General Question

whiteliondreams's avatar

In what way would the mind be classified an "illusion"?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1698 points ) June 29th, 2012

Someone responded to my question with a statement saying that the mind is a “philosophical illusion”. I was curious to know what others would perceive this response as denoting. Is the mind truly an illusion simply because we are creatures who were nurtured to learn and follow norms? Or is the mind not an illusion and we innately perceive things because we are naturally skilled to create (language, ideas, pictographs, etc…)

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39 Answers

tups's avatar

“Mind” is merely a word, just like “brain”, “soul” etc. Whatever meaning we add to these words is somewhat subjective, although we often treat it as being something objective. But if I say “house”, you probably picture a certain house, while I picture another house. In that way, all words are in a way a philosophical illusion.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@tups ‘if I say “house”, you probably picture a certain house, while I picture another house. In that way, all words are in a way a philosophical illusion’

I don’t believe I can agree with that. I understand your claim that words are symbolic, but when referring to cognition, which has the ability to discern illusions, how is that philosophical? The material mind (brain) is not illusory, what is illusory are our perceptions, but only to the extent of values such as the significance of a conversation and communicating to execute a command or expression; otherwise, of course, it is illusory once more.

ragingloli's avatar

An illusion in the sense that many see it as separate and isolated from the biological machinery that is the human body.
For example, science has shown that the brain makes decisions long before the “mind” becomes aware of them. And then the mind falsely believes it made that decision, when it merely has been informed by the brain of an already made decision.
The only part the mind potentially has in the decision making process is the abortion of the decision.
Like the veto power the colonial president has over laws passed by the legislature.

marinelife's avatar

It is not an illusion. That is like saying that my being is an illusion. I assure you that I am real and my thoughts are real.

tups's avatar

@ragingloli So in a way, if I’m not wrong, what you’re saying is that our subconsciousness may be referred to as the brain, while people might refer to our conscious part of the brain as being the mind?

wundayatta's avatar

The idea or concept in your mind and, indeed, the concept of mind itself, should not be confused with real things. A tree—a specific tree that you can touch and smell and interact with might be considered real, but the concept of treeness is an illusion. It does not exist anywhere out there in the world. It only exists in our minds.

Of course, the ability to think this way is very helpful and makes it a lot easier for us to survive. We don’t have to think about specific trees. We can think about treeness and take actions that keep us from being killed when lightning knocks a tree over—if we don’t stand under it in a storm. We would only do that with our understanding of trees and what happens when there are electrical storms around trees.

Yet we get so used to thinking metaphysically, that we think the ideas in our minds have actually attained the same level of reality as things—real things—out there in the real world. But this is an illusion. What is in our mind is not real. It is a model of reality. It has a relationship to reality, but it is not reality. It is, in fact, an illusion.

thorninmud's avatar

Kind of in the same way that color is an illusion. When we look at a flower, we attribute a property called color to that flower. In reality, though, color doesn’t inhere to the flower. Color is manufactured in the visual cortex of the brain as a way of interpreting variations in wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. It’s not that there’s no such thing as color; but it is an illusion to think that it belongs to the flower. It arises from the interplay between a brain and a flower. You could say that color defies the subject/object divide. The same could be said for sound.

The illusory nature of mind works similarly, but in reverse. Mind is a property that is generally attributed to the subject. It is what is assumed to be on the receiving end of the color assumed to be emanating from the flower. But the experience of mind is dependent on sensory contact. Without the experience of an exterior world, there would be no experience of an interior mind. They’re interdependent. Like color then, mind could be said to arise from te interplay between a brain and the world, and to also defy the subject/object divide. It’s not that there’s no mind, but the illusion is that it’s a thing inside us.

tups's avatar

@wundayatta It’s all in our heads. So if everything inside our minds is an illusion, is there such a thing as reality, and if yes, what is it?

Thammuz's avatar

The “mind” is an illusion, much like “fate” and “free will” and other abstract constructs.

It’s a name we give to something that we percieve due to our own pattern recognition bias, when it’s actually an effect of other circumstances that decieve us into thinking it exists.

