The phrase “is an illusion” is overused

Ponzo Illusion
Ponzo Illusion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

36 thoughts on “The phrase “is an illusion” is overused

  1. Fantastic entry! I think that you’re right that given the dichotomy of “the way things appear” and “the way things are in themselves” we shouldn’t label “the ways things appear” as illusory as such a term implies a denial of a necessary correspondence between the two realms. We know that if such a dichotomy is true then there must be this sort of necessary correspondence between the realms, so we cannot consistently hold onto the idea of this dichotomy and the notion that the realm of appearances is illusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an interesting issue, but I’m not sure that calling something “illusory” means there is no necessary connection between the illusory appearance and the underlying reality. At least not in the way “the average person understands the meaning of the word”.

      There is presumably a necessary connection between the surface of an elephant and the gray color that appears to be an independent property of the elephant. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem out of place to call the gray color “illusory” in the sense that it appears to be something — an independent property of the elephant — that it isn’t. And if the average person or a philosopher really believes the grayness is an inherent property of the elephant, they’re both under an illusion.

      If you think the chair you’re sitting on is solid (completely lacking empty space) down to the subatomic level, you’re under an illusion too. It’s not an illusion in the magician’s sense (a conjuring trick) or in an extreme sense (if you try to sit on it, you’ll end up on the floor) but in a real and important sense the solidity of the chair is an illusion. Maybe “it’s an illusion” is overused, but so long as there is a real difference between the appearance and the underlying reality, and you say what that difference is, I don’t see a problem with using “it’s an illusion”. Even though I agree that patterns are just as real as the underlying stuff.

      Anyway, anybody who wants to avoid hearing that things are illusory should avoid Alexander Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions”. Rosenberg sees illusions all over the place. He even says that X being “about” Y is an illusion, since fermions and bosons can’t be “about” anything. Apparently, patterns can’t be about anything either.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read Rosenberg’s book a couple of years ago, which incidentally you’re doing an excellent job of analyzing on your blog. An analysis I recommend people check out.

        I found a lot in Rosenberg’s book to agree with, but his insistence on phrases like “you don’t really think about anything because it’s just patterns of neuronal firings” became tedious. I understood the point he was trying to get across, but I guess my response to it is this post.


  2. Hmm, I’m not sure what to think. The primary definitions of *illusion* I looked at were all about ‘something not being as it appears’ which seems to me appropriate way to describe the *self*. On the other hand, on the 3rd page of the prologue to Bruce Hood’s ‘The Self Illusion’ he specifically states what he means by the word *illusion*, writing that:

    “Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word “illusion” does not mean that it *does not exist* – rather, an illusion is *not what it seems*.” (emphasis added)

    That he felt the need to clarify at the outset speaks to your point on the common usage of the term.

    So what do we do? Do we work to encourage the correct use of the term or go with the common misuse? I don’t know, but obviously the importance of clear communication and understanding can’t be overstated. It’s defintely something of a conundrum.


    1. I’d agree that “illusion” doesn’t necessarily mean “not exist”, but I think the phrase “X is an illusion” is commonly taken to mean that X doesn’t exist. “Much about X is an illusion” might be a more clear, if less sexy, statement. Blackmore and Hood are being responsible by clarifying their meaning, but it’s a distinction often lost among others.

      Of course, no one is going to stop using the phrase because of my little essay, but maybe a few readers will be a little more discerning when they see it.


      1. You’re no doubt spot-on, ‘SAP’, in regard to the common usage of *illusion* as I’m admittedly somewhat out of touch with society in general, and as I indicated by Hood’s feeling the need to clarify his use of the term. I guess I just wish it weren’t so 😦

        I have a bit of a misanthropic streak that comes out when I feel frustrated sometimes 🙂


          1. No worries, but looking back at my original comment I think the apologies are mine to make. I sometimes wonder if I need to upload a patch or something to my theory of mind module – it seems to fail me now and again..


  3. Biology can be explained as the effects of self-replicating chemistry, consciousness as the evolutionary result of biology becoming more capable. But free will has no process by which it can come about, no underlying pattern from which it derives its methods. It is a feeling, emergent from consciousness, but the concept of free will is false, making the feeling an illusion. This is different from the other illusions alluded to. While you could say that biology is an illusion, and that it is really chemistry, this is more of a semantics game. Yes, biology is just chemistry, but we have labels for these chemical constructs and processes, and the collection is called biology. It is a subset of chemistry, so to speak, as opposed to free will, which is only an idea.

    Also, I would say that consciousness is the least illusory of anything. If we can know anything at all, it is that our consciousness is real. Otherwise, we can’t know anything at all.


