The March 6 episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast interviewed Jennifer Oullette to talk about her latest book, ‘Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self ‘. During the interview, Chris Mooney asked her if the self is an illusion. I was impressed that Oullette downplayed the phrase. The self is not what we generally think it is, she said, but calling it an illusion is misleading.
I’ve actually come to think that the phrase “is an illusion” is overused. In too many contexts, it means something other than what the average person understands by the world “illusion”. The self is an illusion because we change over time and are distributed throughout brain systems. Choices are an illusion because of determinism. Biological life is an illusion because it’s just chemistry. Consciousness is an illusion because…well, we don’t understand it.
The thing is, we can keep going. The software running the device you’re using to read this is an illusion because it’s really just patterns of transistor states set from magnetic patterns on a storage device. Democracy is an illusion because it’s all in our minds and, well, choice is an illusion so it doesn’t matter. Color is an illusion because it’s a perception created in our visual cortex to represent different ranges of electromagnet wavelengths. The chair I’m sitting in is an illusion because it’s just a collection of atoms.
Anything that we understand the component parts of, or underlying mechanisms of, could be tarred with the “illusion” label. Ultimately, everything is nothing but patterns of fermions and bosons. (Even ideas which are patterns of synaptic connections, which themselves are patterns of fermions and bosons.) Even elementary particles might themselves be patterns of something else like field disturbances or strings. It might be structure all the way down, or mathematics as Max Tegmark claims.
The name of this site is Self Aware Patterns, which is in recognition that ultimately it is all patterns. (We are patterns that have achieved self awareness, patterns that are subsets of the patterns of the universe.) But just because something is a pattern doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, that it’s an illusion. The patterns are important. Patterns are information, crucial information.
I’ve been accused several times in the past of being a reductionist. It’s a label I don’t think quite applies to me, at least not in any strong sense, because of my belief that these patterns are important. Indeed, when it comes down to it, they may be the only thing that really is important.
It’s the patterns that lead to emergence. Not emergence in any magical sense, but in the sense of an entity or object coming into existence with its own properties. The patterns, the arrangement, the information, are what make those objects or entities more than just the sum of their parts. Indeed, it could be said that the patterns are the non-physical reality that many anti-materialists insist exists.
I understand why people reach for the “is an illusion” phrase. It’s often an attempt to dramatize to people that how they think about something isn’t the way it is. It works in dramatizing, but it also makes a lot of people think the proposed idea is crazy and is just denying realities they see as pragmatically obvious.
I’m not sure what a better phrase might be, except possibly to just say that the subject matter isn’t what people think it is. The self exists, but isn’t what we commonly think it is. Choice exists, but isn’t what we think it is. This might not be as sexy as the illusion phrase, but it has the benefit of not leading nearly as many people to dismiss your idea out of hand.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think we should reserve the phrase “is an illusion” for things that are demonstrably false.