The Three Illusions
Let's get philosophical. Considering I majored in philosophy for my degree, you would think I'd spend a bit more time discussing the mysteries of existence. Alas, since leaving university I've had minimal conversations about profound philosophical notions. Let's change that right now. For the past week or so, I've been listening to a podcast called The Three Illusions. Basically, it's about reaching enlightenment through science. BAM. Doesn't that sound absolutely awesome? It unveils the three great illusions that stop us from seeing the truth behind our existence. And let me tell you, I've had a 'mind blown' moment like every day listening to this. Whether you believe in a God or not, the realisation of the three illusions can greatly improve your life. I, for one, am already reaping the benefits of this realisation. And I'd like to share what I've learnt with you.
Now, I'm not a scientist. Or a philosopher. Or a baker. So I'm going to spill out these ideas through the filter of my lay-person brain. My aim here is to give you a taste or an introduction to the ideas I've discovered. If you'd like to dig in deeper and make more technical sense of it all, feel free to give the podcast a listen. Or, hit up Google for some more in-depth analysis.
1. The illusion of Free Will.
We're not easing into this, sorry. We have no free will. You, me, your dog, President Trump - none of us have free will. Which is ridiculous. Of course I have free will, I make about a billion decisions every single day. That wouldn't be possible if I had no free will. I chose to make Moroccan Lamb Tagine for dinner instead of Tuna Mornay. I remember making that decision... "What am I going to cook for dinner?" I thought to myself. And then I chose. Free will working it's magic in full force. Right? 'Fraid not.
So, you had the thought what am I going to cook for dinner? And then you decided what to cook for dinner. But, did you decide to have that thought in the first place? Before you thought what am I going to cook for dinner did you think should I ask myself what to cook for dinner?
Let that sink in for a moment.
What I'm saying is, I didn't choose to have that thought. I didn't choose to think what am I going to cook for dinner. I just thought it. How could I have chosen to think it, if to choose would mean having to think before I thought anything? That little quandary wrinkled my brain hardcore. It feels like I choose to have thoughts. But this isn't the case. Think of it this way, do you choose to be hungry? Not really. You just suddenly get hungry. Why? Because your stomach sends a signal to your brain with the thought I'm hungry.
So, if I'm not choosing to have a thought, then what/who is? Where do they come from? Heck - what even IS a thought!? To put it as simply as I can, a thought is an event in your brain made up of electricity and chemicals. Thoughts can be triggered by other thoughts, thoughts can be triggered by sensory input (vision, smell, touch, taste, sound), thoughts can be triggered by chemical substances introduced to the brain (caffeine, methamphetamine, paracetemol), thoughts can be triggered by pretty much anything except you.
What. This doesn't make any sense. So, what you're telling me is that thoughts are just chain reactions my body is having? Bingo. We are complex organisms made of atoms, and those atoms react in specified ways. Ways that we have no control over. Your genetics have already decided for you exactly what you're going to think, how you're going to act and the entire course of your existence. Now, that's not to say you won't achieve great things. Or lousy things. Or have profound thoughts. Or overcome obstacles. Or cook Moroccan Lamb Tagine for dinner. But what it does mean, is that you are a sack of chemicals that are pre-programmed to react to every single stimulus in a specified way. Even when it seems like you're making a life-altering decision, you are actually acting in the only way you could possibly act given the input and your genetic makeup.
Still with me? You're probably scoffing right now. Pfft! Bah! This is all just mumbo jumbo talking it's way out of making any real sense. Or, you're like - cool, we're just reactive atoms, what's the big deal? I was a combination of both these reactions. How could this be possible, and so what if it is? We're just chemicals reacting to chemicals. So what. I'm a unique combination of chemicals in a unique circumstance. And I am my body. So if my body is deciding to react to something in a certain way, then that still means that I'm deciding. Nope. Sorry. Your body causes your thoughts to happen, but your body doesn't choose to think. It's preprogrammed to do everything it does in a particular way.
And yes, your body triggers a thought and then you have a thought and then you make a decision. And that's wonderful. But it's important to realise that underneath it all, everything that's happening and everything you're thinking is essentially out of your control entirely. If you're still having doubts, look it all up on the Googles. There's infinite scientific proof that we have no free will. And zero scientific proof that we have free will. Hard to ignore.
