Are the self and material objects illusory?

Phil asked:

My name is Phil and I’ve been very recently wondering about very disturbing stuff (including death anxiety) and I think I’m past the worst of it, but I have some lingering questions. Here’s the background for one:

It seems when we examine real objects close enough, they become illusory (for example, at the quantum level).

Also, the self seems to be an illusion in the strictest sense, if by illusion we mean something that has no correspondence in reality (for example a mirage caused by a heated surface, when viewed from the correct perspective, seems to be a body of water. But there’s never any actual body of water there corresponding to it in reality, its just a hot surface. In the strictest sense, then, the illusion is generated by the brain, and doesn’t exist ‘out there’.)

In a very trivial sense, this property of being ‘only generated by the brain’ also applies to the self, therefore seemingly making it an illusion. And yet, the self is also real since it actually exists, for example I think, therefore I am… (I hope the self survives physical death, but I can’t imagine how since all we know about self is that it is generated by the physical brain. But I’m comfortable with the possibility that it does.)

So, in light of all of the above, what do you think is the difference between reality and illusion?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You are worried about nothing, although I admit that your question reflects a state of confusion that seems pretty widespread.

The way you harp on the word ‘illusion’ tells me that you have no clear grasp of its meaning. So my first suggestion is, clear your mind of the confusion associated with the word. Here’s how:

We humans all have the same sensory equipment. Hence by and large the sensory information we receive from the world is common to all of us. Moreover you can use suitably calibrated apparatus to ensure that what you discern is objectively discernible in exactly the same way to the apparatus.

Illusions arise either from deficient sensory equipment or from defective judgement. This applies equally to humans and apparatus. It indicates that information has been incorrectly apprehended-either because the equipment is ‘out of tune’ with the norm (defective) or else because circumstances prevail (such as bad lighting, noise, pain, or strange surroundings) which inhibit proper identification. The latter condition applies mostly to humans, of course. Apparatus cannot have illusions. Otherwise if the apprehensions of your senses and the apparatus match each other, there is no illusion.

In a word: We have a norm that decides when and under what circumstances a person suffers from illusions. Among humans, this norm is provided by the average Tom, Dick and Harry. Once you have accounted for the relatively few and clearly identifiable instances of illusion, there is no logical avenue from the notion of ‘illusion’ to ‘universal illusion’. Indeed logically the idea of a universal illusion is a self-contradiction. If everything is illusion, then nothing is illusion. If everyone has the same illusion, then the word illusion is meaningless.

Coming now to your example of the quantum level of reality, what is illusory here? Consider the weather in this context. We often get our forecasts wrong, because they seek to predict states with a high degree of uncertainty in their trends. But uncertainty is not illusion. Similarly the unpredictability of quantum wavefronts offers no license for the use of the word. You should make yourself aware that the phrase of the ‘observer participation’ in the collapse of a wavefront is a metaphor, not a statement of fact; and moreover the associated notion of infinite alternative universes does not hold as an account of any sort of reality, but is merely a kind of game we play with unrealised possibilities – like the moves in a chess game that were never played, although they were all of them possible and would in each case have altered the course of events. In fact this is a very good comparison. An unplayed move in one game may be played in another. Or it may never be played in any game. Whichever is the case, it is clear that uninstantiated realities is a self-cancelling supposition!

Consider further that the quantum level is nothing other than a huge magnification of the visible features of the world. It is peeking at a tiny detail of an immense swarm, since you cannot grasp the whole. It is exactly the same as looking at a speck of dirt at the foot of a mountain. Will you now pronounce the mountain to be an illusion, because all you can see is the speck of dirt?

Moving on to your worries over the ‘Self’. Every human being has a sense of individual selfhood. But we fall easily into the trap of thinking of the ‘I’ as something other than ‘I’-a confusion engendered by language, when we say (as I just did) ‘I have a sense of selfhood’, as if this selfhood were something other than ‘I’. What am I? Not my selfhood? Is selfhood something I possess or am? Is my selfhood something other than my body or are they a unity? We often shoot ourselves in the foot this way, and then proceed to draw illicit conclusions from the mere use of language, that some kind of illusion must be involved.

In a practical sense, this problem falls away the moment you realise that your ‘self’ is a boundary that encloses your subjective and objective existence as a body. Another person is another enclosed self. So your argument about ‘my self isn’t out there’ is completely false. You know without the slightest doubt that ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘they’ are objectively real and objectively instantiated selves. Moreover it is easily proved when you check on the means of your communication with another self. Since no-one can read your thoughts, you must employ empirically discernible means of projecting them, usually speech. You translate your thoughts into speech patterns and direct your vocal muscles to push a bunch of aerial molecules in the direction of the other person, who can apprehend those signals and translate them into thoughts again. You may be misunderstood in your meanings or intentions, but this is not illusion either!

I won’t comment on your notion of the self persisting beyond physical death. Since there is no positive evidence for it, this is just about the only case where lots of people indulge themselves-not in illusion, but delusion. A big difference!

