Plain is the word of truth, and of elaborate interpretations justice has no need; of herself she is fitting. But the unrighteous word, being unsound, needs cunning allurements.


The Lure of Illusion

Along with our love of truth, we humans are tempted with a fondness for error and crippled by a fear of logic. It's no secret that on many occasions many of us prefer comfortable illusion to stark reality. Challenging our urge to honesty stands a compulsion toward the opposite.

The word illusion developed from the Latin 'illusio which means the action of mocking and from this usage came to mean intellectual deception. Intellectual deception is in the mind, not in the eyesight. As happens so often in language, the intellectual idea develops from a metaphor.

In defining illusion, the plus system builds on this idea of intellectual deception and adds the adds the quality of unintentional. The term illusion thus refers to a double artifice. While the propositions involved are false, the people in the grip of the illusion believe they are true.

Definition of Illusion

Illusion, as plus defined, refers to propositions or sets of propositions people judge to be true that in actually are false. From this point of view, illusions are always intellectual and inadvertent. People do not deliberately seek illusions. To the contrary, they think the illusion is true.

Undetected error is the substance of illusion. An illusion presents an error, often a cluster of errors, as if the mistakes were not mistakes. Being blind to the inaccuracy, we unwittingly give illusions the status of truth and bestow on the illusion all the respect and honor due to truth and honesty. It is hard to unravel an illusion because the illusion is assumed to be true.

Illusions are not Lies

Following this stipulated terminology, a lie (a deliberate attempt to deceive) is not an illusion. When we tell a lie, we know we are telling a lie. Contrariwise, when living under an illusion, although we think we know the truth, in reality, we are mistaken.

In the thralls of illusion, we believe as true that which is false. Illusion is a genuine mistake whereas dishonesty is deliberate. A calculated fabrication differs from an unintentional mistake.

Definition of Knowledge

In contrast to illusion, knowledge, as plus defined, refers to those propositions or sets of propositions we judge to be true that really are true. Knowledge is the opposite of illusion.

In present conventional English, we commonly use the term knowledge to refer to thoughts we believe, for good reason, to be true. Usually when we say we know something, we can back up what we assert with good evidence. Often we are right, but occasionally we think we know and find out later we were wrong. We learn, sometimes in sorrow, that what we thought was knowledge was instead an illusion of knowledge.

Plus definition system limits the meaning of knowledge to those propositions we think are true that actually are true. [See Part B, esp. Chapters 12, 13, & 21 for the development of this definition.]


The definitions of illusion and knowledge, posited here, are more narrow than many interpretations. But these plus definitions are fitting and often conform to common usage. Sticking to these particular definitions solves several sticky philosophical problems.

The definitions of illusion and knowledge stipulated here are useful in many ways. For one thing they help clarify the gap between virtual certainty and absolute certainty. As we learn to appreciate the value of this gap (the certainty gap), we understand why we should post a question mark on material we consider to be knowledge. What we think we know as true most probably is true, but the wise course is to keep an open mind and recognize the possibility that what we consider to be knowledge may not be all that we think it is.

The significance of the certainty gap will become more clear in later chapters on propositional relativity, which explain how changing the meanings of terms can alter the truth value of propositions, and conceptual variance, which examines important differences among meanings of core terms such as truth, knowledge, certainty, reality, and so on.

Illusions and Lies

Illusions are not the same as lies. The liar knows he is telling a lie. However, those who believe the lie are suffering under an illusion because they believe the lie is true. And, strange to say, the liar often sets up conditions that involve him or her in the clutches of illusion.

The relation of lies to illusions offers a curious intertwine of ideas. Lies and illusions weave together and become hard to untangle. People who start out telling lies, often end up lost in illusions. Conversely, people lost in illusions often tell lies to avoid examining their illusions.

Between lies and illusion resides a nebulous land of self-imposed ignorance where we suspect something is wrong but proceed with our life as if all were well. The old moral philosophers used to call this culpable ignorance. A modern psychologist might call it repressed ideas. A large percentage of human error fits in this gray area. Many a person telling a fib convinces him or herself that somehow his lie is not a lie and many a person accepts a fantastic story on face value because he or she doesn't want to know the truth.

Sources of Illusion

Sources of illusion abound but the most insidious illusions stem from root errors. Some root errors stem from doubt, despair, laziness, prejudice, fear, superstition, and tempt philosophers to misinterpret the difficulties of paradox. When we examine the magnitude of the forces working against the urge to honesty we appreciate more the honesty that does exist.