    1. It depends on your definition of free will. The question always is, free of what? Free of the laws of nature? Using that definition, I would agree with what you said.

      But did you choose to write your comment instead of perhaps watching a video or reading some other article? Did you choose based on your own desire (however it arose)? Then, at some level of organization, you freely chose to comment. (Which I’m grateful for 🙂 )

      Maybe you don’t want to call that “free will”. Perhaps “volition”, or maybe “agency”? Whatever you do call it, you could say it isn’t what it seems, and I’d be with you. But if you say it isn’t there, I’d have to ask what the the difference is between it and being forced to write under duress?


      1. To paraphrase Sam Harris, did I have a choice to use different words than those which came to mind? Even if I had every word I’ve ever learned available to me to use, what makes me choose any particular one? I said above that the feeling of free will (agency, being in control) is real, but actual free will (the freedom to take any action possible) is not. I was under the impression that we essentially agree on things, but you seem to be suggesting that actual free will emerges, as opposed to just feeling as if you’re in control of the direction of your life. Unless the freedom to take any action possible is constrained by the physical state of your environment and the state of your brain, in which case, what are we arguing over?

        An analogy for an emergent illusion: biology violates thermodynamics (physics) by creating order when the universe ought to be trending towards disorder. If you look at the big picture, with the sun pouring energy into the system, it holds true, but just looking at planet earth, biology is totally screwing over physics. Likewise, if you look at an individual consciousness at any moment, sure there is something resembling free will, just as biology resembles a borking of physics. If you look at that individual within the whole of society over time from conception till now, there is no such thing. So claiming that free will is real is much like a creationist insisting that life violates thermodynamics (and therefore god did it).


        1. On libertarian free will, you might want to look again the first paragraph in my last reply. We agree on that. You’re not free to choose other than what you choose. (To whatever degree that freedom would even be coherent.)

          More broadly, what are we arguing about? Semantics of course. As I’ve said before, once dualism is off the table, that’s what the free will debate amounts to, a definitional debate. Is the term “free will” applicable to the other scenario I outlined? You’d probably say no, but then what would you call it? Or is there no difference between writing what arises in your mind versus being forced to write what someone else wants you to write?


          1. The choice I made to comment was the sum result of my past experience at that moment. That experience has led me to seek out engaging conversations on topics such as these and continue on long after I ought to have gone to sleep.

            The difference between writing versus being forced to write is, for one, the main impetus to write comes from the now, whereas the other comes from a lifetime of experience. To see it from my point of view, you question where the environment ends and the self starts. Sure, the sparse room with a desk and computer, and some jerk-off forcing you to write is the environment. Your clothes are your environment. Your arms and legs are either controlled by you or autonomically, but they are not you, so they are environment that you take with you. Let’s just skip to the brain because I’m going to get there. Which parts of the brain can go before you stop being you? Damage the hippocampus and you’ll become stuck in time, but you’re still you. You can blow out your prefrontal lobe and become a rude version of you, so why is that still you? It’s because you have memories. Those memories came from your past environment, so you’re just a roaming collection of mutable environment data, collected and organized as your genetics and prior experiences will permit, and responding to future stimuli on account of your past. What you would call your self is just the latest iteration of that collection.

            You are the cumulative result of things that aren’t you, materially and informationally, so there really isn’t any you at all. Where then can free will of any definition arise from when all that is you came from outside of you? You might call it volition, but that is just cutting the search short at a spot that is convenient. Agency is the feeling of being an actor, and I certainly don’t doubt that it exists, but that is what I’m calling the emergent illusion. Emergent because it arises from consciousness, illusion because it appears real but it’s not actually true.

            Oh, and by having you read this, I’m putting a little bit of me in you. Hope you feel weird about that now.


          2. I’m with you right up to the point where you say the self doesn’t exist. What is it about being composed of parts that aren’t it that makes it not real? My car is composed of all kinds of components that aren’t it. They can’t be. Only the whole car is it, the car. But no one is tempted to say the car doesn’t exist.

            If you take away my car, I will be upset. If you take away my ability to choose to do what I desire (even though I don’t control my desires), I will feel that something important has been lost. If you move to take away my self, I will consider something crucial to be at stake.

            All of these things are temporary collections of lower level components or mechanisms. If to be real, they must exist in and of themselves without reference to their components, then they’re all illusions. If they’re not all illusions, then what separates the illusion from the real? At least other than what can demonstrably be shown to be false?


          3. It would be a more accurate analogy if your car had a computer that determined seemingly randomly when and how to resist your control, and you were to call this ability of the car its free will.