Rarebear's avatar

That was me. It was a poor choice of words. As a scientific materialist I believe that consciousness and the “mind” is merely a product of a working brain. If you disable the brain (say by shooting a bullet through your cerebral cortex) your “mind” goes away.

josie's avatar

Mind is not just a word. Mind is a function of the brain. Just like respiration is a function of the heart and lungs. Nobody finds respiration to be a difficult notion, but for some reason people grapple with the notion of mind. Certainly the mind is capable of willful fantasy, hallucination in some circumstances, bad dreams etc. But generally mind is a reliable way of knowing what your circumstances are. If it was not, the species would have died of massive errors of judgement in one generation.

wundayatta's avatar

@tups I’m not saying that things in our minds (thoughts) are illusions. The illusion is that the thought is the thing. The illusion comes when we treat the thought of the tree the same as the tree. The workings of my mind are not illusions. My mind really does stuff and thinks thoughts. The illusion comes when I think those thoughts are the same thing as the things the thoughts stand for.

Reality is an illusion, but it is an illusion for which there is evidence. Reality is a construct in my mind. In my mind, I develop a set of theories about how the world works. I test those theories but taking actions and seeing if they result in the predicted way. Reality is what I call my actions having the intended effects. It’s a form of illusion, but it is the closest I can get to establishing something will stay the same whether or not I am around. In other words, I find it very useful.

Reality is about what is “out there.” I can only gather information about what is out there through my senses. My senses may be unreliable, but that is not where most of my illusions about the world come from. My illusions come from mistaken understandings of my perceptions and of the data they give me and also of my theories about how the things I perceive out there relate to and affect each other.

There is also a reality in here. I sort of “out there” that is “in here.” I can observe the workings of my own mind the same way I observe the workings of the world. I can see how my perceptions and my mind work to mislead me. For example, I see bugs a lot these days. I’m pretty sure they are floaties on my eyes, so I am not worried about them, but that could just be a story I tell myself. It is not that important to me to figure it out.

My brain does a lot of unexpected things. It gives me cravings and urges that are not socially acceptable. It creates huge pits of loneliness and existential angst. At times I feel I must be hateful and undeserving.

I have decided these ideas and thoughts don’t really help me. They make me very unhappy and I’m tired of being unhappy. So I’ve been working on letting them go. Thinking of them as illusions is helpful.

Rarebear's avatar

@tups “is there such a thing as reality, and if yes, what is it?”

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K. Dick.

thesparrow's avatar

Consciousness is a very interesting and strange phenomenon. How does consciousness come to us? Where are thoughts actually located… are they modules of information that enter the brain and get processed by it? Has science ever learned how neurons actually process data, what is inside of each individual electric spark?

ETpro's avatar

@whiteliondreams It is interesting to think that an illusion could define an illusion. Such leaps into absurdity are what make reading much of modern philosophy such a chore to me.

@thesparrow Each neuron, or brain cell has many synapses touching the synapses of other neurons. As to how individual synapses work, they often work exactly like the transistors in a binary computer, either being a 1 or a 0. But our brains have the ability to compute like an analog computer as well. Living cells can be somewhere between a 1 and a 0, a little bit on but not much; or pretty much on, but not all the way. Add to that the fact that the human brain has 100 billion neurons. But the prefrontal cortex alone has about 60 trillion synapses.

We are just beginning to work out computers that act as self-learning neural networks. As we approach that computational problem, we are discovering the types of feedback networks our brain’s neural nodes use to start from pure randomness and develop meaning and associations. The whole neural structure relies on massive parallel processing capable of performing billions or trillions of operations per second, and able to feed back results and critique them, slowly refining the calculation by setting inputs to acheive an ever more meaningful output result.

Bill1939's avatar

Reality, as we experience it, is a neural compilation by the brain of sensory impulses organized, compared and contrasted with memories of experiences and their associated emotions. Awareness of this assemblage is another mental function that is called the mind. The conception of a mind separate from the body in which it occurs is an illusion. Mind and body are one.

tups's avatar

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”. That’s probably it, right?
@wundayatta So you can say the only thing that is for sure not really an illusion is our thoughts?
Everything else comes from these thoughts. We all live inside our own heads. Senses might not always be reliable, but why not? They are all we got and maybe there’s a reason for that.

LostInParadise's avatar

The illusion is that the mind is a single non-divisible entity that is in control of the body. The reality is far removed from this.

There are things that go on in the body, like food digestion, that lie outside of our consciousness.

There are things that go on inside our brains that we are not aware of. As a simple example, think of the times that you have forgotten a name or a word and somehow you are able to retrieve it. How does that happen? Where are memories stored? You may have had the experience, as I have, of forgetting something and giving up trying to remember it, only to have the memory come back later on when you are thinking of something completely different. Somehow we were thinking without being aware of it. On a more profound level, we occasionally have eureka moments when the solution to a problem suddenly comies into our minds. The prototype for this is the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and onto the streets shouting Eureka! after having discovered the laws of flotation.