Cynical Doubt

Cynical doubt fans the coals of illusion and dulls the tools we need to undo illusions. Doubts arise out of genuine problems. For example, questions concerning the meaning and reality of truth are numerous, nagging, and difficult to answer. Cherished beliefs time and again prove faulty. Overwhelmed with disillusionment we ask, "How can there be an unchanging truth when we so often change our mind? How can there be a right reason when we often reason wrong?" Normal, healthy people ask these questions, but when they concoct answers misinformed by root errors, as often happens, healthy doubt turns to unhealthy cynicism and, instead of being the impetus to overcome illusion, doubt becomes the agent that sets illusions in cement.

Cynical doubt leads to despair about the possibility of rational improvement. This mental attitude weaves in and out of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century philosophy and has influenced the development of errant ideologies. The consequences of drop out or blow up mentalities can be extremely serious because rational improvement is precisely the goal we need to keep in the front of our mind if we are to advance our abilities to progress in peace.

How can we expect to upgrade rational style and build the trust we need to increase negotiation quality if we believe we are incapable of rational improvement? This challenging question is left unanswered or answered wrong because we are innervated with doubt about the value of our rational skills. Many people seem to feel that rational improvement has been tried and failed. If they study the history of rational theory, they will discover that the opposite is true. Wherever affirmative logic courses are taught and when commonsense honesty is cultivated, then the rational style is consistently upgraded, trust is built, negotiation quality increases, and illusions are gently laid to rest. Rational improvement is feasible and worth the trouble it takes.


Laziness is another factor that stands in the way of over-coming illusions. The temptation to bypass the difficulties of seeking truth and pursuing honesty lures everyone to some extent. Most of the time we slide into the style of the day and go with the flow. Because our present rational style (2001) has numerous admirable points, often going-along-to-get-along is not too harmful. Although there is a chorus (much needed) deploring the ethical aberrations of our time, the over all quality of rational expectation is far better than in many ages past.

Just going with the flow, thus, has some advantages. Many of us feel in the cunning of our inner mind that we might be able to get away with it. We convince ourselves that we don't have to study logic because we pick up good intellectual habits from our peers and from our own exceptionally clever insight. Thus we justify our laziness.

But laziness in this matter is a mistake. Yes, the standards of our day are good. In numerous cases, they are better than they were 100 years ago. But, they are not yet good enough to meet the challenges of our technical, nuclear world. Our rational standards are well developed, but we need improvement. We don't need enormous changes but we do need to upgrade rational skills if we are to make our world safer for living and raising families.

Affirmative elemental philosophers who wish to promote the guidelines of sound rational thinking and praise the wonders of impartial truth have the hard road to go. It is much easier to ride the sled of illusion. Relieved of the requirements of honesty, fantasy makers can weave alluring enchantments that leave truth seekers looking like dullards.

To write about impartial truth and right reason is easy. To actually sell the majesty of the project requires rare genius. The great minds who illuminate the true way so the rest of us can see are few and far between. Most get side tracked by one illusion or another.


A major factor that acerbates illusion is the problem of paradox. The more we become intellectually curious, the more we stumble into paradox in every subject. Paradox in mathematics, psychology, epistemology, etc. point over and over to the difficulty of finding absolutely certain knowledge.

Some philosophers present puzzles of paradox to show proof that antagonism between thesis and antithesis ultimately drives the universe and that conflict, from rude to violent, is the way of progress. Addressing this argument is one of the major intellectual challenges we face today. Plus root theory rejects this view as an exaggeration. When normal give and take is turned into an absolute, it becomes a root error and causes problems rather than solving problems.

We need a mature understanding of the requirements of affirmative logic and fair play before we can intelligently and successfully handle problems of paradox and appreciate sound answers to questions concerning dialectical antagonism. If we adopt popular root errors and misunderstand the guidelines of sound rational thinking, there is no way out of the labyrinth of paradox we create in our thought puzzles. However, if we adequately correct the most serious root errors and sufficiently promote pertinent elemental verities, paradox does not overwhelm and we can again feel comfortable in pursuing our goal of rational improvement.


Fear is another factor that acerbates illusion. The pursuit of impartial truth has a terrifying aspect. Sometimes we fear that if we lose our illusions, we will fall to pieces. Religious people can be particularly sensitive this way.

But this fear of illusion is ungrounded, especially religious fear. Most religions, in one way or another, equate God with Truth. "God is truth and light his shadow" (Plato). "God is true and every man a liar" (Paul). "God is the truth, the way, and the light" (John).

