Arguments, like those from Michael James’ excellent Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (2012; second edition), about the three states (of waking, dream, and deep sleep) help us to come to epistemic doubt concerning waking and dream. How so?
There is no independent epistemic standard we can apply to determine whether the waking state, the dream state, or both are real. Only bias and custom assert without argument that the waking state is real. But when every argument for its reality is assessed, it can be concluded that the same, or similar, arguments can be put forward in the dream state.
But then three objections at least can readily be raised. The first, quite obviously, is that the experience of the waking subject receiving this testimony is occurring while the waking subject is awake and not when he is dreaming. So, the testimony’s veracity is no different from that of the subject’s hearing birdsong right now or tasting oranges right now. All three are reducible to direct experience (to perception which is already bound up with conceptualization), and that direct experience is happening right now.
Again, it’s said of the waking state that the body and world have independent existences, and these can be confirmed by eyewitness testimony: someone can watch “Andrew” as “Andrew” sleeps and see that here is his body situated in this independently existing world. While this argument may sound convincing, deeper inquiry reveals its essential faults: namely, that the only way such evidence can be admitted to a subject (the existence of whose body and world are in question) occurs when that subject perceives the evidence of the other within the waking state itself.
Second, an identical case can be proffered for a dream subject in the dream state. A dream character could witness the dream body of a dream subject (in dream 1) while the dream subject is asleep in another, inner dream (dream 2). Upon waking up from dream 2 and coming into dream 1, the dream subject could be told by the witness that the latter was, all the while, observing his dream physical body in the outer dream physical world (dream 1). What’s the essential difference between the testimonies? How can we tell the difference–and who is this we anyway?
Third, the waking subject, taking himself to be in the “real state,” would object to the identical case given above just as the dream subject could readily object to the case given to the waking subject from that waking subject’s witness. Is the matter, without begging the question, not undecidable?
To be sure, plenty of arguments could be offered than just these, and all would, together and on their own, serve to demonstrate that there is an irresolvable epistemic indeterminacy or undecidability with respect to the claims of reality (sat) made about, and in, the waking and dream states.
If the above were taken seriously, then there would only be two options: nihilism or nonduality. The former is precipitous, the latter our saving grace. For the nondual teaching states that there is a no-state state of deep sleep where Pure Consciousness without experience is. “I am” or “I am that I am” is all one and all one. “I am” is reality.
It’s from this vantage point (which is really no vantage point at all) that the sage can see and say that the dream and waking states are unreal or illusory (asat) for the sage has gnosis or metanoetical understanding, which allows him to determine that both the waking and dream states are undeniably unreal.
The epistemic uncertainty that the pilgrim falls into owing to grasping what’s been written above is nothing but a necessary moment on the path of knowledge-realization. This doubt opens into wonderment, naturally driving the inquiry to its natural conclusion. That natural conclusion is nothing but Aham Brahmasmi.