2. The illusion of Time.
Phew. That was intense. Let's start fresh on the next illusion. I found that knowing all three illusions actually helps them to all make sense together. Alone, they are a little harder to grasp. Now, next up we have time. Good old time! You may have heard this illusion before. There's lots of time travel movies out there, most recently I saw a film called Interstellar which I felt portrayed the reality of time in an accurate way.
So time - as we experience it - is linear. There is a past, present and future. Since primary school we've been looking at diagrams in text books that show dinosaurs on the left hand side of the line and us on the right hand side of the line. Our memories show us things that have happened previously. Events in the future are unknown to us. We cannot move backward in time, or forward in time (faster than we move naturally).
But - nope, everything we know is a lie! A horrible lie! You know, we're taught crap wrong from the day we're born. We should just start the next generation fresh and teach them the way the universe actually is right from the get go. Because it's bloody hard changing it this far in.
Anyway, time is not linear. No sir. That's a lie we tell ourselves every day. So then what is time? You're probably aware that space has three dimensions, length, width, height. And you may have heard the term space-time. What this refers to is that time is the fourth dimension of space. Length, width, height, time. Cool, right! So what does this mean for me? Well, let's come back to space. I'm at home in my studio, sitting in a desk chair. You're on the train, coming home from work. Or perhaps you're in the UK, laying in bed. Or even flying from America on a plane. Now, just because I'm here in my studio - do all these other places cease to exist? Of course not. That would be silly. All of space exists, not just the particular place I happen to be in. Alright - now let's apply this to time. Just because you're in this particular moment of time, does not mean that the rest of time isn't happening too. Time is happening everywhere, right now. Every moment there has ever been, and ever will be, is happening right now. Just like space is everywhere, happening right now. You just happen to be perceiving a particular moment in time and space.
Mind bender much! Yowza. Once you wrap your head around this one, go back and think about free will again. If everything you've ever done and ever will do is already existing simultaneously, then maybe you really don't have any choice in the matter?
3. The illusion of Identity.
Last, but not least, identity. This is maybe the easiest to hear but the hardest to actually take on board. We think of our identity as who we are. We were born, we go to work, we married our love, we have a lifetime of memories and experiences that make us who awe are. So, the part about identity that's an illusion is that we are one thing our entire lives. It seems like we are a constant individual being from birth to death. Now, everyone knows you change and develop as a person. But you're still you, right? Well, not really. Something like 98% of the cells in your body change every year. And then the last little few take a bit longer to rotate out. But essentially, you are physically a totally different creature on a regular basis. You might say, but me and my mind - we stay the same. My consciousness stays even if my cells are switching and changing. Right?
Don't think so. You are your body. Your thoughts and feelings all come from the chemicals in your brain. Your are your physical self. There is no part separate to your physical existence. How can there be? This is the part where you might start arguing about a soul or a spirit or a purple energy field. I can't help you there. There's no science to prove that anything exists other than in the physical realm we can observe. So if we're only physical, and our physical being completely renews itself over time, how do we perceive ourselves as a constant entity? A person who's identity is with them for life? It's an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves to get through the say.
Let's say you put on a special pair of glasses, that allow you to see everything as atoms. They zoom right in and when you look at things, you see the atoms instead of how we usually perceive reality. You stare at your dog, you see atoms. You stare at your computer, you see atoms. You look in the mirror, you see atoms. Sounds like a good time. The thing about atoms is, they don't really have a hard shell. They're more like a cloud, without a definite end or edge. So you can't really tell where they end. Plus, all atoms are the same. So with your special glasses on, not only can you not tell the difference between the atoms that make up your dog and the atoms that make up your computer - you can't tell where one group of atoms starts and another begins. Everything is just a big steaming pot of atom soup. So this idea that we have where we are different, or separate from everything else - is an illusion. We are not a special creature that the rules don't apply to. We are connected to and part of everything. The latin root for universe actually means "combined into one, whole". We are one thing!
So, this idea of identity doesn't make any sense. We are not a lone wolf. We are a drop in the ocean. We are a temporary configuration of atoms. I am the universe simply observing itself! Anyway. I don't know about you, but my head hurts. That's enough philosophy for now. Hopefully this opened your eyes a little bit to the possibilities we shelter ourselves from on a daily basis.