception. The clear and simple fact is that the experiences we get through our physical senses are, generally, clear and objective, while the experiences that come through the subtle senses are, apparently, chaotic and subjective. If we are going to maintain that the subtle senses, like the physical senses, do give us access to a real, objective world, we will have to account for this decisive difference between the two sets of perceptions. It turns out, however, that this is very easily done. The key insight here is one that comes from developmental psychology, and particularly from the works of Jean Piaget.11

Piaget has conclusively demonstrated that the distinction between self and other is a developmental accomplishment. When an infant is first born he or she is immersed in a sea of sensation. There is, at first, no recognition of the difference between one object and another. There is no recognition of the difference between his or her own body and the rest of the world. Nonetheless, there is a clear experience of sensation, and the infant acts in relation to what he or she experiences.

Since most of us don’t remember our infancy, it is a challenge for us to actually imagine what it would be like to have no sense of the difference between self and other. One way of bringing the possibility of this experience into focus is to imagine that you only have one sense, the sense of touch. Imagine how difficult it would be, in that situation, to realize that the discomfort of hunger or sadness comes from ‘inside’ while the discomfort of cold or a sharp impact comes from ‘outside’. If we operated with the sense of touch only, the notion of inside and outside – a crucial component of the sense of separate selfhood – would be meaningless. The pre-self world of infancy must have had something of this character.

What I want to suggest is that we are, in relation to our subtle senses, rather like an infant is in relation to his or her physical senses. When we receive impressions through our subtle senses, we vaguely think of them as ‘mine’. We don’t know how to accurately distinguish self from other in relation to the subtle senses, and it is this confusion, this lack of development, that allows us to perpetuate the assumption that all of our subtle impressions are private.

In other words, our normal development quickly teaches us that there is a boundary in the physical world which separates ‘my body’ from ‘the rest of the world.’ But, after all, the physical world does not stop at the outer edge of our skins. There is one physical world, it pervades us all, and the process by which we appropriate one part of it as ‘mine’ is rather mysterious. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds suggests that there is also one imaginal world that pervades us all, and that in that imaginal world we have not yet learned the psychological knack of separating out the experiences that constitute ‘my body’ from the experiences that constitute ‘the rest of the world.’ This lack of development leads us into the notion that our imaginal space is private. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds suggests that this notion is quite illusory.

Do the Subtle Senses Tell Us About the Real World?

Let us pause and review the steps we have taken up to this point.

Is there evidence to suggest that the information we receive through the subtle senses is, in fact, actual information about realities beyond ourselves? Yes, there is. First of all, it is clear that the data from the inner senses sometimes discloses to us truths about the outer, physical world. Our thoughts, especially our scientific thoughts, do give us information about that world, and we do not perceive the thoughts themselves via the outer senses. For example, if I have an “aha” experience in which I ascertain the equation governing the relationship among some physical variables, the equation will likely come to me first as a formless intuition, and then as an inner visual image or as an inner string of words. So here my inner senses are giving me a glimpse of a truth about the outer world.

Second, there is significant evidence about the ability of our subtle sense to inform us about the physical world that has been accumulated as a result of parapsychological research into phenomena such as remote viewing.12 Let us look more closely at the significance of this evidence.

It is indisputable that people sometimes see subtle pictures of remote events, and later discover that those pictures were accurate. And, of course, people often see pictures of remote events which they later discover had nothing at all to do with what happened to be the case in the physical world. So the question here is one of interpretation. There seem to be two possibilities. One is that the occasional incidence of accurate remote viewing is just a lucky hit, statistically inevitable but essentially uninteresting. The other possibility is that the ability to do remote viewing is somehow latent in human beings, but only operates occasionally and under particular circumstances. Clearly remote viewing is not a regular and well developed human capacity like, for example, the ability to recognize colors or the ability to read words. Perhaps remote viewing is entirely impossible for human beings, but human beings want to believe it is possible and, therefore, cling to the occasional lucky guess as evidence to support their wishes. On the other hand, it is logically possible that the ability to do accurate remote viewing is latent in human beings, poorly developed, subject to various kinds of interference, but nonetheless occasionally operative. In this case, what might otherwise be interpreted as just a lucky guess is actually the occasional functioning of a genuine, though irregular and undeveloped, capacity.

