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Illusions with Professor Arthur Shapiro

a philosophical discussion of the fascinating series on Curiosity Stream

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

January 19, 2024

American University Psychology Professor Arthur Shapiro hosts a fascinating series on Curiosity Stream called "Illusions." The following is an open letter to the professor on the topic -- which the patient reader will find to have a connection to the subject of... "drugs!" (insert ominous orchestral fanfare here)

Dear Professor Shapiro,

I'd like to thank you for the fantastic episodes on Illusions that I have watched repeatedly now on Curiosity Stream1.

If you have a moment, I'd also like to share a little philosophical speculation on the topic.

In reading the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, I begin to wonder if the very word "illusion" is not, at very least, somewhat misleading2. Let me take a specific example in order to attempt to make this point.

In the Ames Room, we see two "equally tall" individuals who appear to be different sizes3. But what do we mean when we say that this is an illusion? I think we are saying the following: "Had we seen these two people in the settings that are familiar to us, these individuals would appear to be the same size; therefore it is an illusion to see them as two different sizes." But this is in effect to argue that the individuals have a specific size that, by rights, should show up in any reference frame, and that their failure to do so therefore constitutes an illusion.

It seems to me, therefore, that the very idea of "illusion" is based on the anti-Whiteheadian assumption that there is an individual "out there" separate from perception, one of a specific length, which our perceptive equipment morphs into various illusory sizes when not viewed in the appropriate reference frames. Although perhaps not entirely analogous, this situation suggests an Einsteinian case in which two spatially separated observers disagree as to the moment that a super-fast train exits a tunnel, and even disagree as to the length of the train. Neither observer however is seeing an illusion, but rather what they by rights SHOULD see given their reference frame. That is to say, there is no universally legitimate absolute length for this train; there are only lengths that can be calculated from various reference frames.

Seen in this light, the only bothersome thing about the Ames Room is that it makes us forget what we normally take into account: namely, the reference frame from which we are beholding nature. Even little children do not cry out in astonishment when their distant grandpa approaches them as a little dot on the horizon. There are no cries of: "What happened to grandpa? He's so tiny!" Nor would adults generally refer to this as an "illusion," since it is really just the way the world works: we perceive things from a given perspective and must naturally take that into account in daily life. The Ames Room prevents us from taking that fact into account and so we blame the incongruous result on the image itself, calling it an illusion. It seems to me, however, that the image is not illusory; what is illusory is the idea that we can understand the world without taking account of the perspective from which we're beholding it. (In fact, the word "illusion" would come to mind for the adults only if the grandfather was NOT the size of a dot on the distant horizon. Only then would they have a sense of strange incongruity.)

I trust that I am not "mincing words" here. It's just that, from the Whiteheadian point of view, the term "illusion" seems inappropriate since it implies that objects exist "out there in space" separate from our perceptions of them and that these objects have specific sizes that are valid (or should be valid) in all reference frames. Whitehead, of course, would disagree. What we perceive are the qualities of the object as they appear to us in a given reference frame, not the atoms that the materialist tells us are "really out there." However, I believe that materialism is still the reigning paradigm in academia, so the point may be moot for now - but maybe someday the word "illusions" will at least require an asterisk leading to a disclamatory footnote on this topic.

To recap these speculations:

Since in Whitehead's view, there is no object "out there" apart from our perception of it, there is no standard by which we can say that any visual phenomenon is an illusion, i.e. that it is different from what it "should" be. It follows that, as stated above, any surprises that we encounter in viewing an object will not be due to an illusion, strictly speaking, but rather to our failure to properly take into account our reference frame as a viewer. What we call "illusions" therefore might better be described as "perceptions from unusual reference frames." They're not really illusory - they only appear so because we have failed to take into account our reference frame as a viewer - often because the image creator has purposefully made this task difficult, so much so that our mental equipment, geared as it is to making sense of the world, will sometimes flip between hypothetical viewpoints, in a seemingly desperate effort to make the image sensical from the standpoint of a pragmatic human being (as in the ball dropping illusion in Season 1, "Brightness and Contrast," in which a falling ball appears to move left, but only when viewed from a specific reference frame).

I will not go into the topic of the potential shortcomings of using the word "illusion," but I wonder if it does not help us pathologize the creative thinker who sees things that we say are not there - but which are actually as real as anything else, except that they are seen through a reference frame that no one else has used before, whether thanks to various drugs and/or neural quirks and/or a unique upbringing.

Just some thoughts on this interesting topic. Again, thanks for the series! I hope there will be more episodes coming soon!

Author's Follow-up: January 20, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up

I'm going to spare Professor Shapiro any further reflections on these issues, at least until such time as I receive a reply to the above harangue. It should be understood, however, that this is no merely philosophical issue in the pejorative sense of that term. The American government has been outlawing religions over the past 50+ years based on the implicit rationale that their drug-related experiences are unreal and that there is one true world "out there" that can only be seen by the sober mind (or rather the "sober mind" as hypocritically defined by Drug Warriors, who sign off on the use of SSRIs, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, and even attend churches in which the latter drug is employed as a part of ritual). In other words, they believe in the materialist doctrine that our pragmatic senses show us what's "really out there" and that "drugs" merely scramble and disarrange the picture of that one true reality.