If God is equated with truth, then the pursuit of truth is one with the pursuit of God. Development of knowledge is the realization of the spirit of God within the human soul. From a plus point of view, rather than being afraid of sound rational thinking, religions should applaud the use of right reason to acquire truth. St. Augustine (354-430) put it this way,

But if this truth were on the same plane with our minds, it too would be changeable. For our minds at one time see more clearly, at another time less: and from this they show that they are changeable. Whit it (truth) is neither more true when it is seen by us, nor less ture when we see it not: but entire and inviolate, it delights those who are turned to it by its lights, and those who are turned away it punishes by blindness.

Augustine (354-430)

The search for truth is a holy mission. When churches sincerely preach the love truth, they become places where people work together to seek truth, to support each other in developing honesty, to help each be their best self, and to be accepted for the integrity of their effort.

For the record, many religious people are and have been genuine truth-seekers. What is more, if we look at long term results, religions are best when they encourage sound rational thinking and pursue truth with an open mind. When religions try to suppress truth and discourage rational improvement, they change from honorable religion into something less. Following the lesser path, they can develop into the opposite of what religion should be.

Fear is often the source of illusion, but the fear of right reason and impartial truth is itself an illusion. The fear of logic and truth is a critical error of major proportions. Logophobia is a crucial root error.

Root Errors

As we all know, many causes of illusion abound in our imperfect world. The proximate source is often a misunderstanding, a false report, or lack of information. However, in too many cases, the deep seated causes of chronic illusions can be traced to root errors that settle into our thought systems and become habitual. Often root errors enter the style of the day and become ingrained for generations. Once adopted in the rational style of an age, we tend to ignore root errors, either because we fail to see them or because we deem them trivial and not worth the bother to fix.

Ptolemy Example

Obviously, illusions, as defined, are difficult to detect. No sane person sets out to live by illusion in preference to truth. To the contrary, we acquire illusions because we think the illusions are true. The illusion, once believed, sets us up to accept the next illusion. For example, in the second century A. D., Ptolemy of Alexandria gave to the world one of its first encyclopedias. He collected what was considered the knowledge of his day into 13 volumes of information that came to be known as The Algamest.

Using instruments made as precise as technicians of his day knew how to manufacture, Ptolemy charted 1022 stars in the sky. Measuring, counting and figuring, he developed numerous progressive ideas. Mixed in with his accurate information and sound reasons, there were some mistakes. One of these mistakes was his conclusion that the earth was the fixed center around which the moon, the sun, the plants, and the stars rotated. This is an excellent example of illusion as plus defined.

Ptolemy's Error 1 and 2

Error-1: The earth is the fixed, unmoving, center of the universe.

This error is a set up for the next mistake which logically follows.

Error-2: The moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars orbit the earth.

The problem is with Ptolemy's false premise. One illusion (false premise) led to a collection of illusions that became tightly interwoven into complex systems which for centuries were presumed water tight and sacrosanct. We all know the story of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, etc. and the opposition they encountered as they unraveled the confusions that evolved from Error-1. Using hindsight, we can see that accepting Error-1 worked as an intellectual constriction holding back the development of science. Once that illusion was broken, science took off in one major development after another.


Some illusions are much worse than others. Ptolomy's Error-1 was a major mistake because the ramifications were extensive. For one thing, judging the earth to be the unmoving, fixed center of the solar system limits, in calculations, the distance between earth and stars because of the speed involved in orbiting the earth. This, in turn, made it necessary for philosophers to reject the notion of a vast, far reaching universe. Astronomers, following Ptolemy, concocted ingenious inventions to account for the various aberrations of the planets in their measurements.

Copernicus (1473-1543) did not face a simple primitive superstition. He had to confront an intricate interwoven net of rationalizations held together by massive mathematical calculations and instrumental measurements that were considered sophisticated at the time. People, who had studied for years to master the calculations used to justify Ptolomy's Error-1, had their intellectual life invested in the belief. They were in love with their illusions and held on tight.

Most scholars of the day were not receptive to what Copernicus was trying to do, not because they were superstitious, but because they were committed to an involved intellectual rationalization that grew out of years of mathematical studies. Mathematicians like to think of themselves as open-minded intellectuals, but if you page through history, it is possible to find many mathematicians who were closed minded. Korzybsky started as a mathematician.


