We all sense that illusions imply a threat. Illusions trouble us. They threaten us with possible disappointment. We are afraid of illusions, but we don’t really know what they are. Mostly we mix up illusion with error. Yet having an illusion is not just being wrong. A mistake, once understood, vanishes to give place to truth. Illusion is much more tenacious. One may well know better, there is always the possibility of being lead astray. An illusion possesses a power of fascination, which makes it easy to believe in and to be carried away by whatever it is suggesting.
An illusion can take many forms. We all know of optical illusions, yet these are only one category of illusions, illusions of perception. We shall have to classify different forms of illusion in order to clearly specify their action and see on what they rest. It is possible to distinguish three large domains: the one of thinking and collective illusions, the one of dreaming and the one of individual illusions.
What do the different forms of illusion have in common? How can the different forms of illusion help us understand what they are?
A. Collective illusions.
Let us begin with the largest group, that of collective illusions. Can one speak of collective illusions? Or should the use of the word illusion be restricted to individual phenomena? There is illusion whenever a representation presents itself to consciousness, although this representation does not refer back to anything real. Illusion is a truer-to-nature form of simulacra. Insofar as many people are prepared to believe in an unfounded representation, there can be collective illusions. This means that many people will be ready to certify the validity of the interprÉtation of a fact which has taken place at the level of perception, while all of them have been deceived; that is that reality is not this appearance that they perceived together and towards which nevertheless their testimonies, founded on the senses, converge.
1. A magician has just given a show. One says that an illusionist gives a performance. These words all well chosen since a performance is a representation, therefore a second presentation (for the audience) with respect to a first presentation (known only to the magician). We speak of prestidigitation, the prestige of what dexterous hands can achieve without anybody noticing. Clever manipulations perfectly concealed from the eyes of the audience. The magic trick is called illusionism. It essentially consists in a clever stage production, which successfully puts a representation in the head of the audience, an interprÉtation such that the audience can only believe what it just saw, that is what one wanted to show it. The young girl was cut in two inside a box. The rabbit came out of the hat. The rope rises if itself in the air. A number of spectators are seeing the same thing. Even the camera reveals nothing other than what they all saw. And yet things did not happen the way the spectators believe they did. The young girl was not cut in half. The rabbit did not appear “as by magic”. One says that there is some trick, but one must not reveal what it is for the performance to keep its hold on the audience. Giving it away would be revealing reality, the real process of the apparition of the phenomenon, such as it has been carefully hidden from the eyes of the spectators. The audience’s knowledge must remain incomplete, it must only be given the appearance. In this way an effect can be produced: the audience knows it has been deceived, yet it cannot figure out how it happened and how to produce such a phenomenon. The phenomenon was observed, this is undeniable, yet the mechanisms behind its apparition are unknown, hence these horrified faces and this frustration of the intelligence, which are what makes the charm of magic. The question arises: “how did he do that?” And it is left unanswered. Hence the mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon for which we do not have an explanation, for which the answers one tries to give are of a “magical” order, because we do not have a rational answer.
An illusion can therefore be a collective illusion each time that a representation receives the approval of many witnesses and that, despite this favourable agreement, reality is totally different from what the witnesses together affirm. This is rather puzzling. Indeed how do we normally determine what is “real” for us? What is “true”? That thing is real which can be said to be “objective” and this word means in our empirical experience “what many witnesses can observe”. If reality, in our everyday vigilance, is sustained by a common experience and if this one can be an illusion, then it is the whole of our empirical certainty which breaks down. One admits without difficulty that in one particular experience one may make a mistake, but the possibility of collective illusion is a very serious problem. Our empirical certainty rests on nothing other than converging testimonies by subjects in the waking state; however the resulting representation may well sometimes be an illusion. Here the experience is shared, and one may well be wrong together with others. Once the performance is over, the audience realises that, in fact, nothing they believed to have taken place actually did. Yet this does not make the illusionist a charlatan. People have been warned. They know all this is just a trick of the eye. A charlatan, on the other hand, uses the trick of illusion while concealing the fact that it is an illusion. He exploits people’s credulity, their naïve adherence to illusions. The miracle remedy allegedly curing a myriad of ailments is just sugar and a few herbs, but the good people there allow the charlatan to trick them with his patter.
