Not All Illusions Are Equal – A Response To “The User Illusion”

Modern writers are quite fond of “cutting conscious down to size,” which is the subtitle of Tor Norretranders  wonderful book “The User Illusion.” However, none of them make any distinction between different kinds of illusions or different degrees of unreality in an attempt to sound edgy and prophetic, which renders the term “illusion” deeply misleading, bordering on fraud. David Gelernter hits the nail on the head when he claims that “the observer-self isn’t a mere wrong idea; just another obsolete folk-notion, like ‘the sun rises.'” The rising sun is an illusion, but the earth, the sun, and their relative motion are facts grounding this illusion. So what facts ground the self-illusion? The illusion of a pink unicorn dancing on the end of your nose during an acid trip is not exactly on par with the illusion of the graphic user interface on your computer screen (which is the analogy Tor intends with his title). “The user illusion, then, is the picture the user has of the machine,” Tor tells us, but, as I will point out in my next post about Free Will and the experiments of Benjamin Libet, Tor is hopelessly muddling together the user and the GUI, then later separating them, then equating them again. Ignoring this for the time being, let’s examine the GUI.

The GUI is actually incredibly faithful in terms of its depiction of the salient features of the underlying hardware processes going on in your computer. It never claims to be giving you a depiction of everything that goes on in the machine, so it actually never deceives you or produces an “illusion” at all! By contrast, the pink unicorn bears no resemblance to any physical reality and thus truly deceives. An illusion is usually defined as “an erroneous mental representation,” but where is the error in the GUI that resembles the error produced by the LSD? I’m inclined to agree with Bertrand Russell that not even hallucinations are errors but are instead facts, just hasty judgments about them are erroneous.

If we consider bona fide hallucinations, they too are not all equal either. If an African bushman is staring intently at the thick underbrush looking for prey and he sees the hallucination of a lion that is in fact not there, this is not just an adaptive hallucination, but also the product of a mind that is accurately and sensitively tracking reality (too sensitively?). The bushman is wrong, but not by much, where the acid tripper’s “illusion” is light years from reality! Even more deeply problematic is the fact that Tor uses the term “illusion” not just for consciousness, but for every feature of consciousness, every property, every sensation:

“but it is not only the I experienced as our personal identity and active subject that is an illusion. Even what we actually experience is a user illusion. The world we see, mark, feel, and experience is an illusion.”

“What we experience directly is an illusion, which presents interpreted data as if they were raw. It is this illusion that is the core of consciousness: the world experienced in a meaningful, interpreted way.”

The redness of the rose you are looking at, the picture on the TV screen that looks like a single flowing scene, the musical note that is vibrating faster than 16 times per second and is thus perceived as a single note, all of these things are just analogies, maps, interpretations of reality, Tor reminds us. That’s all fine and dandy, but not all maps are equal in accuracy! Moreover, maps are not illusions unless they purport to be the very terrain that they represent! It is downright dishonest and dangerous to equate everything under this banner of “illusion” and even more so to claim that consciousness is built up from illusion placed on top of illusion without even attempting to discern between degrees of accuracy.

Tor certainly does better than many writers in terms of accurately describing consciousness, as so many others  write off consciousness as nothing but an illusion, where illusion means epiphenomenon. Tor at least thinks that consciousness has effects (in most of his statements at least). The strongest part of Tor’s argument as far as “illusions” are concerned is the point familiar to readers of Aldous Huxley: that consciousness is actually the product of a huge reduction in sensory information: it is eliminative (though Tor shows that it is also highly constructive as well). However, this is only an “illusion” if one assumes that he is getting all of reality through his senses, represented in consciousness with perfect accuracy. Who among us is so deluded? Similarly, many writers bash free will as an illusion when in fact their arguments are only valid for people who believe that their free will has no limits. But who among us ever succumbs to this illusion? Most of us know the limitations of our will power and the spectrum of possible choices and never delude ourselves into thinking that we have an unlimited range of choices or unlimited willpower. So free will is not an illusion in any sense of the word if interpreted properly.

Tor calls our concepts and even our sensory impressions like colors or (musical) tones illusions, but one of the central themes of his book, repeated over and over again, is that “More is Different:” that everything, inanimate and animate alike, produce emergent properties. The reductionist is going to claim that the macroscale “things” are just illusions and can be entirely reduced to their constituent parts without loss of information. Tor is adamantly opposed to such a view and dedicates a good portion of his book to emergent phenomenon. But then he goes and calls the emergent phenomenon of consciousness an illusion! This is entirely inconsistent. Tor separates us into an “I,” which is everything in consciousness, and a “Me” which is everything that is not conscious, although even this distinction breaks down because the I can experience the Me in consciousness, which is contrary to the latter’s definition. We will ignore this until the next post and concentrate on the most egregious flaw in Tor’s thinking:

p283 “The lesson we learn from studies of split-brain patients is that the self or the I…lies like crazy to create a coherent picture of something it does not understand in the slightest. We lie our way to the coherence and consistency we perceive in our behavior.”

