The illusion of reality

Reality or illusion? Source: Wikipedia.

Following up on my previous essay summarizing the main points of my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, I'd like to explore here another topic covered much more extensively in the book: the elusive and subtle dichotomy between what we call 'real' and what we call 'illusory.'

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 dreams 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. 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 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.'


  1. Would I be correct in saying that this 'self-honesty and intelligence' is not actually the honesty and intelligence of a 'self' but of a fundamental conciousness, or 'god-head'? And the only way to truly know or experience reality would be to merely drop the illusion of a self? (Easier said than done.)

  2. It makes me wonder what would happen to our "shared reality" if some critical mass of conscious beings suddenly became enlightened and were able to grok the "illusory" or subjective nature of reality. I know that in the rare occasions when I'm sleeping and suddenly become aware that I'm in a dream, I can manipulate reality incredible ways. I'm usually able to fly, to change the architecture of any building I'm in, or spawn beautiful women (unfortunately I usually wake up before things get interesting :). Perhaps the integrity of our shared reality is dependent upon the conscious beings that inhabit it to be fully vested and fully embedded in the "illusion". Sounds like the basis of a good sci-fi story :)

    1. Hi Rabutan! Yes, I explored this extensively in 'Dreamed up Reality.' I wonder the same myself. I wonder to what extent the patterns and regularities of empirical reality are maintained through an agency (a mental complex) independent of the human psyche, or through the reinforcement of shared human beliefs and expectations. I think both processes are involved, but I wonder about their relative contributions.

    2. One physicist I read a while back proposes that the moon would gradually evaporate into space if we stopped observing it. Some sages speak of more profound (non-biological) levels of consciousness that are responsible for maintaining the universe. Regrettably I am unable to confirm this insight, if such it is.

  3. Another way of getting past the common misconception ("the world is an illusion" taken to mean "The world doesn't exist" or "nothing exists outside my mind") - The world doesn't exist in the **way** we normally take it to exist.

    What does that mean? Well, we have to understand how we normally take the "world" to exist - as a non-living, non-conscious, meaningless existent (for the modern physicalist, we can't speak of "things" or "matter") which - most importantly - would continue to exist in the absence of any consciousness or awareness whatsoever.

    Once we get clear what materialist (I still prefer that term) scientists are saying, we might add a step that would make it easier for those who find idealism hard to take - a thorough, radical agnosticism:

    1. What am I aware of at this moment?
    2. If I examine experience carefully - without adding any interpretation, epistemological or ontological - I am aware of appearings, phenomena, that exist inseparably from an unbroken field of awareness (note this is VERY different from saying I'm aware of phenomena in MY awareness; i don't find a self-existent "me" when I look clearly and closely at experience, though this does not deny individuality, but that's another topic).

    3. Using currently accepted scientific methodology, I may reasonably assume that phenomena exist apart from MY awareness, but (a) I have absolutely no way of ascertaining whether phenomena continue to exist outside of any field of awareness, and (b) there is absolutely no need to posit the existence of such phenomena (and besides, examining word definitions carefully, when we see that "phenomena" means "appearing" we see its absurd to think that something could "appear" without awareness!

    This I think avoids some of the difficulties you get into, Bernardo, when you try to defend "idealism." You don't need to defend anything and you don't even need to posit a collective unconscious or non-individual mind. You can be the most thorough going empiricist, and challenge your challenger to engage in truly reasonable, scientific thinking. The onus is then on him to show why he wants to believe (in the complete, total absence of any evidence, and despite the fact that there could NEVER be any evidence) in some kind of thing or phenomena or energy or dark matter or whatever he wants to call it, existing entirely outside the framework of awareness.

    You can even extend an olive branch and say, "well, let's say there could be such a thing? Why would you want to believe in that any more than the flying spaghetti monster? It's completely unnecessary for any branch of science, there is not and can never be evidence for it, and it creates so many complications (you don't even need to talk about consciousness - start with the so called "laws of nature" which in a meaningless, dead materialistic world have arisen in an utterly inexplicable way).

    THEN - once the skeptic (who as you often say, hasn't really been skeptical enough) realizes that he has been holding on to a belief system and has no evidence for his beliefs - THEN, and I think, only then, he might be ready to heard about a non-individuated mind which encompasses all.

    I have personally found that although some debunkers (we shouldn't call them skeptics) will baulk no matter what you say, an awful lot of people "sitting on the fence" can find their way beyond materialism by this step by step approach. For more, see my "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor."

    1. Hi Don,
      The need to 'defend' (i.e. articulate, elaborate on, etc.) idealism, in my view, arises from the difference between solipsism and idealism. Solipsism is the radically-skeptic view that all that exists is one's own experience of reality, everybody else being just 'phenomena,' in the way you defined it. Under my formulation of idealism, however, other people do have their own experience of reality and aren't merely phenomena in my awareness.
      I know that you resist accepting the 'I' and prefer talking about a field of awareness. I agree with that. But I do grant that other people and living beings have their own perspective on that field. The moment I grant that, I do have to explain how and why I and other people seem to share the same world, even though each with a different perspective on it. This cannot be argued from a purely skeptical position -- like solipsism can -- but has to be positively articulated. That articulation, in my view, requires talking about collective unconscious, non-individual mind, localization of mind, etc.
      Cheers, B.

  4. Another much simpler way to put it, from contemplative scientist Alan Wallace;

    Whatever is perceived exists only in relationship to perceiving

    Whatever is conceived exists only in relationship to conceiving

    What we call the "world' is a complex web of perception and conception

    1. It seems to me that the idea of the one mind from which the universe emerges is solipsism. This would not imply that other people's experience is any less real than our own. It would mean they are all equally reducible to the experience of a single experiencer. So, as usual, I feel the correct answer to the question of the truth of solipsism would be yes and no. True in a way, false in a way, so that for the truth we must speak seemingly paradoxically. And if we reduce time and space then the question becomes even more awkward.

    2. Peter, I agree with the essence of what you are saying, but I think your use of the term "solipsism" is inaccurate. In philosophy, solipsism is the position that all reality is YOUR PERSONAL dream, and that all other people and living beings aren't conscious, but simply images in YOUR PERSONAL consciousness. A such, Idealism is not solipsism: I, as an idealist, grant that you have inner life; that you are conscious, not only me.

    3. I can't resist adding the joke Don recently posted on the MS forum which I think may be the last word on Solipsism.

      Professor on stage announces he's a solipsist.

      Woman in the audience cries out, "Thank God. I thought I was the only one."

    4. This post gave me an idea for a potential way of scientifically testing Idealism. At least the "shared collective experience" aspect that science addresses. This essay describes reality as binary, subjective or collective. What if if collective reality had aspects that were shared but only by sub-sets of humanity. People who can see auras comes to mind as a potential example off the top of my head. Couldn't science potentially handle regular patterns that are predictable but only for some people? I was originally tempted to phrase it as "What if collective experience happened on a bell curve?" But this cant be because it would then be obvious.