Tag Archives: gnosis

The World Is An Illusion ?

“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, fairminded, 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.

finis

David Center

Why I Am an Agnostic

           To begin I want to distinguish between three terms: agnostic, atheist and true believer. True believers are simply people who uncritically embrace on faith any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. For example, true believers make a categorical assertion that a being called God exists. An atheist on the other hand denies the validity of any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. In counterpoint to true believers, an atheist categorically asserts that a being called God does not exist. In the cases of true believers and atheists, the psychological processes underlying their apparent contradictory positions is very similar. Both make absolute assertions about something that they can’t prove. An agnostic, on the other hand, takes a middle road between these two extremes and simply pleads ignorance.

While not limited to religious beliefs, it is within such a context that one most frequently encounters the use of the terms just described. Agnostics recognize that it is unlikely that either claim can be put to an empirical test and publicly validated. Therefore, agnostics stand aside and take no position. The existence or non-existence of a being called God appears to be a question of belief rather than one of fact. The one requires blind faith and the other empirical evidence. Clearly, a very large contingent of the world’s population have historically been true believers of one sort or another.

To further elucidate the assertions above that “The existence or non-existence of a being called God is a question of belief…[that]…requires blind faith…,” I will draw on points made in other essays, specifically The Natural Mind and Discernment, both of which can be found in posts on this site. In The Natural Mind it was suggested that what drives the vast majority of individuals is a fictive-self. This fiction is a complex narrative that is created and maintained to explain to ourselves the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that arise from our automatic programs (APs) [see sub-section in Part I]. These APs are acquired through conditioning over the course of our lives and remain, for most of us, largely beneath conscious awareness. In short, who we think we are is a product of the mind. In Discernment a similar case was made that what we call the world (human culture), as distinct from the earth (matter and natural processes), is likewise a product of the mind and is therefore at root purely conceptual. Imagine the earth without any humans and see how much of what I’ve called the world remains. A few material artifacts of human culture may persist for a time but the earth will soon enough consume them.

Most people mistakenly believe that their narrative about themselves represents objective reality. The basic narrative normally begins developing in early childhood and there are both personal and cultural components. Various components of the world are included that lead to belief in institutionalized paradigms representing such things as social structures, political institutions, economic systems, religion and so on. Thus, one finds that many people have a personal narrative that includes, among other conceptual paradigms, belief in a religion. Belief in a religion in turn supports belief in a God. The operative word in the case of religion and God is belief, which makes both merely an idea, a product of the mind.

There are, historically and currently, people whom many would call mystics. Mystics describe what is often referred to as Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. The claims of such individuals are said to rest upon personal experience with a direct knowing of (as opposed to belief in) Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. However, such assertions about personal experience cannot be objectively evaluated or publicly validated. The difference between a mystic and a religious person is that a mystic does not ask you to believe anything but instead invites you to seek personal confirmation through your own experience of what he or she reports. To put this another way, a mystic invites you to engage in a single-subject experiment that often comes with a methodology for implementing the experiment. A religious person asks you to take on faith his or her beliefs.

As an imperfect illustration, suppose I returned from a trip to a country that included a exotic fruit in its diet. I had eaten the fruit many times while visiting but you have never heard of it. I can tell you a lot of things about the fruit but you then only have some limited knowledge or information that in no way duplicates the actual experience of eating the fruit. Unless you repeat my direct experience by eating some of the fruit you will never know what I’ve tried to relate to you. The taste of the fruit is just an idea in your mind, not an actual experience. You may believe from the description that the fruit would be tasty, but you can’t know if that is true without direct experience.

Thus, if I recommend that you obtain some of the exotic fruit and try it for yourself this is analogous to the approach of a mystic. If I tell you about how tasty the fruit is and you believe what I say and begin telling everyone you know how great this fruit is that is analogous to the approach of a religious person. As is said in Zen, “Don’t confuse knowledge with knowing.” Thus, personal experience is subjective and can’t be transmitted to anyone else, except as an idea. Mere ideas are always subject to misunderstand-ing and distortion and often are corrupted in their transmission. One should never invest belief in the truth of an idea.

Individuals who have mystical experiences that reveal to them what they experience as “God” almost universally invite others to personally test their reports and to experientially verify them for themselves. Thus, I’m personally inclined to at least give mystics the benefit of doubt, since they do not ask anyone to believe their reports based on faith. Interestingly, many religious narratives grow up around such individuals after their death. These narratives often appear to significantly distort and elaborate what the mystic actually said or taught. These religious narratives, in my opinion, almost always serve some personal, social or political purpose. I’m reminded of my favorite religious joke that can be found on the Poetry and Related Items page on this site.

Thus, I am an agnostic because I can see no way to give belief in the existence or non-existence of a being called God a factual basis. Related to the question of whether or not a Supreme Being exists, there is also the issue of religious belief. Because I am aware of strong human tendencies to invest faith in beliefs arising from mere ideas, which are often the product of irrational thinking, I cannot embrace any religion. Religious beliefs can have a strong emotional appeal and may moderate existential anxiety, but like all beliefs they are just ideas and have no reality outside of the mind. I recognize and accept that there are awesome mysteries about the nature and origin of the universe that I cannot fathom, but religious dogmas about these mysteries are not satisfying, and ultimately explain nothing. I am open to experimenting with methods suggested by mystics as ways one might gain a direct, intuitive and personal understanding (gnosis) of these mysteries. However, belief in institutionalized religious dogma articulated through a formal organizational structure is the antithesis of such methods. Even should I have success with methods recommended by mystics, I recognize that the experience would be personal and would not and could not extend to anyone else. The Truth known by mystics is subjective and only available on an individual basis.

In conclusion, I suggest that agnosticism should be one’s ground state. I think that taking an agnostic attitude toward any and everything that one has no experiential basis for accepting should be one’s goal.