Is the World an Illusion?: Mind-Bending Perspectives from Plato and Descartes

Philosophers have long questioned whether the world is an illusion—Plato and Descartes’ works serve as the foundation for this hypothesis in the West.

Last time, we discussed films that question and explore how “real” reality—as we know it—is.

This idea has gone viral, but where did it originate?

For that answer, we have to travel back in time and look at the great minds of history.

As I mentioned in our last meet-up, on this tour we’ll visit philosophers, spiritual thinkers, and last but not least scientists who examine(d) our “reality”.

To kick things off, we have our pontificating philosophers who have long contemplated whether our world is an illusion.

Now, to Greece we go!

Plato (429? – 347 BC) 

Unsurprisingly, we’ll start with one of the most influential authors in all of philosophy, our favorite ancient Athenian: Plato.

Oh, you were actually thinking Socrates or Aristotle? You’ll hear no quibbling from me since Plato studied under Socrates and then later became teacher to Aristotle.

To be honest, I would’ve started off with Socrates (469–399 BC) given his interest in metaphysics. However, little is known about his life, he left us no writings of his work to fawn over, and what we do know of his philosophical beliefs and ideas come from his students—some of which is contradictory.

Therefore, we’ll visit one of his most famous, devoted followers, Plato.

Plato is regarded not only as the founder of Western political philosophy, but also one of the founders of Western spirituality (what versatility!). 

Sticking with the metaphysical aspects of his work, his “Platonism” view denied the reality of the physical world—perceived with the senses and continually changing—deeming it an imitation, a shadow of the real world.

On the other hand, he viewed the real world as beyond time and space, and even beyond perception. Plato described it as:  

  • Perfect
  • Abstract
  • Changeless
  • Eternal

This illusory world vs. reality dichotomy (Plato’s “Theory of Forms”) is expanded upon in one of his most famous works (cue drum roll). . . .

The Allegory of the Cave

Brilliantly, our fave philosopher understood that tales and myths were the best means by which to share his philosophical conclusions with us common folk.

And that brings us to The Allegory of the Cave. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s a must-read (don’t worry, it’s super short and hyperlink included—you’ll totally thank me later or maybe not).

As a quick recap, a group of people have spent their entire lives as prisoners in a cave, shackled at the legs and neck. They are so tightly restrained that they cannot even turn their heads, thus they can only perceive that which is directly in front of them on the cave wall.

There is a fire glowing well behind them, and between the fire and our prisoners is a walkway through which people pass, carrying various objects.

The light of the fire casts shadows of these objects on the cave wall for the prisoners to see, and they overhear the conversations of passersby on their journey.

Shadow puppets, anyone?

They believe the shadows to be “real” since it’s the only thing they’ve ever seen and known. They’re unaware of what’s causing the shadows.

One lucky prisoner manages to get out of his chains. At long last, he’s able to turn around and look at the painfully bright fire to see what’s creating the shadows.

Not stopping there, the prisoner escapes the cave. His eyes, accustomed only to darkness, slowly adjust to the blinding light.

Over time, he’s able to see beyond the mere shadows and reflections (illusions), looking at the objects around him (reality), as well as the sun (yikes).

He is transformed by his new perception of the world.

He returns to the cave to share his exciting news with the prisoners and to encourage them to leave with him.

But they are not impressed.

The prisoners aren’t too thrilled to have their authoritative knowledge about the “world” challenged, and ridicule the free man for having left in the first place.

In fact, they find his information so threatening that they want to kill him . . . if only they could get out of their pesky chains to get him. . . .

Through this story, Plato shares with us that that everything we perceive with our senses in this world is an illusion. They are simply shadows, imitating the real forms, which exist outside of the material world.

He’s also conveying that we’re so accustomed to seeing and believing in illusions that we confuse them with reality.  

Here’s my hot take: it takes willingness and time to let our perception adjust to recognize the truth (AKA to see the perfect world beyond).

Meanwhile, the remaining prisoners believe that they know reality from their limited perspective and thus want to maintain their bondage and illusions.

The freed prisoner threatens their knowledge and beliefs such that he must be eliminated in order to preserve their world.

As the old cliché goes, the truth shall set you free and then be sure to stay out of arms reach of your former prison compadres when you go back to share your stellar news!

René Descartes (1596–1650)

Now, for our next stop: France.

Like our man Plato, Descartes was also a well-rounded intellectual as one of the founders of modern philosophy, an exceptional mathematician, and a solid scientist.

In one of his most interesting works—Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)—he claims that our physical senses are unreliable (“Cartesian Doubt”) and, as a result, the world may be an illusion, a dream (his “Dream Argument”).

Specifically, Descartes posited that when we dream, we are convinced that we’re sensing and interacting with real objects and images.

According to his Dream Argument, our dreams and waking life contain enough similarities that we, the dreamer, are routinely fooled into believing that we’re having experiences while awake when in fact we’re actually dreaming.

As Descartes wrote:

[T]here are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep (Meditations on First Philosophy 1, AT 7:19).

It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false (Meditations on First Philosophy).

Sound like the movie Inception much?

He goes on:

[E]very sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be any more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake (Meditations on First Philosophy 6, AT 7:77, CSM 2:53).

For this reason, Descartes believed it necessary to doubt every belief and perception that he held, even his own existence, in order to determine what was certain.

“Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)

Initially, doubting his existence—which he claimed that he couldn’t do if he didn’t exist—he concludes that his doubt proves:

I am, I exist, that is certain . . . I know that I exist, and I inquire what I am, I whom I know to exist. . . . [W]hat then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels. . . (Meditations on First Philosophy).

Long story short, he believed the only certainty is that he exists as a “thinking thing” (a mind), which is separate from the physical world, including his body. Readers of The Disappearance of the Universe and A Course in Miracles will be familiar with this idea.

Others, such as George Berkeley (1685–1753), have pursued Descartes’ line of inquiry with Berkeley’s argument that “to be” means to “perceive” (AKA to be conscious), meaning that consciousness = existence.

So, you may now be wondering whether you actually just read this post or you simply dreamed that you did. Oh, Cartesian Doubt (and Inception), how you’ll forever plague me!

Onwards and Eastwards!

Now that we’ve reviewed Plato and Descartes’ foundational philosophical works, which argue that the world we perceive is an illusion, next we head East.

Our tour will take us to Asia, where we’ll explore spiritual philosophers and their views on the nature of the world in our upcoming post.

In the meantime, how about you?

Do you have some favorite gems/ideas from these philosophers or others?

—Jennifer


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