The Illusion of Coherence


Things are not as they seem.

It seems as if our political, economic, commercial, financial, social, health, education and other systems are still functioning. The media are reporting events as if everything is OK, if a bit shaky in places. Our so-called leaders are still acting as if they were in control of things, managing passably well. When you look around, other than in certain long-struggling areas, people seem to be coping, there is still much beauty to be seen, the pollution and desolation of the planet doesn’t seem too bad. The Earth from space still looks mostly deep green and blue. There is some cognitive dissonance, some worrying signs and developments, to be sure. But for the most part, it still seems possible to believe that things are, if not improving, not on the whole getting much worse, certainly not irrevocably out of control or beyond steering in a new direction if that should be necessary.

At least that’s the way most of the people I know behave, so I have to believe this is how they think.

But I have come to think they are suffering from a delusion, one reinforced by their own, desperately hopeful, resigned, dependent, anxious groupthink. If enough people believe something, and act in accordance, they can create an illusion of that belief’s veracity, an illusion that there is coherence, control, integrity, organization, direction, intention, management — when there is, in fact, none.

For any culture to survive, such a collective belief, and commensurate behaviours and actions, are essential. Everything depends on this. Everything our culture depends on — money, trade, debt, faith in perpetual growth, obedience to laws and hierarchies, public order, democracy, capitalism, prison systems, electoral systems, food systems, health systems, education systems — all of it, depends on agreements. Agreements that adhering to the emergent principles of these systems, and accepting restrictions on our ‘rights and freedoms’ to sustain them, is in our collective self-interest. As soon as we cease to believe in these principles and the value of these restrictions and sacrifices, these agreements fall apart, and when they fall apart so do the systems that are based on them.

If we cease to believe that our elected representatives are acting in our collective best interest, and not their own or vested interests’, our political system will collapse, as that of the Soviet Union did a few decades ago, suddenly and dramatically.

If we cease to believe that a dollar is ‘worth’ a dollar’s worth of goods and services, then that dollar will very soon be worth nothing. If we cease to believe that our dollar in the bank is safe and will return us more than a dollar in the future, then very soon no one will deposit their money in that bank, and the bank will be bankrupt. If we cease to believe that a dollar invested in government securities or stocks or the housing market is safe and will at least hold its value, then very soon no one will invest their money in government securities or stocks or housing, and those investments will all be worth nothing (since no one will want to buy or hold them), and the governments and corporations and investment portfolios and mortgage companies and pensions and homeowners that depended on these investments will all be bankrupt.

If we cease to believe that our health and education systems are making us healthier and more functional as citizens, then we will refuse to enrol in these systems, and they, too will fall apart.

But what is terrifying to us, even as we are starting to lose faith, to stop believing in these systems, as the evidence mounts that they are corrupted, fraudulent, hopelessly dysfunctional and increasingly useless to us, is imagining what we will do without these ever-less-useful systems. We are, after all, utterly dependent on them — for ‘jobs’, for what we think of as essential levels of health and well-being, for security, for the maintenance of the value of our life savings and pensions, for the subsidized private transportation systems and fuel we use to get to work and to the hospital and to buy what we need, for the cheap imported clothing and other goods that we can no longer make or repair ourselves, for the cheap foods that we can no longer (or never could) grow ourselves, for the massive amounts of clean water we need to live, and squander so thoughtlessly, for entertainment we can no longer provide ourselves. We are dependent on all these goods and services and infrastructure from systems that we know, deep down, are falling apart, and which we have come to believe operate the only way such systems can, at current scale, possibly operate.

The truth is that these systems have never been particularly useful, or even particularly coherent. They have depended on deceptions and self-deceptions from the start. They have depended on the absurd belief that somehow our descendants will be able to magically find ways to repay the monstrous debts that grow exponentially every year, and to fix the horrific ‘problems’ of economic overextension, energy and resource exhaustion and massive climate-changing ecological damage we have wrought. They have depended on the desolation of most of the world’s wildlands, the brutal subjugation of most of the world’s nations, and the wage slavery of most of the planet’s people. They have depended on the belief that our degraded education systems are more than just a grossly ineffective child care system to keep young people off the streets and out of the labour force until we can create enough new low-paying jobs for them to desperately agree to work at. They have depended on the belief that our industrial food system does more than just exhaust the land, poison the air, soil and water, cause the untold and endless suffering of trillions of caged farmed animals, and deliver us toxic and nutritionally-deficient foods that cause epidemic chronic disease and hence lifelong suffering. They have depended on the belief that our ‘health care’ system does more than just exploit this disease and suffering for obscene profit, managed by the most bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracies the world has ever seen.

