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All students of epistemology cite many categories of experience that are not knowledge, in order to distinguish them from knowledge. These categories are different in Western and Vedic systems of philosophy. In particular, in the latter, dreams are not considered false, although there are other categories that are false. This post discusses the difference between the various categories that are considered “not knowledge”.

What is an Illusion?

Let’s start with illusions. If you press your eyes hard enough (of course with your eyelids closed), you will likely see interesting geometrical formations of light and color. In my case, I see tiny colorful dots of light, generally symmetrical in nature, moving around, in various symmetrical patterns. There is, of course, nothing corresponding to these things in reality. These illusions are generated by our senses.

The senses in Vedic philosophy are capable of generating experience—the senses of knowledge (e.g. eyes) are not merely for knowing the world, but they can also create a world. Other than the eyes producing an illusion of non-existing dots of light, we can also think of the situations in which the tongue develops a bitter taste (especially if you get jaundice), the ears start buzzing after a concussion (or they buzz automatically if you have tinnitus), etc. These are all byproducts of the senses producing a sensation, some of which could exist in reality in other cases (e.g. bitter taste or a buzzing sound) but at the point of illusion we are not perceiving a preexisting external reality; we are rather creating it.

What is a Hallucination?

A hallucination is an elaborate version of an illusion: it is produced by the senses. A classic example of hallucination is the sensations had by schizophrenics—they can hear people talking, in advanced stages of schizophrenia some imaginary entities are seen, and sometimes they feel to be touching the person with the illness. The difference between illusion and hallucination is that the latter is out of our control. For example, when you press your eyes to see colorful formations, you know that what you are seeing is not reality, because if you release the pressure, the sensation goes away. A hallucination tends to not be in our control, remains persistent for longer times, and is often quite elaborate.

Due to these qualities of being out of control, being persistent, and quite elaborate, we start believing that the hallucination is real. This belief in the reality of the hallucination vs. the disbelief in the reality of an illusion demarcates illusions from hallucinations. For example, a person often talks back in response to a hallucinatory experience, as if he or she is really having a conversation with someone else.

The senses and the mind in this case are both producers and consumers of meaning. The ears for instance produce some sound without our conscious effort, and that is the hallucination of hearing someone talk. In response, we produce an answer, but this production is conscious. Thus, some activity of the senses is created consciously, and some of it is unconscious, and this is a hallucination.

What is a Misperception?

Most of what is called a “visual illusion” should be categorized as a misperception. For example, some square objects may appear rectangular if observed from certain angles. A fearful person will see threats all around them, even if such threats do not exist. Such a condition is called phobia or hypochondria. You can see a snake when there is only a rope (this is a stock example used in Vedic philosophical discussion on epistemology). All of us see the rail tracks converge at a distance. These are various types of misperceptions. The difference with an illusion or hallucination is that there is indeed some reality, but it is being misinterpreted in the process of our perceptions.

The reality and its interpretation are close, or may have some similarities, but they are not identical. These misperceptions are also caused by the mind and the senses but in different ways than illusions. For instance, there are some unique properties of senses, such as the attempt to reconcile color with form, and some color combinations can be inconsistent with the form perception, and most of us tend to prioritize the color over the form. In such cases, for example, we might see a square as not a square. Likewise, if the mind is already influenced by some ideas—e.g. that the world is out to “get me”—then we experience everything as a threat. Sometimes due to sickness, we might be predisposed to behave more irritably and perceive slights in what people are saying, even when they are not meant that way by the others.

What is a Dream?

Now, most people bundle dreams in the same category as illusions, hallucinations, and misperceptions, but in Vedic philosophy, dreaming is a separate category from the waking experience. Due to this difference, there can be illusions, hallucinations, or misperceptions even during dreams, but a dream as a whole is different from the waking experience. The difference is that sometimes we can see perfect reality during a dream, just as we see during the waking experience. And yet, we may be the only person seeing that reality. People sometimes see the future in dreams. And many war veterans have nightmares about still fighting in a war, when they factually are not present in the war.

