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January 1997, Volume 4 Nr 5, Issue 41


At a recent Winter Solstice gathering with my coworkers, I had a conversation where the concept of illusion came up. I recall saying, "Life is an illusion." My partner in conversation replied that he did not understand what I meant by the statement. In this issue, I wish to consider the nature of illusion along with its countermeasure, which for the sake of intrigue and for the moment, I shall call counter-illusion.

What is it that we believe? Why do we believe what we believe and what are the mind mechanisms and processes by which we come to conclude that that which we believe is believable? What is mind?

Recently, while teaching a geometry class, it struck me that some of the difficulty that my students were having with studying and understanding three-dimensional figures called polyhedra was that they were not being mindful of the concepts presented. Neither were they being mindful of what and how they were thinking. This insight became an opportunity to discuss mind and mindfulness.

In geometry class students are exposed to a branch of mathematics which prides itself as firmly entrenched in logic, reasoning, defining, testing, concluding, refining, retesting and authoring unshakable theorems. The concepts behind how all this comes about needs to be examined. What do we mean by mind? Consider the phrases: "Do you mind?" "It slipped my mind." "My mind is going."

Mind means keeping track of what the brain is doing. Being aware of what it, I, think at any moment is paying attention to what is going on inside. We are, in fact, "minding the store." We are watching it. Too often we have no conception of what is going on in our heads. Too often, we operate from the unconscious premise that that which we are mentally processing is universally the reality that exists outside ourselves. If our brain, were to cease to function, would not that "reality" change for us?


The world that exists for each of us is a construct, an inner acceptance, interpretation and projection outward. The world that we envision is put together internally through a combination of the interplay between that which we sense, our moment-to-moment awareness, our prejudices, programming, experience, memory, memory of memory, past and present hurts, pleasures, likes and dislikes. We can to one degree or another hold, that that which we most firmly believe is suspect. It might, after all, not be exactly so.

Judy Helton and Delmar England state, "...the potential of human error creates a condition of doubt about every conclusion." If the conclusion is doubtful, then doubtful is the reality. If reality is that which is our life, then our life is doubtful as well. It is at least, a maybe. The good news is that acknowledging doubt, the possibility that life is illusion, suggests that counterillusion, is possible as well. It is in the recognition that life may be illusion that we confirm that the opposite, the counterillusion, the truth exists.


The truth then is something in need of discovery. Acting out of mindfulness, and in the awareness of our potential for accepting illusion, we challenge illusion in an attempt at discovery. It is after all, doubt that prompts one to remove it. We either confirm our doubt, thus leading ourself on to further discovery, or we find evidence which eliminates some of the doubt. Since anything interpreted has some element of doubt, the absolute truth cannot be found. This is just as well, for to find it would imply that further discovery is not necessary. This truly haunting notion, to not learn anything new, would further suggest that life itself is futile and meaningless. Perhaps, this is why we cling to some of our long-time unexamined beliefs and constructs. We unconsciously fear the challenge of self-examination, afraid of what we might find as much as what we might not.

Our window on the universe is our five senses. Our interpretation of what these senses show us of the universe is our perception. Senses are prone to llusion, thus affecting our perception. Human beings are multiple-sensory perception living beings. We see, touch, smell, taste and hear that which is external to our body. We combine the inputs from these five senses in varying proportion, with varying weight, passing the information on to the central processor for analysis and interpretation; that is, perception. It is to this perception that we seldom apply techniques of determining levels of validity. In the absence of such confidence evaluation, we are easily fooled, illuded into accepting that which is not for that which is.

Sensory Illusion

Johannes Purkinje says, "Deceptions of the senses are the truths of perception". Most of us have seen optical illusions. Examples include: the old woman versus the young one, the rabbit or the duck, the wine glasse or two faces in profile, the two lines that appear the same length, or parallel to each other, but in fact, through measurement are not. Recently, through the use of computer technology, a very popular series of books has appeared which contain stereographs of images, seemingly nonsensical, which when viewed for a few moments through disfocused eyes, produce recognizable, dramatic three-dimensional images.

Maurits Cornelius Escher, the famous Dutch graphical artist, is world renowned for taking advantage of human perception, recognizing such perception as being prone to misinterpretation. Many of his graphical works are two dimensional impossibilities placed upon a flat plane giving the illusion of three dimensions. Escher has hands popping out of paper, drawing each other in an apparently three-dimensional world; lizards rising up out of drawings circuituously walking around the top of the piece, only to return to the nether flat world from which they came. It is only when we stop to think, that is, we pause to notice or mind what we are looking at that we arrive at more of the truth. We discover that we have been taken in.

Sight is not the only sense open to misinterpretation. Dr. Diana Deutsch has created a Compact Disc of Musical Illusions and Paradoxes. The CD includes: octave Illusion, scale Illusion, chromatic Illusion, glissando Illusion, etc.