These are both logical possibilities. The question is, how do we decide among them. The most obvious test is a statistical one. If we have a stack of cards imprinted with four different images, and we ask someone to “see” which card is being picked at a remote location, we will expect their “seeing” to be correct 25% of the time. If, over a large number of trials, the number of correct “guesses” approaches 25%, then we can surmise that there is nothing there but luck and wishful thinking. But what if, over a sufficiently large number of trials, the number of correct guesses is, by some statistically significant measure, more than 25%. Let’s say, for example, that it is 33%. How would we interpret that? First, of course, we would suspect bad experimental methods, experimenter prejudice, etc. But suppose, over a long time, we were satisfied that the experiments were good and we still got these anomalous results. In that case, we would have to suspect that something is going on. The logical conclusion, in this case, would be that the data of the inner senses can sometimes, and under some conditions, give meaningful information about the outer, objective world. This is precisely the kind of evidence that has been accumulated by decades of parapsychological research.13

The evidence not only supports the notion that the inner senses give us a certain amount of information about the outer world, it also suggests that our intentions systematically, though subtly, influence events in the physical world. A great deal of work in this area has been done at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory and documented in the Margins of Reality, by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne.14 It has, for example, been quite conclusively demonstrated that people can, by their mere intention to do so, decisively influence the output of various random number generators.

Thus parapsychological research makes it clear that that the subtle senses do, in a statistically significant (though not a pragmatically reliable) manner, put us in direct touch with the real, external, objective physical world in a way that is not mediated by the physical senses.

Thirdly, it is actually quite natural for us to imagine that the subtle senses put us in touch with the emotions and thoughts of other embodied beings through the phenomena that we term empathy and telepathy. To explore this possibility, let us consider the emotional reactions that we have as we interact with the people around us.

Let’s say, for example, that you are experiencing anger. How do you know that you are angry? We know our own emotional states through subtle sensory cues. Many people, for example, say that they know they are angry because they have sensation of tightness and constriction in the gut. That is a sensation on the channel of subtle feeling.

Now, how do you know whether that sensation comes from inside or from outside? The materialist interpretation tells us that our physical senses present us information about the posture, the tone of voice, and other relevant physical characteristics of the other; that we process that information and make unconscious inferences about possible threats; that the processed information from the outer senses triggers a cascade of reactions in the body; and that this cascade of reactions is what we experience as anger. That interpretation is superficially plausible, but does it actually fit the experience?

If we examine our experience dispassionately, we may notice that we often experience the emotional presence of the other as a kind of palpable force. Sometimes, for example, you might walk in on two people who have been fighting. The issue might have nothing to do with you, but you can feel the anger of their fight like a dark cloud in the room. It is always possible to construct, retroactively, a materialist interpretation of the feeling. But does this explain the phenomenon? Or does it just explain it away?

Suppose it is the case that there is an actual, objective, emotional interaction among people – an interaction that is as actual as is our contact in the physical world. We might imagine, for example, that each of us generates an emotional field, and that those fields interact in various ways. Suppose, in addition, that we are relatively infantile on that level of perception, so that we have not yet learned to differentiate self from other in that subtle sensory field. This interpretation would fit the facts of our experience very well. We are constantly having emotional reactions. We do not choose to have them. They just happen. Each of us assumes that they are ‘mine’ and we try to control them as well as we can. But the fact is that they just happen and we can’t really tell whether they are coming from ‘inside’ or from ‘outside.’ It often feels as if they are coming from others. The Doctrine of the Subtle Realms strongly suggests that much of what we take to be ‘my’ emotional reactions are, in many instances, actual perceptions of the emotions of others.

Now, if the emotional reactions that we have to others are not interpretations of patterns of physical sensations, but rather perceptions in their own right, then the world is suddenly a very different place. In this new world, when we look inside, we are not looking into a private theatre, we are rather looking out into a subtle world of objectively interacting emotional fields.

