We live in largely skeptical times, steeped in a relativism, in which many scoff at the idea that we can know the truth or even that there is a truth to be known. Never mind that in so doing they are in fact making a truth claim of their own! But the ability to perceive one’s own logical inconsistencies is not is not a common trait these days.
Nevertheless, despite the tenor of our times, it does not follow that we should overcorrect by declaring certainty about everything, or even most things, we know. Illusion remains a pervasive human problem. And, as we shall see, illusion is more of a moral problem than an epistemological one. The problem of illusion does not mean there is no truth to be found or known; rather, it means that the human mind, and will wounded by sin have a tendency to entertain illusion.
The word “illusion” comes from the Latin in + ludere (to play games or mock), thus “to engage in games or play.” And so illusion is, by extension, a manner in which one tries to trick another, as in optical illusions or magic tricks. But internally, illusion is our own tendency (conscious or unconscious) to play games with ourselves, to play loosely with the facts, to indulge in logical gamesmanship or even entertain outright foolishness.
We are masters at this game. We can lie to ourselves for so long that we no longer even realize that we’re doing it. Yes, our minds are very wily. So easily our greatest strength and gift—our mind—can become the source of our greatest flaws. We can rationalize some of the most awful things by cloaking them in euphemisms and explanations that obfuscate rather than elucidate. Abortion becomes “reproductive choice,” lying becomes “mental reservation,” euthanasia becomes “death with dignity,” mutilation becomes “sexual reassignment surgery,” etc.
And then there are the smaller the illusions that apply to our daily lives. Fr. Thomas Dubay described some of these as follows:
If illusion means unrealized, possibly sincere, even enthusiastic error, there is far more of it in each of our lives than we are prepared to admit. All the way from our petty vanities to suppositions about our motivations, we are subject to all sorts of misjudgments concerning the way things are. There are the illusions of exaggerated self-esteem and its opposite, a weak self-image. There are the hundreds of illusory desires of which St. Paul speaks in Ephesians 4:22, desires for things we imagine we need. There are our illusory fears of things we ought not at all to fear (“What will they think of me? How will I look?”) and the illusory non-fear of things we ought dreadfully to fear. There are the many misjudgments of what is important in life and what is trivial—and who, if he be less than a saint does not err in these judgments many times each day? (Authenticity p. 35)
But where does this tendency toward illusion come from? Although our intellects are darkened by Original Sin and the cumulative effects of personal sin, illusion is more than just an intellectual problem. The roots of illusion are much deeper, in the center of the human person. Though we may not like to admit it, careful analysis shows that illusion and our tendency to entertain error stem fundamentally from sin. Illusion is something that, to some degree, we will; we decide to engage in it as a tactic. In most cases we don’t really want to know the full story or all the facts, or else we are simply too lazy to seek the complete truth.
To illustrate that illusion is more a problem of the will than a failure of our perception, Fr. Dubay uses the following example in his essay (Authenticity, p. 36): One sees a fruit tree in the distance with round, red fruits hanging in its branches. Upon seeing this tree, one might remark to the person standing next to him, very often in a hasty way, that it is clearly an apple tree. But of course it could actually be a plum tree. Rarely will someone humbly admit or say, “It could be an apple tree, but I’m not sure, so I’ll need to get a closer look.”
Our tendency is to draw a conclusion quickly, based only on limited evidence, so that we appear to know what we’re talking about. So we say, “That is clearly an apple tree.” We may do this out of pride, or vanity (to look like Mr. Know-it-all), or simply because we’re lazy and it’s too much trouble to go get all the facts.
Of course this example features a small matter. But we take this tactic with much more significant matters as well. We will often make sweeping conclusions about other people’s motivations, significant events in the news, scientific matters, or geopolitical matters based on very little evidence or information. And then based only on this small amount of information we entertain the illusion that we quite certainly and comprehensively know what is actually going on, what everything means, and what exactly should be done (if only people would ask us). There’s an old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” But this doesn’t stop most of us from doing that most of the time!
Why do we do this? Some of the reasons have already been presented, but let’s list them again along with some others.
- Haste (sloth) – It’s a lot easier to entertain the illusion that we know all the facts than to actually go out and find them. Certainly we have time limitations and cannot research everything completely, but that is all the more reason to resist the illusion that we know it all and to be more careful in drawing conclusions. We can and should make reasonable conclusions about the data we have, but we should also be open to receiving more information that may clarify or even challenge some of what we think we know. So it’s not a problem of the intellect per se, but of the will, influenced by sloth. We often decide to make hasty conclusions out of laziness.
