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INFORMATION AND ILLUSION

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INFORMATION AND ILLUSION Powered By Docstoc
					                                                                                               CHAPTeR 13




         INFORMATION AND ILLUSION
                     (PeRCePTION, ILLUSION, AND PReTeNCe)




   Living with illusion

Make believe
reality

    At the close of Chapter 11 we had reached almost an impasse in trying to find the meaning of our
life and living. Following this now, having looked at some paranormal activity, we find ourselves won-
dering just how much of our life is illusion. Without some guiding and comfortable absolute on which
to lean, we wonder (like sceptics of old) whether we can ever be really sure of anything. In Chapter 2,
we referred to Bertrand Russell’s mischievous assertion that mathematics is a subject in which we never
know what we are talking about, or whether what we are talking about is true. In a world where noth-
ing is absolute, we could say the same thing about everything. Are we really sure of anything, or if
anything is true? All that we can say is that everything (like mathematics) depends on a premise, a
previous assumption or statement. everything we know (or don’t know) is relative to something else,
including something we call existence. But existence too is something we can’t explain. each of us lives
in our own personal world. In each of these worlds, information is a puzzle wrapped up in an enigma.
given such uncertainty, it is meaningless to try to find absolutes. We live, as in an endless dream, the
purpose and end of which is beyond comprehension. Our whole life could be illusion and, in the end,
the cruellest of jokes. However, despite such a desolation of thought, life still has much to offer. It (or
at least the information we have of it) can give us moments of great joy, happiness, and revelation. It is
something to be thankful for and cherished. “Common sense” dictates that, if there is no reality, we must
assume one. Just as in mathematics we start with a premise so, in living with illusion, we need to start
with a premise. We need a plausible make believe structure in which to exist and progress. Our premise
may turn out to be utterly false, in which case anything goes; but at least, by assuming a reality, we can
make life worth living. In our adopted reality, we can enjoy many joys and wonders of life; but we must
also be prepared for austerity and tragedy. We may have to live sometimes through inexplicable adver-
sity and distress. We have to do “real” work and earn “real” money in order to survive and make a living.
If our living is make believe, it seems very real at times. It would be absurd to dismiss it all as illusion, to
be idle, and do nothing. We can agree with other people what our make believe should be. We can join
with all people in making it work for us. Only afterwards, if we have time and leisure to reflect—and
if we have a philosophical bent for it—may we ponder how dubious is the base on which we start; how


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intangible and uncertain our reality is; and, how subjective, frail, and fragile, are all our perceptions,
impressions and beliefs. Only then, will we realise how unsure we are of what we are; and whether what
we are saying is true. As Bertrand Russell infers for mathematics, it may all be illusion.

Absence of
proof

   In Chapter 1, we suggested that perception was as near as we can get to reality. At times, we all of
course have convictions independently of our perceptions. We may have a feeling that, no matter how
small we are, we are a part of some grand design. We may have an idea of how we fit into this design;
but, even so, our feelings are usually very special and personal to us. For many of us, they are a part of
our communication with god. We certainly can’t prove our thoughts to the world outside. At rock bot-
tom; the idea of what it is to exist (the very concept of existence) is no more than what from day to day
we, in our own mind worlds, believe it is. To know we exist is to be conscious, and our consciousness
depends on information accumulated and stored in our memory. Unfortunately, as we have seen in our
earlier chapters, our memories are uncertain. They are subjective, flimsy, and changeable. They may
have metaphysical properties. They are changed by our moods, whims, fears, desires, circumstances,
and accident. every explanation and answer we give to anyone on any question depends on our mental
make up at the time. Our answers could well be prefixed—“Ah, it all depends on what you mean by
(some part of your question) .” Some years ago, this was an amusing way that C.e.M Joad58, who was
a self styled people’s “philosopher” in a BBC Radio programme, used to reply to all the questions that
were put to him. It was a useful stratagem because it was a reminder to us not only to be clear and
specific when asking questions but also to be aware of the changing nature of everything. We first had
to define our reality. On the other hand, we could argue that; if reality exists only in the mind, then if
we believe something, it is for us at least as “real” as anything else can be. If everything is suddenly just
belief, then everything we know and feel could be illusion; one illusion within another; within another;
and so on? In the present chapter we will dwell a little on these puzzling aspects. We are not arguing
against all illusion. Some of it is essential and of great comfort. All that we ask is that we recognise it.
If we can recognise our obvious illusions and particularly those we fabricate to enrich and glorify our-
selves, then perhaps to that extent we may approach reality. Some things we perceive may be more “real”
than others. It is a hope.

   The Start of Illusion

Collecting
information

   Two of the most important functions of the mind are collecting information and looking for simi-
larities of situations and events within it and making comparisons between them. Following this, the
mind more often than not (and without any prompting from us) goes on to make up lots of plausible
(and sometimes not so plausible) stories. given such a background, it is not surprising that we are con-
ditioned to accepting illusions (and fantasy) as truth. Before we see anything, our illusions are already

58 C.e.M. Joad. BBC Radio: Brains Trust
                                                                      informAtion And illusion           



often half formed within us. We are quite prepared to see things that are not there. The first basic
function of the mind then, as we have said in earlier chapters, is the creation and storing of abstracts of
information about everything that happens around us. Secondly, involuntarily and continuously, from
this stored information the mind draws analogies and makes up imaginative stories. By making abstracts
we refer to the way that the mind abbreviates and holds its information so that later it can reconstruct
it as memory. Our mind does this reconstruction well (but by no means perfectly) by filling out its ab-
stracts with background information in memory that it has gathered over the years. For the mind to
take in and memorise every single bit of information that our senses perceive non stop, day in day out,
would be impossible not least because of the time it would take to do it. All the perceptions we make
are combined with memory we already have. This combination is then compressed into “abstracts”
and put back in store. Later, when we recall it, the abstracts are filled out to give us the “memory” of
our perceptions. Physical space and time would not allow it to do otherwise. When we observe any-
thing we probably feel that we are looking at something as it happens now, independently of the past,
but this is just an impression. We are in fact looking at something in conjunction with our memory.
Whenever we use our senses, we are already also using our memory. As we remarked in Chapter 1,
and as we noted again in Chapters 4 and 7, our perceptions usually consist of up to 90% memory. Our
perceptions are largely based on what has gone before. It is an illusion to believe we are taking in all that
we “see.” We are reminded, in this connection, of our assertion in Chapter 1 that there is no such thing
in Nature as colour. Our idea of colour is in the mind. It is the knowledge of facts such as these, more
than anything else, that makes us wonder; what is real, what is just in the mind, and what is illusion?
What are we? What is really out there?

Comparing
information

    The second most important function of our minds we have said is continually finding analogies.
We are continually looking for and noting similarities between different parts of our memory. We do
it in order to find similarity between past and present and between different times in our existence.
Noting an analogy is often the very first thing that the mind does when we start to think. Depending
on the urgency or seriousness of a situation, the mind will look at all previously similar situations it
can find. It may make comparisons between fully filled in reconstructions, between partially recon-
structed situations or, if the urgency of the situation warrants it, it perhaps works on raw abstracts. By
such methods, the mind discovers new facts and relationships. It explains differences between now
and then; and makes projections into the future. It warns us of danger. It makes observations; it makes
deductions; and it uses its imagination to make up other possible outcomes. It suggests opportunities.
Old patterns of activity are compared with new and, from omparisons, more and more analogies and
stories are formed. The process is iterative. As we conjectured in Chapter 7, the process appears to be
carried out in successively lower levels of our subconscious. Unfortunately, the mind’s reconstructions
are neither perfect nor reliable. Whether the purpose of the reconstruction is to remember, to deduce,
or merely to keep making up stories for the sake of it, the results are likely to contain inconsistencies
and error. What the mind comes up with may be a far cry from anything original. Some results of this
work are seen in our dreams where we find amazing and ridiculous associations such as we discussed
in Chapter 9. Fortunately, we soon dismiss the stories in our dreams as unreal and unlikely. We can only
     A philosophy of informAtion



hope that in our wakeful moments our mind is alert enough to do the same. In either case however,
whether we are dreaming or awake, our imaginative processes are likely to be much the same. We may
well ask how “real” and “unreal” are any of them. Whether our perceptions are of the immediate present,
or from the remote past, they depend on our stored memory to fill them out. Different minds also see
things in different ways. When we realise that everyone’s background is different, we can readily see
why different people have different perceptions even of a single event. Different perceptions may lead
not only to different understanding, but also to an appearance of arrogance, prejudice, and bias. As
we discussed under Harmony and Discord in Chapter 3, this is why information often divides people.
each different mind world (that we discussed at the beginning of Chapter 11) has divergent tastes, dif-
ferent understandings of what words mean, differing individual philosophies, and different views of
the Time and Space in which we live. With our ideas on microdots, this could mean that we have particles
of light that produce different pictures for each of us. Information from our perceptions undoubtedly
differs widely from person to person. Things are not always what they seem to us, and certainly not
what they seem to others. When we all have so many different perceptions of everything, how can we
say that any of them are real? Here then is the start of illusion.

