Monday, March 9, 2009

The Illusions By Which We Live

How much of our lives depend upon illusions? And who is perpetuating those illusions: You alone, someone else to keep you happy, an entire group to which you belong?

How much of our lives are meaningful because of certain fictions? Fictions of: self- importance, friendship, sympathy, compassion?

How can you know if any particular thing about who you are is true, real, not an illusion, not a fiction you've created? I'm not sure you can. And if you can't know that beyond a doubt for yourself, how can you hope to know anything true about anyone else?

All I can be pretty certain of is that we were all born and that we'll all die, we all have bodies that involve biological function. Those things don't seem like illusions, at least, not without adding lots of mystical, magical thinking. Everything else you might want to put into the category of "true" and "real" seems ripe for scrutiny.

The illusions keep us getting up each day and continuing on. It's in creating fictions of who we are and what we're about, that we find meaning. Some days I find this perpetual task invigorating and full of beauty. Today I find it isolating and exhausting. I'm sure Sisyphus had his off days too.


  1. Even though it may be impossible to decipher what real and what's not, I think it's important to rely on our instincts and to embrace what seems real to us. We shouldn't wake up each day and believe that we create fictions in order to find meaning, because in that sense it would seem as if we're living a lie. According to the definition of illusion, the victim is completely unaware.

    Oh, and yay for an Albert Camus reference! You are now my favorite blogger. Shhhh don't tell anyone.

  2. I don't disagree with your advice to embrace what seems real to us. I do it every day, we all do. I think many people are, in fact, "unaware victims" to their life's illusions and fictions, getting dangerously wrapped up in ego-driven dramas. I think an important part of living "an examined life" and investigating ideas of reason, truth and knowledge may be coming to terms with the ambiguity of what we think is real.

    I disagree with you that fiction = lie. In fact, if you look up "fiction" at you can read for yourself that the word fiction is exactly what I'm talking about:

    "2 b: a useful illusion or pretense"

    If I remember correctly, Dennett spends some time talking about this concept in several of his books about consciousness and free will.

    I also don't agree with your definition of illusion. I don't think there is anything in that word that specifically implies that there is 1)a victim or 2)that victim is unaware.

    If one takes an absurdist view of life, which I do, then one must at some point face the question that Camus so famously put forth re: suicide. He concludes that suicide is not the solution to the absurdity of man's existence. The only logical response is revolt. I think it takes embracing illusions and fictions to successfully revolt against absurdity.

    Thanks for your comments, they prodded me into thinking about this a little bit more and that was fun.

  3. I'm glad you decided to reply! There was indeed more to ponder.

    And we come to crossroads with the endless problem with semantics:

    I didn't say that 'Fiction' is equivalent to a lie. What I meant to get across is that if we are consciously creating fictions, then we are living beyond who we are, and in essence living a lie.

    Illusion by definition is a deception. I suppose I shouldn't have said, "according to the definition", but instead what I perceive the definition to mean. I would assume that for an illusion to exist, there needs to be a victim. And if the victim was aware of the deception, then it wouldn't be an illusion at all. But it is not to say that the victim cannot become aware of the illusion at a later point in time. And time I think is my big issue with your idea of creating fictions.

    "I think many people are, in fact, "unaware victims" to their life's illusions and fictions, getting dangerously wrapped up in ego-driven dramas." - I will argue that we are all indeed unaware victims to our life's illusions and fictions at the point in time that they are being created. By reflecting at a later date, which I will agree with you that not everyone does, they become aware of variables that they were previously unaware of and discover that they were indeed under an illusion of sorts. And I suppose that they were creating a fiction unconsciously.

    Herein lies the problem I initially had. It seemed to me that you were saying that we were consciously creating these fictions. Also when you said, "How can you know if any particular thing about who you are is true, real, not an illusion, not a fiction you've created? I'm not sure you can." You seemed to be contradicting yourself when you previously labeled friendship and sympathy as being matter-of-fact fictions.