            So what then is free will a collection of? I can easily believe the self is real because it actually is a collection of memories, or the chair is real because it is an arrangement of materials in a certain way. Free will on the other hand is an idea just like any other, but it runs contrary to what we know. It is a feeling of being in control, and that the commands originate from you, but we know the formation of the self comes from external sources, and so the commands are not, ultimately, yours. So, unlike the other examples, free will makes a statement which is not true, making it a genuine illusion.


          4. It depends on what you mean by “the commands originate from you”. If “you” are a pattern formed by your genetics and experiences, then I’d say they certainly do originate from you, from some piece of information inside of you. Now, why they were in you to originate from in the first place, does go back to those genes and environment. But here’s the thing about environment. A big part of it is us, our culture, and your past decisions. So there is a dynamic feedback loop that takes us very far from any completely external causes. We constrain and shape our environment and hence the causes of our commands.

            The only way they don’t originate from you is if “you” refers to some dualistic immaterial spirit, and I think we agree there’s nothing there.

            None of this changes the “ultimate” reality, but it does create an intermediate reality, much like temperature is a reality that only exists above the kinetic energy of mass numbers of particles. Ultimately temperature doesn’t “exist” in terms of individual particles, but it is a real phenomenon nonetheless.


      2. If “you” are a pattern formed by your genetics and experiences, then I’d say they certainly do originate from you, from some piece of information inside of you.

        But that information came from outside you. It is within the notion of a self, but it did not originate there. It was acquired, or synthesized from external information, and if you analyze it closely, you can determine where it came from.

        But here’s the thing about environment. A big part of it is us, our culture, and your past decisions. So there is a dynamic feedback loop that takes us very far from any completely external causes.

        Yes, we feedback on ourselves, but what drives that feedback? We contemplate information we’ve gathered from outside and use methods we’ve learned from outside in order to synthesize new information. But, this new information is a product of outside forces. Your self can certainly lay claim to it, being that the synthesis occurred within, but the ultimate source of the information, the methods used to process it, and the genetics which produced the grey matter that processing occurs on were all sourced from without.

        None of this changes the “ultimate” reality, but it does create an intermediate reality, much like temperature is a reality that only exists above the kinetic energy of mass numbers of particles. Ultimately temperature doesn’t “exist” in terms of individual particles, but it is a real phenomenon nonetheless.

        The concept of temperature, though, doesn’t contradict the underlying layer of reality as does free will, instead it builds on top. A more appropriate comparison is my prior reference to how on Earth it would create a feeling that things trend toward order thanks to life, while the reality is that great entropy is the ultimate fate of the universe. That would be an illusion of a similar caliber to free will.


        1. Everything ultimately is sourced from something external to it, except for perhaps the universe itself. That in and of itself doesn’t usually make us conclude they don’t exist.

          How does compatibilist free will contradict the underlying layer?

          I can’t see the life-entropy-creationism comparison. It’s a category mistake from the beginning, applying a universal law of nature to a subset of that universe.


          1. Yeah, the comparison could be better. On Earth, entropy is actually reduced, but determinism doesn’t actually cease in a person who thinks he has free will.

            It seems to me that the compatibilist free will is saying that I can do anything which my environment and genetics permits and my life experiences, including obtained and synthesized knowledge, have led me to do, and I don’t see how that adds up to free will in any form other than a feeling.


          2. You might be right. It might just be a feeling. But isn’t color, sound, love, and hate just feelings, just perceptions? Color of course is how we perceive various ranges of electromagnetic wavelengths, and sound is how we perceive waves of air vibrations. Love and hate are based on far more complex biological, psychological, and sociological processes, many of which can be hard to pin down, but I don’t know many people who say they don’t exist. They are just feelings, then they are powerful consequential ones.

            The debate on free will is entangled with responsibility, and whether or not it remains a useful concept. I think responsibility has a consequentialist value for society. But for it to be just, we need a concept of whether or not someone had a degree of freedom such that it would provide a deterrent for them to be held accountable for their actions. In legal doctrine, this concept is generally called free will.

            Note that this degree of freedom doesn’t imply that you are free from your nature or experiences (it’s not libertarian free will), only that you are free enough from unusual constraints that your case can be instructive to others with a similar degree of freedom.