Simple
misreading

    In the present chapter we will take a look first at what may be described as optical illusion and
simple misreading. By this we mean the kind of illusion we have when we misread, misjudge, or mis-
understand, what we see or hear. A mirage is an extension of this. Our information is false, exaggerated,
or distorted. We will include illusions that we make for amusement; illusions created to demonstrate a
theory; as well as illusions caused by physical conditions. We will include illusions we stubbornly hold
on to as “real,” even when others produce convincing proof that they are not. We will move on to illu-
sions we find in simulation and in the imaginative experiments with information, that we described in
Chapter 2. These are illusions with imaginative starting points that we create in order, to hypothesise;
learn more about the world; solve problems; console ourselves and dream; or, merely to entertain our-
selves. We will note again the subtle use of nuance and euphemism in language that creates illusion
and misleading impressions in our conversation and writing. We will note the powerful illusions that
arise from “following the crowd”; and particularly from pretence, propaganda, commercialism, and
advertising. These illusions are typified by our worship of celebrities and people of fashion. They are
illusions fostered by the Press, Media, Theatre, Tv, Films, and Radio. We will look at self imposed
illusions that are better described as delusion. By these we mean illusions that arise in mental illness,
self induced trances, and the traumas we referred to in the last few chapters. Illusions often occur as a
result of inflated egos. We will note how delusions mislead us about our status, making us feel impor-
tant and grand one minute and, conversely, absurdly insignificant the next. We will note the power of
illusion that makes us feel like a different person and which, at least for a while, helps us escape from
the worries and troubles of the day. We will indulge in speculation that it could have been illusion or
perhaps self delusion that began with us covering up the human body. The wearing of clothes has
certainly led to many strange forms of dress and ostentatious illusion. However, despite our desire for
naked truth, we do not recommend a return to a universally unclothed state.
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           



Work and
worship

    As we move on to illusions, in business, the professions, and in personal beliefs, we will look first
at the “phoney” world of Finance, and the Stock exchange. We will see how, by divorcing money from
the reality of notes and coin, we have taken another step into a world of make believe. At rock bot-
tom, this is a make believe that puts people’s livelihoods at stake. even more ominously, on a national
level, too much make believe can lead us into economic disaster. We will comment on illusion we meet
in other fields, in our idea of self, politics, medicine, law, and in society as a whole. All our experi-
ence is an amazing mixture of illusion; fantasy, hypothesis, idealism, sophistry, pretence, suspended
belief, dreaming, assumption, imitation, modelling, idolatry, self importance, showing off, rumour,
false hopes, wishful thinking, anxiety, and fear. All of it has an air of unreality about it. Things seem
what, in our hearts, we know they are not. We will note how this unreality, and bewildering absence
of reason for our existence, has caused human beings from the beginning of time to form different
ideas of what life is, and what it is for. People wanted (and still want) a credible reason for life. Some
people have been (and still are today) prepared to sacrifice their lives to demonstrate their beliefs. We
will note again, as we did in Chapters 8 and 11, that when people feel the need for a deity they invent
one. If deities can not be produced in the flesh, they are created and worshipped in the mind. Out of
all this, came Faith. With Faith, the moral codes and rules of behaviour by which we try to live were
formed and are still being formed. It is with these competing pressures, conflicting ideals, and conten-
tious information that our minds (and bodies) have to cope. It is no wonder that our entire life seems
sometimes to be an illusion. We may not find reality but, if we can identify some obvious illusions, we
may at least establish when reality is not. We noted in Chapter 3, when we discussed language (and in
Chapter 11 when we quoted Bryan Magee on Karl Popper) the nearest we can get to reality is probably
by identifying what it is not. We can see that all positives (no matter how many) can always be over-
turned by a single negative. It is this kind of thinking that leads us to assert that Faith is more than
logical analysis. Our inadequate reasoning powers do not entitle us to support or deny a deity. It is as
ludicrous to believe that there is not a god as it is to believe that there is. It is a personal choice. It is
beyond our remit to investigate it except to say that, in religion as well as everywhere, there are some
illusions we should recognise. The danger is not in having illusions but in not recognising them. We
will look at the example of “Illusion by Technology,” in which too many of us too often fail to recognise
the deception. Information Technology is expert in promoting illusion. Moving on from this in a few
paragraphs we have called, Wonder, Illusion, and Art, we will comment on the role of Art in illusion.
Many illusions that Art fosters are worth holding on to. They can provide us with ideals to live up to
and good guidelines for living; although, here too, there are dangers. Finally, we will resume where we
left off in Chapter 11. We continue to ask why all this should be? Who are we, and what is our purpose?
What is life? Is it all random, meaningless, chance? Are human achievements and follies just illusion,
without value or purpose; or are we part of some grand design. If there is a grand design, what is it?
How may we help both it and ourselves? They are nagging questions that keep returning to haunt us.
0     A philosophy of informAtion



   By chance and on purpose

Optical
illusions

   Optical illusions have been with us for a long time. Long may they be a fascinating source of fun
and amusement for people of all ages. However, on a much more thoughtful note; eminent brain and
perception scientists, like Richard gregory (Professor of Neuro-psychology at Bristol University)59 to
whom we referred in Chapter 1, have made the study of optical illusions a serious part of some remark-
able research into the workings of the mind. Just how does the mind perceive objects in the outside
world?. Richard gregory gives interesting descriptions of many popular illusions and explains their
importance. A very simple illusion that he describes is the so called Ponzo illusion in which if we draw
two vertical lines converging at the top like two distant railway lines (/ \), and we then draw two equal
horizontal lines (=) in the widening space between them (/=\), the higher of the two horizontal lines
will look as if it is further away and therefore shorter than the lower one. People will often stare in dis-
belief when told that the two lines are in fact of exactly equal length. To think otherwise is an illusion.
Because the human mind is used to seeing things in perspective (in this case like the parallel lines of a
railway track), it refuses to accept that the two vertical lines are converging. The mind sees the vertical
lines as going away in parallel in the three dimensions of space with which we are familiar. In fact the
lines are just two converging vertical lines drawn on a piece of 2-dimensional paper. The example is
reminiscent of our Flatland scenario in Chapter 2. It demonstrates the difficulty of representing three
dimensions in two. It also bears out how difficult it is for us to imagine a universe other than the three
dimensions (and time) in which we live. The example perhaps supports our conjectures in Chapter 7
that the mind may at times do its reasoning in different dimensions. That the mind might be able to
think in different dimensions (sometimes only in two) could be one reason why our dreams, as we
noted in Chapter 9, are so often confused.

Stubborn
minds

   Among many examples described by Richard gregory, is the so called Müller-Lyer illusion. Here,
two identical lines can again be made to look as if they have different lengths by drawing inward point-
ing arrows on one line (>-----<), and outward pointing arrows (<----->) on the other. The inward point-
ing arrows make their line look larger than the other. Again, the reason for the illusion appears to be
that the human mind relates the drawings to a familiar object, perhaps the corners of large and small
rooms. The odd thing is that the mind persists in “seeing” these differences in spite of measurements
to the contrary, and despite knowing that the differences are an illusion. even more startling is an illu-
sion that can be created by a number of seemingly black blobs resting on a white background. Douglas
Hofstadter, in gödel, escher, and Bach to which we referred in Chapter 2, illustrates this beautifully in
an example of what he calls “artistic distinction” between Figure and Ground. At first, in the example,
the mind assumes that there is no meaning in the white spaces between the black blobs. However, if
we persuade the mind to look at the black blobs as background and the white spaces around them as

59 Richard L gregory. BBC. States of Mind. Dialogues
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           1



foreground, what we first thought were spaces are suddenly revealed as very meaningful text. It is a
case, as M C escher shows in his famous drawings, of ground (i.e. the background) having as much if
not more meaning than the Figure. The content or make up of what the mind first sees as background
is often ignored. The mind continues to “see” things that are not there or refuses to see things that
are, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Escher’s drawings and the Hofstadter example
are good examples of how stubborn the mind can be. It is amazing how readily the mind sometimes
accepts its own preconceived ideas (i.e. its own fill in data and memory) in preference to “real perception”;
perhaps for up to 90% of the time. One suspects that, in the mind, there are separate and independent
recordings and analytical functions; but, some of them take precedence over others. Similar things
happen in computing when programs operate independently of each other, instead of being co-ordi-
nated. It is an observation we made in Chapter 11, when we referred to the bewildering complexity in
today’s computing. To be asked by one part of a computer if we want to do something, when we know
another part of the computer has already done it is tiresome. It is always the kind of thing that can
happen when independent functions operate on the same stretches of data.

Wishful
thinking

    Illusion often arises out of preconceived ideas and wishful thinking. A good example is the legendary
mirage seen by weary, worn out, and exhausted, travellers as they stagger and grope their way across
a sun scorched desert. In sharp contrast to the reality of the burning sun, and the choked up feelings
of sand clinging to their parched dry throats, travellers (it is said) often have visions of heavenly bliss.
Instead of reality, they “see” a nearby cool, refreshing, oasis surrounded by a gentle breeze, shady palms
and leafy trees. They see a welcoming place in which to relax. Rest and recovery is imagined close at
hand. The illusion could be another example of how our memory particles sometimes turn particles of
memory into light and pictures. It may be the mind’s way of helping us along, reminding us of happier
situations than the one in which we are. It may be an illusion that the mind conjures up purposely to
spur us on, encouraging us to try and survive. The danger comes however if the illusion takes us over
permanently, separating us from “reality.” If false information predominates over common sense, and
if as a result we are unable to cope meaningfully with the harsh conditions around us, we are danger-
ously misled. The consequence then, e.g. in the case of the travellers we have described, is that they die
of disillusionment and despair. In such cases,—to know what is and is not reality is a matter of life and
death. Such a mirage is not something that we can just put aside philosophically as a harmless illusion.
It is a different sort of illusion. This is why it is important (even if we never find reality) that we should
try to identify and “label” our illusions. We need to be aware of the dangers of illusion, to flag them, to
grade them, and to deal with them as sensibly as we can.

Natural
causes

   Not all mirages are wishful thinking. Admittedly the tales told of many mirages are influenced by
pre-conceived ideas, exaggeration, and a liking for the dramatic. Other illusions, however, may be
triggered physically by natural phenomena. Climatic conditions known as temperature inversion that
      A philosophy of informAtion



occur in some parts of the world can, for example, cause mirages of whole landscapes and cities to be
seen in the sky for miles around. The picture that appears is like a reflection in a mirror or a photo-
graph but, because it is so vast, it may be mistaken for “real” just as many stars we see in the night sky
are perhaps taken for “real.” Perhaps not all of them are. Unusual atmospheric conditions in europe
cause the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. These are also very impressive. More commonplace is
the illusion of a wet surface that motorists sometimes see on the road ahead on a very hot day. In all
these cases the images that are seen are real or, at least, they are prompted by something outside the
mind. The events they depict however are not real. Our perceptions are not true. There are no build-
ings or houses in the sky. There is no water on the road. The road is certainly not wet. On these occa-
sions, unlike the mirage of the oasis, there is an atmospheric reason for the illusion. The mind is not
to blame. Similar phenomena could be why people believe that they have seen a UFO or other unusual
events. Information comes in many guises.

Relative
perceptions

     Perceptions like all things in life are not absolute or independent observations. Like our acceptance
 of a general truth they are relative to our state of mind at the time. If (when we talk of reality) we are
 trying to visualise something absolute and unchanging, then regrettably we have to accept there is
 no such thing. There is no permanent reality that we can embrace or hang on to. everything that we
 perceive in life is relative to something else. Our perceptions, as does all information, may change on
 further examination. A tree or hill seen from a window or a garden at home may appear far, far away,
 one day; and, on the next day, it may appear much nearer and larger than it was. Like Birnam Wood60 it
 appears to have marched right up to us. The tree or hill has not moved. It merely seems to have moved.
 We often think that something is nearer or further away than it is. If an object seems bigger than usual
 we may think it is nearer than it is; if an object seems nearer than usual we may think it is bigger than it is.
 We may normally see the moon as a friendly pocket sized planet, passing peacefully on its way through
 the heavens. On some evenings it may look huge and almost menacing. It may look as if at any moment
 it is going to drop in front of us. If we see a bee or a wasp on the outside of a window pane (thinking
 for a moment that it is much further away), it may seem huge and ominous like a spacecraft waiting to
 land. Science no doubt has its answers that the mind does not know; but for us, at that moment, what
 we see is our reality. Many other illusions arise from misjudging distance. Preconceived ideas, reason-
 ing based on estimation, judging a distance, light and shade, perspective, and incomplete data, as well
 as a vivid imagination and fear, all play their part in an illusion. In all these cases the things that we
“see” are not what they seem, nor what reason tells us they should be. Our perceptions are unreliable.
 Our information is false.