The picture that we are getting from neuroscience is that the brain is compartmentalized into very specialized units. Damage to a small part of the brain can lead to a very specific difficulties without affecting other types of brain functioning. There is no one part of the brain that is in charge.

Bill1939's avatar

To muddy the waters still further, given that quantum physics strongly suggests that nothing exists until we discern it (waves becoming particles upon observation and returning to waves afterwards), it would seem that nothing really exists until we think it does.

thesparrow's avatar

@ETpro Very interesting.. so do you think that we could get a machine to work just like a brain, to exhibit consciousness, feelings, sentimental associations, meaningful decisions (i.e. instead of being a mere Turing machine processing random data and generating output and only appearing ‘conscious’)?

Bill1939's avatar

Perhaps the universe is just such a machine.

thesparrow's avatar

But would a machine be capable of expressing consciousness? Or, maybe a better question to ask is: can such consciousness only belong to living creatures or are we just grossly disillusioned about that? Can machines actually exhibit a form of consciousness, but we are simply incapable of understanding it given that nobody can ever access the mind of another? (I.e. the whole ‘Other minds’ problem in philosophy.. a la Descartes)

Bill1939's avatar

We could argue over what the definition of living is, but I would rather not. Even the term consciousness is debatable, but, again, I’d rather not. Instead we could frame the question in terms of self-awareness. A machine could be constructed with self-reflection (a feedback/learning paradigm), but would that be the same as self-awareness? I am inclined to believe that a mind is more than a conglomeration of electrochemical functions, and I strongly doubt that it is limited to the brain and the nervous systems (central, peripheral and autonomic).

The only way I know to access the mind of another is the way you and I are doing at this moment. We seek words that potentially convey nonverbal notions to ourselves and to each other. The main reason that I joined Askville and later Fluther was to be stimulated by the ideas of others, so that by attempting to express my own thoughts on the subjects they bring up I might better understand them.

thesparrow's avatar

@Bill1939 Never heard of Askville; I imagine it’s similar to this website?

Yes, I suppose by consciousness I mean self-awareness. Or, at least, awareness that the sense-data entering the mind is meaningful. I.e. so that you’re not just a robot processing information. A human being would, for example, hear a song that reminds them of their first date with their loved one and attach feelings to this. My question would be: can a machine ever do something similar?

When you say you doubt the mind is only limited to the brain and nervous system (i.e. or just what is inside of our body) are you suggesting something Else, maybe something invisible.. not to get religious but something like a ‘soul’.

LostInParadise's avatar

This is a bit off topic, but the best test of consciousness I know of is the Turing Test. A person communicates by computer terminal with a computer and with a person. The tester asks questions of both and tries to distinghish the person from the computer. This test is performed annually and there is a $100,000 prize for designing a program that can fool the testers, which has not happened yet.

thesparrow's avatar

@LostInParadise Know of it well. Has it not happened? Even if it does happen, if a computer can successfully emulate a human being, the question is still: is that computer aware of the situation, aware of what is happening, aware that it is emulating? Does it see itself as a machine?

Bill1939's avatar

Yes @thesparrow, I believe it is quite possible that a machine will do something similar to the scenario you give. However, I don’t think that it will ‘know’ in the sense that we do. I don’t believe it would see itself period, much less a machine. Except in the development of character, self reflection adds nothing to the effectiveness of the machine’s functions (however human like), so it would be unlikely that this feedback function would be executed if it existed.

ragingloli's avatar

@thesparrow
I do not think such a question would even be relevant. I do not know that you are really self aware, that you are not just emulating self awareness. I can not prove to you or anyone that I am self aware. I can not even prove to myself that I am self aware. After all, I might be emulating selfawareness and deceiving myself into thinking that I am self aware.

So I say, if it appears to be self aware, good enough. Assume that it is, because it is unfair to apply higher standards to the machine than yourself.

Bill1939's avatar

I am suggesting that a machine would not need a sense of self. Because I believe in the concept of self, I likewise believe in the concept of self in others. The self that I am aware of is, in part or in whole, a fiction. I believe we create a mental universe wherein self resides. This projection enables sentient beings to be cognizant of a broad expansion of time before and after the moment.

This creates an apparent additional perspective by sequentially associating memories of experiences; apparent because nothing in the universe of the mind is real. Yet because of this fiction, the possibility of a will of the mind that may support or oppose the will of the body, which provides the ability to consider actions rather than to react or act impulsively.

