Sometimes one comes across philosophical schools of thought that say the self is an illusion. Such an idea is hard to wrap one’s mind around because…well..who is it that is trying to make sense of this concept? I am thinking about this belief that I am an how CAN I be an illusion?

Maybe there is a mistaken assumption going on here. People think illusion= does not really exist. But maybe that is not quite correct.

Consider the famous optical illusion known as the ‘Kaniza triangle’, in which a combination of various shapes are arranged in a pattern that make the mind perceive a white triangle. It looks like an image of three circles with a slice of pie missing; a black triangle broken in three places; and a solid white triangle. But, the solid white triangle exists only as an optical illusion.

But knowing this does not make the triangle disappear. It seems odd to say this triangle does not exist. In fact it really does exist as a pattern created by a cunning arrangement of other shapes and the workings of human visual perception. It may not exist in and of itself as something independent of those other shapes, but it still exists.

Maybe ‘I’ is like the kaniza triangle? A pattern emerging from other patterns, that cannot exist independent of them but is no less real despite this fact?

ADDENDUM: Here are some comments I received on other forums…

VIRGILIC SAYS: Interesting view.

However, I think it is flawed. Circles and triangles are not physical objects but descriptions of objects. The self, I believe, is not a pattern.

The concept of the self being an illusion should be clearly understood as referring to the inexistence of certain attributes of the self as “commonly” defined.

one approach from wikipedia:

It is a substance, which therefore endures through time; thus, the thoughts and actions at different moments of time may pertain to the same self.

So the Self is believed to contain our identity. Identity is an attribute of “us”, of our “self”.

This is the sense in which I believe the self is an illusion, the Self has no identity. It is just a quale. A quale does not have identity, it is what it is.

The self is the quality of the sensation of being self-aware. It is the quality of the conscious perception of one’s own existence. And one’s own existence is ascertained in the perception of one’s physical body.

Our uniqueness and individuality is given solely by the spacetime area that we occupy. Our self is our body. And is continuosly changing. The pattern is continuously changing and it does not affect in any way the sensation- or perception of self.

In fact, the perception of one’s self will arise in any self-aware system, irrespective of its pattern.

The whole concept of Self is a confusion and that is why some have arrived to the ideea that it is an illusion. It is an illusion in the sense that what it is commonly thought to be, it is not.

It is an illusion in as much as the color red is an illusion.

Perception of a certain wavelenght of light results in a sensation of quality “red”.

Perception of the system’s own physical existence results in a sensation of quality “self”.

oh yes, and the question of its endurance through time is also related to the ideea of identity of self.

self cannot be considered to endure through time unless at different moments in time one can identify the respective self as the same.

but since self does not have any identity, just as the color red cannot have identity, there can be no concept of a temporal dimension of the self.

iPAN says: What they are usually referring to is the idea that the boundary between self and environment (or self and other) is an illusion. That the distinction, or separation, between what we commonly view as ‘ourselves’ is not real. Not that self doesn’t exist.

VIRGILIC SAYS: How then, can a self exist, if it is not distinct from the environment?


I know that “I” exist, and I know that because I can occasionally give myself great pleasure or great pain. “I” must interact with the environment and others, but “I” can control the effects of that environment by the way I think. In a body of law, “I exist” must be a priori in order to make any sense of law.

In terms of physics, “I exist” even if the laws of physics are to make sense. Someone has to say “That makes sense”. The problem is in dealing with infinity, ’cause then we have obvious infinite limitations, which say “That makes sense, up to a point, of which I can’t be certain”.

At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, there was an illusion of ping pong balls that apeared to be bouncing in the air. You could “see” them bouncing in random patterns all around your head, indistinguishable from actual ping pong balls, but if one of them actually drove toward your head or eyes, they vanished. They never made contact, but you could see them up to a point. They appeared completely real in a 3 dimensional sense.

