About a month ago, De. Deepak Chopra appeared on the NPR show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (which you can listen to at this link). At the end, he repeated the old idea that form is an illusion, because inside atoms is mostly empty space. While I have no quarrel with Dr. Chopra, I started thinking about this, and realized both that he is (most likely) dead wrong, but that form is nonetheless an illusion. Since I haven’t posted for a while, I figured I’d throw this up in the best (and increasingly endangered) tradition of late-night dorm bull sessions.
The issue with the Dr. Chopra’s idea can be boiled down to two words: dark matter. According to the physicists, a majority of the stuff in the universe is dark matter, which can be seen only by its gravitational signature. Assuming they’re right, all that “empty space” inside our atoms actually has a fair amount of stuff in it: dark matter, if not dark energy. Neutrinos sleet through a bunch of the rest of it, as do all the photons that convey the radio waves I was listening to. One could, in fact, argue that space is an illusion, that even the sparsest interstellar vacuum is far from empty.
But the mystics are still right: form is illusion. It’s just a different kind of illusion. For those who watch Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel. Human brains are not just prone to illusions, they are hard-wired to see them. Neuroscientists have been having a lot of fun studying the neuroscience of magic. The basic finding is that our brains use a number of systems and shortcuts to make sense of the world. Some of these are innate, while some are learned, often culturally specific. To over-simplify, the world is so complex that we cannot understand it without simplifying it, pinning meaning onto sights, sounds, scents, and so forth so that we can respond to raw sensory inputs and survive. Without meaning, we would be lost. For example, our eyes are somewhat less acute than average smart-phone cameras, but we see more because our eyes move constantly, and our brains stitch the images together to provide the illusion that we’re seeing more than we actually do.
Thing is, this is part of being human, and the downside is that we’re innately susceptible to illusions because of the way our brains process incoming data. It’s a tradeoff, honed by evolution: we see the stuff we need to see (in the evolutionary sense of needing to survive to leave behind offspring), but that means we can be fooled by everything from camouflaged snakes to clever illusionists. In this sense, forms are illusory. We don’t see only what’s there. Instead, our brains are grown to see what we find meaningful. This is the difference between a camera and an eye: a camera sees what is actually there. However, it takes an enormous amount of effort to program a computer to see with a camera, because the programmer has to figure out how to embody human norms, assumptions, and illusions as computer code to interpret the camera image in a way that makes sense to humans. We do it automatically.
Personally, I think that the idea that form is illusion should be thrown out. Anyone who aspires to enlightenment needs to realize that illusions are a fundamental property of the structure of their brains. Seeing illusions is part of being a human being. We can, however, learn to see things somewhat differently, to not be caught by some illusions. For some people overcoming some illusions may be important, whether it be spotting the rattlesnake in the dead leaves or not being bamboozled by a con artist. Unfortunately, we are limited beings, and we will never see the world as it truly is.
For a trifecta, let’s look at another common mystical statement, that now is the only moment that is real. This may be scientifically true: we don’t really know what time is, and the only moment we truly experience is now. Nonetheless, now is just as illusory as anything else. It takes something like 40 milliseconds for a sensation to travel from your toes to your brain, so your sense of what’s going on in your feet “right now” is actually 40 milliseconds behind. I have no idea how the brain integrates feelings so that you have the immensely useful illusion that your face and feet are feeling the same thing at the same time, or that sounds and sights are integrated with these feelings, but it’s all an illusion: your brain is busy compiling all this incoming data into one whole that is partially illusory. Your sense of yourself, what “you” are at any instant, contains a lot of illusion. It’s not at all a stretch to say (as the mystics do) that you are an illusion.
All this isn’t to bash Buddhism or any other mystical religion. While these religious ideas about space, form, and nowness may be partially illusory, Buddhism in particular is aimed at enlightenment, not as a way of winning some sort of psychosocial game, but as a way of overcoming suffering. Some scientific research suggest that, in fact, Buddhist practitioners can overcome suffering and become among the happiest people studied to date. From a scientific perspective, their practices may be based on illusions and a misunderstanding of science’s reality (and I can’t say this for a fact, since I’m not a Buddhist or a scholar of Buddhism), but if they can overcome normal human suffering, I’d say that Buddhists and other meditators are definitely worth our respect regardless.
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