Virtual reality

   In Chapter 2 we looked at the imaginary worlds of hypothesis and “virtual reality.” We noted that
Information Technology is now being used increasingly to solve problems, to predict the future, as
well as to provide us with fun and amusement. In Virtual reality, illusions are created deliberately for

60 William Shakespeare. Macbeth
                                                                      informAtion And illusion           



a purpose. By conjuring up different scenarios, going to extremes, distorting reality, and letting our
imagination roam, it is possible sometimes to find answers to otherwise intractable problems. The
situations produced may be pure fantasy and never likely to occur in real life but they may help us to
discover trends, to establish cause and effect, and what happens if we take some particular action. The
interaction of simulation and illusion is so like life that people believe they are experiencing a different
world from the one they are in. Similarly, new cinematic screens with multi media images that expand
the consciousness of the audience and create vast exciting areas of illusion give people synthetic feel-
ings of flying in space or plumbing the depths of oceans they would never otherwise experience. The
experience is purely in the mind. People have illusions of adventure as vivid as anything real but it is
only information being manipulated; not people. The audience remain firmly in their seats. For pur-
poses of research, invention, discovery, education, entertainment, and even way out experience, these
new methods of virtual technology are a boon that is to be welcomed. If however we are to retain our
sanity, and if our minds and bodies are not to be overwhelmed with confusion, it is essential that we
are aware of our illusions. We can then, whenever we wish, at least strip them off, step back safely, and
re-enter the less illusory world we call “reality.” As many a pilot or traveller in Space will confirm, simu-
lated experience in training is extremely useful but it is not the same as the real thing. It is illusion to
think so. We will return to virtual Reality later in the chapter when we discuss other illusory aspects
of Information Technology.

   Language again

Linguistic
illusions

    One of the main aids to illusion is language. This is particularly true if our definition of language in-
cludes (as hitherto) not only words and symbols but all the accompanying body language, facial expres-
sions, tone, mood, and other physical ways in which meaning is communicated. Language may fire the
imagination and conjure up bewitching illusions. Beautiful music is language. It can transport people
into imaginary worlds of pleasure, and up to new heights of awareness, understanding, and inspiration.
Frightening language can subdue people into a state of anxiety, timidity and fear. Amusing language
and playful puns can often induce a relaxed and happy go lucky (if only temporary) view of one’s
problems. It can help us to laugh off our worries. We have an illusion that all is right with the world.
Undoubtedly language causes physical and emotional changes in us, but the changes may be latent and
hard to pinpoint. Perhaps, in our large and personal memory banks, some microdots are disturbed or
changed. “Feathers” may be ruffled or calmed. Perhaps a few billions of dormant information genes in
our body cells (perhaps some of the DNA Introns of Chapter 12?) are woken up. In our minds, memory
particles may help to create illusion. Just as optical illusions lead people into “seeing” things that are
not there; so, in illusion caused by language, people hear words that are not spoken. Like the imaginary
patterns created by black shapes over a white background that we referred to earlier, hidden meanings
often lurk in the shadows of words. People may react to these shadows in unpredictable ways and find
it hard to believe that these resulting emotions are based on illusion. It is as if the mind receives a hid-
den message and automatically generates a host of new emotional microdots of which we are not con-
sciously aware. Nor should we forget, as we have mentioned in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, that different
     A philosophy of informAtion



people have different interpretations of words. This alone can lead to confusion and illusion. Language
is a most necessary and valuable handmaiden of information, but it is not always reliable.

Chosen words

   In Chapter 10, we discussed semantics and nuance and ways in which words could wound. In
Chapter 11 (under Conformity), we referred to language that accords with public attitudes of the day
that keep us politically correct. These devices are a form of illusion. By using timid euphemisms,
roundabout phrases, and carefully chosen words, we are using ways of avoiding the truth, disagreeable
notions, and vulgar expression. By being deliberately vague or by substituting words like washroom for
lavatory and stomach for bowels; by referring to the dead as the departed, or the dying as passing away;
by describing thieves as being light-fingered; and so forth, we are able to remove potential unpleasant-
ness and create a more agreeable atmosphere in our dealings with people. We seldom realise that we are
ignoring reality, or that we are pretending. We try to believe that some things do not exist, or we try to
make them appear different from what they are. In short, we create illusion. eventually, euphemisms
themselves become a target for change. Their hidden meanings are exposed for what they are and they
too are superseded. The irritating use of childish dialogue in some broadcasting commercials is an-
other way of softening the import of a message. The washroom becomes a rest room and the stomach
becomes a tummy. We are too happy to hide from the starkness of truth. In victorian times, people
would even cover the legs of chairs so as not to be reminded of what they believed were vulgar parts
of the body. If the whole of life is an illusion, there are indeed many recursive illusions within it. The
results of removing illusions may not always be pleasing, however. The truth of seeing people, divesting
themselves of their clothes, and walking around stark naked, would for many of us be a reality too far;
and one we would rather do without.

Behind the
illusion

   In stressing the importance of language in illusion, perhaps we can look again at Chapter 7 where
we discussed the use of language in our thinking and in making up our minds. If, as we quoted there
from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the force that ultimately moves nations is people power; then, it is surely
more than anything else language that helps to generate that power. If language is persuasive enough
and germane to the issues of the time, whole nations may be moved to act. Sir Winston Churchill in
the Second World War showed how skilfully oratory and language could be used. By resorting to it,
he was able to generate unimaginable strength of purpose, endurance, and fortitude in an embattled
British people. People felt renewed after listening to his words, even in days of the greatest adversity.
Disappointment, depression, low spirits, and fear of defeat were replaced (as if by magic) by confidence,
a buoyancy, optimism, and a will to win, as people hung on to his words. The words created an illusion
of certain victory to come. The illusion was turned by grim persistence into reality, at least a reality of
the kind we will only ever know. For the British people this was a great beneficial illusion. At such a
time, people’s emotions were stirred. People were sustained and encouraged by the brilliant language
they heard. Microdots of memory could well be said to have moved mountains. Powerful language has
of course also been used by others to obtain different illusions, to deceive and to mislead. We merely
                                                                   informAtion And illusion         



show how clearly the perceptions, beliefs, and emotions of large numbers of people may be changed by
the sheer power of language.

   Following the crowd

Propaganda

   Although the inspiring speeches made by Churchill to the British people during the Second World
War might in one sense be called propaganda we would certainly distinguish them from the usual
meaning of that word. There was no falsity, no deception, in what he said. On the contrary, very of-
ten, the stark truth that he told was harsh and chilling. He stirred people’s resolve, encouraged them
to greater effort, and convinced them that continued sacrifice, resistance, and fortitude, was in their
interest and a great human endeavour. Normally we use the word propaganda in a derogatory sense.
Propaganda can be part of an organised programme to deceive. Selected information is propagated
and presented in a dressed up form so as to mislead and persuade people either to accept an unhappy
situation or to provoke them in to taking violent action against others. This has been so from early
historical times; but, with Radio, Television, and modern Information Technology, it has become easier
than ever before to propagate false impressions and values. Carefully selected, or even completely
fabricated, pictures of life in one’s own country or in other countries may be the exact opposite of the
truth. People will listen and watch, converse in their pubs and clubs, and at home and become utterly
convinced that what they have seen and heard is truth. Inevitably people follow the crowd. The decep-
tion is not by governments alone but by the Press, the Media, or by anyone who has a vested interest
in (and the means to launch) a concerted campaign. The only counterbalance to it is for everyone to
be aware that information, as well as being inspiring, may also be insidious and dangerous. To avoid
the dangers, it is wise to seek out widely different views of situations. Hopefully, something nearing
the truth may emerge.

Advertising

   One form of illusion that we have grown used to and accept as a part of normal life comes to us
from the unreal worlds of Marketing, Advertising, and Sales promotion. It is an activity that quite
simply seeks to part us from our money. The illusions created are deliberately contrived. They are
sustained and continuously reproduced perhaps more than any other illusions we experience. We see
advertisements in the streets, on billboards, in subways, on trains, and in newspapers and magazines
and so forth. We have radio, television, e-mails, and Internet commercials, continuously bombard-
ing us with information. There is always some “irresistible” product or service that we should buy, or
some especially good cause that we should support. One single recording of an advertisement may be
played back thousands and thousands of times at comparatively little cost for those who produce it. A
recording may be seen or heard repeatedly by millions and millions of people until it is engraved in
our memory and we cannot resist its directions. We become mesmerised by it. Radio, Tv, e-mail, and
Internet, commercials are perfect examples of how easily information may be replicated, multiplied
and relentlessly repeated, to the discomfort of our over burdened minds. As we remarked way back in
Chapter 1, there is no law on the Conservation of Information. It may be produced and reproduced
     A philosophy of informAtion



endlessly ad infinitum. Remarkably too, information takes up very little space; except alas in our over-
crowded brains, and perhaps also in a fourth dimension. We are thinking in the latter case of electronic
communication passing perhaps between the atoms of matter, a possibility that we have hinted at in
previous chapters and to which we will return at the end of our study.