- Vanity – Not only do we like to entertain the illusion that we know everything, we want others to entertain it as well. Because of this we like to impress others with our perceived knowledge and are slow to admit ignorance. Here, too, entertaining this illusion is something we decide to do. Our will (and intellect) are weighed down by vainglory. Sometimes we delude ourselves unconsciously while at other times it is a more conscious effort. Seeking to perpetuate this exalted vison of ourselves we also advance other illusions and errors by sermonizing, opining, and declaring things of which we are not really all that certain. Thus one illusion begets another.
- Social Ease – There is another form of sloth in which we pick up popular notions and simply parrot them. This usually wins us approval (more vainglory). We prefer to presume that popular notions are true rather than thinking things through more thoroughly and pondering whether they are true, or untrue, or perhaps need some distinctions applied. But all of this is just too much trouble; it also tends to put us out of favor with the many who would prefer that popular illusions not be challenged. And so we simply slip into the tendency to assume that popular ideas are true simply because most people think so. Behaving this way gives us a sense of social ease and helps us to feel safe even if, deep down, we know that a lot of it is illusion.
- Preference for lies (fearing the truth) – The truth tends to challenge us in ways that lies do not. Illusion is often a form of simplification. The truth is usually much more complex. We prefer the simplification that illusion provides. Our fantasy world is easier to navigate (because it is of our own making) than the real world. The truth often challenges our simplified culture, addicted as it is to the sound bite. And thus we introduce all sorts of mental filters and other forms of illusion so that we can hide from the truth, water it down, or outright resist it.
- Emotional satisfaction – It is generally easier (or at least more pleasing) to follow the whims of our emotions than to seek out hard facts. The truth might summon us to do something hard such as to resist what our emotions are demanding of us. Especially in this modern age, we live under the illusion that strong emotions, of themselves, convey truth. They do not necessarily do this at all. In fact, they may often be an overreaction of our psyche to the truth. Our passions and emotions have their place, but they can be very unruly and very deceptive.
We live in times in which many speak dreamily about the authority of emotions. Some will say, as if it were profound, “How can something that feels so good be wrong?” Others will claim that because some hard course of action might make someone feel sad or anxious means that that course of action should not be undertaken or insisted upon. Much of this is illusion because it exalts the lower faculties and would have them overrule (rather than be ruled by) the higher faculties such as the intellect and a properly disposed will.
Despite this, many people today prefer the dreamy illusions that emotions can supply. Moviemakers and advertisers know this well. A good tearjerker of a movie or a powerful song can confound reason and make us sympathize with the strangest causes. At the other end of the spectrum, advertisers often use fear to incite us to buy their products: you’re not pretty enough; you don’t drive the right kind of car; your hair is too gray; your life is somehow incomplete and you’re basically pathetic. Just buy our product and you’ll rise in the ranks and not be such a loser. Never mind that most of the fears incited are themselves illusions.
But that is just the point: emotionalism uses illusion to feel better even though illusion is part of the problem that drives excessive emotionalism. The solution is always more of the same: “More illusion please; the truth is mean and it hurts.”
So what is the solution? First it is essential to say that the solution is not to conclude that the truth cannot be known and that we are all somehow lost in illusion. We are equipped to know the truth and to come to love it. And because the problem is in our will more so than in our intellect, the solution is to make the decision to renounce our sinful tendency to indulge in illusion.
How do we do this? First and foremost, we love. If we learn to love God, by extension, we will learn to love His truth. When we love God we start to love the things and people He loves. We love our neighbor, but we also come to love the truth that God has set forth. We love what He loves: the truth that He has set forth in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Out of love, we zealously seek the truth and joyfully embrace it more and more deeply.
This makes good sense because while we can be deceived, God cannot. His revealed truth is the surest and most certain source of truth. It is not admixed with error, nor is it trendy or changing. The solution to our foggy illusions is the clear light of God’s eternal and time-tested truth. And while some of us may entertain illusion even about God’s truth we cannot stay in this illusion for very long. The Lord teaches infallibly through His revealed Word, the testimony of the saints, and the Magisterium of his Church.
We suffer from illusions, but God does not. Love Him, run to Him, and listen to Him attentively as He speaks through His Word and His Body, the Church. Only this can save us from the fog of our illusions.
N.B. Many of the thoughts in this essay come from Fr. Thomas Dubay in his work Authenticity, cited above. The best thoughts in the essay are his; the inferior ones are mine.
Here is an interesting video on visual illusions: