An Illusion is Nevertheless Real

Recently I commented on Owen Barfield labouring his point about the mental illusion of seeing an intangible rainbow, when his real point was that “seeing” a tree was no less a mental trick of “representation”, as is even the additional mental picture we create from the other sensory perceptions available to us for the apparently more tangible object. Barfield himself pointed out that just about all philosophy since Kant has been concerned with this point.

More recently, I commented on MoQ-Discuss, that the abstractions MoQ-ers refer to as “patterns of intellectual quality” may well be purely conceptual, and that the MoQ representation of patterns of quality in the lower inorganic, biological and social levels are in fact just more intellectual patterns, so what we have is a “meta”-problem. Everything we know, of either the tangible or the conceptual, is in some sense an abstraction, before we start.

I’ve also commented previously on both Susan Blackmore’s and Daniel Dennett’s views that free-will, even the whole of consciousness itself, is “just an illusion” created by, or in one interpretation of Sue’s case completely comprising, memes; culturally communicated world-views. Dennett coined the meme that Darwinian evolution was a “dangerous idea” and, genetic or memetic, you can see why many might find scary the idea that free-will is just an illusion. Dangerous, says Paul Davies, in the sense that it might excuse an irresponsible nihilistic outlook on life in general. Sue disagrees, and I do too, but I suspect for different reasons.

I think people conflate tangibility and illusion, or rather intangible reality and illusory un-reality. Things may in some sense be intangible and non-physical; not existing directly in the physical, as mere assemblies of discrete “atomic” physical components (atoms, quanta, information, whatever). They may nevertheless “exist”, or be emergent, in the topology of interactions between multiple layers of dynamic patterns in the physical. Doubly intangible, if you believe the physical is largely intangible to start with, but no more illusory than anything else, as in literally everything else.

Clearly enough of us humans are deluded enough to believe that the fates of our world and us within it are real enough to take seriously, even Blackmore and Dennett (otherwise why would they bother ?), so the illusory nature of the world or our consciousness of it and any free-will or causation within it, is just not an issue, is it. You’d have to be pretty twisted to start with, to use the illusory get out of jail card to absolve yourself from any worldly responsibility.

So to use Dennett’s own language, before we all reach for those teleological pre-ordained, theistic skyhooks, “Very clever. Nice try. But, so what ?” So what if we can argue that everything (or everything we think we can ever know or experience about everything) is an illusion, where does it get us ?

We need some pragmatism. Even if our entire world bubble is framed by an illusion, we surely have a useful “axis of tangibility” to consider within it, ranging from relatively tangible / physical to relatively intangible / illusory, and explanatory reasoning for the relationships between things along this axis. If we lump everything at one end of that axis, in our lemming-like quest for simple binary truths, we are paralysed, we have nothing to work with, no potential energy left.

Again, more truth it seems in art than science – I only recently commented also that Smullyan’s piece “Is God a Taoist“, presented in Dennett and Hofstadter’s “The Mind’s I” was one of the best explanations of the reality of free-will I’ve come across in a long time. If I ramble on much longer I’ll be quoting the “Cornflowers” again.

5 thoughts on “An Illusion is Nevertheless Real”

  1. imho, the whole damned thing is meaningless…just a bunch of atoms and cells bouncing around and eventually forming other forms. It’s just what they do.
    What we do is attach meaning. We take this or that collection of things and say “hey look, this means something.” And others look and agree or don’t.
    For some reason, this prediliction for attaching meaning has enabled us to flourish. But then the population of cockroaches isn’t in any danger either.

    …but maybe cockroaches also attach meaning. I wonder if there is a way to test that? but first I would need to define meaning….

  2. Look Alice, there is no way you of all people believe it’s all meaningless. As you say “we” attach (create) meaning.

  3. which is what I was really trying to say with my little diatribe. We can’t say even one declarative sentence without feeling the need to prove it or defend it.

    Geez! the set of all sets is not included in the set of all sets.

    It’s madness, It’s endless and then it ends.

  4. Aha, doubt. So logic (set theory) doesn’t seem to help either, unless you can step out of the frame / up a level, it just goes round in circles (That’s pretty much Hofstadter’s GEB.)

    I’m almost finished reading Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, and one of his pieces is about evolution of morals, or what’s right. I was / am just about to post something on the problem of feeling you have to defend every sentence ad infinitum.

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