Absurdity is
no barrier

    The Trade Descriptions Act in the UK goes some way to curbing the most glaring excesses and
exaggerations in advertising. However, wherever we look, we are continually being encouraged to view
life as something very different from what it is. Paradoxically, the more absurd the advertising the more
likely it is to be accepted as permissible. Advertising authorities assume, sometimes unwisely, that the
public will always spot and dismiss the ridiculously impossible. In this, at least, we can see that there
is a difference between one type of illusion and another. For most people, a little exaggeration and
showing off by manufacturers is acceptable. When a firm has a sincere faith in the products it offers
it may perhaps be excused for praising them a little unduly. In short, we grant advertisers a licence
to romanticise. The fact remains however that, for many of us, advertising conjures up lifestyles and
dream worlds that are far beyond the means of ordinary people. It is a practice that comes close to the
darker sides of information that we discussed in Chapters 11 and 12. Advertisers and Public Relations
people create irresistible illusions of which people crave to be a part; but, from which later they cannot
escape. The illusions are like the dangerously misleading mirages which travellers see in the desert
when hope has all but gone. Such illusions tease and lure the unwary. In the end; some people are led
into misery, debt, and misfortune. Others, feeling left out of the good life enjoyed by others, may even
turn on society; seek revenge, and engage in terrorism. Such wretchedness is the result of the reckless
dissemination of information, no less. Only a few people would want advertising banned, but everyone
needs to be aware of the dangerous illusions it may create. When there is unmitigated deception, for
example when suppliers pass off other’s products as their own, the practice is a crime. It is illegal to
entice consumers into thinking that they are buying Brand “A” when if fact they are buying Brand “B.”
even the granting of franchises to small businesses that sell goods in certain prescribed ways, in ef-
fect creates illusion or false impressions. False information is planted in the human mind. People may
think they are buying from a firm that literally has thousands of branches world-wide, whereas in fact
many branches may be small individual business that have agreed to work to common standards and
use an international name. We make the point not to vilify the franchise industry but rather to put in
a plea for openness and to remove an unnecessary illusion. The less unrecognised illusion and false
information there is, the nearer we will come to reality. The natural world is illusory enough without
these additional contributions. Let us call a spade a spade.

Celebrities
and fashion

   There is illusion in the admiration of idols, imitating them, and following fashion. “Keeping up with
the Jones’s” is a well known saying. For the young, outlandish dress and joining the “In set” of the day
is a form of rebellion against their elders. People become slaves to the craze of the time, whether this is
                                                                     informAtion And illusion           



to do with hair style, the clothes one wears, the remarks one makes, the company one keeps, the func-
tions one attends, or one’s general behaviour. Adoring and emulating an idol or a celebrity, imagining
that one lives in the idol’s world, is simply making believe and living out an information fantasy. The
reasons for following an idol and joining a crowd are not hard to find. In most illusions, information is
a plaything. It helps people to identify with something positive, as one wears a badge or an old school
tie. It gives some people a sense of belonging and of not being left out, or maybe it just avoids thinking.
The young may think that to imitate a celebrity is a way to steer their course in life. However, following
fashion is not limited to the young or to a particular age group or gender. Behind all the imitation that
people indulge in, there is a wealth of psychology that could be written. No matter how re-assuring and
real the imitation seems at the time, the feelings and emotions it creates are transitory. eventually, like
all illusions, they are destined to fade. The illusion is part of a mania of the moment. eventually only
the unelaborated memory of an occasion remains. Associated emotions fade. It is as though, in our
waking lives, illusion is the equivalent of dreams we have when we sleep. Illusions are to the conscious
mind what dreams are to the subconscious. Both are based on “unreal” information. Without some illu-
sion, however, we would probably be nothing at all. Indeed, this must be so, if we happen to think that
our entire life is an illusion. As time progresses and we grow older, our memories are all that remain to
tell the tale. This is not to say that our memories can never be vivid. Indeed, they can be dangerously
vivid. They may re-awake old illusions and old emotional sores, even when consciously we don’t seek
to do so. Old emotions, like all memory, are never completely forgotten.

Press and the
Media

   Increasingly, our minds are influenced by information in newspapers, magazines, informal news
sheets, radio and television news broadcasts, discussion panels, the Internet, and other media. To read
a particular newspaper, or to tune into a regular news broadcast, can be a personal compulsion. People
commuting to work by train or bus each day may be seen pouring over newspapers and magazines
slavishly taking in their daily dose of information that newspaper editors believe is good for their pro-
prietors’ pockets, even if not for us. Reading the news is a ritual we feel we must follow to keep up to
date with what is happening in the world. Much of what we hear and see however is often depressing.
There is usually very little that we can do about it. viewing, and listening-in, sustains the illusion of
who we think we are. It strengthens our connection with the outside world and perhaps adds to our
ego. It is right that we should keep informed of world events and how they affect us. Information and
knowledge is the life blood of existence. The Press is a valuable source of this supply and we should
be indebted to it for its services. But, by the same token, the Press and the media have tremendous re-
sponsibility. If they are not to damage civilisation itself, they should not glorify trivia. They should try
always to report accurately and fairly and to keep opinion clearly separate from fact. It is not an easy
task, especially if the reporting is done by commercial concerns that have to remain popular in order
to make money. It is also impossible for editors and reporters to cover all aspects of an event, or to
remain dispassionate and disinterested in their work. Like the mind, the Media has to select and make
abstractions. Reporters choose aspects of a situation that please their editors, and are likely improve
the size of their paper’s circulation. editors’ preferences are usually more sensational than objective.
The Press’s opinion, while it may be useful, should never be mistaken for fact. even its opinion should
       A philosophy of informAtion



not be jingoistic, coloured, or likely to inflame a reader’s emotions. Above all, fabricating stories and
making up the news should be a crime. It is enough that we need illusions at all. This is the nature
of existence and cannot be avoided. Illusions founded on deliberate falsity, ill intent, and concealed
persuasion, however, are invidious. Fortunately, human beings are usually able to separate fact from
fiction. It is a capability that we depend on. An ability to distinguish information fact from information
fantasy (and teaching us how to do this) is a basic requirement of education.

Theatre,
Films, Radio,
and TV

   Perhaps even more influential than the Press and the media are illusions created by theatre, films,
and plays on Radio and Tv; and, for that matter (if we are imaginative enough), the illusions aroused
from reading a book. Beyond all this, it is through the tremendous advances now being made in
Information Technology (IT), and particularly in digital video recording and Tv, that the greatest im-
pacts are being made on our minds. We are now acquiring more lasting impressions and illusions from
this kind of information than we have ever been able to do before. It is now comparatively easy for our
minds to wander off momentarily into different zones of Time and Space, far removed from the physi-
cal life we live in. Although this illusion may be temporary, the effects of it may remain with us (on and
off) for a long time to come. Our perspective on life may change. More than this, with the aid of video
recordings and such like, we are able to return to our illusions whenever we wish. Time and time again,
we can refresh our illusions and re-live them whenever we want. It is possible to playback events and to
imagine that they are still happening and even to change them to suit our mood of the moment. People
long since dead may be watched as if they are still living and among us. Often when we watch a Tv pro-
gramme we cannot tell whether the transmission is past or present. Like light from distant stars, the
events may have occurred long ago. even during “live” transmissions, broadcasters will often mislead
us by playing back information that has already been transmitted. We are unable to tell whether what
is being shown is happening now or happened some time ago. Playbacks may be curtailed or modified
adding further to our confusion. Reality, if there is such a thing at all, is seldom faithfully relayed. In
order for us to see things in their correct context, disseminators of information should always show
clearly the original dates and times of their recordings. It is comforting to know that, in the personal
field, many camera and video recorders do now show the date and times of their recordings. Knowing
exactly when something happened or is happening is a good first step to finding reality.

      Self imposed illusions

Planned and
unplanned

   In Chapter 10 (under the heading of Aberrations) we referred to hallucinations and delusions which
people may have when they are unwell. For children, we said that fantasising was a normal and harm-
less part of growing up; it is a kind of play acting in which children imagine the future that awaits
them. It is the equivalent of Virtual reality that we discussed in Chapter 2. It is a way of learning and
                                                                    informAtion And illusion          



experimenting in a new and adventurous world. Fortunately, children can shake off these fantasies in
much the same way that adults normally shake off their dreams. The mechanisms of fantasising and
dreaming are almost certainly the same. Also, almost certainly, they are the same mechanisms that
the mind uses when people are mentally ill and unstable. Unfortunately, the mentally ill cannot shake
off their fantasies. They believe their visions. The cause, as with all memory troubles, may be either
damaged memory or a fault in the mechanisms that recall and work on it. visions may also be egged on
by some deep seated emotion or desire. The result is delusion, illusion, and an incorrect perception of
what is going on. If personal delusions are not recognised as a sickness (and the line between sickness
and health may be a fine one) the consequences can be far reaching. People under a delusion may have
inflated egos. They may become self appointed missionaries and over zealous in their pursuits. They
may even engage in some of the darker activities in society that we referred to in the last two chapters.
Delusions that arise from sickness or weakness of the mind are for the most part accidental. even
megalomania is in a sense accidental. On the other hand, fantasies and visions that arise from dabbling
in the occult (and from practices like Spiritualism and Hypnosis) are knowingly invoked and planned.
They are brought about consciously through some self imposed trance or trauma, or by deliberately
manipulating the mind. If we can recognise our illusions and delusions, and where they come from,
we can deal with them. If they are not dealt with, the dangers can be serious not only for those who
have the delusions but also for others. If people in authority have delusions and are powerful the whole
world may suffer, as we have often found out to our cost.

Power of the
image

    As we noted in Chapter 3, our minds are constantly building up our personal data banks. The in-
formation that each of us holds in our memory contains a unique image of what we like to think is us.
The information contains our view of the outside world and what we like to think is our place within
it. Some of the information may contain a few inner truths that we do not tell to others, except perhaps
on the psychiatrist’s couch. even then, we may deceive ourselves. Usually, we all like to be liked. We
may be a better or worse person than we think we are. We may be wiser or dimmer, stronger or weaker,
more tactful or tactless, more outgoing or more withdrawn, friendlier or more stand-offish, than we
believe we are; or what people think we are. Our illusions of self are ingrained. Seldom are we success-
ful in changing our image or the impressions we give. Being human, we may be forgiven a few small
deceits and affectations; but it would be counterproductive if in the end all that we do is to deceive
ourselves. It is this false image of oneself that generates emotion; leads to swelled heads, terror on the
football terrace, personal vanity, ostentation, bullying, false pride, swagger, fanaticism, fundamentalist
beliefs, and ultimately demagogues and dictators. When people have these emotions, they may con-
vince themselves (and unfortunately others as well) that their iniquitous actions are justified. Illusions
and visions of great self importance are powerful ingredients in the human psyche. They are the cause
of much suffering. At other times, illusions may induce undue humility and self depreciation which are
equally undesirable. The best way of avoiding such extremes and unwelcome views of one’s life, not-
withstanding our limited knowledge of reality, is to try constantly to be aware of what really is illusory
and what is less so. To know when we are being fooled (even by our own actions) is valuable information
for our sanity and even survival.
0     A philosophy of informAtion



Escapism

    Many illusions are used as a way of escaping from the pressures and strains of everyday life. Illusion
can help us to hide unpalatable truths and to find solace in something like the mirage in the desert.
Carefully controlled, and provided that there is a route back to where we come from, illusion can be
useful and therapeutic. It can relax our minds. It can help us restore our resolve. Illusions that spring
from pleasant music and song are undoubtedly beneficial. They promote a feeling and sense of well be-
ing that all is right with the world. Momentarily, we may be transported to pleasant pastures. Worries
may be put aside, giving way to happy reveries and daydreams and even inspiration. Theatre, films,
radio and Tv Soap operas do the same thing, providing illusion and relief in much the same way as do
music and song. No one doubts that they all serve a very useful purpose in helping us overcome the
stress of everyday life. escapism must not however be an end in itself. Drama and entertainment are
not reasons for our existence. They are aids to help us on our way. Nor must we be carried along too
far by our illusions so that we become virtually and permanently a part of them. Unfortunately, many
illusions linger longer than they should. Despite a lack of hard statistical evidence there seems little
doubt that Tv and video, for example, have a lasting effect on the human mind; and particularly on
the young. Once again we see the power and influence of information even in our illusions on our lives.
Truth eludes us most when we diverge from reality.