When we continue to examine the field of subtle perception and we remain open to the possibility that our subtle sensations are in fact perceptions, we begin to notice other suggestive peculiarities. We can note that our subtle feelings seem, at least sometimes, to be induced by others. But where do our thoughts come from? You are thinking about a problem and then, suddenly, an idea for a solution just comes to you. Where does it come from? We can, of course, posit some sort of spontaneous neural reorganization. But the experience is that the idea just presents itself to consciousness. Often people will ‘get’ the same idea at the same time. Sometimes people report the experience of thinking an idea just before someone else says it. Thus our subtle senses, rather than presenting re-hashed re-interpretations of information from our physical senses, may rather be presenting to us direct perceptions of the thoughts of other embodied beings.

What I am saying up to this point is close to what is said in certain schools of psychology. Modern archetypal psychology, for example, works hard to establish that not all of the processes that I find in my own mind belong to my own ego.15 Multiple personality disorder is an extreme case of this multi-personal psyche, in which we see that there is room for more than one person in ‘my’ mind. But this kind of psychological reasoning does not suggest that the egos of other embodied beings might appear as complexes in our own psyches, and that is exactly what is being suggested here.

I am suggesting, then, that the subtle senses convey information about the real, outer, objective world in three distinct ways. First, the subtle senses play an important role in memory, imagination, and thought. Second, the subtle senses give us access to information about the world through phenomena such as remote viewing. Third, the subtle senses give access to the subtle experiences of other embodied beings through direct empathy and mental telepathy.

Do the Subtle Senses Disclose True Subtle Worlds?

None of this, of course, establishes the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds. At best it suggests that there is subtle dimension of the physical world, but not that there are actual subtle worlds. The distinction between a subtle dimension of the physical world, on one hand, and actual subtle worlds on the other, is one that sometimes gets blurred. There are actually three rather different things that people intend when they speak of subtle realities or subtle worlds, and for the purposes of this essay it is important to distinguish them quite clearly.

First of all, there is just the fact of subjective experience. Each of us has an ‘inner’ experience of memory, imagination, and dream, and this inner experience might be described as ‘subtle’ by contrast to our outer sensory experience. In the past few centuries, we have come to call this realm the ‘unconscious.’ This realm has vast hidden depths, and these depths have been tentatively explored by the various branches of psychoanalysis. By and large, however, there is an assumption that each individual has a private experience of his or her unconscious, and that the unconscious is primarily a repository of memory. It is sometimes suggested that there may be a “collective” dimension to this memory – a kind of evolutionary inheritance – but the unconscious, even in this sense, remains a personal and private experience for each individual.16

Secondly, there is the notion of a true subtle dimension pervading the physical world. This is the notion that we have been exploring in this section. The idea here is that our knowledge of the physical world is not limited to what we can learn through the five senses. Rather, we have at least five (and quite possibly more than five) subtle senses which give us access to direct information about situations in the physical world with which our physical senses cannot put us in touch, and which also give us direct access to the feelings and thoughts of other embodied beings.

The notion that there is a subtle dimension to the physical world does not require a very great modification of the materialist metaphysics. We might, for example, say that physical organisms beyond a certain level of complex organization are able to receive and transmit hitherto undiscovered physical energies. In this case, we might imagine that the nervous system is able to function not only as a processor of external physical impressions, but also as a transmitter and receiver of signals of a kind that have not yet been detected by any instrumentation currently in use by scientists. This is hardly implausible. After all, scientists originally thought that the only energies necessary for a proper accounting of reality were gravitational and mechanical. In the past several hundred years, we have had to add electromagnetic forces, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Perhaps there are other energies not yet discovered, and our subtle senses are tuned into those energies. If this were the case, then we would not be discovering subtle worlds, we would rather be discovering unused senses that give us expanded access to the one physical world we already share.

