User illusion

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The user illusion is the illusion created for the user by a human–computer interface, for example the visual metaphor of a desktop used in many graphical user interfaces. The phrase originated at Xerox PARC.[1]

Some philosophers of mind have argued that consciousness is a form of user illusion. This notion is explored by Tor Nørretranders in his 1991 Danish book Mærk verden, issued in a 1998 English edition as The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size.[2] He introduced the idea of exformation in this book. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has also embraced the view that human consciousness is a "user-illusion".[3]

According to this picture, our experience of the world is not immediate, as all sensation requires processing time. It follows that our conscious experience is less a perfect reflection of what is occurring, and more a simulation produced unconsciously by the brain. Therefore, there may be phenomena that exist beyond our peripheries, beyond what consciousness could create to isolate or reduce them.


Critics of the idea of consciousness being a device for justifying preconceptions argue that such a device would consume nutrients without producing any useful results, since it would not change the outcome of any decisions. These critics argue that the existence of social insects with extremely small brains falsifies the notion that social behavior requires consciousness, citing that insects have too small brains to be conscious and yet there are observed behaviors among them that for all functional intents and purposes match those of complex social cooperation and manipulation (including hierarchies where each individual has its place among paper wasps and Jack Jumper ants and honey bees sneaking when they lay eggs). These critics also argue that since social behavior in insects and other extremely small-brained animals have evolved multiple times independently, there is no evolutionary difficulty in simple reaction sociality to impose selection pressure for the more nutrient-consuming path of consciousness for sociality. These critics do point out that other evolutionary paths to consciousness are possible, such as critical evaluation that enhances plasticity by criticizing fallible notions, while pointing out that such a critical consciousness would be quite different from the justificatory type proposed by Nørretranders, differences including that a critical consciousness would make individuals more capable of changing their minds instead of justifying and persuading.[4][5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bruce Tognazzini (1996). Tog on Software Design. Addison-Wesley Professional. ISBN 0-201-48917-1.
  2. ^ Tor Nørretranders (1998). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Viking. ISBN 0-670-87579-1.
  3. ^ "Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution ... creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the 'bottom-up' minds of animals.... [T]his architecture furnishes each of us with ... a user-illusion" (Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017), p. 370).
  4. ^ How the body shapes the way we think: A new view of intelligence, Rolf Pfeifer, Josh Bongard
  5. ^ Information Processing in Social Insects: Claire Detrain, Jean L. Deneubourg, Jacques M. Pasteels