Dress and
behaviour

   It could be argued that our first illusions began when primitive people first started to cover them-
selves with fig leaves, furs, and animal skins, and later with other apparel. This was the first step. There
began illusion. There may have been good reason for wearing clothes, for warmth and protecting
parts of the body from the elements and other dangers, but people were not slow to find other uses
also. Stark nakedness, truth, and reality, were better hidden; or so it was thought. There was much to
be gained by pretending to be more beautiful than we were, that we were less deformed or disfigured
than we were, or that we had fewer spots, varicose veins, and pimples about our bodies than in fact we
had. To be able to hide these personal detractions was an opportunity not to be missed. Not content
with merely covering up our spots and scars, people began to adorn the body, to embellish and deco-
rate it with ever more costly clothing, creating illusions of ourselves far removed from the truth. vast
industries have been created devoted to beautifying the body, providing it with, cosmetics, ornament,
and pretentiousness. Changes in dress and fashion affect people’s behaviour and how they conduct
themselves. Like all things, dress has good and bad aspects. There are two sides to the clothes we wear,
inside and outside so to speak. Clothes add a sense of occasion. They may, like a uniform, inspire us
to do our best and to live up to the standards that they represent. They may induce a sense of awe and
humility in us. They are a pledge of sincerity. They may on the other hand be intended to impress and
deceive. They may produce in us an illusion of grandeur, self importance, and swagger. When we are
dressed in certain ways it becomes easy for us to imagine what we are not; to take part in elaborate
ceremony; and even to feel loutish. As we have noted before, what we wear and how we behave is a
part of language. Messages are created and delivered by the clothes we wear although no words may
be spoken or written. Our mind absorbs the message silently and adds it subconsciously, possibly as
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           1



microdots, into our ever increasing store of information. We are also, we should note, the only creatures
that wear clothes or cover the body as we do. No other creature imparts information in this way. It is
an important part of the human information story.

Return to
basics

   Although dress helps us to create illusions it would be a brave world that went back to wearing no
clothes at all. It is now no longer possible, nor would it be desirable for everyone to be seen everywhere
in the unclothed state. There would, if nothing else, be uproar in the prosperous clothing industry if
anyone were to suggest such a thing. On the other hand, as may be seen in the popularity of various
associations and clubs that celebrate nudism, there is a strange desire perhaps to rid ourselves of illu-
sion, to go back to basics, and to find reality and truth in the unadorned structure of the human body.
In going about unclothed there is often a pleasant feeling of abreaction, free expression, and a release
from subjection. It is good that people should recognise the catharsis. It is at least a desire to reveal
the truth. However it also illustrates admirably the difficulty in the modern world of trying to find and
work in a state of pure reality. If we must have illusions in order to function we should at least accept
that there are levels of illusion. In that way possibly we may remove some illusions that are more bogus
than others. If we can distinguish and remove illusions that begin with outright deceit and ostentation,
and if we can be aware of useful purpose of those that remain, we will not then be betraying our trust
to find the truth of being alive. The information that we obtain from analysing our illusions will keep
us steadfast and true to our purpose.

   Business, Professions, and Religion

Phoney
finance

    The arrival of electronic computers and communications brought with it one of the most amazing
illusions of all time, the use of electronic data for money. value and worth are now often defined by and
are nothing more than information. The movement of money in electronic form is called electronic
Funds Transfer or eFT. It has created a new phoney world of finance. Since these transactions are liter-
ally telephonic, phoney is an apt description. every day billions of pounds, dollars, and units of other cur-
rencies are now whistled around the world in electronic form at the speed of light. Trillions and trllions
of electronic pulses, and little bits of data, fly across the ether each and every day and are now accepted
as money and legal tender. Data has become a new form of money and an entitlement to the holding
of assets. With tiny plastic cards in everybody’s possession, physical coin and notes could become a
thing of the past. Soon, we might no longer need to carry money physically on our person. Coins and
notes themselves, it is true, are only a representation of value; but at least they are a tangible and visible
promise to pay. They are property that can be handled and exchanged. But now, in the electronic age,
a person’s worth may be indicated by intangible, invisible, electronic data that can be moved, altered,
and obliterated, silently and unnoticed, in no time at all. If these bits of data (fraudulent or otherwise)
are favourable to us we can live a life of ease and luxury. If they are unfavourable we can be forced to
     A philosophy of informAtion



live like a pauper. A simple collection of bits of data, in the ether, on magnetic tape, or on disk could
dictate our lifestyle for ever. Just a few printed figures resulting from recorded bits of data can deter-
mine the life that we lead. It is not surprising that criminals see in this new illusion a splendid target
for enterprise. If criminals can find illegal ways of changing electronic records, if they can find illegal
ways of converting other people’s bits and bytes into physical assets and property of the criminals’ own,
then bodily attacks, bank hold ups, muggings, and guns, for theft and robbery could become crimes
of the past. All that is required is the fraudulent conversion of seemingly meaningless bits of data into
physical assets. Criminals who may be down and out one minute may overnight become respected mil-
lionaires. Information can create many illusions. One of them may be just as easily maintained as any
other. Differences between the “lives” that result from illusions, however, can be startling.

Invisible
assets

    Admittedly, theft and fraud are nothing new. The difference is that previously such crimes often
used to leave a physical trail marked by physical violence. Now they may be perpetrated silently and
electronically simply by manipulating data, figures, and statistics, and creating illusions of wealth
and authority. Fraud however is still fraud, and criminal. It is an enemy of people and society. If an
electronic system is well protected (though fool proof protection may be more difficult than people
realise) criminals may be stopped in their tracks, and systems may survive. When a criminal is outside
the system he (or she) is still like a burglar or a housebreaker. The tools they use, however, are not the
typical hatchet and hammer of a burglar. They are instead the knowledge of how computers work and
how a system’s security checks and controls may be subverted. If a criminal is working inside the system,
i.e. if he or she has legitimate direct access to the system’s procedures and operations, the task for the
criminal is easier and the crime may be very hard to detect. People’s bank balances, lists of assets, bor-
rowings, authority and commitments may be fraudulently and temporarily changed and later “restored”
leaving little trace of the crime committed. In the meantime, many illegal and fraudulent transactions
could take place for someone’s ill-gotten gain. Non existent assets may be recorded and shifted back
and forth between purely fictitious organisations giving an impression of a thriving business. All the
time, this could be carried out at the expense of shareholders and an unsuspecting public. Whole en-
terprises may be faked from start to finish in order to raise money, gain grants, credit, loans, awards,
or some sort of compensation. The recorded assets of a company could be as unreal as the intangible
and invisible electrons that represent them. As we noted in Chapter 11, the new opportunity for crime,
that computers provide, makes the roles of accountant and auditor (and indeed any financial examiner)
more important than ever. It goes without saying that auditors must be beyond reproach. If they are
complicit in falsely manipulating information, illusions are perpetuated; at least until something di-
sastrous happens. As with all illusions, if we wish to get as near as we can to reality and truth, we must
peel off obvious illusions first. In this electronic age we still feel the need for something harder and
more tangible than electronic data. We still need something physical that we can show as proof of ex-
istence and ownership. The old fashioned certificate or a humble piece of paper (backed up somewhere
by some tangible asset) may still be the best proof of all.
                                                                    informAtion And illusion          



Arbitrary
evaluations

     even when we buy and sell goods, and evaluate the worth of things, we still often depend on imagi-
 nation and illusion. Products are often bought and sold without sight or examination of the products
 themselves. In some cases, it is possible that the goods in question do not exist at all. Business may
 be conducted entirely by telephone by people who have little knowledge of the actual products they
 buy and sell. Prices are fixed according to some assumed ratio of supply and demand, with little or no
 reference to whether the goods exist or the condition they are in. “goods” bought at one price one
 moment may be sold the next at a very different price, at a profit, without ever changing hands, and
 without having being seen or moved. At the end of a chain of transactions someone is held to account
 and presumably something physical has to be produced. If dealers wish to continue in business, they
 need a reasonable reputation for integrity. Products have to exist and be delivered somewhere, even if
 the last seller has to scout around to find them. It is however by no means certain that goods are always
 found. It is certainly not unknown for sales to be cancelled and for compensation to be paid for not
 meeting an order. It is remarkable that we can live and do business in such an environment although
 it is not difficult to see how manipulating information makes it possible. It is a sobering thought to
 reflect on how much the price of goods and the cost of living depends on an exchange of information
 without reference to the true worth of products or even their existence. Omar Khayyám’s wise words,
“I wonder often what the vintners buy one half so precious as the goods they sell61.” underlines how
 little we are aware of the value of things. This sentiment is true with regard not only to buying and
 selling wine but to all transactions and particularly to information that is given to us free. Who is it
 indeed who stands to gain?

