Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass focus on a perennial philosophical question first propounded by Bishop George Berkeley in the eighteenth century: the things we take to be real, material, and substantial are merely intangible, “sorts of things” in the mind of God. We do not know what is real and what is merely apparent. Further, we cannot say at any given moment whether we are awake or dreaming because there is no reliable criterion that enables us to distinguish the two states from one another.
In a conversation Alice is having with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Looking-Glass Land we hear the following exchange that follows their discovery of the red king sleeping under a nearby tree:
“I’m afraid he will catch cold with lying in the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.
“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he is dreaming about?”
Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”
“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you would be?”
“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere, Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”
“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”
“I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”
“Ditto,” said Tweedledum
“Ditto, ditto,” said Tweedledee.
Both of Carroll’s tales have a surreal quality and throughout Alice is constantly wondering if she is awake or just dreaming. This generates the pithy problem: how do we determine that we are awake? Berkeley was convinced we could not, that is, we cannot say just why it is that we know we are awake at any given moment and not dreaming. We may have strong feelings. Common sense insists that we are awake and not dreaming when we ask the very question. But the problem is HOW do we know this? We cannot distinguish dreams from reality with any certainty. And this is because any claim to knowledge must produce the criteria that make the claim knowledge and not a pretender.
If I claim that this computer before me is real I can say I know it because I can see it and touch it. But how do I know I am really seeing it and touching it and not just dreaming that I am seeing it and touching it? As you can see, it’s a tough one! No one really answered Berkeley satisfactorily in the many years that have followed his suggesting the paradox and it is still out there. David Hume suggested reality has greater “force and vivacity,” but this won’t work because many people have very vivid dreams and for many people reality is a blur — especially if they a prone to the occasional tipple. So Lewis Carroll is having great fun with it in his Alice stories. Children’s stories, eh?? I don’t think so!
Carroll later wrestled with the problem in his book, Sylvie and Bruno in which the narrator shuttles back and forth mysteriously between real and dream worlds.
“So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” he says to himself in the novel, “and this is not reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie and this is a dream! Is life a dream, I wonder?”
If it is, perhaps we will all wake up soon and discover that this is so and breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise this dream is a nightmare.