When I taught junior high school science, I had my students perform experiments where they would use a Q-tip placing sugar, lemon juice, salt, bitters, etc., on various parts of the tongue without any input from senses other than taste. Inevitably, they incorrectly identified many of them. Without sight and smell, many people cannot taste differentiate between a small slice of apple and a small slice of onion. The same misinterpretation holds true for touch as well.

It stands to reason then, that the human sensory system and the interpretation of data coming from it is not completely reliable. Why then, do we so steadfastly insist that our perspective of events is the correct one? Why do we go as far as battle and war to prove that our beliefs, our descriptions of what occurred, are the correct and only ones?

Same Old Mask

There is much more going on than mere misanalysis of information by the brain through unmindfulness. I believe that data, as collected by our senses, is restructured and manipulated by an aspect of our being that has much at stake in our proneness to illusions. Here is the ego again, using illusion to its own advantage placing itself in what it believes to be a more secure, superior position.

The power of the ego is in its ability to stalk our mind waiting for unmindfulness. When we are not paying attention, the ego, without being noticed, emphasizes misanalysis in an attempt to exercise power and control. We easily and often fall prey to the ego's deception.

Deception is the act of misleading by false appearance or statement We allow deceptions to take place by not paying attention to mind. Ultimate forms of deception include conversion and brainwashing. Military boot camp is an extreme example of successful brainwashing. The recruits are trained to seek out and pay attention to the many voices of the ego. The trainers reinforce the recruit's ego fears through manipulation of external living conditions and stimuli. Ceaselessly, recruits are stripped away from the ability to be mindful. It is after all, a mindless soldier that will follow any order, obey commands without question.

While military indoctrination is a severe example of embracing illusion, many of us, most of the time, are prone to more subtle forms of the same techniques. People may join more subtle groups that take away their power. Some become "true believers." Dick Sutphen believes that at least a third of the people are true believers. That is, "They are joiners and followers, people who want to give away their power. They look for answers, meaning, and enlightenment outside themselves." They wish to denounce or disown parts of themselves that they see as unworthy or unvaluable. This is what advertising attempts to do. Through advertising, it is subtly or explicitly suggested that we throw off that which we dislike in ourselves and replace it with a product, service, or hero that will fix it, change us, make us over. Thus, the ego gets more new versions of the same old masks to try on.

Television technology is well suited with its quickly repetitive scan rate to induce hypnotic and semihypnotic states. Combining advertising with television technology, the smallest desire to be deluded, and our misinterpretation of sensory input produces a being with a state of mind who thinks unconsciously and unfreely.

A 1984 article in the technical newsletter, Brain-Mind Bulletin, states that as much as 99 percent of our cognitive activity may be nonconscious according to the director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Psychophysiology at the University of Illinois.

In Mark Gerzon's book, The House Divided, Gerzon writes about a political State which he calls Gaia. Gaia is, according to Gerzon, millions of people who consider themselves members of a subset of American Society who wish to change America for the better. Gerzon describes a Gaian as one adhering to a belief system which according to Harry Palmer, founder of Avatar, a consciousness raising learning and teaching program, states,

Whatever beliefs you hold will cause you to create or attract experiences which will support those beliefs, why not choose beliefs that bring you the experiences you truly want? We may believe anything we please and if we believe it without reservation, it will determine our experience.

Dr. Deepak Chopra in his audio cassette, The Higher Self, says:

You create it [reality]; you carry it around with you; and most importantly, you project it onto everyone else and everything else you encounter. But, the traditional Western notion of reality is much too limiting for a true realization of life. If you are to understand yourself and the world around you properly, you need to expand your boundaries of reality - of time, space and matter...The highest spiritual goal one can possibly reach is to know reality totally, because with knowledge, we transform reality.

I'd like to think that Deepak Chopra is asking folks to expand one's notions of space, time, matter, to try to embrace with understanding the phenomenon of what is amazing and certain, per scientific learning. There are those who believe that Chopra is referring to phenonmenon beyond the five basic senses.


Humans, being what they are, have devised ingenious ways to define the parameters through which they define reality. Philosophy is one such way. "Philosophy is the sum of mankind's attempts to answer the questions at the heart of being human." There are, of course, as many differing philosophies as there are parameters for interpretation. On the subject of reality one can find:

  • Liberal empiricism: believes in promoting human happiness and interpreting reality objectively.
  • MonoRealism - based on reality, reason, and the supreme value of your own life.
  • Reality Core - explication of The Law of Relational Identity: the core principle of reality and its proof.
  • Virtual Reality Eight - Scientific spirituality, scientific religions, virtual reality on a planetary scale.

Regardless of what we call them, the process reduces itself to individual interpretation of external events, as data collected by the senses and analyzed. This is why two people can witness the same automobile accident, each being "truthful", interpreting the events very different from each other. This is why one person may produce unending streams of evidence that Elvis Presley is a hero, worshipped for his showmanship, character, performance, musicianship, etc., while another questions the sincerity, honesty, talent, character and importance of the same figure. Who is right and who is wrong?