So your question is answered by a proper consideration of the term ‘illusion’. Your examples don’t qualify as illusory. Illusions are misapprehensions of actual states of affairs, or faulty perceptions of facts in the world. They can also be pretenses and/or beliefs concerning states of affairs that cannot be shown to actually exist under the criteria that govern either the dead-matter or living objects and processes of the world. Regarding beliefs and pretenses, there is a choice between illusion and delusion, but these too can be objectively resolved, e.g with apparatus. You may have the hallucination (illusion) of seeing a ghost, and this cannot be validated by an apparatus. You may entertain the delusion that your soul is imperishable, but no-one has ever stepped forward with an empirical proof that this is possible.

Finally a word on the discrepancy between physics and sensed reality. The blue of the sky can be validated, although an apparatus may also reveal that in this case the colour is an effect of certain chemical interactions in the atmosphere. But to call this an illusion is stretching the notion too far again. Colour vision does not produce illusions, but enhancements of objective phenomena for the purpose of better discernibility. We can indeed reduce these enhancements intellectually back to their ‘factual’ state, and this is good for mathematical physics. But to survive in the real world, colour vision is more effective tool than physics for discriminating the world’s features. An organisms has need of discernment of real features, not numbers. This is where the question mark over the word ‘illusion’ returns with full force.

So we may now conclude that sensed reality is objectively real to the extent that the interaction between phenomena and our sensory equipment has resulted, over evolutionary times, in a necessary form of understanding. In contrast, physics reality is a luxury that goes beyond the imperative of survival and is not in direct contact with lived reality.

My last observation concerns the belief that lower strata of the material universe (such as the quantum realm) causally influence higher strata. But this again has not been proved; and I can’t see how it could be. It is just another intellectual construction which does not amount to a coherent theory because we have nothing remotely resembling a theory of dimensions of existence. On the contrary, to our perceptions, different dimensions seem to be self-integrated causal systems, perhaps nested holons. But in a nested holons, interaction is restricted to contact at peripheries, and this allows only minute causal exchanges.

For us humans, therefore, reality is what a consensus of all life forms experience as reality. The human intellect is not in direct touch with the physical world and prone to evolve unreal fancies, whether in the form of quantum physics speculations or invocations of divine authorities or the innumerable fictions in which we indulge. Some creatures have experiences denied to human beings. Reality for fish is the watery habitat; for some bacteria it may be volcanic vents. We do not credit them with any intellect, but if they had one, what would their judgements on illusion and reality be? Maybe a sobering thought! But none of this invites the suggestion that we suffer from illusions and that reality is anything other than what we know it to be!


Answer by Peter Jones

You would only need to examine Buddhist philosophy, in particular the ‘Middle Way’ philosophy of Nagarjuna, with its concept of ‘sunyata’ or ’emptiness’, to see how your questions may be answered. This link is to an excellent essay by Thomas J. Macfarlane titled ‘The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy’.

Macfarlane explains what the sages mean when they say ‘nothing really exists’, or, in respect of the conditioned and unconditioned realms, that ‘the two worlds are one’, by reference to Nagarjuna’s ‘Middle Way’ philosophy, and discusses ‘sunyata’ or ’emptiness’ as a cure for ignorance and suffering. Here ‘suffering’ would include death and fear of death.

For this philosophy you would be quite right in your suspicions, in that for an ultimate view all forms would be illusory, conceptual imputations, and this would include all corporeal and mental phenomena. It would not be correct to say bluntly that they do not exist, obviously not, but they would not exist in the way we usually imagine they do.

In regards to death anxiety you might see that this as a hopeful philosophy. This is because everything would reduce to an ultimate phenomenon and can never cease to be identical with this phenomenon. All division would be superficial. Thus for an ultimate analysis, or for the ultimate experience, we would be God, and not the distinct individuals we usually think we are. The word ‘God’, with all its endless meanings, is not one that everybody would use, and certainly it is not used in Buddhism, but it conveys the basic idea. The self would not survive death, as you suspect. According to the Hindu Upanishads there would be no intentional consciousness after death. But there would be some subtleties that save the day. Advaitans and Buddhists are not happy for no reason.

Here is a link to Macfarlane’s publications list. It is nearly all relevant and he knows his stuff.

The implication of this view would be that we may well have reasons to fear death, depending on our circumstances, but it would at least be possible to reach a state of knowledge for which death would be of no concern to us. Death and fear of death would be suffering, and for Buddhists suffering would be as unreal as subjective selves and objective objects. While this is a theory and not a realisation it will be of little help to us, of course, but even as a theory it allows us a little optimism.

As for reality and illusion, the situation would be as Francis Bradley describes in his Appearance and Reality, which I would recommend. Only one phenomenon would be truly real. This could never live or die, and you and I would be it. Two brief quotes may indicate that this is not an exclusively Buddhist teaching, or even just a result of Bradley’s kind of logical analysis, but also a central teaching for the esoteric tradition of Islam and Christianity, and that there would be a method of verification.

“There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” (2, Peter I:4)

“Man can partake of the Perpetual. He does not do this by thinking he can think about it.” (Jan-I-Janan, Sentences of the Khajagan)


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