    Also when you said, "It's in creating fictions of who we are and what we're about, that we find meaning", I don't agree entirely. I would say on a personal level that I find meaning not in my unconscious creating of fictions, but in my reflection of that very act at a later date. Of course one could that there is no difference between the two. And to quote Timothy Levitch in one of my favorite scenes from Waking Life, "The paradoxes bug me, but I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me...I go salsa dancing with my confusion."

    I agree entirely with the idea of absurdism and that one can find meaning in the act of revolt alone.

    Thank you for the rebuttal! It's always a pleasure.

  4. Once again, lots to think about in your reply.

    I didn't intend to imply that the fictions or illusions are being created consciously. It's the (mostly) subconscious nature of these things that makes them ripe for investigation. Becoming aware of illusions and fictions in our lives could possibly cause one to live very self-consciously, hyper-consciously, if you will. It is often when one's illusions are revealed as such that feelings of loss, grief, confusion occur.

    What I had intended by the use of the word "illusion" is best defined this entry in Merriam Webster:

    "2 a (1): a misleading image presented to the vision (2): something that deceives or misleads intellectually b (1): perception of something objectively existing in such a way as to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature"

    I'm curious to know what kind of studying/investigating/reading you've done about the nature of consciousness, how our concept of a "self" comes about and how it all relates to neurobiological function.

    I tried to watch Waking Life once, but didn't enjoy it enough to make it all the way through. It was a while ago so I don't remember much about it. Maybe I should give it another try. "...I go salsa dancing with my confusion" really cracked me up! Thanks for including that.

    Feel like we could go 'round and 'round about this topic for months and it would never get boring! Always so many avenues to explore.

    Semantics do make things tricky, eh?

  5. I think semantics is probably a philosophers biggest hurdle. Language is a human invention and I think perhaps that we create terms that don't actually mean anything in real-life. And it's in building off these types of terms that we run into walls. But of course that's not to say that we can't refine or invent new words to climb over the wall.

    I think we mostly agree on the subject at hand. We're creating fictions and subsequent illusions because of a lack of conscious information from either the suppression of the subconscious or pure ignorance. I think in my own fear of potentially creating fictions, I've grown quite hyper-conscious. By constantly digging into our own mind, I think it's the most reliable way to excavate our subconscious. It's a quality I admire.

    I haven't done any research on the nature of consciousness, but after all this I think I might delve into it a bit. I'll take a quick stab at it though. Our concept of "self" is all we know. It is generate from our senses and it's in the curiosity that we have that drives our neurobiological function. I'll probably muse on it a bit more and make a post sometime in the future.

    Thank you for the music recommendation by the way. I went ahead and picked up the movie Man on Wire. Loved it! Although I wish I had taken French in high school; I got the version without subtitles! Had to put my facial expression reading skills to the test. You were right about Erik Satie, I fell in love the moment Gymnopedie no. 3 started playing.

    I've just recently been getting into instrumental music, much of which is older and newer age classical, along with a lot of chamber music and singular artists such as Max Richter and Hauschka. It promotes a lot of self-reflection and definitely fits the bill in moments of expression.

  6. I haven't done much reading on the topics of evolutionary linguistics, psycholinguistics and the like, but it's next on my reading radar. Language is fascinating to me and I look forward to studying it from different angles.

    Glad you liked Man On Wire, even though you couldn't understand the words in French. Phillipe Petit is quite the storyteller and his charisma is fascinating to watch. That his friends and accomplices are still be moved to tears by the experience they had with him was interesting. The coffee table style book upon which the documentary was based offered a greater story-telling impact than the movie, I think.

    Glad I hit the mark with the Satie recommendation. I'm not familiar with Max Richter or Hauschka. I'll have to check them out.

  7. Jordan...I wanted to mention Gonzales - Solo Piano. You'll find it reminiscent of the Satie. You can find a bunch of videos on Youtube of Gonzales performing.