Saturday, April 08, 2006

Reality – Illusion or Delusion?

Last evening my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending, at the University of Hull, the Annual Dinner of the Hull Magicians’ Circle. We were the guests of a long-standing member and former Vice President of the Hull Circle known, within his own profession rather than mine, as Nutty Norman (see

Before dinner, we were entertained by a 1950’s sideshow known as ‘Miss Phitt – The Living Half-Lady’. Miss Phitt is the apparent upper torso of a living lady who has supposedly been cut in half. Visually convincing it was, too. The after dinner entertainment was provided by extremely talented magicians who performed some fascinating feats of illusion.

Now, I have never been a great fan of magic, although I find myself increasingly taking interest and even some delight in acts of illusion performed well. My wife, on the other hand, confesses to always having been entertained by such trickery. However, having witnessed some very clever showmanship last night, I have not only warmed to its entertainment value, but have been led to ponder the relative meanings of reality, illusion and delusion.

Reality is, of course, that which most of us understand to be the way things are. Illusion on the other hand is a false or deceptive appearance. The problem comes with delusion, i.e. when one starts to believe as reality that which is truly an illusion.

It is interesting to consider that Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) would consider the majority of us as being deluded in respect to what we perceive as reality. Most of us have some knowledge of the past, understand the concept of the present and sense that intangible state called the future. We draw connections from events of the past, using them to explain the present state of things and to predict the events of the future. However, according to Einstein:

‘The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.’
Letter to Michelangelo Besso, 21 March 1955

Furthermore, philosophers would not only undermine our entire chronological timeframe, but lend arguments to unhinge what, for a great many, is the last bastion of retreat, comfort and solace. By that, I refer to religion:

‘If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school of metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’
David Hume 1711 – 76
Scottish Philosopher
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) sect. 12, pt. 3

What then, when we are confronted by performances such as those witnessed last night, whereby our understanding of reality lends us to consider the performances as being illusionary. If we are, according to Einstein, deluded by what we consider to be reality, how do we know an illusion when we see one?

Joni Mitchell, Canadian singer and songwriter (1945 - ) summed it up very well in her 1967 song, Both Sides Now:

‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall;
I really don’t know life at all.’

Perhaps what stands as reality is actually different for us all. Maybe reality is an individual’s acceptance of a set of illusions. As long as a significant number of the population share a belief in the same illusions we thus avoid the accusation of being deluded.

By making us question the very basis of our understanding of what we perceive, maybe these magicians know a lot more than just a trick or two?

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