Eternity: A Cognitive Illusion

Illusion_PoggendorffJohann Poggendorff discovered this optical illusion in 1860. Brown line A on the left, clearly is unbroken and runs contiguously through the vertical lines. Green line B however, appears to come out as a red line, but in actuality (in reality), the green line and the blue line are the same line (co-linear). No matter how hard you stare at this optical illusion, however, you will not see reality — you will see the illusion. Even if you concentrate on the intellectual fact that the blue and green lines are co-linear, you will constantly see the red segment as co-linear instead.

There are thousands of such wonderful optical illusions. Why do they occur? Because the human nervous system does not perfectly replicate reality — it comes with all sorts of apparent glitches.  Well, “glitches” only if you expect your perceptions to always be accurate. Mind you, mental mechanisms are amazingly good enough to survive and prosper, but they are far from being perfect replicators.

Illusion_SoulBesides visual, auditory and other sensual illusions, the brain reveals its evolutionary constraints also in cognitive illusions: thoughts and beliefs we have that don’t match reality but are almost impossible not to experience due to cognitive ‘glitches’. Coming to truly understand our perceptive and cognitive limitations, is important when trying to understand our world.

Hyper-patternicity is one such cognitive illusion.  As I wrote before, research shows that believers in the paranormal, for the better and the worse, are more prone to this cognitive illusion. Another cognitive illusion that feeds most religious thinking is the mind-body duality: that a thing called a soul, a spirit or a mind lives separately from the body and thus survives death. Unfortunately, the other illusions, this illusion presently impossible to empirically test. But if it is truly a cognitive illusion, it would explain why “religion”, to many folks, is just common sense.

Mixing fear, hope and this cognitive illusion of a soul results is in the illusion of eternity: either through heaven or reincarnation. Can we will ourselves out of the mind-body illusion and thus from believing in eternity? Yes. But I contend that the probability of never perceiving the illusion of eternity is small.

Note: In my index post “My Supernatural Experiences“, I list the experiences according to the brain areas which would create the possible illusion: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (bodily) and emotive.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

34 responses to “Eternity: A Cognitive Illusion

  1. Hi sabio. That’s kind of true but only because people generally aren’t focusing on the technical question. Because the line in B does stretch longer than the line in A. But the line you mean is the one between the arrow heads. And that one does look the same.
    I must say i always thought that Christianity was the one that had the problem with “made up stuff”, or illusions as you put it. But the more i read blogs, the more i feel its the other way around. The atheist view requires so much of what we experience every day to be “made up” or simply be useful evolutionary lies that it becomes quite hard to swallow … Maybe that orange bottle you have posted on the right will help me… 😉

    [Clapham: hope you don’t mind, but I fixed up your I-phone typos to make this clearer. Tell me if I changed your meaning.
    — Sabio]

  2. @ Clpham,

    I fixed up your comment’s typos — hope I was true to your intent.

    (1) My choice of an illusion
    Interesting! I think that even focusing on the center lines, they look longer — that is the illusion. But you seem to think not. So, maybe more folks will agree with you. So I changed the illusion so that issue would not be at hand. Above is the illusion I originally had in the post. I think my next illusion is clearer.

    Question: You do feel there are optical illusions you can’t see past, don’t you? Just type in “line optical illusions” in google to find more, if you doubt. Because if you doubt this, it would destroy the point of my point.

    (2) Evolution
    In doing this post, I thought about leaving out the word “Evolution” because it is such a trigger word for many Christians.

    (3) The Real Question
    But #1 & #2 aside, Clapham, the questions are:
    (a) Do you agree that the mind can not avoid seeing certain illusions?
    (b) Can you understand how I am likening body-soul illusion to other illusions?
    (c) If you have any arguments against (a) or (b) that would be pertinent to the post. Saying “atheists make up stuff doesn’t address my point.

  3. @ sabio. that’s a good illusion. are you saying that there is no transverse line between the two parallels in B? It looks like its missing but maybe i am really missing your point!

    I agree there are illusions. I’m not sure what you mean by “not avoid seeing certain illusions”?

    It can be argued, a la the matrix, that everything is an illusion. We have to make do with what we have. How do i know that i am even here?

    Illusion or not (to go with the argument) we at some point have to make a call about whether we exist or not. And whether our surroundings are real or not. And whether we have a soul or not.

    And so I don’t mean that theists make it all up – although that is obviously the allegation often made (not necessarily by you) against Christians. What i mean is that it seems that a lot of what we perceive subjectively has, in some ares of the blogosphere, been attributed to useful delusions to promote survival. The more i go, the longer the list gets. It starts to get to the point where there isn’t much left that isn’t an illusion. To me it begs the question: Maybe they’re not illusions any more than i am an illusion.

  4. @ clapham,
    (1) It is called the “Poggendorff Illusion”, read about it here and come back and see if you can understand.

    (2) Even is something is an illusion, as in this diagram, you can’t stop seeing it — it is unavoidable. Only by measuring and testing (science) can you reveal the illusion. Your intuitions will always lie to you in these cases.
    Is that clear?

    Tackling your other issues will take too long for now. Let’s just start here with 1 & 2 — taking things in baby steps is the only way I can handle this with you. Otherwise we talk past each other with abstractions — an exercise with little value.

  5. is the right hand transverse not supposed to look like it is in-line with the left thane transverse? I get the Pog one but yours is slightly different. Anyway, no need to continue if that will make it tedious – i agree sometimes we don’t see things the way they are.
    are you suggesting science is the only arbiter or what is real and what isn’t? That seems brave? Can science prove i exist beyond my subjective view of it? I agree that in some situations science is perfectly suited to do that (distinguish a lie from the truth) – but in others less so.

  6. @clapham

    (1) Yes, mine is slightly different. Type in “Poggendorff Illusion” in google images and you will see lots like mine. I was just linking to an article to explain it since you didn’t understand the one prior OR this one at first.
    Anyway, so we agree that sometimes we are unable to see thinks the way they actually are.
    We could do this with auditory and kinesthetic illusions too, btw. None of that should be controversial to you.

    (2) So, next baby-step question: “Do you think there is such things as cognitive illusions?”
    I did a quick web search and found this Univ. of Texas sitethat explains it and illustrates many of them.

    (3) I am saying nothing huge about “science”, so be careful about diverting into those big questions. Stay focused on what I am saying and also don’t tell me all the problems you have with so many atheists on the web. Stick to this post and my points — if we are to make any progress.

    Please answer question 2 before we can move on.

  7. Hey Clapham,
    Due to your effort to understand this post, I have decided to make the illustration a bit more clear (see above) and edit the paragraphs to be a bit more clear and add some more info. Just so your comments make sense, to the right I am placing the second image we discussed. Hope you like my third, new-and-improved image.

    So, if you have the patience or time, give the post a re-read and see if I am clearer. Exploring the links may help, but I realize time is important.

  8. Earnest

    That’s amazing! The illusion persists even when viewed upside down!

    I think we need to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful illusion.

  9. @ sabio – thanks. There is a very big if in your main post. IF it is an illusion. Its only an illusion once its proven to be an illusion. Until then it may simply be an illusion to think its an illusion….;-)

  10. @ clapham,
    Yes, but hopefully you see that:
    (1) The brain is not trustworthy
    (2) Intuitions are not trustworthy
    (3) Testing subjective (intuitive, private) data can help see through illusions
    (4) Illusions are not just perceptive but also cognitive
    (5) We all suffer illusions
    (6) Illusions could very well feed religious thought

    If you are hesitant to acknowledge #6, consider some wacky religions — ones that even you think are bizarre. Now try to imagine what cognitive or perceptual illusions a believer must go through to honestly and passionately believe those other wacky beliefs.

    Without outside checks of these private datum, we can’t be sure if we fool ourselves. But indeed, not all subjective data can be tested. And just because it can’t be tested, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act on it. But when it comes to important issues, if we can test it, it may be wise to test.

  11. @Earnest,
    Glad you liked it.