This is quite simply preposterous. It is quite clear that split-brain patients confabulate about what their right hemisphere is doing using the speech centers in their left hemisphere, as their two hemispheres have just been severed. They have gone from a whole state, where their left hemisphere’s narratization is almost always on the money, to a divided state where it is never on the money due to a well-placed laceration of brain tissue, and this explains the confidence in their confabulation. Tor starts with the example of split-brain patients and then jumps to the generalization that all of us confabulate just as much as commissurotomy patients! Thus he concludes that “Consciousness is a fraud.” “Consciousness deceives. Consciousness is self delusion.” Split-brain patients try to create a “coherent picture of something [they don’t] understand in the slightest” because their hemispheres have been surgically separated, where intact people like us have more than a slight understanding of the state of our right hemisphere! This is why we are so confident in our stories and also why split-brain patients are so confident in their stories (they weren’t always split in two!). Though we do tell “stories” to explain our behavior, and these stories are not always perfectly accurate, it is patent nonsense to claim that our stories are just as confabulatory as split-brain patients, not to mention implying that all stories are lies. Just like illusions, hallucinations, and maps, not all stories are equally fictitious or equally inaccurate!

The paradigm example that Tor gives of an illusion is when Percival Lowell thought he saw straight lines on Mars surface and concluded (an interpretation mind you) that Mars must have had life on it sophisticated enough to dig straight canals. “What Lowell saw was an illusion. There were no canals, no straight lines; but the eye is trained to see patterns and wants to see patterns even where there are none.” But hold on here, there was a pattern that Lowell saw, it was just too fuzzy to be perfectly accurate. It was Lowell’s hasty judgment or interpretation of this actually existent pattern that led him to error.

“As Carl Sagan remarked, ‘Lowell always said that the regularity of the canals was an unmistakable sign that they were of intelligent origin. This is certainly true. The only unresolved question was which side of the telescope the intelligence was on.'”

The intelligence, of course, came from Lowell, but then Tor wants to write this intelligence off as an illusion just like any other, when in fact that intelligence produced something very close to an accurate picture! Lowell was not off by much in his observation, just his hasty judgment.

Tor tries to find a middle line between reductionism and holism, which he summarizes as follows:

p359 “A more composed view is that we cannot understand the world at all. But we can describe it; and every description will have to accept that is is a description–i.e., something is missing, information has been discarded; it is not the terrain, it is a map.”

This is all surely true, but not all maps are created equal! Throwing out all maps as illusions is just stupid. A three-year-old’s drawing of Earth is just not on par with that of Google Earth! In fact, because all scientific theories are just maps or descriptions, by Tor’s argument the theory of relativity is just as much of an illusion as Ptolemy’s epicycles or Elijah’s god! Illusions all! (you can see quite clearly that Tor is a Buddhist or at least leaning in this direction, as the following quote also makes clear: “meditation is a state with neither user nor illusion.”)

Julian Jaynes, whom Tor leans upon heavily and quotes at length, is quoted on p312:”The gods were in no sense figments of the imagination of anyone. They were man’s volition.” Figments of the imagination, like the hallucinated pink unicorn, are true illusions and really the only kinds of things worthy of the name. The sensations and feelings that make their way to consciousness, even if represented as a deity named Ares, are not illusions; they are just maps or descriptions with an enormously accurate connection to reality. The difference between the statement “there is a tiger in front of me” and “god put a tiger in my path” is not actually that big: they are both extremely accurate maps of the reality out there, but differ only in their interpretation of who drew the map, which is a rather inconsequential detail when faced with a tiger in your path.

The last sense of the word “illusion” that Tor employs involves Free Will, where Tor aims to disabuse us of our notion that it is our conscious “I” that chooses, senses, perceives, and so forth. I will address this topic in my next post.

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2 Responses to Not All Illusions Are Equal – A Response To “The User Illusion”

  1. Pingback: Building Consciousness Back Up To Size – Norretranders, Libet and Free Will « Think On These Things

  2. I should also have included the following example:
    Before we charted the electromagnetic spectrum and realized that the “visible” is only a narrow part of the spectrum, the apparent completeness of our sensory experience was an illusion. Once we realized our mistake, the absence of x-rays and so forth in our phenomenal experience ceased to be an illusion. This is why Tor annoys me so much, he is pointing to the VISIBLE and saying “illusion!” which is a point as old as Thales of Miletus, but misses the greater illusion of the invisible (everything our senses don’t pick up and display in consciousness). Certainly these illusions are not equal! But taking this a bit further, we could say that anyone who read and agreed with Thales of Miletus also avoided such an illusion, as Thales was one of the first to doubt the truth of our phenomenal experience, positing a deeper reality behind the veil of illusion. Dennett too makes the mistake of tilting at the windmill of consciousness or phenomenal experience yelling “illusion,” when he is missing the point. Once we understand that it is an illusion, it is no longer an illusion, and leaves the original question of what consciousness IS unanswered, because it certainly aint no illusion anymore!

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