Now, if it is the case that human beings (and, perhaps, other living beings), have a direct psychic impact on each other, then all of the theories by which we attempt to account for human behavior in terms of outwardly observable variables would be fatally incomplete. Once we acknowledge the importance of the subtle senses, we realize that our current scientific understanding of reality is using only five senses instead of the full ten or more that are available. It would make sense that our science would work well for inorganic systems that are insensitive to the subtle, intersubjective energies we are proposing. And it would make sense that our scientific understanding would fail us when we try to understand the living world in general and ourselves in particular, since we, more than any other entity in the known physical world, are engaged in active reception and transmission of these subtle energies.

We know, from our study of physical systems, that many interacting components can, under the proper conditions, self-organize into higher level unities. If it is the case that human beings are interacting in a field of subtle energies, it is quite likely that those energies self-organize into various interesting configurations. Without gaining some understanding of the dynamics of those subtle processes, we cannot hope to understand the forces that shape social evolution. And without developing the senses that render those energies perceptible, we have very little hope of understanding those forces. If it is the case that the subtle senses do, indeed, open out onto an important domain of objective reality, then any science that attempts to account for reality without studying the data provided by those senses will be incomplete.

But, again, to say that there is a subtle dimension of the physical world is not the same as saying that there are, indeed, subtle worlds. Even if we allow that there is a subtle dimension to the physical world, we are still granting that physical world a certain ontological priority. We are still assuming that every real thing has a physical body in the one physical world. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, by contrast, maintains not just that individuals have subtle, inner experiences, and not just that there is a subtle dimension to the physical world, but rather that there are worlds other than the physical world, and that those worlds are an important part of the reality that we experience. Those worlds operate according to laws that are different from those that obtain in the physical world, and they are populated by individual beings at various levels of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development. It suggests, further, that many, if not all, beings who have physical bodies also have bodies in those worlds, that many of the beings living in those worlds do not have bodies here, and that some of those beings take an active interest in, and have a significant influence on, what happens here on the physical level.

Is there evidence to suggest that the subtle worlds, in this strong sense, actually exist? Again, the answer is yes. First, we have the evidence afforded by our own dreams. In dreams we experience not only the thoughts and feelings of other people, we also experience whole other worlds. Many of the beings that we encounter in these worlds seem to have no physical bodies. They are at various levels of intellectual and emotional development. If we are willing to acknowledge that the subtle senses give us information about objective realities, it is only a small step to grant objective existence to the worlds in which dreams take place, and to the denizens of those worlds.

Second, we have a large and expanding literature on lucid dreams and out of body experiences. These experiences differ from dreams primarily in that they are accompanied by a much greater coherency of thought than are normal dreams, and in that they are more clearly remembered upon the return to normal, waking consciousness. Practitioners of these arts regularly report interactions with other human beings who are in the foggy state of normal dreaming,17 with the personalities of people who have died,18 with various non-human intelligences, and with worlds that are entirely other than from physical reality.19

Third, we have the records of various pre-modern cosmologies, all of which took these non-physical worlds for granted. We will explore one of these cosmologies, the Vedic cosmology, in the next chapter.

Fourth, we have the accumulating body of evidence which is contained in the literature on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Many, many thousands of quite sane individuals are reporting interactions with beings that do not seem to be entirely physical in nature.20 Typical stories of UFO abductions often include features such as levitating and passing through physical walls –experiences regularly reported by out of body travelers. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds provides a framework within which these otherwise unintelligible events can be fruitfully understood. Indeed, as Richard Thompson has shown, the UFO phenomenon not only receives an intelligible explanation in terms of Vedic cosmology, but has, in fact, been recorded in Vedic texts going back many thousands of years.21

Finally, we have the evidence of psychedelic research, by means of which many thousands of individuals have had experiences which provide strong anecdotal confirmation of all of the evidentiary sources just enumerated.22

Let us, then, summarize this entire section. We have seen that our notions of the physical world are constructed out of the data which we get through the five physical senses. We have seen that there is reason to believe that, in fact, we have many sources of information about the real world other than those five senses. And we have seen that the data disclosed by the subtle senses suggests the existence of subtle worlds which are, like the physical, real and objective. It is this expanded definition of reality that is at the heart of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

© 2009 Eric Weiss. All rights reserved.