“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
— Albert Einstein
Wherever humans exist, things are not what they seem. Illusion taints every aspect of the human experience. It’s in everything we do, and feel, and think. It is in the way things taste, the way time flows, what we believe is valuable, beautiful, right, and wrong. Illusion goes as deep as free will and to the very core of who you believe you are.
An illusion is what is left when our experiences do not match up with the true state of the world, and it is where ever our thoughts and emotions do not match up with reality. The objective perspective eludes us because the world cannot be experienced outside of our minds. For human beings, the outside world is filtered through our senses and our bodies flaws, through our emotions and biases, then colored, categorized, and served up to us in a version we can understand.
To be plagued with illusion is a universal condition, every mind is different, everyone’s body is different too. The specific illusions each of us perceives varies from person to person.
What you see and feel, physically and mentally can never be shared, and can never be accurately conveyed. Even if they can, they can never be fully believed or verified. How do I know that the red you see is the same as the red that I see? Things have form outside of our mind, true, and it is also true things have form outside of our gaze, but they do not look like anything.
“If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The cause of sound surely exists without the human nervous system to carry it from the vibration of air molecules to the brain, but does sound exist? What else is only in our heads?
“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the Weather.”
— Bill Hicks
The taste of honey, the smell of a rose, the cry of a newborn baby, and the pain of a broken bone are illusions, but what about love? What about fear? What about justice and the right to free speech? What about money, or the happiness we think it will bring? What about the past? Does the number two exist? Does π? Is it all just one big shared hallucination? Does it even matter?
These are questions philosophers, scientists, and men of deep spiritually have been asking for centuries, and while the data is piling up, the answers are as far away as ever. How can we know that any inference or interpretation isn’t simply another trick of the mind? How can we be sure there isn’t another false reality underneath each fact? We can’t. Reality is not for us it is not a state we can enter.
Luckily, humans are very good at creating elaborate and persistent false illusions. These lies lead to the richness of our experience. Without them, life would be quite boring indeed.
Our world is a complex web of interpretations, on top of opinions, on top of incomplete data, on top of subjectivity masquerading as universal truth. We have created an entire world of values, customs, emotions, language, sciences, philosophies, social structures, and taboos painted over the world around us. Illusions on top of illusions. It’s all made up, and somehow it still feels real. It all feels right and true. It feels like it all came into being before us, we discovered it rather than created it, and that these truths will endure long after we are gone. That’s part of the illusion too.
Your identity and the control that you think you have over what you do is the greatest illusion of all. You are simply an effect created by a mind stitching together the past it remembers and the future it hopes for. You are simply the face of a larger collective making decisions and moving you through the world and this life. Most of what goes on in your mind is kept from you entirely.
Information is passed to the subconscious first. Meetings are held behind closed doors, buttons are pushed, levers are pulled, choices are made, and only at the very end are you brought in, and you, like every other human, are duped into thinking it was all you all along. Another deception.
“Is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody.”
— Angela Carter
So what though? So what if it’s all in our heads? It exists in all our heads the same and doesn’t that make it all real too, in a way. I mean, knowing money and marriage and morality is made up doesn’t change a thing, does it? Does it?
There is a kind of truth in our illusions too, a human truth, the only truth that really matters to us. Our world may be an illusion but it’s the one we have to live in whether we like it or not, the subjective viewpoint cannot be escaped, and rationality and hard science will only get us so far. We can’t fight our nature. We cannot escape the human condition.
What we have done is taken reality and superimposed our own world on top of it and that world may only be around as long as us, but as long as we are here we have to live in it, and it comes with its own rigid rules. We still have cause and effect. We can still predict outcomes based on data and observation. Much of what is true in one life, at one time, in one place, is consistent in all lives, in all times, and in all places. The human world is a science all its own with its own method and reason, laws and theories.
Our illusions are our reality. They are real, and they are persistent and consistent. They are useful. Our illusions help us move confidently in the world and to tell the truth some of them are quite beautiful and elegant. We ought to be proud.
“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”
You may hear people, especially old philosophers who wrote old books, tell you to get rid of your illusions. I’m here to tell you that you can keep them. They are who you are after all. And anyway there can be no other way for us to live without them. Without the way we see the world, experience space, time, and ourselves, there is no us. If we lost them in our place, another species would exist that looked like us but was not us at all. The human world that exists in our minds is the only world we have, will have.
Life is too short to try to escape the inescapable. You cannot win the battle against illusion, and you shouldn’t want to either. My advice is to be the most human you can be, and that means accepting that the world in your head isn’t reality, and the reality you know isn’t even yours to control. Give up trying to be so damn objective and go experience all the illusions you can.
Try on new ones and discard the ones you don’t find quite as satisfying or helpful. Share them, trade them, lay them out side by side, stack one on top of another, combine them and tear them apart. Hold tight to whatever feels the most real to you. Not that the choice is really yours to make anyway, is it?
Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.