Key Points: “Reality is an illusion” is a statement often made about reality. When you forgot to confirm your boss’s appointment with an important client, crashed your car into a trash can on the way home and then realize there is no ice cream in the refrigerator, that notion might be pretty comforting. But why is it that reality is sometimes considered an illusion? And how much truth is there to it? And what is truth, actually? Ok, ok, let’s put aside the truth discussion for some other time and let’s take a closer look at reality.
Material Reality – The Real Deal?
We are born into a world made of matter, composed of elementary particles and energy. Physicists cannot yet agree on the nature of elementary particles but have proposed different solutions for how they might come into existence. There are theories such as the Holographic Principle,1Check out The theory that the universe is a hologram explained in under 5 minutes by Brandeis University to learn more about the theory of the Holographic Universe. [Accessed 1st September 2021] which suggests that our three-dimensional world is encoded on a two-dimensional surface, and we live in a holographic projection, so to say. Another prominent approach to explaining the mysteries of our universe is the several flavours of String Theory. They propose that each elementary particle is a tiny string, and depending on how that string vibrates, it results in a different type of elementary particle.2More information: What Is String Theory? Reference Article: A simplified explanation and brief history of string theory. | Space.com [Accessed 1st September 2021]
Several other theories try to uncover the hidden truth about our physical reality, for example, quantum physics’ many-worlds interpretation.3An easy-to-understand overview: The Many-Worlds Theory, Explained | The MIT Press Reader [Accessed 1st September 2021] It suggests that there is an infinite amount of universes out there. And within them, there are supposed to be just as many copies of each one of us. Some of our counterparts might lead a life similar to the version in this universe, but others might be totally different. But is reality an illusion if this is true? No matter what they eventually might or might not find out about the nature of what we call reality, it will probably not change something we can all agree on today: We can see, hear, smell, taste and feel the world around us, and it definitely appears very real to us. If you pull the chair away from underneath me that I’m sitting on right now, my butt will ungracefully kiss the floor below me with a thud. Physical objects are undeniably real to us, and so are the laws of physics, and nobody who could see and feel that chair would deny that it exists.
Our primitive, initial physical reality, the physical world that our ancestors in the time before the Stone Age experienced, did not include chairs, however. The mental concept of a chair had not been thought up yet. Our ancestors’ physical reality was nature – trees, rivers, flowers, grass, and the other animals in their environment besides themselves. They sat on the floor, and at some point, one or more individuals might have discovered that it is more convenient to sit on a rock instead, but this was still a rock, not the invention of the concept of a crafted chair.
Today, our physical world is radically different. Humans have invented and created countless objects besides chairs, and even more than this. We have constructed a whole new reality on top of the physical world – social reality, or rather social realities with purely mental concepts we cannot grasp with our five senses.4Check out the corresponding Wikipedia article: Social reality | Wikipedia [Accessed 1st September 2021] Physical reality is the same for all of us. It is our lowest common denominator, our foundation. Social reality, on the other hand, is different for every one of us. But does this make reality an illusion?
Taking it a Step Further
When we are born, we are not alone or isolated. We live in families, and no family is strictly by itself either. We are embedded in larger social communities. A long, long time ago, not in a galaxy far away but all over our planet, these communities have started to develop concepts and rules to make life and living together easier. Kings and queens, governments, law, nationalities, borders, religion, armies, money, corporations, employment, trade, schools, universities, marriage, restaurants, tv shows and cocktail parties are just a few examples. They are invisible social concepts or “illusions” we have created that are independent of physical reality. Another one is the illusion that we have to answer our phone every time it rings and that we have to answer all emails immediately.
These social constructs are only “real” because enough people accept them, believe in them and thus give them validity. “Consensus reality” is a term that refers to this phenomenon. Everyone who agrees and lives within what their community, as a whole, regards as “real” and “true” is a functioning member of society. If you disregard any of these established concepts, you may be seen as “living in a different world,” or at least as somewhat unconventional. And, of course, if you violate the laws of the country you live in, you are a criminal and have to face prosecution. Depending on where you live, the individual parameters of these concepts might be different. Not all countries are governed under the same political ideology. Some countries have a liberal, others have an authoritarian regime. In some areas of the world, some religions are predominant, but others are hardly found. The society you grow up in shapes your views and beliefs about what is real or fake, true or false and right or wrong. To someone outside of that specific society, these social constructs might seem unreal. And once you decide to move from one end of the world to another, culture might be so different there that your old social reality is an illusion in retrospect.