We should have a clear understanding of how this works. What it all means is that the trick of the eye performance was nothing other than a mental creation by the collective consciousness. Thus the mind, the inner organ of mental capacity, possesses the ability to make something appear which has no reality. The mind puts down both objects as external and real, and thoughts as internal and subjective. Objects and thoughts figure clearly in experience, but in the present case they only exist in the mind of the spectators. This is an important lesson because it shows us how immense mental power is and that consciousness can at any time be a host to illusions.
2) This helps us understand the atheists’ positions on religious phenomena. Believers gathering in some holy place are ready to believe anything. Their fervour incites them to adhere without a second thought to what might just be a clever trick of prestidigitation. The members of a UFO fan-club gathered in New Mexico for their annual congress may also be in this state of fervent belief, which will incline them to believe they have seen this or that, since here as well desire may anticipate on its fulfilment. Imagination can collectively give itself an object. A joker staging a brilliant trick near the place of observation will enthuse these believers in a New Age.
Miracles and mysterious apparitions could therefore be religious illusions. Doubt has arisen and the contrary shall have to be proven. Religious illusions might exist where believers are so engulfed in their faith that they are prepared to believe in any confirmation of it, however fanciful. What is worrying in this respect is when a religious community appears to be somehow intoxicated with the truth it is proclaiming, because from illusion fanaticism and sectarianism are just a step away. After all what is fanaticism? A faith turned into a hallucination. A belief intoxicated with itself, which wants to spread, using force if necessary. Fanaticism is a passion which takes hold of a religious community and which turns a proud faith into a blind pride, giving the will its own permission to impose its faith to others. The fanatic is the very opposite of the man who doubts; he is persuaded he knows the truth, in the same way as the sceptic is persuaded that he can no longer believe in anything. The fanatic wants to carry the flag of his faith everywhere; his look ablaze, his words filled with threat, he comes to denounce the demon and to summon people to convert. He comes to curse whoever does not want to believe, precisely because his faith has become such a hallucination that it has lost all links to reality and turned into pure illusion. The sectarian attitude, on the other hand, consists in thinking that truth can be locked into a book, a teaching, and that any other point of view is non-sense. Whoever has fully understood his own religion ought to be able to recognise the value of another religion. The sectarian mind is so persuaded that there can only be one way, one path, his own, that he is unable to do that. The sectarian mind lacks openness, it is closed, it is locked into itself. If one insists on turning round and round in a single formula of a single truth, one ends up hallucinating truth, turning it into a web of illusions.
3) There might also exist ideological illusions in the sense that collective representations can give rise to a belief that may last for a while, even when it is denounced. History has shown us how political doctrines can generate popular fervour and yet in the end reveal themselves to be illusions. Lets take the case of Marxism. What did Marx say? “As all forms of alienation, State and politics would come to an end, so too Marx predicted would ideologies. What happened to these predictions? If you look at the most acknowledged events, Marx could not have been more wrong. Never before have ideologies ruled more forcefully. Marxism, which was supposed to put an end to all ideologies…ended up becoming one itself.” We saw the end of neither alienation, nor the State, nor politics; also, is it not a bit much when a system purporting to put an end to all ideologies has in fact itself become a crushingly powerful ideology? One so believed in it! One had placed so much hope in a doctrine that promised to exhaust the craziest dreams and to fulfil the need for justice. The men who adhered to it found it so difficult to admit they had been wrong. We still feel a certain respect for ideologies. “One admires those who manage to gather such enthusiasm, one envies them slightly,…not much”. One envies them because they have convictions, and that is better than having nothing at all; but at the same time one does not really envy them, because we all see that ideology is “blabber, rhetoric, words, spiel, jargon,” and we all know that we shall have to knock our heads against the facts and get out of the great rhetoric of ideology and politics. We have no wish to fall into the trap of yet another illusion. And yet…all the same we are impressed with the man who speaks from the point of view of an ideology, because he is borne by convictions of which we are wanting. What we find attractive about it is this confidence in an ideological system; this confidence is precisely what we lack in these days when ideologies seem a thing of the past. “At least he believes in something, while I with my scepticism keep my distance”.