And most of all, they have depended on the belief that all these systems are coherent — that some ‘invisible hand’ is at work managing them, steering them, keeping them ‘functional’ and keeping them from getting out of control, when in fact they have always been incoherent, and it is only our collective delusion of their coherence that has led us to expect them to serve us well, or to be at all sustainable.

We are nearing a tipping point at which the cognitive dissonance becomes so strong, the evidence of increasing failure of all these systems so overwhelming, and the precariousness and foolishness of our reliance on these systems so stark, that we will stop believing in these systems en masse. And when this happens these systems will collapse suddenly, catastrophically, with those who abandon reliance on them last, those least resilient, being hardest hit by their loss.

If we’re lucky and wise and don’t panic or go berserk when this happens, we will probably discover that, beyond the immediate chaos of transition, life for those left will be much different in the absence of these systems, but not significantly better or worse on balance.

So we think our culture is coherent, when it is not. As pattern-recognizers, even looking at the stars or the clouds, we often find patterns where none exist. But just as we come to agree that a certain pattern of stars ‘represents’ a bear or a chariot, so too do we come to agree to live as if the patterns we agree upon are real, although they are collective fictions — myths. They are fictions, but they are very useful, and it’s not surprising they have emerged as so powerful in our cultures that we cannot imagine them to be untrue. We cannot imagine another way to perceive, to behave with others, to raise children, to live. The cognitive dissonance when some of these patterns turn out, irrefutably, to be wrong, absurd, useless, is almost impossible for us to bear. It’s as if someone suddenly started dismantling the ground beneath our feet and told us it wasn’t really the ground after all. It’s terrifying.

But the illusion of coherence in our invented worlds goes deeper than just our collective myths — our culture and our interaction with others.

We also hold a belief, perfectly internally consistent and reasonable, that our ‘selves’ are coherent, when in fact they are just as incoherent as our culture, just as much an invention. Cohen and Stewart explain in Figments of Reality that living species, including humans, are emergent properties of the body’s semi-autonomous processes. We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit. And our mind, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and ‘free-will’, is nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system — a process not a thing — jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our minds are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

We are not ‘one’ creature at all, but a collective. There’s an amazing quote circulating on the Internet these days: “You are the open-source collaborative project of trillions of cells.” And so we are.

Or, as John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs: “We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”

What we perceive and believe to be our ‘selves’ is a convenient model, a simplified reality that enables us to act as if we were coherent, and which most of the time enables us to function reasonably well in our personal, or even collective, self-interest. Our very language reinforces the myth we are taught from birth that we are individual, that we have free will, that we are separate. We refer to ourselves and other complicities of cells who imagine themselves individuals, in the singular, as I and you (thee) and he and she and it, as if we were ‘each’ coherent ‘selves’. But this is as illusory as the sense we have of our culture’s coherence. They are all models of how we wish things would simply be. But everything is not simple. Everything is complex, unknowable, unfathomable, uncontrollable.

Ready for another great illusion? It’s the perception of time, as something absolute, something that has ‘existence’, so that we can write formulae like E=mc2 and ‘know’ that such formulae and ‘laws’ of nature are absolutely true, when they are merely additional myths based on the myth of time — a supremely convenient myth to have, to be sure, since it allows us to coordinate our activities with others who believe in it, but a myth all the same.

There is increasing evidence that the only way to resolve most of the ‘problems’ in science (i.e. observed realities that don’t fit the rules and formulae and models) is to do away with the concept of time altogether. The physical world makes much more ‘sense’ when you do, though the resulting models would, if they are ever to be useful, require us to rethink and reperceive and reimagine everything, and it’s doubtful any culture is capable of such a stretch.

Wild creatures, it seems, do not employ or ‘believe in’ the concept of time in the sense we do, except in circumstances of immediate danger, when they shift out of their ‘real time’ into our perceived ‘clock time’ until their fight-or-flight instinct has guided them past the danger, and then shake it off and once again leave our clock-time-imprisoned ‘reality’. If it wasn’t our nature to be so ‘chronically’ anxious, we would probably be like them, living essentially an eternity.

