My Theory of Functional Illusions

About a year ago, I coined a term called “Functional Illusions.”  A Functional Illusion is an understood lie that the people of a certain culture generally accept or allow because it serves a purpose that the culture sees as important.  A simple example is a mirror, although this is a very weak Functional Illusion (as I explain in the following paragraph).  The mirror deceives the eyes by creating the appearance of another person who isn’t really there, but we don’t really think of mirrors as “lies” because we are all well aware that this illusion isn’t reality, but it is very helpful.  A slightly stronger example would be puppetry.  We know that puppets aren’t real, but we allow ourselves to act as if they are so we can enjoy the stories they tell, and sometimes we tell children that the puppets are real, which is essentially lying.  Therein lies the danger of the Functional Illusion.

A strong Functional Illusion is one that people really, really want to believe is a reality, and a weak FI is one that everyone is perfectly fine dismissing as a meaningless illusion, such as the mirror.  Some FIs are strong for some people, but weak for others.  To an adult, Santa Claus is a very weak FI, but to a child, discovering that his/her parents lied all those years can be devastating, and in extreme, rare cases, lead to bad trust issues.  The discovery that an FI isn’t real can be handled well by taking an interest in how the illusion is created.  It can be handled badly by hating either the illusion, or those who reveal it to be only an illusion.  (In some cases, people hate puppets because they were so devastated to find out the characters on Sesame Street aren’t real, whereas others, such as myself, become fascinated with puppetry because of the discovery that it’s an illusion.)  Naturally, a very strong FI that many, many people want to believe is a reality can lead to intense fury throughout the culture.

America is essentially a Functional Illusion.  Well, okay, the nation that is the United States of America is real, and the landmass consisting of North, South, and Central America is real, but those are not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the Idea America (yes, I thought that term up to, and I hope no one else has used it first).  The Idea America is the American Dream, the American Way, and freedom and justice for all.  There is clearly a big difference between the Idea America and the USA, but some people don’t see the gap, or at least try not to, because they are such a big fan of the Functional Illusion.  Essentially, everyone who claims that America is or was the greatest country in the world and the city on a hill is overly attached to the FI.  This is somewhat scary because FIs need to be understood in order to serve their proper purpose, and in order that we can make progress.  The best purpose of the Idea America is not for people to be proud to be American, but rather for people to see that which America must become.

The Functional Illusion is important.  Mirrors are helpful, Santa Claus is fun, makeup is an interesting form of expression, and auto-tune can be a great artistic tool if used appropriately.  However, there is a danger to encouraging faith in them.  People in the music industry may all be aware that the industry is to a large extent comprised of FIs, but people outside that culture may not be aware of this when they set out to make hits of their own.  Some FIs become a sort of dogma that is detrimental to intellectual progress.  The answer to problems that come from Functional Illusions seems to be better education, encouraging young people to use reason to question the illusions without assuming they are good or bad.  Like many human tools, Functional Illusions will only do harm if humankind is not yet smart enough to use them wisely.

UPDATE 4/8/15 – There is now a follow up essay on a specific type of Functional Illusion, available to read here.

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