We need to distinguish between reality and opinion, paying careful attention that we do not elevate opinion into fact made reality. In the case of two people witnessing an accident, I believe neither is right or wrong if both do not lose sight of the origins of their reality, which both accept and project outwardly. We resolve conflicts associated with interpretation when we maintain focus on what we are doing.

Philosophical problems [editor's emphasis] arise in our concern for social issues, in the views we hold of the meaning and purpose of our lives, in the positions we take on political and moral questions, in the ideas we have of such things as freedom, conscience, God, the world, ourselves. They live below the surface of all our truly human actions. It is the task of philosophy to provide a means of becoming acquainted with these basic human issues, and to learn to reflect on them intelligently.

Reflecting on these issues intelligently requires honestly recognizing that there are as many possible realities as there are possibilities and combinations of upbringing, experience, beliefs, interpretations, sensory handicap and prejudice, etc. Intelligent reflection and dialogue requires at least a recognition that someone else's reality may be different than our own. Transcended reflection demands that we place ourselves into the reality, that is the belief system, of the other. This requires not only making an attempt of walking in the other's shoes, but of consciously thinking in the other's mind. When we enter into the reality, the illusion of the other, even for a brief period of time, only then can we appreciate the unbelievability of our own position. That doubt, however small, leads us to more of the truth.

Extra Sensory Perception

In an issue on illusion, one would be remiss not to at least mention extra sensory perception or ESP. ESP is often described as the phenomenon where data, information, and perception of the world around us are acquired outside the realm of the five recognized senses of seeing, smelling, tasting, touching and hearing. ESP suggests there is an existence outside the scope of the physical universe which includes matter and energy as quantitative entities, that is the universe is more than a mathematics-based model of what is. The acceptance of ESP is the denial of the precepts by and under which one defines the material quality and measurable quantity of everything that exists. It is also the denial of the methods used in establishing the physical universe as real.

Experience is the "direct, observational knowledge of the world...the sensory basis of the knowledge." ESP then falls outside experience. If, as we have seen, reality is readily illusory, then might not ESP be an illusion brought about by a misinterpretation of sensory data that appears to be coming from outside the five senses. Put another way, ESP is as susceptible to being "real" as dreams are. Combined with a small desire to "make it so", ESP can easily become an other form of reality alongside hallucinations, alien abduction, ghosts and mirages. I find it easier to believe that everything that I "experience" is virtual reality, put together through the parallel processing of gigaquads of data bits in my brain. In this scenario, it is my programming that determines my experience, including that of ESP or anything else that I appreciate as real. What I must not do however is mistake the illusion for what is observable and repeatable.

Jeff Evason and The Amazing Tessa say, they "are one of the very few couples in the world today able to demonstrate two person telepathy on stage." In describing their performance, Evason and Tessa state, "The show begins with an astounding feat of mentalism or illusion." It is refreshing to see claims of ESP described as performance and entertainment.

The Amazing James Randi, the legendary illusionist, whom JeanneE and I have had the pleasure to meet, once said that the similarity between a magician and psychic is that they both fool the observer. The difference between them is that the magician tells you that he is fooling you while the psychic tries to convince you that it was real. The Amazing Randi offers the following challenge:

I, James Randi, will pay the sum of US$971,000 through the James Randi Educational Foundation to any person or persons who will demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind under satisfactory observing conditions.

James Randi and two-hundred-fifty other pledgers make up the 2000 Club. This group of individuals are so convinced that their reality is so well defined and duplicatable that they are willing to offer a million dollars to anyone proving otherwise. To date, no one has succeeded in passing the challenge. As Randi puts it: "There seems to be a certain quality of the human mind that requires the owner to get silly from time to time." ESP is one of those times.

Back to the Party

We come full circle to the question, "What is it that we believe?" We believe that which we wish to believe.

Beliefs involve the deployment of concepts...which are mental states, representational in character, taking a proposition (either true or false) as its content and involved, together with motivational factors, in the direction and control of voluntary behavior.

While having a drink at the Solstice Celebration with a coworker, I made the statement that doing so was an illusion. Instead of being there together, sitting in front of candle, we were in front of the woodstove at my home. When he asked me whether he would be there in the morning, I replied, "I hope not." I was attempting to create my own reality.


We have only to believe. And the more threatening and irreducible reality appears, the more firmly and desparately must we believe. Then little by little, we shall see the universal horror unbend, and then smile upon us, and then take us in its more than human arms.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu

What is called a sincere work is one that is endowed with enough strength to give reality to an illusion.

Max Jacob, Art Poetique [1922]

I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.

Socrates, Diogenes Laertius

Man is the measure of all things.

Protagoras, Fragment 1

1997 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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