Thus what gives collective illusion its strength is the power of belief, which makes one adhere to it, and the power of the imagination aroused with promises of fulfilled expectations. Imagination fulfils the expectations of belief and people pretend they have “seen” what in fact they have only imagined. One is dealing with a pseudo-perception. Here one can justifiably speak of an illusory reality, since even in a hallucination something was indeed perceived. Illusion is a subjectively real; how else could it be an experience? As long as one is having the experience it undoubtedly takes place and one does not at all have the sensation of being prey to an illusion. We only realise this afterwards when we destroy it by confronting it with something more real, like our awakening in the morning reveals the dream to be an illusion.
B. The illusion of dreams
We shall have to consider the illusion produced by dreaming apart, because it has a lot to teach us. What does dreaming tell us about the nature of illusion?
The dream state achieves a remarkable illusion since the subject finds himself in a form of unconsciousness, which is not deep sleep, in which he would be conscious of nothing, but a false perception that is an awareness of images. Not just that: as long as the illusion is taking place, the subject experiences a succession of images as being reality. Only when he changes state of consciousness, going from the dreaming state to the waking state, can he refute the illusion upheld by dreaming. As long as the dream lasts it is experienced as waking reality. An illusion is created when there is a certain degree of unconsciousness. This would appear to suggest that it is the consciousness that falls slightly below the threshold of vigilance that will be taken in by illusion. But if a change of state reveals a lesser state as illusory, this also shows that it is the task of the subject to maintain and renew the act of waking up. This is of course valid for this sleeping life that we refer to as our waking state, in which we must repeatedly wake up to greater awareness not to fall into the pit of illusions.
It is even possible that our present waking state might, from the point of view of a higher clarity, seem akin to the sleep of ignorance. It might then be the case that what we consider to be “reality” is in fact just a tissue of lies! At least this is how it would look like from a higher level of consciousness. It would then become patent that this thing we call “reality” is only a fabric of images manufactured by the impenitent dreamers that we are. Nevertheless, there is a leap from dreaming and being awake. Dreams lack consistency, and thereby give away their lack of reality as compared to the greater consistency of the World of the waking state. Yet the world of the waking state also resembles in a way a nightmare manufactured by the consciousness of humans. How do we know that we have not fabricated here on earth a world resting on a web of false values and illusions? Ought not humanity to wake up to a higher awareness and shake off its conventional illusions?
The illusion of dreams teaches us that the phenomenon of illusion takes place in a representation in which the actor, the stage and the spectator share the same world. In the dream I am the spectator, I am the author and I am the stage of the performance and all the actors. I am all that, but I don’t know it. When I am at the cinema, I am absorbed by the images and forget for a while whom I am. For illusion to be possible, it is necessary that I allow myself for a while to be caught up by an attractive image. In dreaming the power of attraction is very powerful, since the production of the image involves the five senses and draws from the souvenirs of the dreamer, something the cinema cannot do.
All the same, it is possible in both cases to summon the desires of the subject in order to present him with whatever he wants. As Freud has shown, a dream is the realisation of a desire on the imaginary plane. A dream is a stage production of our fears and expectations. Its power of seduction is due rather to desire’s enchantment than to the force of the imagery. We are all ready to deceive ourselves if suddenly persuaded that a long held desire is being fulfilled. What dreaming shows us is that, in order to break down the illusion, one must be able to put an end to imagination’s complacent game, to the insane projection of desire in the form of a phantamagoria. Indeed it is worrying to allow the illusion generated by a dream to contaminate reality. If dreaming permanently takes over reality, then the door to insanity is wide open.
C. Individual Illusion.
We shall now return to the sphere of vigilance to better understand the origin of illusion. Let us start with an Indian tale. A villager is walking in the penumbra in the middle of a wood. A sinuous black shape arises in front of him. His first thought is: “a serpent (sarpa), I have to hurry off.” Once back in the village he tells of his adventure: “Do not go that way, there is an enormous serpent.” The rumour quickly spreads: over there is a serpent! Rumour also amplifies. With time this gives: “over there is a monster thirty feet long and it has killed dozens of people”!!!
