The illusion of reality
|Reality or illusion? Source: Wikipedia.|
We often hear today, particularly in spiritually-oriented circles like non-duality, that 'reality is a kind of illusion.' Strictly speaking, this assertion means exactly nothing: it's like saying that black is a kind of white. After all, reality and illusion are defined as opposites. Therefore, to say that they are the same thing simply renders both terms useless and semantically void. Yet, there may be something important hidden behind such an apparently illogical statement. The people who make the statement aren't interested in being logically-consistent, but in conveying a deep intuition about the nature of what's going on. What are they really trying to say?
Ordinarily, we differentiate reality from illusion by thinking of reality as something autonomous, outside our minds, and thinking of illusion as a creation of our own minds. This way, if the UFO one saw was actually a secret military prototype flying in the sky, then it was real. But if the UFO was merely a vision projected onto the sky by one's active imagination, then it was an illusion. So far so good.
Now, notice that this distinction between reality and illusion assumes the philosophy of realism: the notion that there is a reality fundamentally independent from, and outside, our minds. Otherwise, everything is a kind of illusion insofar as everything exists fundamentally in our minds as subjective experiences. This is what people are trying to say when they state that reality is a kind of illusion. They are basically asserting one or another form of idealism, the philosophy I articulate in Why Materialism Is Baloney.
Does that mean that, under idealism, there is no distinction between empirical fact and fantasy? No, that's not what it means. Idealism does acknowledge a distinction between fact and fantasy. But a less naive way to differentiate between the two is needed. Indeed, what we call empirical facts are actually shared, collective experiences. And what we call fantasies are personal, idiosyncratic experiences. In the book, I elaborate extensively on how a shared, collective experience that we came to call the 'world outside' can originate in the fabric of mind.
The above may sound simply like a semantic re-definition of terms, but it has profound implications if one truly internalizes its significance. Because all reality is a creation of mind, the distinction between our imagination and empirical fact is merely one of degree, not one of fundamental nature. Empirical fact is an experience with a higher degree of sharing but, ultimately, of exactly the same fundamental nature as your nightly dreams or fantasies. If you close your eyes right now and vividly imagine a scene of your choosing, the fundamental nature of that experience will be exactly the same as the experience you will have when you open your eyes and look around. In that sense, nothing is real; reality truly is a kind of illusion.
The nature of nature, so to speak, is to imagine; to dream and delude itself. When we seek and project a 'true' reality outside mind, as materialists do, that is simply an expression of nature doing what it does: trying to deceive itself according to timeless archetypal patterns. A sign of true self-honesty and intelligence is the ability and willingness to see through this primordial self-deception, acknowledging the profound kinship between what we came to call 'reality' and 'illusion.'