The Vedic description of the dream is that reality exists as a possibility, but everyone doesn’t have access to all the possibilities. Thus, for instance, the past and the future exist right now as a possibility. If we dream of a dinosaur eating us, we are accessing a reality that existed in the past. Likewise, the visions of technological futures are a prognostication of something that is not visible to the others. During a dream, people who are not mentally ill, and are not tampering with their senses, can perceive a reality that used to be a reality in the past, will be a reality in the future, or may be a reality elsewhere at the present (but is not being perceived by the others that seem ‘physically close’ to us.

What is Ignorance?

The term ‘ignorance’ must be distinguished from all the above cases. In the all the above cases, we have an experience about something, which is false. However, under ignorance, we do not have the experience. Thus, for instance, we can say that we are ignorant about the true nature of atomic reality because we are not having that experience. What we experience is some effects, which are then interpreted into a reality using a theory. However, potentially that interpretation could be replaced by another, better interpretation, in the future.

Similarly, we can say that till a few decades ago, we were ignorant of Cosmic Background Microwave, of redshifted light from distant galaxies, etc. of which we are aware of today. We still don’t understand the true nature of these observations, or why they are caused. So, we were ignorant that something indeed exists, and we are still ignorant of what causes the appearances of these kinds of perceptions.

Of course, ignorance can be partially overcome if we propound a theory of reality. For example, we can say that there is probably some “dark energy” which can be used to explain the observed redshifts, but we don’t know for sure if that is indeed the truth about reality. The anomalies in that idea may be discovered later, for instance. Thus, if the theory is true, then it would be correctly called knowledge. But if it is false, it can again be called a misperception or a misinterpretation of the observation; it is like seeing a rope and perceiving a snake.

The Necessity of Distinctions

The need for making such distinctions arises in philosophy, because scientific “knowledge” can be an “ignorance” or a “misperception”, but if we are conducting repeated experiments during waking, and these experiments are being confirmed, then it is (most likely) not a “dream”, a “hallucination”, or an “illusion”. If we don’t make these subtle but important distinctions, and someone equates “misperception” to “hallucination”, the discussion would prove futile as different parties would be arguing their positions without knowing each other.

The distinction is also important in Vedic philosophy because the term “unreal” is used to describe the material world, which can be interpreted in any number of different ways, leading to confusion. For example, a solipsist can say that the world is an illusion created by our senses, just like you see colorful lights when you press your eyelids hard. Thus, there is no external reality, it’s all in your senses.

Someone can then go a step further and say that there is perhaps an external reality, but what we see can be quite different from what others are seeing, although the problem is masked because we use the same words to describe these different experiences. For example, the hue of redness that you see upon seeing an apple, can be quite different from what others are seeing, but we just call it ‘red’ and never realize the difference. These kinds of counterarguments to reality have been made in Western philosophy, as part of the general skepticism trend.

Such arguments are also sometimes made in Vedic tradition too, and when they are, the conclusion (of the skeptic who makes such arguments) is generally that we can never know the nature of truth, so we better not try to understand or claim any truth.

Ignorance vs. Unreality in Vedic Philosophy

The more dominant idea in Vedic philosophy is that the world is just like a dream, but it requires us to understand the description of dreams—i.e. that there is a reality which exists as a possibility, and becomes accessible to us during dreams, although we are not physically close to that reality. Dreams are therefore about an illusory distance perception, but what we see in the perception is not itself false. For instance, if you dream of a dinosaur, the proximity to the dinosaur is an illusion, the observation of the dinosaur is real, but it is an observation of a reality that exists eternally as a possibility. As a result, the people around us are real, but that we are close to them is just like a dream proximity.

This dream-like experience is also said to arise due to the ignorance about our true nature. Our true nature is described to be eternal (without death), conscious (perfect knowledge), and happy (no suffering). This nature, however, is said to exist only in relationship to God. When the soul becomes averse to God, then he seeks an alternative identity. This alternative identity exists objectively and it is adopted by the soul, like a person wears some undergarments. On top of these undergarments, there are several layers of garments, just like a shirt and trouser can be worn on top of undergarments, and a coat or sweater can be worn on top of a shirt and trouser. All such layers of garments are objectively real, and constitute our causal body, subtle body, and gross body. However, the identification with these garments is false.

