Todd William

A Brief Thought Experiment - The Illusion of Control

(Artwork by: Sebastian Eriksson)
Our senses are easily fooled, often times in enjoyable ways. Anyone who has viewed the talents of sidewalk 3D artists will attest that illusions, when done right, are incredible.

Nature also provides her own illusions - a simple mirage perhaps being the best demonstration of such natural trickery. But nature also provides many far more compelling illusions. 


For thousands of years, the entirety of humanity believed that the sun and stars revolved around a stationary earth. This was a justified view after all, it sure feels stationary, and unless our eyes deceive us, we all have plenty of confirming evidence.

Yet our eyes do deceive us, because it's a fantastic illusion. Though we may mock the notion of believing such a thing now, had we been born six centuries ago, there's no doubt we would have assumed this illusion to be truth, and who could blame us for thinking so.

In fact, if you lived in that time period and attempted to explain the fallacy of a geocentric model, you would have had one heck of a time convincing anyone, because the idea would have seemed inconceivable. That is the basis of any great illusion.

Visual Field

Though few remain fooled by a geocentrism, there are other known illusions that we persist in believing because we don't consider the mechanics of what is taking place.

It is natural to assume we have a continuous view in our visual fields - the stuff we are seeing in front of our face. But this isn't so either. We actually have a blind spot because there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc at the back of our retinas.

We don't realize this because our brains are well equipped to fill in the void with information to give the appearance of continuity. But once you examine the inner workings of the eye, you realize it's not even physically possible for our eyes to see everything on front of us all at once.

That we have a blind spot right in front of our faces and don't even notice is quite telling. It means we are easily fooled when we don't give much consideration to the mechanics of what is actually going on - yet another element of a great illusion.

And this leads to perhaps the most fascinating illusion of all, one that seems inconceivable and contains mechanics that are easily overlooked.

Origin of Thoughts

Ever had an idea just pop into your mind for reasons you can't explain? This is best described as a Spontaneous Thought - a thought that arrives in your consciousness for reasons unknown or unxexplainable to you.

There are a number of possible explanations to account for spontaneous thoughts, but no matter what the explanation, one thing remains true - if you cannot explain nor know the origin of a thought, logically speaking, there is no way to demonstrate that you intended the thought.

But most thoughts don't seem spontaneous, they happen for a good reason. We decide to think about bicycles, and bicycle related ideas begin to flow, thus we can lay claim for originating the thought. But can we really?


This brings up a question of Causality.  By definition, if there is a cause that produces an effect, that effect had to have occurred unless the conditions of the cause had been different. Thus unless we originated the cause of a thought, then we can't logically make any claims to its origin...unless we somehow controlled the origin of the cause itself.

In a game of billiards, if the 8-ball begins moving because it was stuck by another ball, there is a defined cause. If we want to know why it moved, we'd merely need to know why the other ball crashed into it (the cause). Yet if the other ball began moving because it was also stuck, then we need to go back another step to find it's cause, and so on and so forth.

Eventually we'd find a cue ball that was stuck by a cue, which would seem to be the answer as to why the 8-ball ultimately moved. What is important to recognize is that there is no value in assessing the intermediate causes to answer this question, because we need to find the origin of those causes to determine the controlling factors.

But with thoughts, this is problematic. Causality is a very tricky beast, To claim responsibility for any thought that has a prior cause, we have to go back through a chain of causality until we reach a cause that had no prior cause itself - the thought that originated the entire process.

A thought with no cause?

Even if such a thing is possible, logically speaking, something without a cause, with respect to our consciousness, is no different than a spontaneous thought. There is no logical way to control something that has no cause, because a controlling factor would be a cause. 

The alternative is to deal with issues of infinite regress - whereby each cause is merely preceded by another cause going back indefinitely. But like the billiard ball, merely picking out an intermediate cause says nothing about intention.

The Illusion of Control

Thus we can claim that we intended to think about bicycles, but to really be in control, we'd need to look at the source of this intention.

Was it spontaneous? No control there. Was there a cause? If so, it's merely an intermediate step and we really need to be looking at its cause. And around and around we go.

If we can't logically control spontaneous thoughts or thoughts with prior causes, what exactly are we left controlling? By what other possible way can a thought arrive in our conscious mind? 

What becomes evident is there is no logical way to explain how we can originate any of our thoughts. But can that really be right? All our choices and actions stem from thought, thus if we don't control those, how are we in control of anything? 

That's inconceivable! But how many of us ever really examine the mechanics of thoughts for logical consistency? And we here are, with two of the prime elements of illusion.

Just like the visual field, feeling that we experience a certain phenomena is not evidence that we do. Despite going about our day under the assumption that we're consciously controlling our own thoughts, logically speaking, it can't be. We're just not prone to consider the origin of every thought we have  

But when we do, there is only one conclusion we can reach - control is perhaps the most fantastic illusion of all.

Todd William

About Todd William -

My name is Todd William and I’m an indie author. I like to focus on the positives in life. I’m like kryptonite for cynics. I’m a dedicated father and husband, a science and tech buff, a psychology enthusiast, chess and MMA fanatic, and noble introvert. My biggest fault might just be that I’m annoyingly happy all the time.

I’m addicted to books. I read constantly on a variety of topics, the result being that I tend to know a little about a lot of things yet not a whole lot about any one thing. I lay no claim to superior wisdom. I merely have an unyielding appetite for knowledge coupled with a strong desire to contemplate intriguing thoughts.