What Is An Illusion?

What Is An Illusion?

Some say our sense that life means something is an illusion, or that it would be an illusion if there were no god. Some say free-will is an illusion. These claims confuse me.


The water I seem to see on the hot horizon is an illusion. The bend in the stick in the water in the pond is an illusion. These claims have sense because I know what it is to see water, am acquainted with the sight of a straight stick. But how does free-will really feel? What is it like for life really to mean something? These questions smack of nonsense. What is the genuine article against which to compare the alleged counterfeit?

"That four-sided triangle you saw was an illusion." Does that make sense? No. A four-sided triangle is impossible. There is nothing it is like to see one. There is nothing it is like to seem to see one. The can be no counterfeit of an impossible original. (But what is this an illusion of? Is there really an illusion?) 

"That free will you thought you felt, that was an illusion." What? How would you know? Maybe you have a theory that says every event is necessitated by the laws of nature and the prior history of the universe. In such a world, can there be something it is like to experience the absence of necessitation?

Now I deliberately and willfully touch the tip of my nose. I certainly don't feel myself compelled by laws of the cosmos and the sum of time. Neither do I feel myself not so compelled. I feel myself willing a nifty little nose-touching. We can and do mislabel such experiences. If I label the experience of making myself touch my nose "the experience of a four-sided triangle," and later I realize four-sided triangles are impossible, that does not mean I once had the illusory experience of a four-sided triangle. (If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a cow have?) I had the experience of sticking the label for something impossible on my experience of touching my finger to my nose.

If I am, in fact, paralyzed from the waist down up, say, or an unwitting brain in a vat, then I could not have executed a nose-tip touch. I will have experienced the illusion of making myself touch my nose. That makes sense. There is something it is like to touch your nose. Pain in a phantom limb is an illusion. Pain in an eternal soul is a labeling mistake.

My father said he was proud of me and it meant so much to me. Could I be wrong? Yes. It was not really my father who said it. He did not really say he was proud. There is nothing it is really like for something to mean so much? No. No. No. On acid, a matrix of twigs against the moon can mean so much. Maybe that's a counterfeit experience of real meaning. I'm not sure. I am sure the question makes sense because the genuine article is known to us.

Photo credit: shutterstock.com

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast