Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Why read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? It’s a borderline-nonsensical novel written for British children over 150 years ago. I’ve had a copy of Alice on my bookshelf for years, but only as part of a larger collection; I had never bothered to read it. My first introduction to Carroll was in my freshman seminar at Bowdoin—the topic of the class was monstrosity in Gothic/Victorian literature. I was mostly unimpressed by Alice; I wanted to read obscure vampire stories, not waste a Sunday night reading about a trip. Who the hell would enjoy Wonderland?
There is a specific moment, though, about half way into the book that made Wonderland click for me. There is a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in which the cat supplies a succinct definition of Wonderland as madness. The Cat is describing to Alice where the Hatter and Hare live, when the following exchange occurs:
ALICE: But I don’t want to go among mad people.
CAT: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.
ALICE: How do you know I’m mad?
CAT: You must be or you wouldn’t have come here.
ALICE: And how do you know that you’re mad? She is not convinced.
CAT: To begin with, a dog’s not mad. You grant that?
ALICE: I suppose so.
CAT: Well then, you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s
pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore
ALICE: I call it purring, not growling.
CAT: Call it what you like …
It’s a weird little exchange, but I think it gets to the heart of what makes Wonderland so compelling: the reign of madness. The cat defines madness as that which is opposite to the logical order of things. He is mad because his reactions are opposite to those of a creature he considers not mad (in this case, a dog).
There is also much to be said about how this definition is presented. The premise—that the dog is not mad—is established via a Socratic question. One would assume that from this presentation will flow a logical argument, but when Alice questions the cat’s reasoning (“I call it purring, not growling”), her point is dismissed. The conversation itself is mad because the laws of reason have no jurisdiction in Wonderland. The cat’s “argument” is self-defeating because the absence of logic in Wonderland precludes his use of it in conversation. It is also unfalsifiable, for how can one deny the lack of logic in Wonderland without some logical operation?
I came across this quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe a couple weeks ago and it stuck with me: “a man sees in the world what he carries in his heart … If a man has let himself always think the world as bad as the enemy represents it to be, he must have become a miserable person.” I tweeted an idea about this quote last week but a better question might be this: if we take Goethe’s supposition at face value—that is, that reality is totally subjective to what a man carries in his heart (his morals, values, intellect, rationality, etc.)—why should a rational actor be rational at all? In other words, if reality is reflexive of what one “reasons” (wants) to be true, then what is the point of discerning fact from fiction?
To be clear, this is not an argument for absolute subjectivism. It is deception to think knowledge equivalent to truth and deny the existence of objective fact. Even the land without logic, Wonderland, appears to objectively exist in some sort of dream-state, as evidenced by the scene with Alice’s sister at the end of the novel. By “reality”, I merely mean my subjective reality, as opposed to your reality or Johann’s reality, but I am not claiming the Universe is just the sum or intersection of these many realities. Yes, this does sound antithetical to the definition of reality: the set of things that are real. I posit, however, that even “imaginary” things can be real. Take, for instance, a schizophrenic who sees large, fire-breathing dragons following him wherever he goes. Are the dragons not real to this man? Just because you or I do not see the dragons does not diminish the effect they have on this person’s perceptions, actions, etc. Within the schizophrenic man’s reality, the objective existence of the creatures are irrelevant—they are real to him.
I also reject that this is an argument for simple metaphysical relativism. To exist in Wonderland, one must simply accept the supremacy of madness over logic, but one must not abandon the Correspondence Theory of Truth. The question, really, is this: If some object (or idea, no matter how abstract) X is real, or exists in my subjective reality, must X be true? As we have demonstrated in the case of the schizophrenic, X has the power to influence behavior even if its objective existence is not true. Schizophrenia is an extreme example, but one need not have a psychotic condition to contend that dragons are real. Dragons might also be said to be real insofar as they impact literature, art, and culture. Just because X is imagined does not preclude it from influencing behavior, either. Some aspect of dragons must be real, for when we name some object after a dragon, we can infer some aspect of the object (danger, in the case of the Komodo dragon, or strength/prestige in the case of the Order of the Dragon or the SpaceX Dragon). Dragons are real because they have a function
We have thus demonstrated that X may be real but not true. Just because our realities are subjective does not mean the Universe is subjective—we are subjective creatures that cannot view the Universe objectively. Having clarified this, I will return to the topic at hand: why be rational when we can accept our own “truths”?
The allure of Wonderland does not derive from a desire for a subjective world, but for an illogical world. A subjective reality is still bound by the laws of reason. Knowledge about (a subjectivist interpretation of) reality is acquired through experience and refined through reason. Events independent of the individual (e.g. whether or not it will rain this afternoon in Tokyo) are determined by Bayesian probabilities and must follow logically from some input. Wonderland, on the other hand, does not deal with such petty concerns as “logic”. Wonderland and its inhabitants are mad and thus immune to the limits imposed by Truth. What purpose does Truth (or, more precisely, knowledge a rational agent should accept because it happens to be true) serve if it cannot be invoked to discover other truths? Is Truth, then, trivial?
This is the allure of Wonderland. Ascertaining truth is difficult because applying logic is difficult. It requires a large input of energy that may or may not be better spent on other faculties. As humans, we also expend this energy only to acquire knowledge tangential to Truth, for a subjective creature can never be certain of any objective Truth (without invoking God or some divine force). My question is this: why do we bother? Why expend so much energy when another reality—one without the rigid boundaries of reason to restrict it—will suffice? Resistance to logic can thus be interpreted as a product of the natural tendency of all living things to want to maximize biological efficiency by minimizing energy consumption. Resistance to logic is a biological phenomenon and is actually a logical response to a reality oversaturated with media and information.
We can see this phenomenon clearly in many aspects of our daily lives. Take, for instance, the controversy regarding the U.S. Presidential Election in 2020. One would be hard-pressed to form a coherent argument, given the available facts and data, supporting Donald Trump’s theories of election fraud. But from the perspective of an ardent Trumpist, why shouldn’t they believe the election was rigged? What incentives exist for a Trumpist to accept Joe Biden won the election? The realm of national politics is already so far removed from the daily experiences and decisions of the median voter—why accept defeat because of some small detail like “logical deduction?” Joe Biden did not win the election fairly. “He couldn’t have because my guy should’ve won!” COVID-19 minimalism/denial can be viewed in the same vein: unwavering faith in your positions is certainly a favorable outcome to reconsidering your most firmly held beliefs.
The consequences of these logical evasions are often either abstracted (one cannot quantify the degradation of “democratic principles”) or are dismissed because there exist issues perceived to be more prescient (700,000+ deaths from COVID-19, most with comorbidities, versus 600,000+ abortions per year). But these are in fact rationalizations that are not necessary. The argument “I believe this because I want to” should be just as compelling and valid if the individual is not harmed by holding the belief.
Some more benign examples might be the prevalence of Bigfoot and UFO culture in the United States. The facts may not imply the conclusion, but the economic and entertainment value of the UFO and cryptid media markets may merit the belief. In this sense, there is a trade-off between the search for truth and general welfare of the people.
Some might consider the notion that the aversion to reason is biological and natural myopic or narrow-minded. The suspension of reason may benefit the individual in the short term, but this is often only realized at the expense of the community’s welfare in the long term. To return to the earlier example, the denial of a fair election or the dangers of COVID-19 have real consequences in the long term that are not “priced in” to these individual decisions. I imagine Keynes jumping out of his seat at this point, yelling “but in the long term, we are all dead!”, but I’m not convinced this trade-off can nor ought to be reduced so simply. It can hardly be denied that the capacity to reason and the interpersonal capacity to care and nurture members of one’s community are also biological phenomena that are essential to survival. What is the benefit of a biological process that inhibits the long-term fitness of the species?
In the face of this contradiction, I propose a synthesis: the selfish and illogical reality should be pursued insofar as it does not seriously affect the welfare of the community in the long run. The allure of Wonderland necessitates the existence of Wonderland, for how can we desire something that is not real (here, of course, I am referring back to Goethe’s definition of reality as that which is found in our hearts)? It reminds me of a quote from Carl Jung:
“Selfish desire ultimately desires itself. You find yourself in your desire, so do not say
that desire is vain. If you desire yourself you produce the divine son in your embrace
with yourself. Your desire is the father of the God, your self is the mother of the God,
but the son is the new God, your master.
“If you embrace yourself, then it will appear to you as if the world has become cold
and empty. The coming of God moves into this emptiness.