Thursday, February 02, 2006

Smoke and mirrors: the five fundamental illusions

Most of what we believe is false.

That much I can say is true.

There are five fundamental illusions that we all fall for, and understandably so. The illusions are so compelling that it goes against our most ingrained intuition to dispel them.

The illusions are:

The illusion of consciousness

Consciousness is not a 'thing'. It does not exist in the sense that is an object with defined limits and properties.

There is no question we have experiences, but the nature of these experiences cannot be explained in any useful or meaningful way simply by referring to them being 'consciousness'.

We often have the sensation of being observers, seemingly 'inside' our own heads. There is, in fact, no observer. It's all us. Dennett calls this the Cartesian Theatre, and he thoroughly demolishes a range of intuitive concepts we have in his book Consciousness Explained.

There is also only the vaguest distinction between conscious and subconscious. How do you explain - only using consciousness and your experiences - what happens when you suddenly notice a noise that's been going on in the background for a while?

What about the consciousness as the motivator for behaviour? We have experiences, and we have memories, as well as behavioural dispositions, but is there a pilot steering all this? The pilot seems unnecessary. When we look at the causes of behaviour, it seems as though we can build up an exhaustive explanation without resorting to a pilot. In fact, if anything, our consciousness gives us the illusion of control or volition whereas it's more of a post-hoc description we use to explain our behaviour after the fact.

The illusion of self

The illusion of self is closely linked to the illusion of consciousness. For most of us, the thing we call our consciousness is the foundation of our self. But if that consciousness - that pilot - is only an illusion, where does that leave the self, the 'I'?

We have experiences and memories, and the sensation of continuity, but what is it that we call our 'self'?

The belief in an immutable self would suggest that we - being the self - would know the nature of that self. However, we know very little about ourselves. It's not at all uncommon for us to not really know how we feel about something or what belief we have until we say something about it.

The illusion of free will

All our actions are predetermined. This doesn't have to be determinism in the scientific sense - although there's no evidence to say that determinism isn't true for the world outside Quantum mechanics, or that there's a link between Quantum indeterminism and super-Quantum physical determinism.

This could be psychological determinism. Or neurological determinism. This is also linked to the illusion of consciousness. There's evidence that shows that our brains are well on the way to executing an action before we even have the sensation of willing it to happen.

This doesn't mean there's no cause for our behaviour. On the contrary, there is an extensive causal chain that determines our behaviour. It also doesn't mean we should be fatalistic. Just because the free will is an illusion doesn't mean we should ignore it. It also doesn't mean there is no moral responsibility. If an individual commits an act, they still commit an act.

The illusion of causation

There are no discrete causes. There is only one great big continuity of events that are interlinked. There are plenty of events that don't causally interact with others, such as events on opposite sides of the universe. But a single event is caused by its entire causal chain, going all the way back to the origins of time.

Discreet causes are useful abstractions to help us manage in the world, but they are not 'real'.

The illusion of reality

This is really the illusion of distinction. There is a world in which we exist, but it is a single interconnected world without discreet 'objects'.

This can be demonstrated by taking a bite from an apple. It's still an apple, albeit missing one bite. Take more bites, and its status as an apple gets a bit shakier. Eat the entire apple, and the apple is gone. But at what point did the apple cease to be an apple? And what about all the apple bits in your body. Your body will break them down and absorb some parts, converting them into other substances, such as proteins or sugars. At what point do those apple bits become part of you?

The interconnectedness of things can also be demonstrated by touching something. It feels like there's a solid object there, but in fact, on the sub-microscopic level, there's no hard line between where your hand ends and the object begins.

The end result

Ultimately consciousness, the self, free will, causation and reality are all illusions - but they are useful illusions. Without these illusions we wouldn't be able to live effectively in this world. If we saw through these illusions and actively disbelieved them all, we would find ourselves unable to function effectively. We'd have no identity, no reason to exist, no volition and no way to interact with the world.

As such, we need to continue using these illusions. However, by understanding their true nature, and understanding that they are illusions, we can better understand the nature of the world in which we live. We can then live better lives, where our behaviour is driven by an understanding of reality rather than resting on falsehoods.

I certainly don't expect everyone to agree that these things are illusions. They are compelling illusions indeed. However, the further we delve into the nature of these things, the more inevitable the conclusion they're illusions becomes.

Many neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and even physicists are coming to the same conclusions.

It's only by embracing these illusions, and understanding their causes and their implications on reality that we can construct an accurate picture of reality as it actually is. No mean feat, but an incredibly significant one.