“The world is an illusion” is a statement that gets tossed about in some quarters. It is my intention in this essay to share my understanding of the statement. An illusion is defined as “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.” Most people that I have talked to about the title statement take “illusion” to be equivalent to “mirage.” A mirage has no substance, function or meaning. There is a big difference between a distortion of or misleading impression of something and its total absence. I would include in the idea of illusion the revealing of an aspect or part of something rather than the whole. To take a simple example, think about what your impression might be if your first experience with a dog was only the tail. Your impression would surely result in a false or misleading perception of the actual nature of a dog. The word “world” in the title statement is probably better represented by the phrase, “your experience of and beliefs about reality.” Thus, we might translate the statement to read, “Your experience of reality provides a misleading impression,” while recognizing that “experience” begins as a perceptual phenomenon. This does not mean it has no substance, function or meaning. If someone uttering the title statement or someone hearing the title statement understands “illusion” as meaning “mirage,” I think the meaning of the statement is misunderstood. I think the original intent was to suggest that our perceived reality might seem to be true and correct but is in fact false or misleading. Hereafter, the word “illusion” is used to simply mean a distortion in our perception that results in a false or misleading impression of reality.
It is also likely that what you perceive is largely a cognitive construction. Neuroscientist Don DeGracia has pointed out that vision research shows that the visual cortex receives more input from the brain itself than from sensory input through the eyes. The eyes in turn are said to only take in about a fifth of the available sensory data. This appears to support the idea that we actually construct what we see. Persons who have been blind from birth and that medical science provides with an intact vision system still have to learn to see images that you take for granted. Some actually find the experience so confusing that they say they would prefer to be blind and wear dark glasses to block stimulus input. I will end this introduction with a quote from Albert Einstein that you might ponder, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”
In the following, I will discuss the translated title statement relative to four perspectives,where the fourth is the likely source of the title statement.
The first perspective is biological. I will briefly describe here a way of looking at perception from an evolutionary perspective. There is only one person that I am familiar with who has developed and conducted research on this evolutionary perspective. If you’re interested in the details, I recommend you read Donald Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality.
The research done by Hoffman and the resulting scientific theory views what we perceive as “fitness icons.” Hoffman’s research and theory suggests that evolution has shaped our perceptions to be finely tuned to those aspects of the world that have fitness implications for us as biological organisms. Fitness refers directly or indirectly to things important for survival and reproduction. One way to look at this is that anything we perceive, including our body, is an “object” in a field of energies (note, what we call matter is just concentrations of energy) that go well beyond what we can sense. Evolution has shaped our sensory organs to only recognize those characteristics of the energy field that have fitness implications for humans. Further, what we perceive in a fitness icon is a representation of its critical features for us presented in a form that is most meaningful to us. There are many aspects of our environment that don’t have fitness implications for us and to which we are essentially blind. The limited amount that we do perceive seems to us to be reality. The belief that we see reality as it is, is an illusion. It is only a particular take on a segment of the sensory field. Your personal perception of reality is not reality as it is. It just seems that way.
The second perspective is psychological. Almost all normal people have what might be called a personality, self-concept or ego with which they identify. Whatever you wish to call it, this is what most people think they are. Bill, for example, has a lot of characteristics that he would ascribe to himself, such as hardworking, fair–minded, charitable, shy, a poor public speaker, apolitical, good with animals, a victim of an abusive father, and so on. All of these things and more are woven into a personal narrative, and this narrative is based in large part on memories of past experience. This narrative gives Bill a road map that tells him where he fits in. It also provides a ready explanation for things that he thinks, feels or does. It shapes his life by determining what he believes he can and can’t do, what he expects from life and how he goes about being in the world.
The thing about personal narratives is that they are to a great extent a fiction. To begin with, the narrative is comprised of selected memories from the pool of all the memories available. These selected memories, like all memories, are subject to editing and revision. Research shows that memories are not stable though we like to think they are. Memories change over time in both subtle and dramatic ways. Even two or more people having a similar experience will create different memories of it. This is often apparent in conversations with siblings about experiences shared in the home while growing up. In the course of weaving the memories into a narrative some license is taken in order to create a cohesive story, which is believed without question. The narrative seems like who you are but it is just a psychological construct that is mentally active whenever you aren’t focused on a task. You frequently review, update, edit and reinforce this narrative to the exclusion of many other possible variations on the narrative. The psychological construct posing as you is a constructed fiction, which does have elements of truth in it. I would say it can also be thought of as an illusion because it is a distortion of your complete body of perceived experience. Usually, those experiences that have a strong emotional component are the ones selected to weave a story around. Your construed personal reality is who you believe you are. It seems like it is your true “self,” but it is an illusion in the sense that it is to some degree a distortion of your fully lived experience. I have discussed this further in a post (among others) titled The Natural Mind on my website and in Chapter Four of my ebook, Self-Agency and Beyond.
