“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 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 most 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.
Recently, I heard a claim that there were only two authentic expressions of sex, i.e., the natural binary of male and female. The speaker argued that this binary and only this binary is natural and therefore authentic. As I considered this claim, my thoughts went back to the early history of life on this planet when sex evolved as a reproductive strategy. Biological evolution, as a process, produced two reproductively distinct sexes. The strategy has endured because it improved the odds of successful reproduction of any species using it. Sexes exist for a biologically functional purpose and only for that reason. Remove the biological advantages from sexual reproduction and sexes never would have evolved. This means in its most fundamental sense male and female reflect reproductive sexes. The majority of individuals are male or female in the reproductive meaning of the two categories. Any fundamental differences between the two reproductive sexes, whether in anatomy, physiology, affect, cognition or behavior appear of necessity to be tied to reproductive functions. This seems to be what the speaker mentioned above had in mind. In another piece on this site, I have argued that male and female represent a complimentary pair that anchor the points at either end of a spectrum lying between the pair. The speaker denied as authentic the spectrum and thus anyone representing it.
Evolution is not an invariant process and a minority of births result in atypical outcomes related to sex, as well as other characteristics. Some atypical sex related outcomes are more easily identified than others. There are variations in anatomical outcomes such as in the structure of the genitalia. There are also physiological variations such as Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which result in a genetically XY individual who appears female but has no internal female reproductive organs. There also appear to be a range of atypical sex related outcomes, possibly related to physiological processes, that aren’t well understood. For example, there are likely atypical outcomes due to hormone exposure during development that is hypothesized to occur at the wrong time or persist for too long or too brief of a period or to involve the wrong hormone altogether. These are usually only identifiable through overt behavior and/or reports of covert psychological states such as thoughts, feelings and behavioral impulses arising in awareness and becoming objects of consciousness, which may or may not be overtly acted upon. Thus, in addition to anatomical variations, there can be outcomes resulting in variations in sexual orientation, sense of sexuality and gender identity. These atypical variations can be manifest in various combinations and to varying degrees and will be stronger and more intense in some individuals than in others. I would say that any variation that is a product of nature is natural and any claim that it is unnatural is a false claim.
If you take the variations above, which arguably have a basis in biology and then insert them into the psycho-social context represented by culture, a whole new layer of considerations emerge. Culture represents a range of narratives about human nature and the role of people in the institutions and practices of society. These include such things as religion, politics, medicine and psychology among others. During development, we all begin to build up a narrative about how we fit into this many-faceted cultural matrix. For example, many would call this personal narrative ego or self. How we define our fit into this matrix or allow it to be defined for us can have far ranging implications. It is my assertion that it is a human right for each individual to define for themselves their relationship to the cultural matrix in which they live. That said, understand that there are components within the matrix that resist such a right in many of the variations within a population. Deniers of human rights tend to have rigid personalities and a need for certainty even if they are certainly wrong. Such people could be said to be lost in their mind.
What I mean by the mind is that scaffold of mental constructs that go by names such as ideas, concepts, beliefs and facts that are usually revealed in our use of language. Our experiences are encoded through images and words and are therefore linked to the scaffold. The development of the cultural mind is supported by the experiences of the body in the physical world. Experience is a critical contributor to the development of the cultural mind. Complimentary pairs, like male and female or good and evil, exist because they make experience possible through the tensions produced by the contrast between the end points – if no contrasts, then no experience. You can’t have the experience of temperature without the binary of hot and cold.
The cultural mind, in my view, might be thought of as a cognitive structure existing within awareness. By way of illustration, imagine a large grassy field (awareness) with a complex set of “monkey bars” (cultural mind) set up on part of it. Most of us spend most of our time “playing” on the monkey bars and are largely oblivious to the field (awareness). When an experience occurs, we usually interpret it through the structures comprising the cultural mind. This is what is known as top-down perception. Looking at an experience from the perspective of the field and excluding the monkey bars is called bottom up perception and is typical of young children and awakened adults. This is the perspective of the natural mind.
I would suggest that the self that resides in the cultural mind is a personal myth and is a story woven from memories, which are selective and ever changing. This self can never be authentic in any foundational sense. Authenticity in a person is, in my view, to be found only in the beingness from which awareness arises, not in the cultural mind. Thus, to legitimately characterize someone as authentic is to speak of them as an expression of that underlying beingness, a state that precedes mind and body. A state that resides in the source of awareness, which is Primordial Awareness or Universal Mind. The authentic Self shines through some individuals’ way of being in the world and is hidden by others’ way of being in the world. It is not that one has it and another lacks it, for both have it. It is just evident in one and not the other. Let us seek communion with our authentic Self and then let it shine into the world to be seen by all who have eyes with which to see it.