One day it so happens that a stranger walks by. He has not been conditioned by the one-says of public opinion. He takes a look at the place in question and finds…a rope someone left there! The stranger then walks back to the village and says: “Here is what you took to be a serpent. The serpent only exists in your mind.” It is only an illusion.
Who will listen to him? A careful and intelligent man will immediately realise he had been wrong: “everything I believed on the matter does not exist. It was just an illusion. Phew! What a liberation! Now I am rid of this imaginary fear of the serpent". It was only an illusion. But other people may not hear it in this way and refuse to believe the man who comes to tell them these news. A rumour has been established, a whole tradition of ignorance has been installed at the very heart of opinion or mata. Passive adherence tends to perpetuate it. A widespread belief has been established about the serpent. The awakening of one man has had little effect on the others; they live with their ancient beliefs and go on nurturing the same illusions. He will say to himself: “but they are mad hanging on to this illusion!” and he will suddenly feel very lonely.
This allegory is very important; it tells us the story of ignorance and of illusion. What happened? Illusion took place inside perception. It was brought about when the subject in the waking state superimposed on the rope (his actual perception) a form contained in his mind (the serpent). He saw the serpent where in fact there was only the rope. In fact he believed he saw the serpent, and this belief gave rise to the experience. Once fear is bred, it can replicate indefinitely, especially if terror gets hold of common sense. Then it is a hundred villagers that will see the monster! The root of illusion lies in a projection of the pair desire/aversion within the representation of the mind. Once this dual polarity has been created, it is a whole sequence founded in duality which is triggered off. Desire, in the positive sense of the term, is for instance this strong attraction for money, such that I think I see a coin, while in fact it is just a some candy wrapping glittering in the bush; and the same goes for aversion. The phenomenon itself is only that, it is neutral. Perception itself is not deceptive, it is what it is, it is innocent; it is the mind which gets things wrong when interpreting perception in a very emotional way. It sees something different from what is actually there, it sees what it wants to see or what it fears to see. As a result it loses all emotional control and could swear it is right to believe what it has decided to believe. Even if we are vigilant, this does not mean that we are free from all illusions. Since vigilance too is determined by the awareness of an object, it could very well deceive itself by believing it has found what it fact it has merely projected. Since vigilance is also where our shared experience of the world takes place, the place where I am lost among other people, in it I am nourished by a thinking which is not mine, but collective opinion. Opinion includes the suggestive power susceptible to generate illusion.
Were we even to put aside the influence of collective thinking, the presence of desire and its role also explain that it is on the emotional level that illusions enjoy their maximum freedom. The passionate person loves dreaming as a way to get rid of the limitations of time and embrace at once in his imagination the object of his desires. Passion so exasperates desire that the passionate person cannot avoid filling his head with illusions. The passion-for is a state in which projection is never-ending. The passionate person fanatically feeds his wishful thinking and indulges in his beliefs. In order to satisfy his desires the passionate person must fight reality to an extent such that his aspiration to escape into illusions is simply obvious. Yet there is one very important sign that gives away the stubborn clinging to an illusion: one’s attachment to it. Indeed, an excessive need to protect one’s beliefs, a need that nurtures a highly emotional conviction, and not an intellectual one, gives an irrational and non-reflective stigma to one’s beliefs. This is a sign that, some way or other, we try to keep our illusions.
Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish several kinds of individual illusions:
One calls psychological illusions the many illusions that stem from the projection of desire’s expectations, particularly in the area of human relations.
One calls perceptual illusions those specifically connected with the sense of sight that make us victims of the ambiguity of certain perceptions. This is the case of the mirage in the desert, of the straight line perceived as bent because of a diagonal line beside it, like the sun appears to increase in size when setting on the horizon.