The third perspective is cultural. This is a much larger narrative than your personal narrative but a narrative nonetheless. Every culture and sub-culture has a story that explains to members who they are, what they should believe and how they should act. This narrative is embedded in history, literature, media, myths (e.g., self-reliant individualism) and other means of conveying and reinforcing the story. Cultural narratives often overlap a nation so we can, for example, talk about the American culture or the American story — albeit with sub-plots. In some cases, the culture is broader than a nation and may, for example, be tied to an ethnic group (e.g., the Kurds) spread across several countries. What seems to be true to you is but one of many stories that could be woven about your culture by making different assumptions and emphasizing different events, different people and different interpretations. In fact, for anyone who takes the trouble, it is often much easier to see the revisions, editing and modifications of a cultural narrative across historical time than to see it in one’s personal narrative. This first became apparent to me when, as an undergraduate, I took a three-term course in constitutional law. I completed this course seeing the U.S. Constitution as providing a foundation more like shifting sand than a rock solid foundation. Identification with a cultural narrative is belief in just one of many potential constructions. While it may seem to you to be correct and true, it is an illusion in the sense that it is a distortion of the total cultural experience. If you would like to explore this dimension in greater detail, I recommend Jeremy Lent’s book, The Patterning Instinct and an analysis based in neuroscience by Iain McGilchrist titled, The Master and His Emissary:The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is also not hard to find explications of alternate stories about cultures, especially from groups diminished by the prevailing story.
To summarize the first three perspectives, you have biologically imposed limitations and restrictions on what aspects of reality that you can perceive and how you construe them. You create a fictive-self as a tool for negotiating your way through life and explaining your thoughts, emotions and actions. You adopt a belief in a constructed cultural narrative in which to embed your personal narrative and try to sync the two to work together. All of these, in their own way, distort the deeper reality from which they are extracted. In short, relative to the deeper reality they are illusions. In most cases useful and also true in a superficial sense.
The fourth perspective is the really deep dive in this essay. There are a number of labels that might be used for the fourth perspective. I will call it the spiritual perspective, because that is a term commonly used these days for some of the things that will be discussed. This is a perspective recognized by many traditions, including Christian, Buddhist, Moslem and the Vedantic and Tantrik traditions in India.
When talking about religious and theistic philosophical systems, it can be said that they often have two faces. The exoteric face, which is the public face and is most visible through its churches, temples and so forth and by its practices, ceremonies and rituals. The exoteric face is most often associated with systems of belief. Then there is the esoteric face, which may be associated with monasteries, ashrams, and even ascetics and hermits. The esoteric face is most often associated with systems of practice (see the Introduction and Part II of my ebook Self-Agency and Beyond) and personal experience of gnosis (intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth). The esoteric is a side of Christianity that has largely been absent for some time, but is currently seeing something of a revival. This segment will draw on the esoteric face and the teachings of individuals referred to as sages, awakened, realized and enlightened among other labels. The presentation will be somewhat generic rather than tradition specific.
The view from this perspective asserts, on the basis of phenomenological knowing or gnosis, that the material cosmos, including all life forms, are epiphenomena that arise from a unified and universal primordial awareness/consciousness that has no beginning nor end. I make a distinction between awareness and consciousness in the Introduction to my ebook Self-Agency and Beyond but will hereafter stay with the term consciousness. This primordial consciousness contains the material cosmos but is not limited to the material cosmos. In another essay, I describe the cosmos as like a cosmic egg, characterized by locality*, floating in a sea of primordial consciousness (characterized by non-locality*). A sea of consciousness that is inherently intelligent, creative, inquisitive and unconditionally accepting of its own being and everything that arises from it, This type of conception can be found in either a theistic version called panentheism (see Part III of my ebook SelfAgency and Beyond or one of several essays such as this one) or a philosophical version called monistic idealism (see the works of Bernardo Kastrup and in particular The Idea of the World, which is for most readers not the book of his to begin with. I suggest starting with A Rationalist Spirituality). You can find a list of all of Kastrup’s books along with an audio interview about each book on a page on my website.
This view further asserts that particularized consciousness in each biological organisms is simply a contracted kernel of primordial consciousness that in its particularized form is unaware of its roots in primordial consciousness. The material cosmos was “imagined” into being by primordial consciousness to serve as a basis for the evolution of life. Life serves as the vehicle for kernels of particularized consciousness and in a self-conscious life form that might be called personal consciousness. The purpose of particularized consciousness is to provide primordial consciousness with the opportunity to explore its own infinite potential through experience. Experience arises out of the tension that is created through complimentary pairs, such as, satiety and hunger, hot and cold, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, male and female, health and disease, and so on. Once set in motion, this system is independent and autonomous, allowing full expression of whatever it generates.
This is a complex perspective with many variations that all point to much the same conclusions. The paragraphs above hardly do justice to the perspective but that was not their intent. If you want to explore the fourth perspective further there are a number of reference links above. You might also read Part I of Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis for the philosophical foundation for the yoga tradition based in Tantra. You can also find additional essays on my website by employing the search engine or looking at the titles page. Finally, you might get some idea of this from the poem Conundrum that I recently wrote and that can be found on this page.
Many persons who have realized their true nature as vehicles for primordial consciousness and have opened to consciously embodying primordial consciousness have made statements such as the title statement for this essay. Their intent seems to be to convey that there is a deeper reality beneath what seems to be reality to most humans. From their perspective, what most of humanity calls reality is in fact closer to a lucid dream in primordial consciousness. This does not make it any less real or meaningful to participants in the “dream” but what the “dreamers” perceive as reality is a false or misleading perception of the deeper reality underlying it and therefore can be called an illusion. A similar statement that is associated with this perspective is that “There Is No Doer” about which I have also written an essay titled Are We Merely Divine Puppets?.
* locality and non-locality are physics terms that essentially mean within space/time and beyond space/time respectively.