    @ Clapham,
    One more question: could you imagine that the mind-body cognitive intuition so many of us have is an illusion, even if you “believe” it is not?

  12. @ Clapham,
    You said:

    IF it [mind-body intuition] is an illusion. Its only an illusion once its proven to be an illusion. Until then it may simply be an illusion to think its an illusion….;-)

    I hope that smiley was an admission that such a claim is nonsense — right?

  13. @ sabio. If 1 and 2 on your list are true, then the rest of the list starts to wobble a little. How exactly do you go about testing these things if your only means for testing them is unrealiable?
    I’m not denying that there are illusions. But wihtout a large measure of trust in your ability to perceive (anything) you will never confidently make it to testing anything.
    my smiley is a tongue in cheek comment but i don;t think its wrong. If something which appears real cannot be shown to be an illusion why should we accept that it is? Maybe its just an illusion that its an illusion….

  14. @ clapham,
    Ah, 1 & 2 should say “not TOTALLY trustworthy”.
    That may not help you because you seem to be nitpicking instead of trying to understand the point.

    The answer to your last sentence would take many posts on history and scientific advances in knowledge where what appeared real has been doubted for centuries — especially when other data supporting it is lacking.

    But I am moving on to other posts. If these posts give you new ideas either to rethink or build your apologetics, then I succeeded. Thanx for playing along until now.

  15. A sabio, sorry if i am nit picking but what exactly is the point? You appear to contend that religion is an illusion not because we can prove it is but because sometimes we have illusions. I agree sometimes we have illusions, but which are illusions and which are reality.
    If you can’t prove religion is an illusion why contend for it? Or at east why reject my contention that ti isn’t?
    One of the issues i have with naturalism/atheism is it requires so many things to be illusions, or as one person has fiercely contended, brain injurers. Just doesn’t seem to tie up to “reality” IMHO.
    I think everything i us screams theres more to it that this and i don;t see why that should be treated as an illusion.

  16. Actually, clapham, most Christians I know do not and have not had the sorts of “supernatural” experiences I have had.
    So lots of Christianity is not based on having supernatural experiences, but just believing that others have.

  17. @ sabio. You’re right, most Christians don;t have supernatural experiences in the sense of seeming a vision or something like that. But most experience an inner really of God’ presence. Christianity is not simply a set of life principles – its knowing God (JI Packer wrote a great book called “knowing God” which i think sheds more light on this).
    But on the supernatural, i read with interest your ghost story. I have no problem with the supernatural and so don’t doubt your version at all.
    How has that affected your atheism?

  18. Just as you say that most Christians experience “an inner reality of God’s presence.”, so do most Hindus and Muslims. (to mention a few).

    Concerning your last question: I have seen flying saucers — it has not affected my astronomy. I have seen Santa’s reindeer feet past my window but my view of Santa stays unshaken. [true stories, btw, see the links].

    Did you ever believe in Santa, the toothfairy or some such thing and actually have personal experiences perceiving them in some way?

    BTW, we had to put down one of our three dogs recently. For about a week or two afterwards, I thought I’d see him walking around the house. What does that make you think of dog ghosts?

    All the above are connected. I hope you can see the connection.

  19. btw, back in the day, I read Packer’s book and much more. I disagreed back then and am sure I still would. Reading the apologists was actually part of what started moving me out of Christianity– even though I was still hearing “God’s Voice”.

  20. Ah, I must had misunderstood your ghost sory. I was under the impression you believed you had really seen a spirit.
    Re Muslims and Hindus, I don’t dispute that they experience a presence. I don’t think any Christian would. We may dispute who that presence is but I think most Christians would not doubt a presence of some sort is perceived and possibly real.

  21. @ clapham,
    (1) I actually believed I’d seen a spirit at that time. And my memory still tells me I saw a spirit. But I think these are illusions.
    (2) So, Christians feel Muslims and Hindus are detecting “a presence” but you are alluding to your belief that it is not your God “Yahweh” but instead, it must be a “deceiving spirit”, a demon or Satan. Right? Or just pure psychosis or self-delusion. Right? Whereas when Christians make the same claim, as long as the describe it in terms you approve of, it is the real god. Right?
    Let’s not hint around, clapham. Please say what you believe strongly.
    No need to whisper.