2) Psychological illusions cause greater problems than merely perceptual ones. This because it is the very mind of the subject that feeds the illusion through the process of desire, while pulling wool over his own eyes, refusing to acknowledge his own attempts at self-deception. Desire at work in the process of illusion has been clearly identified by Freud. According to him religious beliefs are of this nature. The child’s desire for protection has given a maximum importance to the father. Since distress and insecurity last all their lives, men, Freud explains, have invented an almighty father who gives them protection for a lifetime. They have fashioned an image, which they call the eternal Father, and which is not more than a creation of the imagination, a surrogate for the desire to be protected. That god is the god of human imagination, and any anthropomorphic representation of God can be criticised in this manner. Illusion. In illusion it is man who makes God in his image. “These ideas, which purport to be dogmas, are not the residue of experience, or the end-product of thinking: they are illusions, the realisations of humanity’s oldest, strongest and most urgent desires; the secret of their strength is the strength of these desires.”
This enables us to distinguish between error, illusion and delusion. As an example of error, Freud states the belief that vermin would be generated by litter. It is not an illusion to hold the belief that mosquitoes are born from stagnant water. The theory of spontaneous generation was erroneous. On the contrary, Columbus’ belief that he has found a new route to India was an illusion. In this case there was illusion because “ this error is conspicuously tainted by desire”. Columbus went to sea with this in mind and wanted to believe in it. For this reason the native inhabitants of America are still erroneously called “Indians”. Freud gives another interesting example: the allegation that some races can be cultured and others not. Racism rests on a cultural illusion, and not on error: this illusion consists in believing in the superiority of one’s own culture above others; it stems from the desire to assert one’s own cultural identity. Hence the root of illusion is to be found in human desires. What is the difference with delusions? For Freud a delusion is not only severed from all connection with reality, but it stands in contradiction with reality in such a way as to be impossible. The delusion is not even plausible, it is a pure product of fantasy. Delusions are a frantic activity of a mind trapped by its own elaborations, and hallucinating its own inventions. On the contrary an illusion is plausible, because it is possible to mention a case when this desire became reality. “ A young girl of humble background may for example nurture the illusion that a prince will one day come and marry her. Yet this is not impossible; in some rare cases this sort of thing has actually happened.” Hence belief may rest on a possibility, which exists in reality. This is not at all the case with delusion.
Yet Freud found it difficult to give a precise example of this. He does admit that it might depend “on the personal attitude of the man who is asked to make the assessment”. For some the idea that “the Messiah will arrive and lay the foundation for a golden age” ought to be classified as a delusion, while for others such a statement is an illusion. A second example is just as tricky: “the illusion of the alchemists that they could change all metal into gold”. Freud believes that this is an unambiguous example of an illusion. Yet on the one hand the transmutation of elements may have had a spiritual meaning as a metaphor for inner transformation; on the other hand contemporary Physics states that there is not at the subatomic level any unsurpassable difference between different metals. The atomic structure varies from one metal to the other in the number of particles (electrons, protons, neutrons) present in the atom. It is not at all idiotic to imagine that by directly manipulating energy one might succeed with transmutations. This is a possibility which, although economically speaking very dear, is however technically feasible. In fact the concept of delusion must be viewed in the light of the knowledge serving as frame. One cannot speak of a delusion without some reference to what is considered possible and impossible. We might say it otherwise: as what is considered rational or irrational. We shall therefore keep Freud’s definition of illusion: “we call illusion a belief which is above all motivated by the fulfilment of a desire.”
Illusion comes in many forms, collective, individual or as dreams. Individual illusion can be further subdivided into illusion of the senses, as in phenomena like the mirage ( perception, if not corrected by the intellect, can be deceptive ) and psychological illusions like the passions. The origin of illusion is therefore in consciousness, in mental activity. But we also notice with astonishment that illusion can be collective, since the very concept of “reality” is void unless there is consensus in the judgement as to what is to be recognised as “real”.
Reality is not something that can stand on its own. Things do not come to tell us that they are real, it is we who establish them as such. This means that all perceptions are elaborated by the subject. There are not on the one hand “objective” perceptions and on the other hand “subjective” ones. All perception is subjective. The objectivity of a perception is always a matter of consent, of a human inter-subjectivity perceiving a phenomenon in an identical way. If all perceptions are subjective and that even objectivity rests on a subjective consent, then we see that there is no absolute gap separating perception and illusion.
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm
 In French representation, meaning both representation and performance, whence the pun.