This falsity is traced to the root, called “ignorance”, which exists in the soul. It is forgetfulness that the soul is eternally happy by nature. Due to this ignorance, it then identifies with some garments, which are objectively real, but the identification—i.e. that “I am these garments”—is false. The root of this falsity—namely, the idea that “I am” something other than the self—is called māyā. This māyā is a covering of the soul; the ignorance is in the soul, however, the identity is outside. Therefore, the soul is said to be “conditioned” by māyā, and sometimes that it is “covered” by māyā. We can say that māyā is objectively real, but the identification with that māyā can be considered unreality.

Everything is Real, But Not Everything is True

All our previously noted not-knowledge categories are real in some sense, and not true in another sense. For example, an illusion exists in the senses, but it is not an external reality. A hallucination exists in the senses and the mind, but it is not an external reality. A misperception also exists in the senses and the mind, but the internal reality is different from the external reality. A dream similarly exists in our senses and the mind, and there is an external reality, but it is not perceivable by everyone. The ignorance about its true nature exists in the soul, so it is also reality, but unknown to the soul. Finally, the various coverings of the soul—like our garments—are real, and not the soul’s true identity.

Thus, we must distinguish between truth and reality. Illusions, hallucinations, misperceptions, dreams, ignorance, and unreality are all real, but they are not true. They exist, but they are not our nature. When something is not our nature, we are never satisfied by it. So, we keep trying to change our nature, like we might change the clothes as they get worn out, or we dislike the cut of the shirt or the trouser.

This constantly changing nature of the material world is the result of our disliking a false identity. When the true identity is recognized, by the removal of the ignorance in the soul, then the experience of the material world ends. However, for other souls, the material world can continue to exist. Therefore, the removal of the ignorance is limited to the soul which is liberated from matter, not for everyone.

The Impersonal Misrepresentation

The impersonal philosopher claims that because the world is said to be unreal, therefore, it is like an illusion or hallucination. In short, our senses are projecting a reality outwardly, rather than there being an objective reality. The idea that the worldly experience is like a dream is conflated with the world experience always being a hallucination, rather than the observation of an eternal reality that exists as a possibility. The body and mind are then said to be misperceptions—i.e. something that doesn’t really exist, as it is seen. The ignorance in the soul is conflated with the clothes that we are wearing, rather than the aversion to God, which leads to a false identification with an objectively real identity. Many such types of ideas can be, and often are, further produced by combining the aforementioned arguments.

When illusion, hallucination, misperception, dream, ignorance, and unreality are conflated, we get to some simple conclusions: (1) the world doesn’t exist, (2) we are not individual persons. Rather, our individuality and the reality of the world are the same type of falsity—and hence not knowledge. Now, knowledge is defined as the collapse of all these divisions, into an undifferentiated “Being” called Brahman. This undifferentiated or monistic understanding is now contrasted to all other ideas, and the contrast is reality vs. an illusion.

But we must remember that the monist cannot explain many things. First, even if the world is our illusion, why does the illusion have scientifically observable order and repetitiveness that we capture in mathematical laws? Second, even if the world is my hallucination, why does everyone have the same hallucination to agree upon it? Third, if the world is just like a dream, then even philosophy must be part of this dream, and hence not true? Fourth, if all that we see is unreal, then mustn’t all books and discussions, including the ones about monism, be similarly unreal?

Realism is necessary for the monist to advance any philosophy. But reality doesn’t have to be confused with truth. Lots of things can exist but that is not a guarantee that we are those things. Thus, the personalist philosopher accepts realism, and demarcates it from the truth.

The truth is said to be the nature of the soul and God, and falsity is the ignorance of this eternal truth, and the ignorance of the eternal relation between the soul and God. Under this doctrine, the truth doesn’t have to be obtained from outside. It has to be rediscovered within. All external methodologies of spiritual practice are helpful aides in this rediscovery of our true nature. Just like you might wipe your body with a towel, similarly, external practices are like the towel that are used to wipe the consciousness to make it clean. By that wiping, the inner ignorance is removed, and since that is removed, therefore the external reality—e.g. towels—are useful instruments but not us.