Stock
Exchange
Nightmare

    Beyond the mere buying and selling of goods, we find the same kind of unreality in the world of
financial markets. Information, often based on rumour or gossip, is the cause. The price of Stocks
and Shares sometimes fluctuates wildly as stockbrokers and their customers, acting often on hearsay
information, buy and sell their wares from computer terminals and telephones. Stocks and shares are
sold without any change in the condition or structure of the assets they represent. The net worth of
Companies, and even countries, may oscillate by the minute. The “price” of a Company may be halved
in very little time with disastrous effects on its shareholders and the people it employs. The quoted
price of a Company is at best an arbitrary one that the market is prepared to pay at any given time. The
price may be based on a whim, a gamble, and feelings as to whether there is money to be made or lost.
A new fad or belief in some new product or enterprise may cause a surge in the value of a Company.
On the other hand, apathy or a sudden lack of interest in a once revered product may spell doom for a
Company. In many cases, the people most likely to be affected by the transactions (the Company and
its work force and its shareholders) are not consulted at all. Computers are programmed to buy and sell
stocks whenever certain conditions in the market are met. The trigger for a transaction may be simply

61 edward Fitzgerald. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám
     A philosophy of informAtion



the price of stock when it reaches a predetermined level or when the total market index falls below or
rises above a certain figure. Alternatively the sudden selling of shares may not be related to the market
or financial state of an organisation at all. In some cases, massive selling may be caused by some adverse
or unpropitious political statement, by an off the cuff remark made by somebody important, by senti-
ment whipped up by the Press, by some deliberately contrived fraudulent manoeuvre, or even by the
weather. One event may trigger another and possibly a whole economic structure could come tumbling
down, like a deck of cards. Panic may set in as rumours and fear spread in the market. At such times
we hear very descriptive expressions, like a Stock Market crash, the Stock Market dives, Black Monday
on Wall Street, or billions of pounds or dollars wiped off the value of shares, and so forth. Panic buying
and selling takes place as investors try to minimise their losses. Fortunes may be won and lost. Some
people become rich; others lose all they have. Countries can be thrown into economic turmoil. Shares
may rocket or plumb the depths. Politicians may be overthrown; firms may be closed; unemployment
may soar; and whole populations may suffer. And yet, in reality, nothing will have changed. Nothing
physical will have happened to cause the upset. Basically it is all an illusion. People could still have
gone on working; goods could still have been produced and sold; and no one need have starved or suf-
fered. All is caused by an illusion of economic turmoil. Confusion follows. good solid business sense,
previously robust confidence, and sterling qualities, may all founder as the result of illusion. It is a state
of affairs that is hardly different from the mirage in the desert that we described a moment ago, except
of course that this scenario is a nightmare rather than a comfort. This is the dreadful danger of living
an illusion. Disaster need not have struck but, because of illusion, it did. Again the culprit is informa-
tion. It is the kind of information that spreads rapidly, stirs people’s emotions, creates panic, and often
compels people to act rashly, against their better interests and judgement.

   Illusion in every field

Our idea of
self

    Perhaps the starting point for all our illusions is the information we have about ourselves, how we
see ourselves, who we think we are, who we would like to be, or some special quality that we desire in
ourselves. It may be just wishful thinking in our illusions or some foolish expectation. Illusions may
be a shelter or a retreat that we create in order to take refuge from some of the harsher and unavoidable
facts of life. Our minds build a mental shelter for us, just as physically we build or buy a home to find
rest for the body after a hard day’s work. Illusion in this case is a comfort. It gives us a sense of achieve-
ment in whatever we may be striving for. It bolsters our idea of how we would like to appear to others,
and how we hope others will behave towards us. It is a device that we use to re-assure ourselves, to find
a raison d’être for living and a way to fit happily into society. In shielding us from the effects of adverse
conditions, illusion helps us to survive. It allows our imaginations to work. This is all to the good.
Through these illusions we can develop. It does not matter that our illusions are not real. everything in
life is relative. In the long run, all is built on sand. Our illusions are temporary even though sometimes
they may last a long time. The tragedy occurs if and when our illusions are shattered and depends on
how badly they are shattered. Our illusions may then be a threat to our peace of mind. The shock of
returning to reality may be disastrous. The world we know comes to an end. everything that we have
                                                                     informAtion And illusion          



lived for, and the precepts we have lived by, may come tumbling down as we sink into misery and de-
spair. Once again information is the cause of our ills. Possibly, however, if we handle the information
properly and recognise what is pure illusion, our adversity might lead us to redemption. It is a perverse
feature of life that we often learn best from misfortune.

Politics

    Arguably some of the greatest illusions in modern times arise from political “spin.” These are tales
woven by politicians. It is information we receive that describes government activity, statecraft, diplo-
macy, public affairs, or just common or garden politics. A vital part of a politician’s trade is to conjure
up visions of the good things that would follow if he or she is elected to office. Politicians want us to
believe that what they have done, are doing, or (given the chance) will do later, will make life better for
the greatest number of people. Politicians are skilled in conjuring up illusion. When in office, politi-
cians are well practised in dressing up information and in giving rose coloured spectacles to their elec-
torate. When out of office and seeking election, politicians will describe how much better life would be
under their control; but whether in office or out, they purposely create illusions of the wisdom of their
approach. Secondly they inflate the egos of the people whose support they are seeking and, in so doing,
create more illusion. People are made to feel important. Imaginations are stretched. By a skilful use
of language and presentation, information becomes persuasive and convincing. Illusions are created
of wrongs being righted, and of better conditions and opportunities lying in wait around the corner.
In the Second World War Churchill appealed brilliantly to people to endure the ravages of the war by
creating a vision of a nobler world to come. All politicians on a less grand scale seek to create visions
of prosperity and easy living. Although many of the ideals that politicians describe inevitably remain
illusive, the illusions may not be entirely without merit if they start us off along a path of improvement.
It merely behoves us to keep clear the distinction between fact and fiction. Above all, we must not be-
come victims of an illusion which one day like a balloon will surely deflate and leave us worse off still.

Medicine

   Closely susceptible to illusion, possibly even more than politics, are the views (and expectations)
that people have of medicine. Information once again is the villain. News and exaggerated informa-
tion, about wonderfully new treatments and cures, are its ingredients. From time immemorial, from
the time of the earliest witch doctors to today’s leading physicians and surgeons, people have looked to
medicine for panacea, magical cures, miracle drugs, invigorating tonics, the elixir of youth, the preven-
tion of disease, the halting of epidemics, and so on. Many wonderful successes have been recorded of
which the medical profession may be proud. The lives of millions of people have been made much more
pleasant and enjoyable than they might have been. Advances in some areas have been outstanding.
There remain, however, many illnesses (especially those that accompany old age) that can’t be cured, or
where medical operations are unsuccessful. Buoyed on by the tremendous successes that medicine has
had, people expect and demand even more and more remarkable results. The illusion grows that we
live in a world where every conceivable illness or incapacity is curable. Doctors and surgeons who do
not succeed in bringing about a cure or a return to perfect health are pilloried. Law suits are brought
against the profession. As a consequence of the hounding of doctors by patients, which is egged on
     A philosophy of informAtion



by lawyers, our doctors could eventually refuse to prescribe and our surgeons could refuse to operate.
This would be a disastrous turn of events. everyone would suffer. Such is the power of information
carrying unreasonable expectation and illusion. If people want to avoid greater disappointment later
on, they should analyse their expectations and always be prepared to curb them,

Law

   In the legal world, as we have just noted, people are rapidly coming under the illusion that litigation
is a passport to the redress of all grievance and misfortune. All that is required is to give the relevant
information to a skilful lawyer. The latter, it seems, can always find someone to blame for whatever has
happened. Sometimes, lawyers will take on cases on a “No win No fee” basis. By these means, claim-
ants are told that they have nothing to lose but everything to gain by going to law. It is not often made
clear that if the case is lost, the claimant may still have certain costs to pay. In medical cases, which we
referred to in the last paragraph, lawyers even advertise in hospitals encouraging patients to seek legal
advice if they are dissatisfied with their treatment. That hospitals should feel bound to allow such ad-
vertisements on their premises illustrates the subservience that even doctors now feel towards the legal
entrepreneur. Such advertising is a blatant attempt to turn illusion into fact and personal gain. Doctors
and surgeons could easily become demoralised. Ultimately, not only the medical profession but patients
themselves could be the losers. In a wider field, there is an absurd case of a washing machine Company
being sued because a small puppy died when it was put into a Spin drier to dry. There is also an equally
absurd case of a furniture Company being sued because the pull-out shelf of a cupboard that it sold
could not withstand the weight of a 15 stone man who stood on it. He fell and broke his knee. The law
in such situations is rightfully called an ass. It fails to take into account common sense that everyone
should have. These are cases where illusion leads people away from practical truth and common sense.
We are forced into an imaginary world where blame may always be pinned on somebody other than
oneself. Ordinary people are encouraged to find excuses, and even rewards, for their own thoughtless-
ness and mindless action. As always, information plays a big part in maintaining the illusion of the
blamelessness. Lawyers are skilled in manipulating information. Far from encouraging clients to sue,
lawyers should be questioning whether clients are themselves culpable. If the trend is always to look for
someone else to blame, professional people and artisans will be reluctant to give advice and help (even
to a friend) for fear of being blamed and sued for compensation if things go wrong. There needs to be
an over-riding law of common sense that outlines the types of thing for which people themselves are
responsible. Only when people strip away the illusions that they are never to blame and that someone
else always is, will truth emerge and people’s own responsibilities become obvious.

And Society

   Although, in the previous paragraphs we chose to discuss self, politics, medicine, law, and technol-
ogy, as principal areas of illusion; there is of course illusion everywhere;—in Science, the Arts, and
in all walks of life. Sometimes illusion is helpful. It may be created for us, or it may be self induced
to shore up our confidence and prepare us for work that seems beyond us. As long as people realise
fairly soon that a part of their confidence is illusion (even if well intended) no harm may be done.
However, if people cling too closely to illusions, they may deceive not only others but also themselves.
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           



A person could fail on some crucial task for which he or she is not capable, with possibly disastrous
consequences. Someone could give others a false impression of his or her knowledge and ability. Such
deceit could rebound later to other people’s cost. Furthermore, once trust is shattered it can seldom be
rebuilt. Like Humpty Dumpty it cannot be put together again. Teachers who put on airs or who profess
to have qualities and skills that they do not have are sooner or later likely to be detected as fraudulent.
This could have unfavourable consequences not only for students but also for the teachers’ themselves.
good work that a teacher may have done in the past would be quickly tarnished. Similarly, accountants
and auditors who give illusions of wisdom and superiority may also give their clients a false sense of se-
curity. In all kinds of social intercourse, and in day to day transactions in business and trade, we need
to be sure of the genuine article. We need to check the qualifications and abilities of the people with
whom we deal. We must guard against illusion and misleading perception. It is all too easy for people
to misuse information and create illusions of what they are not.