What are the implications of accepting that almost everything we believe is an illusion of coherence? That our beliefs about who we are, what our culture is, that we are actually communicating with others, that we have ‘selves’ with the ‘free’ will to do whatever ‘we’ want, that our culture is one of ‘progress’, that we are evolutionarily advanced, etc. are just myths (or as my philosopher friend Venkat describes them, ‘scripts’) that define a setting and principles and roles within which we dutifully act, as if in a play on an un-real stage?

The neural structures of our brains have evolved since birth in response to these engrained faux-models of reality (much as they evolved to be able to make ‘sense’ of the analog electromagnetic and other sensory signals that reach our eyes, ears and other organs). So it is probably impossible for us to really ‘unbelieve’ now in the models we have come to accept as reality, and to start perceiving the world more as it ‘really’ is and ourselves as we ‘really’ are (even if we could do so, given our limited capacity to understand complexity).

Perhaps it’s enough, then, that we acknowledge the unreality of what we have come to believe, and then let go of that ‘reality’ as much as our social activities and personal situation permit. What would happen if we did that?

Perhaps it would let us appreciate how everything we think of as ‘wrong’ in our world occurred accidentally, unintentionally, an artifact of acting under the illusion of coherence. Perhaps it would let us appreciate how our chronic physical and mental illnesses are not sicknesses but maladaptations to ‘real’ reality that arose out of our attempts to survive in the mythical reality of our minds and our culture. When our civilization culture collapses, we may (I’m not sure) relearn to live in harmony with the natural world, and, like those creatures not oppressed by culture, will be much healthier and happier for it. It’s hard to say, however, whether we can ever hope to move beyond the illusions of coherence of our human minds, an adaptation to a radically changed climate many millennia ago that, in retrospect, has not been so healthy for us, we creatures who are too smart for our own good, too smart not to create and live in a world of our own invention instead of the real one.

On the whole, I’ve always found that it’s better to know than not know, even if the knowledge is not terribly useful, pleasant, or encouraging. Or even really comprehensible. We have unleashed the Sixth Great Extinction, and the collapse of the first global human culture (that we know of) in our planet’s history, all because we can’t shake the illusions of coherence of our selves and our culture and hence just walk away from our desolating, disastrous invented reality, and rejoin the family of life on Earth that has adapted to and thrived through many types of crisis and collapse before our recent arrival on the scene. That seems preposterous, but it is our legacy on this planet. It helps to know that, I think.

We are one and trillions, trillions of trillions, all a part, all connected, all playing amidst the magic of life on this planet. Until we decided ‘we’ (our illusory selves in our illusory culture) could do better, we lived joyfully, just being, outside of invented time, in the world, not inside our head. We once were part of the ‘culture’ of all life, not apart in invented ‘separate’ cultures. Why is that reality so hard for us to understand, so hard for us to remember?

Things are not as they seem. For now, knowing that will have to be enough. It is probably both too early and too late to act on that knowledge. When the time comes to act, I think, we will know what to do. The creatures of this world who live in reality will remind us, when we’re ready to face it. It may not be soon, but it won’t be long.

image: painting by Bowen Island artist Jeanette Wrenshall, from my own collection

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18 Responses to The Illusion of Coherence

  1. Euan says:

    Brilliant post Dave. I agree with the idea that knowing about, and dealing, with the incoherence we face while living a parallel existence in “the real world” is all that we can do. Oddly the collapse of coherence is not something that frightens me, though it’s collapse may cause suffering for millions including those dear to me. We will as a species adapt and, as you suggest, may find out that we are happier after the collapse. All I can do for my kids is try to give them the skills and insights to allow that adaptation to occur.

  2. Mike Golby says:

    While I agree with your and Dave’s views, Euan, I must say I’m grateful I live on the Southern Tip of my forbears’ Dark Continent. Having passed 55 years as a ‘sentient’ member of this great organism, I find myself older in ‘clock time’ than 95 percent of my fellow South Africans, most of whom are under 25 years of our notion of age. And this is where the going gets weird. In a country grappling with the daily flight-or-fight realities inherent in the collapse of a mythic ‘order’, I find myself far more at home with young people than with those clinging to the old narratives with which we used to comfort ourselves as a species divorced from the Earth and life in general.

    Our ‘systems’ have collapsed: health, welfare, justice, education, transport, employment, law and order, economy, land ownership, etc. (I won’t mention party politics – that lost meaning; if it had any, a long time ago.) I guess to First Worlders, living here must seem pretty absurd – surrounded as we are by a constant change that is, at times, decidedly unpleasant, chaotic and, above all, incoherent.