Another point to be made about illusions is that, although the ramifications of an illusion may be sweeping, an illusion does not affect every judgment. In Ptolomy's case, many of his thoughts were admirably sound. He discovered several advanced geometrical proofs and theorems; he prepared a useful calendar; he helped explain weather patterns; he did good introductory work on optics, refraction, and music. Ptolomy taught that the earth was a globe, predicted the equator, improved methods of making maps and provided scholars with a clear, well spoken method of describing phenomena. Ptolemy is an excellent example of a strange mix of elaborate mistakes combined with sound theory. Exposing his mistakes as false, did not change the truth of his correct observations and valid deductions-which were correct and valid for other reasons!

It is important to emphasize that, because Ptolemy made several very serious errors does not mean we must conclude that everything Ptolemy said was false. It is a totalitarian reaction to reject everything because something is wrong. Our proper response, from a plus point of view, is to sort illusion from knowledge. We do the work required to correct the illusion and preserve the knowledge.

The need to sort applies to all thinkers. No one writes with such purity that every statement he/she composes is free from error. Conversely, even the most wayward ideologist will be correct part of the time. By developing understanding about the propositional character of illusions and their propositional ramifications we can learn how to separate them from an otherwise healthy body of knowledge. We can keep that which is useful and set aside the rest. The more adroit we become at sorting knowledge from illusion, the more value we can gain from history and from present studies.

Philosophy, past and present, is a mix of plus and minus. We can profitably examine the values of philosophers by sorting judgments, studying connections, and observing consequences. This, as an approach to history, is more helpful in applying the lessons of the past to present problems than trying to pigeonhole philosophers into fashionable categories such as nominalism, empiricism, existentialism, structuralism, and now post modernism or post deconstructionalism. If we examine the thoughts of philosophers with discernment we can correct bygone mistakes while preserving worthy values and benefiting from the lessons of history. Anything less is not good enough to meet the challenges of our present age.

Examining the development of philosophy by sorting knowledge from illusion helps us learn how to do the same with current affairs. It is easier to develop honesty in the present when we have a well formed perspective on the past. Recorded history offers inexhaustible wells of data to sort. The mistakes of the past were never pure mistakes. They were illusions mixed with knowledge that, in many cases, were compromised by varying amounts of deliberate deception.

That which was true then is still true now. That which is false then is still false. Was Richard III guilty or innocent of murdering the twin princes? If Richard III was falsely accused, as many historians say may have been the case, he was innocent. If he was innocent at the time, he did not later become guilty simply because Thomas More and Shakespeare said so.

If we can learn the lessons of the past, we can avoid major mistakes in the present. Why should we repeat the same mistake over and over? The more we can avoid major root errors, the more we can prevent future agonies and the more we can advance our abilities to progress in peace.


The conflict between knowledge and illusion exhibits a continuing struggle in the human story. We are all involved in the game of true or false. Every person is the center of a drama in which fact battles fantasy, honesty contends with deceit, and every person builds his or her own character as they choose reality or make-believe.

Sorting knowledge from illusion is never boring. Illusion has an original attraction because people think the illusion is true. Illusion leads us into traps. Truth is the opposite and leads to freedom. As we develop our appreciation of the power of impartial truth and taste the wonders that come our way as we explore paths of knowledge, the more exciting our lives become. Each illusion is a door shut in our face. As we open it we find a new marvels to explore.

If we can see truth as our universal ally and error as our universal enemy, we do not have to fight each other but we can join together in an endeavor to applaud and celebrate knowledge and integrity as we overcome ignorance and duplicity.

Truth is a unifying aspect of reality. The more we value it, the more we come together in a community developing our knowledge as we seek truth.

In contrast, illusion is a polarizing aspect of reality. Virtually every hatred and cruelty and war can be traced to an illusion. The last thing we need in this world are more illusions.

The contest between our urge to honesty and the lure of illusion creates an unending drama. Theory never totally transcends this struggle. Practice can never be final. No matter how perverse society might become there will always be some commonsense honesty and some who will not capitulate to the enchantment of error. Conversely, no matter how well we purify our theories, illusion will still lure us with its fantastic promises. We continue to be challenged with the difficulty of distinguishing between knowledge and illusion. What one believes to be true, another may believe to be an illusion.

It is not a matter of all or none. It is rather a matter of more or less. Along the passage of time, we have accumulated mountains of knowledge and crossed oceans of illusions. We can continue our enrichment and we can do it without violence if we learn how to adequately correct the errors that turn our universal search for truth into sectarian battles for power. Advancing our abilities to progress in peace is possible if we are willing to grapple with the roots of the problem.