          3. The appeal to consequences is a fallacious argument for the existence of free will. Additionally, it can as easily be argued that holding people responsible as individuals is detrimental to society, in ignoring the social responsibility we all share for one another’s actions. If you are arguing that legal free will is the definition of compatibilism, then compatibilist free will has nothing to do with the discussion between determinists and libertarians. You may as well say that you are a determinist who believes that legal responsibility ought to be maintained, at least to some degree, in the interest of positively influencing others, and you will find that your favorite determinists will agree. For example, violent psychopaths most certainly ought to be locked up for the safety of the rest, or those who are greedy to the detriment of others should be publicly exposed and the disparity balanced. Note that this legal responsibility turns out to be yet another external influence on the actions of the individual.

            Still though, the point is that free will is a feeling which is not true. Its true that we might feel love or hate, and these might simply be complex chemical processes, but these still build upon existence, instead of contradicting it, as the sense of free will does (the legal concept of free will could not be called a feeling or a sense; the sense of free will is libertarian in nature). Which brings me back to my original thoughts: free will, or choice, is appropriately called an illusion, because the universe does not work that way. Your other examples make no assertion on the nature of reality, but they are considered as illusions because they are not fundamental. Sure, calling them illusions is overused.


          4. Just to be clear, I think libertarian free will is false. When scrutinized, I don’t even think it’s a coherent concept. It’s “not even wrong”. So we agree completely on this.

            “then compatibilist free will has nothing to do with the discussion between determinists and libertarians”
            Exactly! The name “compatibilism” actually refers to its compatibility with determinism.

            “You may as well say that you are a determinist who believes that legal responsibility ought to be maintained, at least to some degree, in the interest of positively influencing others, and you will find that your favorite determinists will agree.”
            Also agreed. Most of these debates amount to a definitional argument on what the term “free will” means.

            “or choice, is appropriately called an illusion”
            That’s true if your definition of choice is being able to choose unconstrained by the laws of nature. But if your version of choice is the capacity of complex if/then/else processing the brain does based on its sensory input, experiences, and instinctive programming, then choice definitely exists. It’s why the brain evolved, to make decisions on the best moves to find food or avoid predators.

            IA, I do think we’re mostly on the same page here, that the main difference between us is our understanding of certain terms. The limitations of language!


          5. Yeah sure, we always agree with one another. I think we’ve found the root of the problem though, and that is compatibilism purports to make compatible determinism and libertarianism, but it does so in a manner that changes the definition of free will. Naturally, you can’t claim to be compatible if you’re changing the definition on the libertarians, and so compatibilism is just determinism with the added caveat that free will can still be a useful idea, but it’s not the same free will over which the dispute is about.

            This is like trying to convince an atheist, who has rejected god-granted morality, that morality is still a useful concept, and calling this position moral compatibilism as if the atheist doesn’t believe it to be true.

            But regarding the article, can you make an argument that the feeling we experience as individuals is not of libertarian free will? If not, then surely you must agree that regarding that feeling as an illusion is entirely appropriate.


          6. The morality comparison is interesting. There aren’t many atheists who argue that we should retire the term “morality”. If there were, moral compatibilism would probably end up being a debated concept.

            The feeling we experience may be of libertarian free will. But does this feeling exist in isolation, with no causal priors? Does that feeling have no relation to any cognitive facility, such as the if/then/else processing I mentioned before? Doesn’t determinism say that the feeling must relate to something? Otherwise why is it there? That thing is different than a naive interpretation of the feeling implies (libertarianism), but I can’t agree that it’s about nothing. And I think what it’s about is close enough to the naive conclusion to warrant the less severe phrase “different than it appears” rather than “is an illusion”.


          7. But that naive interpretation of the feeling is exactly what your average person has, and what you or I had before we put thought into it. Quite frankly, it’s what I still use to get through most of my everyday life.

            I’m not saying that there is nothing there. I’m saying that what is there does not reflect the truth. It suggests that we are active agents in the course of our existence, which we aren’t. Hence, illusion.


          8. I guess it depends on how different something has to be from the original naive intuition before we give it another name. The sun was once naively worshipped as a god or goddess that circled the world. Now we know it’s a ball of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion which the world orbits. But we still call it the sun. Admittedly this is a matter of judgment and style.


  4. The one thing I did forget to include in my “thoughtful, insightful, and balanced” comment(thank you by the way 🙂 ) was that I agree overall, that “X is an illusion” is a bit over-used these days.


    1. Thanks! BTW, it’d be totally cool if you had disagreed. In which case I would have loved to have heard the reason(s) why. As we used to do on the old HP threads, one of the reasons I love doing this is to test ideas and see if they withstand scrutiny.


    1. Thanks. Whenever I get a comment on one of these old posts, I always have to reread it to make sure it still represents my views, but this one mostly does. Although the distinction between reductionism and eliminative reductionism didn’t appear to be in my consciousness yet.


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