    But this is where my kids come into it – I’ve not taught them much, but they’ve taught me a great deal. I guess the most affirming view they’ve reinforced in me is that “there is life before 30”. They are far more comfortable with incoherence than my generation and that which preceded it. To take time out of the equation, they’re more comfortable with reality than those who bought into the myth. They did not. Fortunately, my kids realized the education system amounted to nothing more than a soulless and brutal holding pen for kids whose parents were at work chasing others’ dreams or doing whatever they had to do in order to get by under the heel of a jackboot system of command and control. Party politics means nothing to them and, while they and their friends may have educated themselves, they’ve done a damned good job of it.

    Despite social media, they are more at ease with each other, viewing themselves as part of a greater whole that regards change as a fish does water. They look after themselves and each other in a way that is most uncommon to a western view and are as likely to be found stoned at a trance as they are in a snowbound hut in a blizzard atop an inaccessible mountain peak in the wilderness. As much as they like ‘stuff’, they appear quite happy doing without it and whether employed or unemployed, they work around (or, frankly, just don’t miss) the nonexistent institutions most take to be the hallmarks of ‘civilized’ societies.

    Look, I’m not kidding myself (well, perhaps I am but I’m not aware of it). Things will get a lot rougher but, what I am saying is that I see in the people who troop through my house (not mine, really – being a high-school dropout myself, I’ve never had the money for such things) is an acceptance of incoherence and, more than a willingness to ‘cope’, they seem to prefer life as it is. And it gives me great satisfaction to see – to we who grew up ‘fighting the system’ – so many living lives that give meaning to ‘a new way of doing things around here’. Paradoxically, their example leads me to a greater enjoyment of the Web and social media, rendering even more pitiful the endless stream of ‘straw-clutching’ fridge magnets I see scrolling down my Facebook feed.

    Y’know? Let it go, people, let it go. It’s a fiction and it was a damned good fiction, because it worked. You bought it. Don’t beat up on yourselves for doing so (by persisting with its illusions and delusions); just let it go and let’s all just get on with life as it is. We’re all in this together, but you’re kinda holding us back.

    Off-the-cuff response over. I don’t know if it makes sense but, for what it’s worth, Dave, thanks for committing to words that which is evident to some but which, for those to whom it remains, from their concocted realities, the stuff of nightmare, a necessary assurance that it is not. As Mr. Dylan might have put it: “It’s life and life only.” Well, he did, didn’t he? One way or another.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    “”As soon as we cease to believe in these principles and the value of these restrictions and sacrifices, these agreements fall apart, and when they fall apart so do the systems that are based on them.””

    Our agreements are our structures. The conditions in which we need agreements have changed drastically. We haven’t changed our agreements .. whether too asleep, too stupid or too lazy. We’ll find out, eventually, why we must .. must .. change our agreements.

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    Thanks Dave – the most coherent statement about what is going on today

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Ran across this graphic shortly after reading this most recent articulation of your comprehensive analysis of our collective hallucination. We live in a ‘system’ that has been built randomly for the most part, even politics flowing always on from what went before. We are bent on our destruction because as a pattern of collective individuals we refuse to see clearly, name and act upon what we know (or believe) could be very different arrangements. But what we are instead doing (as that collective of past patterns) is nicely reflected by this .. More Trees Less Assholes ( )

  6. David says:

    Dave, Where is your evidence that, “We are nearing a tipping point…” Is this a personal impression, wishful thinking, just rhetoric, or something else?

  7. Mark Harmer says:

    Almost everything I hear nowadays is built on assumptions that just don’t stand up to even cursory analysis – take the mantra of “growth” that’s trotted out by economists, for example. This whole issue of shared agreement / delusion leads us to some provocative places. I often feel our experience of the world is one-dimensional and we are being distracted into keeping it that way by those who would wish to preserve the political / economic power-base – because to keep an illusion of status quo is easier and more financially and politically desirbale than facing what’s really changing.

  8. Paul Heft says:

    Thanks, Mike, very interesting comment.

  9. David Drews says:


    It’s been an honor to read your posts starting from several years back to now. I thank you for sharing your journey with your readers and fellow travelers.

  10. Hi Dave,

    Towards the end you say “Things are not as they seem. For now, knowing that will have to be enough.”