This cultural bubble you live in might intersect or overlap with other cultural groups in some areas, or some cultures share more similarities than others. However, our parents and the rest of our family probably have the most considerable influence on our worldview, at least when we are very young. Our parents teach us many helpful things we need to survive in the physical world. For example, we learn not to touch a hot stove because it would hurt us. And thanks to our parents we also know not to drink washing detergents because it would kill us. We also learn other things from our parents that don’t have anything to do with physical reality. We naturally adopt our parents’ language, and the way a language works also shapes how we see the world. Different languages treat the concept of time differently, so to speakers of unrelated languages, the duration of the same task might feel shorter or longer. Time can be seen as an illusion of its own, and if you think about it, it can make it seem all of reality is an illusion. And you don’t even have to tap into Einstein’s “special theory of relativity” and the time dilation that emerges from it to get that impression. Some languages also have more words for distinct colours, and other languages lack words for some colours. This also influences our perception of our surroundings. Besides our parents’ language, we often “inherit” their religious views, their ideas on how a marriage should work, their beliefs about how necessary status and financial success are, and maybe their political views, to name a few factors. As children, we usually don’t question these basic concepts that our parents introduce to us. We believe that they are “real” and that this is how the world works for everyone. Every child is convinced that its world is the only “real” world, no matter which culture it is born in.
Later on, other influences add to those of our families. We form friendships, but here we might already be drawn to individuals whose values, beliefs and preferences are similar to our own. Yet, they might show us a different perspective on some aspects of social reality that we can compare to our own worldview, and sometimes we might adjust our point of view accordingly. Teachers, politicians, celebrities and other authority figures also pour their ideas into our minds, and again we either accept or reject them. Thus, everybody’s worldview evolves at a varying rate and is built from different components. There are no two people who experience the exact same reality.
This means our worldview, and with it, our reality is not static. Usually, we do not actively change any of the components we have established as “true” in our own personal “reality.” Our worldview mainly changes “by accident,” and we rarely realize when it happens. More often than changing the components that make up our reality, we enforce them and anchor them even more deeply into our minds. “Confirmation bias” means the human tendency to look for and favour opinions, results and events that support what we already think is true. So, to gain a new view of the world, we would have to actively look into alternate ideas and opinions that contradict our own beliefs and be open enough to think about them before we automatically reject them. Politics is a perfect example of how different groups of people sometimes close off their minds only as a matter of principle: The other party must be wrong, simply because they are the other party. There is no need to think more deeply about their point of view, is there?
Of course, it is not only what people tell us that shapes our point of view. Our personal experiences in specific situations contribute immensely to how we perceive reality. A child treated as an outcast and bullied a lot in school might be more prone to see people and the world itself as hostile than children who have friends they can count on. The more people you have in your life who stick up for you, the easier it is for you to trust people in general and see the good in humanity instead of the bad.
How Social Reality Can Lead Us Astray
Let’s look at an example of how the illusion of reality works: John is a very creative person who loves to paint. In school, he gets his best grades in arts. And most of his free time John spends painting. He is very talented and would probably make an exceptional professional artist. When you look at it based on this information, the logical thing for John to do after graduating from high school is obvious: Attend art school and develop his talent further. But, this is something that would never occur to John. John grew up in a family of lawyers. His father is a lawyer, and his uncle is one as well. And his grandfather and great-grandfather were lawyers, too. When John was born, it was clear to his parents that he would also become a lawyer. It is a family tradition, after all, and a prestigious one to boot. So, from a very early age, John has been primed by his father to value success and family tradition. For John, it has been a given that he, too, would eventually become a lawyer. That John isn’t passionate about law at all and already dreads the way of life that is lying before him doesn’t count for him. He knows that as a lawyer, he will hardly have any time at all for painting anymore. And that does make him very sad. Yet, he does not doubt that becoming a lawyer is the only thing to do and the only choice he has, as this is how things work in his family. He would disappoint his family if he chose a different path. He would embarrass them in their social circle. Now, will John live a happy life as a lawyer? No, probably not. He will wake up every day hating his job, and an unmotivated lawyer isn’t something that will help his clients either. The work we do takes up so much time in our lives. With a job you aren’t passionate about or even hate, you set yourself up for misery. John is limited by his family’s values and traditions and does not see a way out of it. For him, his reality is set in a certain way, and he does not realize that he has the power to change his future by standing up for himself and what he wants out of life. For an outside observer, it is clear, though, that his future is not set in stone. So partly, John’s reality is an illusion.