   Invented Deities

In every land

   From the beginning of time, in every land, people have tried to fathom life’s mystery and to ask why
we are here in this remarkable world. Sometimes life seems too sweet to worry about. After a brief
period of asking questions and getting nowhere, people move on to more rewarding things. There is
more fun in enjoying oneself, seeking refuge in comfortable ideas, and in letting time pass. Life after
all has to be lived. First, we have to survive. Without survival, all other reasoning would senseless.
People accept the inevitability of an end to life as it is told to them; as they sense it in their own ageing,
and as they have witnessed it in others. Acceptance of the inevitability may seem defeatist and rather
like making a pact with the devil;—we accept peace and enjoyment now in return for paying the price
later on. But, when the reason for life is so mysterious and beyond our comprehension we have no
alternative. The majority of us are prepared to leave others to think about it. We become members of
a church or an institutionalised religion and we do as our leaders prescribe. We believe hopefully that,
with just a little support from ourselves, our appointed thinkers and leaders may obtain salvation for
us. We follow their lead and do as they ask with humility. This may not be because we have a strong
faith in their message but rather because we prefer to think of other things. We entrust our thinking
to our appointed spiritual leaders. Faith replaces reasoning. In moments of quiet reflection (when we
can escape the social whirl, its demands, and its commitments) some of us, some more than others,
think seriously about life’s great puzzle. We may pray in the way that we are taught, proclaim our Faith,
and support and supplement our leaders of Church and State; but we may also still try to reason and
explain all the wonder that lies around us. Certainly we should never arrogantly dismiss any religion
as impossible. By definition, Faith does not require proof. However, by using the reasoning tools and
material we have—our brains and our information—we often try to find an inner personal truth to
guide us. All of us are on a remarkable and sometimes incomprehensible journey. Illusion often helps
us along the way.
     A philosophy of informAtion



To fill the void

    In the face of all the vast natural wonders of the world and the universe, and all the marvellous
achievements and accomplishments of people throughout the ages, a single human being sometimes
seems dwarfed and insignificant. each of us is like the tiniest grain of sand on a vast and limitless
shore. We have no guide or instructions to follow other than those we devise ourselves. The Space that
surrounds us which, if it is not infinite, is literally billions and billions times bigger than ourselves.
It could be trillions and trillions times bigger;—we have no numbers to express the size. It is little
wonder that people in their thinking moments should be puzzled at the immensity of it all and should
seek explanation and answer. Or, maybe people just give up at the impossibility of the task. Sometimes
(with an impertinence that ill becomes us) we look on our ancestors’ worship, of the sun, the moon,
the planets, and natural phenomena, as if this was simply the faith of primitive people who had not
yet learned to reason. And yet, all that our early forebears were doing was expressing their apprecia-
tion and wonder at the world in which they found themselves. They were asking in a different way
the same questions that we ask today. even the worship of idols did not necessarily mean that people
believed their idols were invested with supernatural powers. Rather, their idols were symbolic of some-
thing greater than people. The teachings of great religious leaders that came later were more amenable
and acceptable to society. However, rivalries between different religions, and the bitter suffering and
tortures that are practised even today in their name, do not suggest that religion alone has the answer.
The answer that we seek cannot be obtained under threat or torture. It can come only from an in-
ner conviction. Honest conscientious argument is to be encouraged and persuasion must be fair and
even handed. There is still a void in human knowledge about life’s greatest mystery. Discussion and
disagreement on it are inevitable. Whenever there is a void, Nature is not slow to fill it. Wrestling with
information, not using physical violence, is the way by which we must do it. John Milton’s epic poem
(Paradise Lost), to which we referred in Chapter 11, illustrates beautifully the way to truth and why
perhaps we are sometimes denied it.
To prove the
reality
   Like reality, the existence of deities cannot be proven, even though there are multitudes of people
who claim that they have felt the presence and influence of their Deity. There are indeed many people
who find guidance and support from their Faith and, as a result, have gone on to do great and noble
things. The world would be a poorer place without the works of such good people. Thus, it could
be argued, this is the only proof that we need of our deity. The miracle of life, it may be claimed, is
proof enough of a Supreme Being. For some people, the very fact that we are here at all and think-
ing about the problem is proof enough of a great deity and our reality. However, we also dream and
have illusions. At such times, things seem as real as they can be; but later they turn out to be not so
real. We can never be sure that what we experience or perceive is real; or at least that it is not easily
changeable. Like trust that we mentioned earlier, Faith, and illusions of all kind may sustain us for a
goodly time; but should that Faith be shaken, then, like a broken dream, it might never be restored.
On the contrary, a shaken Faith sometimes leads to extreme reaction and even to a complete reversal
of belief. Opposite Faiths may be espoused and renegade religions may be founded. Our idea of reality
may be dealt a crushing blow. everything seems at times to be little more than controversy and the
                                                                     informAtion And illusion           



manipulation of information. Our fervent hope must be that information, coupled with a sympathetic
understanding of the spiritual needs of people, will lead us towards the reality we seek. Quiet con-
templation is required. There is no better way of recognising (may we say, of exorcising} illusion.

   Illusion by Technology

Feelings of
power

   extending into every field, and into everything we do, technology is relentless. It gives us a feeling
of power, and an illusion of mastery over the elements. We develop new skills; use new methods, new
components, new materials, new devices, new sources of energy, new inventions, and we make new
discoveries. We do it to keep up with competition. There is nothing new in this. Tools and mechani-
cal aids have been with us from primitive times. The difference now is that they are being developed
and used more quickly, and in greater measure, than ever before. The feeling of power that technology
seems to give us over Nature is illusion. It is the illusion we have when we fly above the clouds in an
aeroplane, when we sit behind the steering wheel of a car, work on a computer, play a tape recorder,
select a Radio or Tv station, use a vacuum cleaner, set the controls of a washing machine, use our mo-
bile telephones, make contact with the other side of the world, or merely send a letter through the post.
We have a happy feeling that we are in total control. Our wish is our command. Our illusions are still
bounded however by something we call being realistic. When we drive a car or ride a motor bike we may
have an illusion of power but we are soon aware of the limitations of what we can and cannot do when
we meet obstacles in the road, or when our vehicle fails. In computing, our skills and the software that
we use may be limited by unexpected “glitches.” “Reality is never far away.” Real accidents can and do
happen. A little ill advised recklessness soon reminds us that our powers are limited. Once we used to
feel a direct one to one relation with each little thing we did. Nowadays, with the touch of a button, we
initiate hosts of complex operations. We are, however, still limited by many physical constraints. Our
feeling of power is no more than a property of the mind.

Unseen, as if
by magic

   Contributing most to modern day illusions is New Information Technology. This is because infor-
mation is in everything. In today’s Information technology, and in computing in particular, there is sel-
dom (as we have just noted) a direct one to one relationship between our actions and what happens. One
action often triggers many others. Some of them we are aware of, but most of them we are not. We may
have no idea of many things that a computer does behind the scenes (in addition to its doing what we
ask it to do). So much of the computer’s work is carried out unseen, and, as if by magic. Large numbers
of system files may be set up, and huge archives and records maintained, that the ordinary user knows
nothing about. Lots of subsidiary work is done that takes care of situations often letting us think that
we are far cleverer than we are. It is an illusion. The situation is similar to the detailed instructions in
Macro commands that we described in Chapter 4. In daily life, we live and work by Macros. We are not
so much in control as we think. Our control is often illusion. We probably put more trust in it than is
0     A philosophy of informAtion



wise. A computer’s graphical reconstruction of a fatal car crash, for example, may seem very realistic
and persuasive. We feel sure it must be correct. After all, we pressed all the buttons. We forget that such
reconstructions are models in a programmer’s mind. We depend on the people who write the software.
We work on data that someone else has gathered and evaluated. We may have no idea how the data has
been interpreted. The models are based on conjecture. We believe what we see but we are the victims
of illusion. On top of this, Information Technology has an invidious ability to hide shoddy work, em-
bellish it, or slant it unfairly in a biassed direction. Information Technology can put a gloss on reports
that contain little substance. Reports can very easily be dressed up to give an impression of efficiency
and accuracy that is not deserved.

Virtual
experiences

   We have no objection to the Press, Media and, others using Information Technology to keep us
informed in any way that they wish, provided that, in doing this, they do not set out deliberately to
deceive by creating illusion. embellishment and exaggeration are fair game. It is up to a discerning
public to accept what is reasonable information and to discount what is not. It is all part of the way that
we gain knowledge. There has, however, developed another extremely powerful use of Information
Technology that we addressed in Chapter 2. This is the so called Virtual experience. Quite intention-
ally, the experience is pure, undiluted, unashamed, illusion. It may not be possible to stop Companies
offering virtual experience, and indeed it may not be as potentially terrible as some doom watchers
predict, but we need to use it with the utmost care. When people engage in Virtual Reality they do not
just absorb information and gain knowledge. They play with their minds. They distort reality. They
make themselves feel, if only for a while, something very different from what they are. Their senses and
imagination are intensified and they become convinced that something, that isn’t happening, really is.
We have already mentioned the use of virtual Reality and simulation in children’s games and in train-
ing. We can expect it soon in computer shopping. By simulating our senses, the technology will enable
people to see, smell, and touch the goods they buy. When buying a suit or a dress people will be able to
feel the cloth and to see how they look wearing the clothes as though through a mirror. The experi-
ence will not be real as we know reality. It will be an illusion of experience. However, further down the
road and more dangerously, many unsafe experiments are already taking place in the manipulation of
human emotions. Over the Internet, and through the use of computers, the simulation of many bodily
sensations including even sexual ones is already obtainable. The consequences are unpredictable and
could be extremely harmful.

  Wonder, Illusion, and Art

Wonder that
drives us all

   Within and beyond all of us there is wonder. We marvel at our own mind and body and at the huge
incomprehensible universe of which we are such a tiny part. In Chapters 11 and 12, we noted many
puzzling phenomena, strange goings on, and scary situations, that we do not understand. We share
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           1



these experiences with others and we crave to know more about them. We believe that some things
are not normal and we call them paranormal. We are amazed and aghast at what we see and experience.
Whenever we meet something incomprehensible and eerie, we react in ways that ignorance always
does. We are frightened. We look for reasons. We create a mental vacuum. We give our mind free rein
to fill the vacuum, to wander where it will, to conjure up theories, to listen to others, and to compare
what we see with everything we have ever imagined, seen, or read about. These involuntary actions
of the mind in making up stories, which we have discussed in previous chapters, go into overdrive.
Imagination is in command. Whatever the reason,—predisposition, personal motivation, enthusiasm,
apathy, mental agility, prejudice, fears, hopes, a desire to impress, to frighten others, or to gain a name
for ourselves,—our imagination is boundless. We may have mental “visions” of terrible deeds that have
taken place in history, of ghosts, ghouls, disembodied spirits, magical forces, and aliens from Outer
space. We suggest implausible reasons for every strange phenomenon. We arrive at outrageous expla-
nations and, for fear of letting them go, we persist with them until they seem to hold a grain of truth.
There is no shortage of people willing to report and expand on claims that are made. Some people, as
in Spiritualist séances, participate in activities that support and propagate their beliefs. When people
are in this frame of mind to believe, even the creaking of a chair in a hushed and silent milieu adds
to their convictions. Incontrovertible proof however is not produced. We remain victims of wonder, of
information and the illusions that follow.