  22. @sabio (1) that’s very interesting. I can’t help wondering whether you early conviction that it was a ghost has been overturned by your conviction that there is no god or spirit realm (if that is the case). I wonder if it shouldn’t perhaps be the other way around? I wish we could have a cup of tea over this!
    (2) it’s worth distinguishing between arguments for theism and arguments for Christianity. I suggest we all have an experience of otherness or the spirit realm and that is evidence for theism. The question is then which one is right, or are they all the same. This is why it’s worth examine what each has to say. For my money, I am convinced there is otherness so I must consider the theist options. Of those I’ve come across it find Christianity the most compelling, partly because it claims exclusivity, which I think must be right – not all roads lead to Rome. If I hold that up to be the truth, then something that goes in the opposite direction must by definition be a lie. That is what logic tells me. It’s also what the bible does – another reason I find it worth reading!
    The Bible certainly doesn’t beat around the bush on this.
    Reading your blog has been interesting to me because of the similarities in some religious things it points out. How do such diverse geographical religions come up with such similar themes? It’s an interesting question I think.

  23. I didn’t here a straightforward answer. Do I take that you are saying “Yes, if a non-Christians claims to feel a divine presence, then either it is an evil spirit, or they are self-deluded.”

  24. @ sabio. It could be god. That’s what the apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus. We all (some nuances on this) start off as non-Christians and at some point we experience god in that state. But we could also experience and evil spirit or a delusion. But in a word, yes, it could be an evil spirit or a delusion.

  25. @ clapham
    So it could be Yahweh? If so, then my Hindu friends have been feeling a presence for 20 years (the are in their early 40s), so do you think they could still be communing with Yahweh but just keep calling him “Krishna” and using Hindu theology to describe their experience?

  26. @ sabio. I am not really in a position to take a view on your friends experience from here but given that the god of the bible (the god revealed in the bible) has tied himself to that book, if the presence your friends have experienced points to an irreconcilable view to that of the bible, I’d say it’s not the same person.

  27. Fantastic, I appreciate your honesty.
    Your God is tied to one book in one part of the planet.
    And you think all my dear Hindu friends talk to and are inspired by demons.

  28. Sadly it’s hard to see an alternative. If god is real one of us is wrong. Interestingly cs lewis was of the view that Hinduism and Christianity as the only real contenders for the “correct” religion. But I can’t see how Hinduism and Christianity can both be true, so if we assume that there is a god behind each one, one must be lying.

  29. @cct, How do you determine if something is a spirit, God or a delusion if the experiences are all similar?

  30. @ michaelb. I’m not sure they are all similar. But in short I’d say go for the one that gives the most coherent version of the “reality” that we know. For me this is Christianity. I’m happy to hear reasons why Hinduism (for example) is correct but from what I’ve heard of it, I don’t think it provides a compelling case for being the right one.

  31. @cct, That doesn’t really answer the question. If you experience a presence and a Hindu experiences a presence, how do you know which is a delusion and which is real? Or if both somehow indicate an actual presence, how do you know who or what the presence is? What are your criteria?

  32. @ MB, I suppose it depends on what you mean by presence. Are you talking about a “visitation”, or just a general perception of God? I suppose in either case i don’t think that otherwise sane pole are prone to persistent delusions of that sort. So if it persisted i’d be inclined to think its not a delusion, but something real. I recently met a guy who claimed to have had a vision and experience of an angel in a north african jail. I have no reason to doubt that it was true, but the question is now what? If you think you’ve had a vision of God or some other proof he exists, why do you do? I suppose you do some research. But my first inclination would not be to think its an illusion or delusion.

  33. Hey clapham and MichaelB,
    I am writing a post on specifically issue, using clapman’s comment above. I will publish it later today. (taking the kids out for breakfast). Since this thread is already long and now a bit off course, could you wait a bit and carry on the conversation in that post?

  34. @Sabio, Looking forward to it. I think we’re getting into some interesting claims.

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