Check out the car in the picture below. Everyone familiar with the concept of a car will probably not deny that there actually is a car in this photo. Maybe most of us will also agree that this car is red. But if you ask different people what kind of red the car is, the answers will vary. You might get basic replies such as “medium red,” others might try to express this shade in technical RGB values, and others again might say it is “cherry red” or “blood red.” The way different people see this variation of red is related to their personal experiences that have shaped their reality. If vision is not someone’s dominant sense, they might use a simple description such as “medium red.” Someone who works with colour in a technical way, such as a screen designer, might, if he is really nerdy, use RGB values. People who pay a lot of attention to their surroundings might come up with more colourful descriptions. Someone who bought cherries the same day might – consciously or subconsciously – think of them and see the car as “cherry red.” A nurse or a doctor, a vampire enthusiast or someone who had been involved in an accident recently might perceive the car’s colour as the same as blood’s. And to take it a step further, cherry eaters and vampire enthusiasts might love this car. But someone who had a negative experience involving blood might absolutely dislike it, and none of them might actually know why they love or hate this car. If you are seriously caught up inside of the social reality matrix, you might ignore the inner voice that tells you that you don’t like this car – something you really should not do. You might buy it anyway because you believe your status within society goes up if you drive a Porsche. Car connoisseurs, please forgive me if this is not a Porsche in this picture. Car brands are only a very peripheral part of my reality – and social status is an illusionary concept we must talk about another time.
To Be or Not to Be
Have I already mentioned that colours are something that exists in our minds only, anyway? Things don’t have colours. They only have surface structures. When light hits a surface, some wavelengths are absorbed, and others reflected, depending on the surface’s structure. The reflected wavelengths hit the receptors in our eyes, and they send electrical impulses to our brains. Only there, colour is created. So, if you have a knack for philosophical questions, you can ask yourself: Does this car still have the property “red” in a starless night with no streetlights around? Or does it only have a structure that has the potential to reflect some wavelengths that could excite our optical receptors so that our brain could create the illusion of colour inside our head? And if there were no living beings in the universe that could see at all, either because life didn’t exist or living beings lacked the sense of vision, would colour even exist? Or is it also just part of the illusion of reality?
What Does This Mean for Your Reality?
Reality is complex, yes. It is also very fluid and flexible. Things we believe to be good or bad might only be so in our mind, put there by the society we live in. But society changes, and so does what is seen as desirable and undesirable. Fashions change every year, and physical ideals change over centuries. Today, thin, toned bodies are considered the gold standard everyone aspires to. Being fit is equivalent to living a healthy lifestyle, and, at least subconsciously, we link a healthy lifestyle to fertility. And that makes someone attractive in the eyes of others. But in the 17th century, women with a few extra pounds were seen as the ideal of a beautiful woman. Being overweight was associated with wealth and thus better health. After all, they could afford enough to eat. A lot of things depend on where and also when you were born. There is no absolute truth about what beauty is. Taking a socially constructed ideal as a guideline doesn’t help anyone, and this part of reality is an illusion for sure. Everybody is beautiful in their own way, but, of course, we shouldn’t ignore the health aspects.
We all see reality through a different set of filters. Throughout our lives, more and more filters are added. Some of them stay the way they are if we don’t actively change them, and others, like fashions, are changed by society without us giving it a lot of thought. Once you recognize that reality is not fixed but that you have the power to remove these filters from how you see the world, you realize that you have the potential to change your future. You can say goodbye to concepts that hold you back and incorporate others into your life that help you grow and move towards the kind of life that makes you happy – not your parents, not your neighbours, not your boss, but you. Keep your eyes and mind open and try new things and see how they work out for you. Be bold and be brave – there are no limits to who you can be and what you can do as long as you don’t harm anyone else, keep in mind that the laws of the country you live in are “real” in a way that there are consequences if you don’t abide by them, and, above all, don’t forget that physics is real. Don’t try to fly like superman, seriously.
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