Illusions
natural and
contrived

    Illusions, as we have seen, may come in many forms—in nature as well as in situations that we con-
trive ourselves. Some illusions are made for amusement. Some are created by scientists to study peo-
ple’s perceptions and workings of the mind. It is not difficult to extrapolate from this to see how easily
we can be misled. Both Nature and people may cause us to see things that are not there. It happens all
the time. Whenever people try to impress others, sell something, get a new job, win over a boy or a girl
friend, be selected for something, or merely look good, they create an impression; they create illusion.
It is an accepted way of living and doing business. We would do no one a favour by asking them to do
otherwise. The danger lies in going too far with these customs, in not realising illusion, and in not
detecting sinister illusions that cheat and harm. By trial, error, and experience; we can live happily with,
or at least avoid being hurt by, most of Nature’s illusions. Contrived illusions by people, however, are
different. These illusions may be calculated and vicious. They can be countered only by constant vigil
and a continuous awareness of dangers that could follow. We include here a whole gamut of deceptions
ranging from selling dubious products to hoaxes; the fabrication of information for fun or mischief;
and to ploys with sinister intent. Making false photographs of people in compromising situations is a
new wicked example that comes out of new technology. The new digital technology makes it possible
to produce trick photographs that create illusion as easily as telling a lie. It is pure trickery. There is no
limit to human ingenuity in playing with our senses. There comes a time to stop; or, at least, a time to
pause and reflect.
      A philosophy of informAtion



The wonder of
Art

    Linked to illusion, although at first only indirectly, are great and even humble works of Art. If the
whole of life is an illusion (as some proclaim) then it must surely follow that the information that Art
gives us about life is also illusion. Art mirrors life. Paintings, literature, drama, sculpture, music, and
so on, not forgetting the huge arena of film, theatre, Tv, and radio, may not be strictly illusion; but cer-
tainly, in people’s minds, they foster illusion. Through Art we visualise other existences. We are trans-
ported into situations which delight us or cause us to despair. We see things that are not there, and of-
ten our lives take on a different meaning because of them. Often, Art talks to us in riddles. We are left
to make of it what we will, which almost by definition makes it an illusion. Our mind is free to wander
where words and normal thinking rarely take us. Unfortunately it is also possible to go into wondrous
rapture about anything. In 2001, the winning exhibit for the Turner prize for Art was, surprisingly for
many people, an empty gallery in which a pair of lights were switched on and off at five second intervals.
The gallery was continually brightly lit and then thrown into absolute darkness. The exhibit provoked
much controversy. The author, Martin Creed, was accused of creating a great big “con,” and of taking
the public “for a ride.” Unfortunately, but deliberately, he offered no title for his works but left it to non-
plussed observers to find their own. From the great contrast between absolute darkness and a brightly
lit room it could perhaps suggest that “Reality comes out of Nothing” vividly and controversially, the
author may have won his prize from a gullible public out of “Nothing.” On the other hand, the judges
obviously thought that the exhibit was profound. The author was possibly reaching into the heart of
philosophy and into the origin of our reality i.e. “Nothing is where life seems to come from and where it
returns to.” One moment there is nothing; and next, there is light and reality. No doubt there are many
other interpretations of the exhibit. Switching lights on and off (physically and metaphorically) is one
of our most common functions in the modern age. Blackness and Light (like nothing and everything)
are opposites and always challenging food for thought. Whether we are justified in spending a long
time debating whether the exhibit reflects the riddle of life is arguable.

Art and
Philosophy

   Over centuries, from the time of Plato and before, there have been debates and argument over the
importance of art in philosophy. Some philosophers like Plato have been disparaging of Art. They see
Art as artificial, fantasy, imagery, imitation, escapism, and a distortion of what life really is. Art, they
conclude is a distraction from the true study of nature. The artist often deceives. Beauty, feelings, the
human condition, and any sense of reality, it is sometimes claimed, are spurious. Art plays an impor-
tant part in creating illusion. At the other extreme, latter day philosophers (like Iris Murdoch62, and
Bryan Magee to whom we referred in Chapter 11) believe that Art is an essential part of philosophy.
They see Art as posing and answering for us many of life’s greatest puzzles. They see Art as depict-
ing and analysing all the complex emotions of human beings which, as we asserted earlier, could be
a reason for us living at all. We can from Art, they believe, see how many of life’s problems arise and
how best we can deal with them. There are good points on both sides of the argument. Art is not a

62 Iris Murdoch. existentialists and Mystics
                                                                       informAtion And illusion           



substitute for philosophy, but it is an important part of it. Undeniably, it is imitation. But it is also a
product of the universe and, as much as anything else in the universe, it deserves our full recognition.
We cannot ignore Art in philosophy, and it would be stupid to try. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets,
with their beautiful words and portrayal of character, depict the essential nature of human beings more
powerfully and clearly than cold, rational, philosophical treatises ever could. Shakespeare’s works are
an example of information at its best, revealing to us (by analogy, metaphor, and brilliant description)
essential aspects of life and human character. Information is at the root of his creations.

   Resuming the search

Greatest illusion
of all

   Whenever there is illusion, we are tempted to see things that are not there and to misread or not to
see things as they are. So remarkable, wonderful, and inexplicable, are some experiences that we have,
that we sometimes imagine that the whole Universe, the whole concept of existence, and the very no-
tion of living, are illusions like the shadows on the walls in Plato’s cave. . We feel that we are looking at
reflections. We want to believe that there is something much more logical and comprehensible in life
than this. There must be, we think, something beyond our immediate experience that we can come
closer to and touch, something that has indisputable meaning. But to do just this, we would need to get
outside ourselves, a feat which is as impossible to do as it is to move a rug that we are standing on. We
search in vain for reality, a reality that is solid, firm, and unchangeable. It is as if nature’s grand design
and the great scheme of all things is all illusion. Certainly, the lives of a few mortal beings such as those
of ourselves are hard to comprehend. Whenever we do not understand; whenever we see things in a
half light or not clearly; whenever distance misleads us; whenever we listen to someone’s descriptions;
we see with our minds rather than our eyes. We imagine rather than see. We see, or perhaps more ac-
curately, we create illusion. False ideas often take shape and more illusion follows.

Who are we?

   The more we learn, the more information we have, and the more illusions we experience; the less
we know for real; the less certain we are of anything. Is it an illusion to believe that we are here to build
something noble, some great edifice of civilisation of which we can be proud, perhaps one day to com-
pare it with what other worlds have done? Or, can we believe that all the wonderful achievements and
discoveries of the human race, all its trials and tribulations throughout the ages, and all its powerful
and ingenious thought and reasoning will in the end count for nothing? Is it possible that the whole
human race and its accomplishments could one day disappear from earth as did the dinosaurs before
us? Indeed, with the latest discoveries in microbiology, advances being made in the study of our genes,
transplanting parts of the body from one person to another, cloning, re-growing life from a single cell,
and so forth, we may well ask not only what is the meaning of life but what is it? It may be true that in
the ultimate we are manipulating minute particles of information merely to seek better cohesion and
balance in the world. It may be that Society, with its Scientists, Artists, Artisans, Politicians, Doctors,
Teachers, and Lawyers, is merely opening up vast areas of information so that we will find viable and
     A philosophy of informAtion



legitimate means by which to “live” together better. But even so, we are still desperate to know why.
each of us is a homogeneous unit of information, possibly a collection of microdots with metaphysical
connections. But, whatever reason we arrive at as to why this should be, it can only be yet one more
illusion. We are back to Bertrand Russell’s mischievous assertion.

Degrees of
illusion

    We have tried to show in this chapter that, although the whole of life may be an illusion, there are
within it different degrees of illusion. Illusion is still information. We know that we are unlikely ever
to find true reality, but by separating out differing degrees of illusion we may have a way of approach-
ing it. We would like to gain from our deliberations, to advance the search for truth, to come up with
better reasons for living, and to find the most generally acceptable conventions to live by. If we can do
this, the beliefs that we hold (including our religious ones) may help us find an anchor in this terrify-
ing depth of infinite Space in which we find ourselves. If we can recognise and deal effectively with
many of the illusions and trivial trappings that surround us, the more likely are we to find something
permanent and worthwhile. What we create may still not be true reality; but, with the lesser and vainer
illusions clearly labelled, it could at least be something firm on which to hold and cling to. It would be
as good a substitute for reality as we are ever likely to find. By recognising information for what it is; by
becoming fully aware of its basic properties and aspects; by analysing and using them wisely; we would
be making the brst use of our minds and brains. They and our bodies (despite the permeating power of
technology) are still the best tools there are to deal with information. There is no better way. A human
being is still the most wonderful, most intricate, most complex phenomenon, in the Universe.

Real living

   Looking on life as an illusion and pondering on “What Is and What May Not Be” is a luxury that we
may not all be permitted or inclined to indulge in. In any case, we would be ill-advised to let our mus-
ings dominate all our actions and thoughts. We cannot prove that life is real or unreal. We know, as
ordinary folk, what we mean when casually we talk about reality. It is the hard fact of living. It is the
information that we continually return to, and from which we can never wholly escape. We can some-
times force ourselves to wake up out of a dream. We can by serious thought and common sense come
back to what we call reality. We can, at a theatre or in front of a television screen, dismiss a heart rend-
ing scene as just a part in a play. We can; in other words; shake off our illusions; but there is no way in
which we can say, the life we are living is only a game and get on with something more real;—except
by creating another illusion. We all have to stand and face the “realities” of something that for us calls
itself reality. Something that we have come to know as “Real life” is the life we must lead. No nonsense or
make believe can change hard facts as they appear to us. If we are a part of some grander celestial design
and, if we can further this great design by reasoning and recognising our illusions, so be it. It would
be a prize worth having. For the sake of reasonable living, however, we must keep our feet firmly on the
ground. During our earthly journey, we are destined to deal with information. We must find and use as
much good, genuine, information as we can; and we must do this with all the skills of reasoning, logic, and
truthful presentation we can muster

				
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