What is Reality and What is Illusion?

“I think, therefore I am” said the French philosopher Rene Descarte. After successively stripping away all layers of sensation, reliance on material form, and all other signs of existence, he came to this bedrock concept that the only thing he could be “sure” about was that he was aware of himself in the process of thought.

Some philosophers however have gone beyond Descarte in questioning even his last basic axiom and wondering whether what we experience as thought that we are aware of is actually “real” or itself a form of illusion.

In the dream state we sometimes undergo extensive sequences of actions, thoughts and results, all the time believing that we are awake and acting in the “real world”. When we wake up, we still recognize that the dream was realistic and not just an illusion. And this has led some to question whether the dream is real, or the waking is real, or whether they are both alternate states of either illusion or reality, and potentially neither (or both) are real.

Sri Aurobindo wades into this debate with the following observation: “All human thought, all mental man’s experience moves between a constant affirmation and negation; there is for his mind no truth of idea, no result of experience that cannot be affirmed, none that cannot be negated. It has negated the existence of the individual being, negated the existence of the cosmos, negated the existence of any immanent or underlying Reality, negated any Reality beyond the individual and the cosmos; but it is also constantly affirming these things,–sometimes one of them solely or any two or all of them together.”

“Our nature starts from facts and actualities which it takes for real; it is pushed beyond them into a pursuit of uncertain possibilities and led eventually to question all that it took as real. For it proceeds from a fundamental ignorance and has no hold on assured truth; all the truths on which it relies for a time ar efound to be partial, incomplete and questionable.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 5, The Cosmic Illusion; Mind, Dream and Hallucination, pp. 412-413

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