    I think that is a good statement of the situation – except for the “for now” bit. I think it is equally illusory to suggest what things are and what things seem can ever be literally the same. There is an illusory mythical aspect to everything we (collectively) know – we (individually) accept them as useful, and as part of that, it is useful to know that things are not as they seem.

    Once we (individually) decide when we know to act, there still need to be some structures of shared meaning so that we (collectively) act with any coherence – however illusory that coherence is. I’m often concerned that your end game is total “anarchy” – with no structures of shared meaning and governance. Knowing that those structures are not how the world “really is” (whatever that means) is healthy, but not a reason to reject their value to our process of evolving better governance (as Euan suggests).

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  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Nice to hear from a lot of old KM buddies for the first time in a long while, both here and on the FB links to this post. Thanks to Euan for bringing them around to visit! And as always, though I rarely respond directly to comments on the blog, I read and really appreciate them all.

  13. Schlomo says:

    Hello Dave,

    while I share your view about collective agreements that form our culture and our view on reality I wonder how you can make a distinction between the real reality and an illusion of reality. In example: How can you say that the perception of a coherent ‘self’ is a delusion while a concept of a collective of cells that ‘drives’ us and emerges a delusive ‘self’ is not? I think you just exchange one delusive concept with another which is not more true or more real than the other. In your argumentation you point us to an underlying ‘real’ truth. We think this when ‘in fact’ it is like that. I don’t share this view since I think you just substitute one delusive ‘fact’ with another delusive ‘fact’. So, why is it good for us to think that we are not ‘we’ but ‘only’ a collective dream of trillions of body cells? I don’t see any advantage in this knowledge over the knowledge of us as distinct entities while I sure can enjoy it as an itellectual idea.

    In my view we live in a world that is made up from different types of objects. Real objects and cognitive objects. A tree is a real object, since it is there and we can collectively agree that it is there and that we will die (as the ultimate proof of truth) when it falls down upon us. On the other hand there are cognitive objects. ‘Money’ is a cognitive object as well as a ‘nation’ or ‘school’. Cognitive objects are what makes our culture and our beliefs, which, as you point out, are essential (models) for us to get along. So the essential question for me is, can we change this model of the world for the better or not? The title of your blog suggest that we can save the world and I totally agree with that title. You on the other hand seem to say that we can not do something about the collapse of civilisation. We can certainly not change ‘real’ objects but we can change cognitive objects since they are only agreements that can be rearranged.

    The problem is, that most people I know have a hard time to distinguish between real and cognitive objects which they think to be cohererent. They think of collective agreements as unchangable – and that is what we are supposed to think from those who benefit from this type of ‘reality’. So indeed it is essential for people to realize that ‘things are not as they seem’ while I would put it this way ‘Things are not as true as they pretend’.

    Collective beliefs and coherences are nonetheless essential things for us to get along – and be it a coherent rejection of coherent ‘truths’. The problem of the world today is that it more and more lacks coherence between different perceptions of the world. The problem is not, that coherence is a myth, but that people do not share this myths anymore. Everyone seems to escape more and more to an individualistic ‘self made’ truth that is made up of individual beliefs and ‘likes’ and that these individual conceptions less and less share a collective basis. Everyone is an expert and noone understands the other anymore. We live in a self made cyberculture that is made up from billions of individual cocoons that only share the one remaining coherent truth that technology will free us (and save the world).

    So I think that we should look out for coherencies that are ‘real’ objects or ‘universals’ that every human beeing is able to feel and able to understand. I can sit down with anyone under a tree in the summer and have a cood drink and we will share the same moment and the same feeling. We will share the same and only reality – without talk and without intellectual concepts. Love is such a reality. And also music. We should look out for a world where we can say to anyone ‘you are right’. That we always should take care of the other instead oureselves. Because we realize that we are not alone. Since we finally realize that I am because you are.

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  15. Mike Marinos says:

    This post by Sam Mcnerney looks at some of the cognitive underpinning to the illusion of coherence. I like his summary

    “Rather, we should use our front lobes to be more mindful. That means pausing to realize that the mind filters the world selectively, and in the process it effectively creates a new world that blinds us from the truth: that we are average people living in a world of average people, and that we’d be better when we recognized this.”

  16. Robin Datta says:

    “Reality is the delusions we hold in common”

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  18. Tim says:

    Schlomo you are spot on in drawing attention to the incongruities of the argument that this “real” is somehow more “real” than the “real” in question.

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