If Whitehead were around today - and not bullied into silence by the reigning drug mania - he would point out that there is no world "out there" without our perception of it and that to outlaw drug-aided perception is to insist on one single valid interpretation of reality - which is, in fact, the greatest possible crime against mental freedom (not to say religious liberty) imaginable. Certainly, the philosopher William James did not believe that there is one valid reality out there. Here is what he wrote on the topic in "The Varieties of Religious Experience":

"...our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded."4

Yet modern politicians create laws that force us to disregard these other forms of consciousness and, indeed, to deny their validity a priori, without further comment or investigation.

This is why I am "hardcore" about the Drug War (as a Reddit troll once described me). The folks who are softcore have apparently been whistling why the government got rid of the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and even now, after that horrible fait accompli, do not see what all the fuss is about. So one has to urinate for an employer and avoid naughty medicines. So what?

But that's just it: these medicines are only naughty in the minds of children, and not just any children: the childish kind who titter when beholding the statue of David5. They see drugs as naughty and rather than recognizing this as a sign of their own childishness and ignorance, they use their political power to ensure that the entire world adopt their jaundiced attitude toward drugs. It is the ultimate form of denial - in which one not only refuses to hear the truth, but goes on to insist that the entire world adopts one's own prejudices on a given topic.

The UDV and the Native American Church have succeeded in gaining protection from our drug-demonizing federal government, but the UDV was harassed all the way to the Supreme Court before those justices voted 9-0 for the government to call off the dogs. The Native American Church was likewise harried by both federal and state governments until an act of Congress finally gave them exemption from the hate and slander of their puritanical enemies.

How ironic that America, a country founded by religious dissenters, has now made drug-hating Christian Science the one world religion, to be enforced by harsh penalties, up to and including death.

Author's Follow-up: January 26, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up

I have a funny feeling that I've irritated Professor Shapiro, than which nothing was further from my mind, of course. I think it was Thomas Mann (or maybe Herman Hesse) who once observed that adults are really like children: they have to be spoken to with utmost diplomacy lest one unwittingly pluck an egotistical nerve, after which they will cut you like an offended prima donna at a gala ball. Of course, let me add quickly that this description applies to myself as well, no doubt in spades. Still, I thought the general tenor of my remarks was upbeat -- but I should have read them through with an ear for potential misinterpretations and implied slights. I did suggest that "illusions," ontologically speaking, do not exist -- but I was not attempting to call him out for his use of the word, which, time out of mind, has been applied by literally everyone to the images in question. Then again, it's still early days, so watch this space. The good professor may yet see fit to respond!

Sometimes I think I have a special kind of reverse super ability. Some super guys can leap tall buildings -- my super ability is the way that I can offend people without even trying. I'll walk up to them and say, "Hey, how are you doing there?" And they'll be like, "What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?"


1 Curiosity Stream, (up)
2 Whitehead, Alfred North, The Concept of Nature, (up)
3 The Ames Room, New World Encyclopedia, (up)
4 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Philosophical Library, New York, 1902 (up)
5 Quass, Brian, Childish Drug Warriors, 2021 (up)

Next essay: Step Aside, Entheogens
Previous essay: The Christian Presuppositions of the Drug War and Why They're Important

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Some Tweets against the hateful war on drugs

This, by the way, is why we can't just "follow the science." The "acceptable risk" for psychoactive drugs can only be decided by the user, based on what they prioritize in life. Science just assumes that all users should want to live forever, self-fulfilled or not.
They drive to their drug tests in pickup trucks with license plates that read "Don't tread on me." Yeah, right. "Don't tread on me: Just tell me how and how much I'm allowed to think and feel in this life. And please let me know what plants I can access."
I could tell my psychiatrist EXACTLY what would "cure" my depression, even without getting addicted, but everything involved is illegal. It has to be. Otherwise I would have no need of the psychiatrist.
Someone tweeted that fears about a Christian Science theocracy are "baseless." Tell that to my uncle who was lobotomized because they outlawed meds that could cheer him up -- tell that to myself, a chronic depressive who could be cheered up in an instant with outlawed meds.
The Drug War is based on a huge number of misconceptions and prejudices. Obviously it's about power and racism too. It's all of the above. But every time I don't mention one specifically, someone makes out that I'm a moron. Gotta love Twitter.
How else will they scare us enough to convince us to give up all our freedoms for the purpose of fighting horrible awful evil DRUGS? DRUGS is the sledgehammer with which they are destroying American democracy.
The goal of drug-law reform should be to outlaw prohibition. Anything short of that, and our basic rights will always be subject to veto by fearmongers. Outlawing prohibition would restore the Natural Law of Jefferson, which the DEA scorned in 1987 with its raid on Monticello.
Drug warriors do not seem to see any irony in the fact that their outlawing of opium eventually resulted in an "opioid crisis." The message is clear: people want transcendence. If we don't let them find it safely, they will find it dangerously.
So he writes about the mindset of the deeply depressed, reifying the condition as if it were some great "type" inevitably to be encountered in humanity. No. It's the "type" to be found in a post-Christian society that has turned up its scientific nose at psychoactive medicine.
Materialist scientists are drug war collaborators. They are more than happy to have their fight against idealism rigged by drug law, which outlaws precisely those substances whose use serves to cast their materialism into question.
More Tweets

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front cover of Drug War Comic Book

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You have been reading an article entitled, Illusions with Professor Arthur Shapiro: a philosophical discussion of the fascinating series on Curiosity Stream, published on January 19, 2024 on For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)