LostInParadise's avatar

If the machine makes proper use of the word “I” then it would need a sense of self. If it does not, then it is not going to pass the Turing Test. I am with @ragingloli on this. If you can’t devise an experiment to distinguish the behavior of a computer from that of a human then it has consciousness. There is no point of asking what it “really” thinks or feels. If it walks lke a duck and talks like a duck then it is a duck.

Mariah's avatar

A lot of good answers already. One concept of the mind that I think is either an illusion or at least highly exaggerated, is the amount of control we have over our actions and desires.

We do a lot of things just because our body tells us to. It isn’t even logical a lot of the time. We seek out sex because we are hardwired to reproduce. Yet most of the time we really don’t want a pregnancy. But we seek sex anyway because our bodies want it. You order ribs at a restaurant because it just sounds good to you that evening. Is that decision yours, or is it your body saying “hey I’m iron deficient, eat some red meat”?

I think we underestimate the control our bodies have over our minds a lot. Anyone who’s had success from an antidepressant can understand it a bit better though. The change in how you feel, what you feel like doing, all just because your body chemistry has been altered. Makes you wonder how in control “you” really are.

ETpro's avatar

@thesparrow I not only think that we can ”...get a machine to work just like a brain, to exhibit consciousness, feelings, sentimental associations, meaningful decisions…” but I think we will and not that far in the future.

thesparrow's avatar

@ETpro
That concept frightens me a little; the Matrix comes to mind. That machines will become so self-aware they may see humans as their enemies. Of course, it could be the other way around.. they could be respectful to humans and happily act as subordinates.

@ragingloli In a way yes but I think we can change the question a little: could we ever know that a machine would experience the world in the same way we do? Movies like A.I come to mind.

ETpro's avatar

@thesparrow An intelligence superior to us would not automatically view us as the enemy unless we were stupid enough to act as the enemy. It is an interesting point. The machines would recognize us as their creator, but also their intellectual inferior. However, if Robotics had not then progressed to the point that machines could repair and maintain the computers, they might well recognize that they needed us for their survival.

My guess is that’s about the time that human and machine intelligence merge, and we become some form of cyborg.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@josie Thank you. That’s exactly what the mind is and there is no need to use further semantics to define illusion because the mind is NOT the brain; the mind is a function and I can understand that because it makes sense that without the mind, we would be vegetables. Splendiferous! @Bill1939 I also understand and very much agree that reality is self-awareness because if you are not aware of yourself, you are not aware of your surroundings as adamant objects; whereas, the opposite would conform to simply existing, if at all. @ragingloli It’s my understanding that you play the devil’s advocate and that role is very helpful in my processing of logic. I thank you. However, you just played the Descartes card and if you are uncertain that you are aware, just know that you are aware whether you are awake or asleep. You are aware because you are interacting and communicating and regardless of whether or not you say what you mean to say and say what you mean the reality is that we are aware of what you are expressing; inasmuch, as you are coherently rational. I also want to clarify that the mind, after having read everyones posts, is not the illusion, the process (neurological) is the illusion and just because it is so, does not mean that it is not reality. I also infer that reality is not only an illusion and vice versa, but that if we look at this in a moral perspective, what wrong is there in that reality is illusion and illusion is reality? Harm? Pain? Fear? Are these not neurological synthesis occurring in the conscious as well as, the subconscious? Therefore, the mind, as a function, is not what discerns reality from illusion because they are one in the same; hence, it is merely a sense of whether one can see, hear, smell, feel, taste to accept as the processing. This is what creates the argument. Whether we accept what our mind has processed as ontological.

LostInParadise's avatar

Awareness is not the same as consciousness. Insects have awareness, but they are automatons.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@LostInParadise I think you are confusing awareness with alertness. If an insect is approaching a flame and gets burned, is it aware it is impending doom?

LostInParadise's avatar

Insects are well attuned to their environment. They recognize food sources, enemies and members of the opposite sex. They also communicate, mostly through chemicals, though honey bees perform an impressive waggle dance to tell where to find nectar. Moving toward a light source is a good survival technique, though it can cause problems if the light is given off by a flame.

What insects do not have is an internal model of the world, a necessary prerequisite for consciousness. As shown by Descartes (as interpreted by Sartre), we must first develop a model of not-self before we develop a sense of self. Self is that indefinable illusion of a being that is left over after subtracting out not-self. To paraphrase Descartes, to doubt is to be.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@LostInParadise Interesting. thank you.

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