The point is, I knew they were not physically real in the sense they appeared, though they appeared that way to all my senses. I knew they weren’t real but merely images cleverly projected of that which was rreal, contained in a box and projected into the air. Who knew that? I knew that. I knew it then, I know it now. Who am I? Not you. I occupy a space and a time. I occupied a space at different times, and was aware of different things. I interact with time, and I change and I will cease to exist to any conclusion available to me at this time.

Ergo, I am a giant hormone that processes signals.

iPAN SAYS: How could it exist if it were utterly separate from it’s environment? Wouldn’t this make it causally closed within itself, and thus it’s own universe?
I don’t know.
I’m just pointing out that the philosophies that Extropia was referring to above is actually talking about the boundary between self and other, not literal existence. What they generally mean when they say the ‘self is an illusion’ is that the self as something that is causally separate from everything else is impossible.

VIRGILIC SAYS: Yes, YOU are your physical body/brain, you certainly exist


Your missing the point. I’d like to argue the implied materialism here, but I’ll save that for another discussion.
Materialism or not, the point is that even physically there are no true gaps, or voids, between one thing and another.
There is no literal absolute distinction where you can say this is one thing, and that is another distinct thing.
All things are bound to each other, even by physical laws. If you look at a small enough scale, you will see this.
So, even putting religion, spirituality, and philosophy aside, it just means that in an absolute sense, there are no absolute boundaries between two things. There may not even properly be two things: the universe when taken as a whole, is one big energy field. This is true, regardless of which philosophy your looking at.

The reason I’m explaining this, is not to prove a point about any particular philosophy, but to answer Extropia’s question about what people mean when they say ‘self is illusion’. I’m trying to clarify what they actually mean by that, since it’s common to misunderstand what they’re getting at. We are using the word ‘illusion’ in different ways.


I agree with both your posts, that everything is causally linked. Boundaries, to some extent, are conventional.

Still, logically and physically you can clearly distinguish this macrcosmic object from that macrocosmic object, irrespective if at the bottom they are rooted in the same stuff, with which I totally agree.

I do not imply that two spatiotemporally close but separate objects are isolated causally from eachother, this is indeed impossible.


illusion is a misnomer. the information coming to the brain consists of what we could evolve to detect in a way that would best serve us to survive and reproduce. the information we receive is conflated into a sense of self and non self. the limited color sensation we receive is produced by the brain. three types of cells react to three specific frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. all the rest of the colors are developed in the mind statistically based on the ratios of the electromagnetic radiation coming from an object.

when you detect an object with your vision you fail to detect that atoms are relatively far apart and the parts of the atom are very far apart. what you see is truly mostly space. when you touch the object you do not pass through because of electromagnetic qualities of electrons.. you do not notice these things because it is not needed for you to survive. it is not an illusion because you are detecting objects and forces but since there are no colors it means what you sense of reality is a construct.

this is what confuses you about reality and consciousness. bugs have a construct. they come out of the egg ready to go. this construct in humans is more complex and learned. the baby brain has a trillion neurons but a few years later it has half or three quarters of that. it makes its connections and the remaining unused cells wither. this construct allows you to make sense of the environment. it allows you to identify yourself and not self. this construct is what you confuse with consciousness.

consciousness is only the newly remodeled frontal lobe. it allows inhibition. inhibition allows socialization and conscience. this so called higher level of thought is a wonder but it only allows you to do one critical thing that the rest of the animals cannot do. it gives you a temporal capacity. you can discern yesterday from now and now from what will be. you can project your world construct to the future to test it in an environment with differences. you think you are doing this consciously but your subconcious is constantly building and projecting into the future. when something seems important it sends the model down the pipeline to your frontal lobe to act on.

how many times have you read an important idea just came to me.

consciousness is pretty mundane compared to the construct of the world generated by the brain in your subconsious. not entirely an illusion but more of a highly stylized subjective art film drama based on reality. and interestingly enought not everyones reality is the same. even your own is not always the same.

alice, are you sure you want to spend your time coping the function of a machine so odd and unreliable

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

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  1. If the white triangle is perceived, then it exists.

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